Emma Seligman On Her Incredibly Jewy Debut Film ‘Shiva Baby’

The movie, about a bisexual artist who runs into her sugar daddy at a shiva house, may as well be a dissertation on Jewish neurosis.

If you’re a Jew from Toronto, it’s likely that you’ve spent a good chunk of your life along Bathurst Street. It’s where several generations have lived, grown, and built synagogues, schools, and copious bakeries. It’s where the best bagels are. It’s near where Drake went to high school. And it’s where Emma Seligman and I chat (albeit from opposite ends) about her very Jewy debut film, Shiva Baby.

“Recently someone suggested we photograph me somewhere that’s sentimental for me, and I realized that everything’s on Bathurst,” she tells me.

The 25-year-old director is calling from her parents’ house, where she’s been holed up since returning from New York at the beginning of the pandemic. “I am living in my movie,” she laughs. “Everyone is like, ‘it’s material!’ and I am like, ‘but I already made a movie about my neurotic family!”

Indeed, Seligman’s debut feature film may as well be a dissertation on neurosis, as it follows Danielle (Rachel Sennot), a bisexual artist turned sugar baby, through one chaotic day at a shiva house filled with her parents, her ex-best friend and lover, Maya (Molly Gordon), and her sugar daddy. The tension, as you can imagine, is palpable.

Somewhere between a farce and a coming-of-age tale of young womanhood, Shiva Baby bridges anxiety with comedy — a coping mechanism so inherently Jewish that I can almost picture Moses wisecracking mid-Red Sea parting. And it does it so well — Shiva was a slam dunk with critics upon its release at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. What’s more, it already sold its distribution rights, meaning that it’s coming to a screen near you in early 2021.

Here, we chat about all that went into the creation of Shiva Baby.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you first conceptualize Shiva Baby?

 I made this first as a short film in university in my last year, and I was very lucky that that got into South by Southwest in 2018. Some students try to make something over-ambitious, and I originally wanted to do that. I wanted to do a dystopian thing and my professor gave me that age-old advice: Write what you know.

At that point, I had been away from my family for four years. And I had always wanted to do something at a shiva. I always found them to be contrasting and funny settings because someone just died, but it still feels like every other Jewish family function in that there is lots of complaining and bragging and asking nosy questions and, you know, crossing boundaries and talking about the details of your colonoscopy and things like that. To me, that felt like any other Reform Ashkenazi setting.

And then I thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if a young woman ran into her sugar daddy at a shiva?” There are a lot of sugar babies at NYU. And a lot of my friends did it. And it was just a huge part of the subculture there because of websites and apps like Seeking Arrangement. I found it interesting. So, I thought it would be funny to combine those two.

How did the plot change when you expanded it into a feature film?

It was a great opportunity to include Molly Gordon’s character, Maya, because I wanted to have a bisexual protagonist. I also really wanted another character sort of representing the stereotypical things that people in the community value in a nice Jewish girl. I tried to run with it further for the feature and encapsulate that cataclysmic feeling I think a lot of young women have when they realize that their sexual power isn’t as far-reaching as they thought it was, and can’t provide them with the same amount of validation that it gave them when they initially discovered it.

At the time, I was feeling also very anxious about my future and the contradicting pressures of being a nice Jewish girl with a very secure career ahead of you. And then also being a sexy, independent young woman who is an artist living her life in New York.

Does any of the film mirror your personal experience?

 I never ran into my sugar daddy at a shiva. I tried sugaring at one point. It did not last long. I fully relate to Danielle’s feeling of like, “What am I doing?” And, just like batshit anxiety, I think just coming from that feeling of like, “Do I have any self-worth aside from the validation I get from men?”

My aunt passed away in my freshman year of college. So that was the first time in my sort of adulthood that I did the full seven days [of shiva]. I think that’s when I observed how funny shivas were. I was just picking up on so many conversations. So, you know, it is inspired by my community and by me, but it is not a true story.

I’m curious about your references when writing the film. Were they all Jewish?

At the time, Transparent been out for a few years and I feel like Joey Soloway opened the door up for not just queer Jews but modern, nuanced [portrayals of] Jews who are semi-religious in a way that I feel only other Jews can relate to. There is nothing wrong with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or Curb Your Enthusiasm, but I just had never seen something so grounded.

Other than Transparent, I think the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man and just sort of that dry, ironic, sad humor. I wanted to mix that with fun Jewish romantic comedies like Crossing Delancey, Kissing Jessica Stein, and Keeping the Faith. I had a lot of like anxiety references that weren’t all Jewish, like Black Swan and The Graduate.

I feel there is a difference between American Jews and Canadian Jews, which I don’t think is particularly expressed in a lot of Jewish pop culture. Did that play into your portrayals at all?

You know, it’s such a good question and, I don’t regret anything, but I wish I had sort of taken a closer look at those differences and just chose what I wanted to focus on. I sort of went in a little blindly, assuming that East Coast Jews were kind of similar and that I could get away with just portraying it [as] how I knew my family and my community to be. I discovered throughout the making of it that they’re very different.

One big difference is that it’s more of an American thing to move around so much. All my friends are like, “My aunt lives in Chicago and my uncle lives in Ohio.” So, all these communities, not just Jewish, get separated; everyone sees each other on Thanksgiving or Christmas or Hanukkah.

