“Fish is Expensive to Keep Purchasing and Replacing”: Emma Seligman on Shiva Baby
From its double-entendre title to the hilarious sightgag of a closing scene, Emma Seligman’s debut feature, Shiva Baby, is universal in its uncomfortable awkwardness and specific in how it chooses to bathe in it. Adapted and expanded from her NYU thesis short, Seligman’s film follows Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a young Jewish New Yorker who has taken to sex work to solidify her funds. After concluding a session with a client, Max (Danny Deferrari), Danielle heads to Flatbush to meet up with her parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed) and attend the shiva of a family friend. Faced with unending nagging and third-degree questioning of her plans for the future, Danielle’s day worsens when Max shows up with his shiksa wife (Dianna Agron) and newborn baby in tow. Even Maya (Molly Gordon), Danielle’s ex-girlfriend, is in attendance, making sure to grill Danielle in every corner of this increasingly claustrophobic Brooklyn home. It’s here that Danielle finally remembers to ask her folks: “Wait, who died?”
Having made its world premiere at SXSW last year (albeit virtually at a moment’s notice), Shiva Baby is now available in select theaters and on digital platforms after a healthy festival run. I spoke to the Canadian-born Seligman—a 2020 selection for the annual 25 New Faces of Independent Film list—the day before Shiva Baby opened in theaters about her experience at film school, securing a home for the shoot on Airbnb and the kind of intense food catering that goes into making a film set at a shiva.
Filmmaker: When we spoke last summer, you discussed your undergraduate career at New York University, first as a liberal arts major and then, from your sophomore year onward, studying film at Tisch. “My professor, Yemane Demissie, encouraged me to make something I felt confident in, in a world I understood,” you recalled, and I thought that would be an appropriate place to begin our conversation today. Which professors pushed you to dive into your personal background as a way to write narratives, and how did their influence ultimately lead you to making Shiva Baby?
Seligman: I had Yemane for three classes over the course of my time at NYU and he was the first film professor I had once I transferred into Tisch. I took him the summer before going into my sophomore year as a kind of catch-up class for students transferring into the film program. I really connected with him, as he helped me figure out how to express a story in fewer words, so that by the time I added in dialogue, I understood what the base of my story was. I also did an independent study with him over the year I was developing Shiva Baby, the short, and he was getting me to watch movies about sex workers and analyzing how the characters were portrayed and what themes they were getting at. His main idea was always about breaking [story] down into simplicity, which all my favorite professors at NYU did. For Yemane, it was about this “noun journey” and the specific nouns of each scene in my short.
Filmmaker: Noun, like N-O-U-N?
Seligman: Yeah, how the noun you use to describe the beginning of your film, whatever it is, should be different from the noun used at the conclusion (it should be the complete opposite of the opening noun). It means that your character has to be transformed in some way, even if it’s as small as them realizing something, which is what happens in both the short and feature versions of Shiva Baby. There was a funny exercise Yemane would have us do that involved writing our story’s noun journey on a whiteboard away from the other students. The class would then have to guess the nouns you chose based off of the script they had just read. We’d discuss if something wasn’t clear in the story and subsequent ways to make the script’s intentions clearer.
While Yemane was the professor I connected with the most, due to the amount of classes I had with him, the other professors I found to be most helpful were also screenwriting-focused. I feel so lucky and honored to say that Eliza Hittman was one of my professors. She was an adjunct for one semester and had only made [her first feature] It Felt Like Love at the time. She too brought the craft down to such simplicity, focusing on individual activities, like “What are the ways you can reveal character through physical action?” That’s another thing Yemane always stressed and this was very hard to implement in a film that takes place at a shiva where characters are standing around and talking; it can be difficult to focus on physical details. Eliza primarily showed us films with very little dialogue, which of course makes sense given her filmmaking style. Even though I admire filmmakers who tell stories with very little dialogue—Steve McQueen’s Shame is one of my favorite movies, for example—I realized I was making a movie where everyone is literally talking over each other [laughs]. Eliza would always encourage us to “put your character in a tree and throw rocks at them. It’s as easy as that.” I also had a class with Joseph Gilford, who’s a screenwriter and story consultant and script doctor, as a screenwriting professor, and he was very influential to me as well.