I am a third-generation Toronto Jew. And even if you’re not, everyone’s here. I saw my extended family once a month, and so the culture is ingrained in you in a really deep way. It’s funny because Molly Gordon who plays Maya is Jewish and when she first read the script, she thought I came from a very religious background. And [then] she met my parents and saw that they were very Reform.

And then there are the silly details, like in Toronto, we do a bagel spread with no meat. In New York, the shiva is all deli spreads. I didn’t have a Jewish art team; I’d ask for party sandwiches, and they’d be like, “Totally!” and then they’d bring something else.

What did they think party sandwiches were?

Just sandwiches with the crust cut off. I was like, “No!”

Most people seeing the movie won’t pick up on the nuances of party sandwiches, but I respect your desire to be very on point. On that note, there’s been a lot of conversation around Maisel and the fact that the cast is not very Jewish IRL. How do you feel about whether people need to be Jews to play Jews, and how did that play into your cast choice?

I feel honored to answer this question because I feel it doesn’t get asked a lot. I think for me, with making Shiva, which is a movie about Jews and in a Jewish setting, as opposed to a Jewish protagonist in a movie about something else, it felt really important to me to have Jewish people within it. Our casting director Kate Geller is Jewish, and her goal was to try to find New York Jewish actors who were enthusiastic about the piece. However, I didn’t want to be so limiting, especially for the first-time indie, made for no money. There are other parts of these characters that are important that the actor relates to, and if the vibe on set had a lot of Jews in it, I think there’s room for a couple of people not to be.

Rachel Sennot (Danielle) herself is not Jewish and she was in the short film. She is Italian and has come from a big family and can relate to feeling insecure when you go home to big family gatherings. So, because she’s not Jewish and because I felt so gung-ho about keeping her, I felt intense about stacking up the cast with other Jewish people. Polly Draper, who plays the mom, Debbie, is not Jewish, but her husband’s Jewish and she knows his family well, obviously. And she came in being like, “I’m giving her an accent” and improvising lines in Yiddish, and I was like, “Whoa!”

Dianna Agron is Jewish, but she is playing the waspy character who stands out. I thought Danny Defarrari, who plays Max, was Italian because his last name is Deferrari, but then he was like, “I am Jewish. I come from an Italian-Jewish family.” I think it’s good to just have Jewish energy on set and it sounds really cheesy, but that spiritual energy and the ancestral plays a huge part.

The first thing I always do is Google whether actors are Jewish… I think that is a very Jewish trait. I did that with Danny because I thought he was so hot. He has a Mandy Patinkin in Yentl vibe, who’s the epitome of Jewish hot.

You are the second Canadian Jew to tell me this. Thank God people are picking up on it, because Yentl was a reference for the movie visually and also, more people need to appreciate Mandy Patinkin in general.

How did all these Jewish elements interplay with the queer plotline?

I am bisexual and I don’t get to see many bisexual protagonists, especially in film.

It is tough because [the film] takes place in one day, in one house, and they have this complicated history and a weird dynamic. So, I take my hat off to Rachel and Molly because I wanted to say a lot with their relationship with the little amount of time that we had to sort of give a taste of what their deal is. And it was hard to nail because it was a situation of, they like each other, but they do not. There’s also a resentment, and at the same time, loyalty. And I also really did not want to fall into the trap of queerbaiting. I think that for queer audiences, and for me specifically, we want to see people actually loving each other. [Danielle and Maya] hold hands at the end of the movie. So, it was tricky to have that relationship play out in the movie and to give them their moments of physical affection.

In finding the right balance of what I could get away with within the movie and also in terms of the [portrayal of] the meeting of the Jewish identity and queer identity, I really wanted to show that I love my parents so much, but you know, in my experience, when you’re bisexual, it just gets written off as an experimental phase where your parents are like, “We love and support you,” but also like, “Don’t talk about it.” And I am, thankfully, in a place with my parents now where they don’t say those things, but for so long it was that way.

I feel like a lot of liberal Jews, at least in my community, love to pride themselves on being queer-friendly. But, when their kid is queer, or someone in their community is queer, it’s a little bit taboo. So, I just wanted to poke fun at and show that [on screen], speaking from my experience.

Do you have immediate plans to do another movie?

I want to do something not Jewish.

That was going to be my next question!

Lox is expensive and so the same old lox would be sitting out all day. I don’t want to have that again for a little bit of time.

Rachel Sennett, who plays Danielle, and is also a hilarious comedian with a huge Twitter following and who is a great writer, and I wrote this campy, queer high school comedy together. It is sort of like Wet Hot American Summer vibes, but a little more up to date and queer. So, we are trying to make that next, and that does not have an ounce of Judaism. Not purposefully, it just didn’t happen.

And then I also really would love to make a show that’s very similar to Shiva, but not a total adaptation. [It would be] about a sugar baby at NYU, or, you know, in New York at an unnamed New York school, who is Jewish and bisexual, but it’ll be hopefully less Jewish and more focused on college community and less in the Jewish community.

Those are the two things that I hope to work on next. But they also both require a lot of extras and big busy scenes, so I don’t think they are going to be very doable in quarantine. But, you know, first things first are to get to Shiva Baby out into the world and have a release, so I’m focusing on that now.

This is all super, super exciting. I am so happy for you.

Thank you so much. Thank you for offering to do this. I love Hey Alma.

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