Filmmaker: Shiva Baby, the short, was your thesis film, and after it premiered at SXSW in 2018, your visa expired and you had to temporarily return home to your native Toronto. What was that period in your life like? Is that when you got to work writing a draft of the feature? Were you overseeing pre-production on a feature while back in Canada? I imagine your career trajectory was changing rapidly in real-time.
Seligman: I had always planned on turning Shiva Baby into a feature, but it was coming together very slowly as a decision was being made on my visa status (once I was able to work in the States legally, it was full steam ahead). The interim period made me figure out our “producer situation” going forward on the feature and we actually began working with Katie Schiller and Kieran Altmann, friends of mine at NYU, just before the short was accepted into SXSW. SXSW provided us with a moment to believe that a feature-version of the film could actually happen, as it provided some momentum and a showcase and a public stamp of approval.
The interim period between the short and the feature incorporated a lot of trial-and-error of things we ultimately didn’t end up doing but which allowed us to work out numerous kinks. We reached out to several production companies that we had worked for or interned for and asked for advice while (wink, wink) trying to get them to make our movie. They all very respectfully declined but gave us the advice. I then went back to Canada and waited for two months to see if [my visa would be renewed]. While back home, I was constantly writing new drafts of the script while feeling that it just wasn’t there yet, although I had faith that it would get there eventually. It was during this time that I really honed in on more strategic films to reference, stories beyond Jewish-themed romantic comedies. I began watching movies that specifically took place over the course of one day and at one location, or even over three days at one location. I had lots of time to do this, as I was back home and had a bit more distance [from Shiva Baby] and wasn’t babysitting. I was back at my parents’ house for two months, and that’s when I first watched Krisha and rewatched Rachel Getting Married, August: Osage County and A Woman Under the Influence. It was nice to have some distance from my own material before things got crazy again. It was nice to have a moment of calm before things became a recurring daily panic attack.
Rachel [Sennott] had watched the summer [of 2018] go by, and when I told her that I wanted to make the feature next summer [in 2019], her encouragement kept me going. I wanted to be accountable to her, as she was always checking in on me to see where I was at with the feature. Just before I went home to Toronto, I was like, “Maybe it can’t be next summer. Eh, we’ll figure it out,” and Rachel said “No, it has to be next summer. There’s no way it’s not going to be next summer. It has to happen.” She essentially put a timer on the project, and after I received my visa, the timer started. The interim period was a moment of calm before that storm.
Filmmaker: With Rachel being very involved in that development and writing process, how did you observe the collaboration between you growing? What were the elements of the short you were both looking to expand upon?
Seligman: I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to write in the character of Maya, as she was a character I wanted to include in the short but couldn’t due to a lack of time and space to explore that arc. I also knew that I wanted to use the feature to expand on Kim and Max and their marriage a bit more. Thinking back, it’s all a blur, as Rachel, Katie, and Kieran were each giving me great notes. While Rachel never said, “I want the character to be exactly like this,” she would suggest certain jokes and provide me with further encouragement. It made me feel good about where I was going with the script and it helped define my intentions for the film even further.
I think our working relationship grew in areas of accountability and support. Once that invisible timer was set, I started having nightly panic attacks and would call Rachel, saying “We’re not going to raise the money in time for next summer. I don’t know how this is going to happen. I don’t know why I made any of these decisions. I just feel like I have no life! I haven’t seen any of my friends!” But Rachel would calm me down by telling me, “No, this is all going to work out.” We were raising money for the feature (just barely enough for the shoot) in the very last hours leading up to production. I was worried and thought ,“Dianna Agron and Fred Melamed are going to show up on set and we’re not going to have a set! They’re going to arrive and it’s all going to be a failure.” Rachel was essentially the world’s best cheerleader. Our collaboration and friendship grew through that experience.
Filmmaker: You’ve spoken openly in the past about wrestling with “imposter syndrome.” I wanted to ask if that’s something that calms down or dissipates once you know who your entrusted collaborators are, or is it just something that goes away whilst in the “act of doing” when you’re finally on set? Are you able to get out of that voice in your head?
Seligman: Even though Rachel gave me a million pep talks, it did not matter, as I had imposter syndrome, for sure. This was somewhat assuaged by my friend and fellow NYU alum, Annie [Annabelle Attanasio], who had just made her first feature, Mickey and the Bear, a year before me. She was always a year ahead of me in terms of where she was at, but she had a fresh, objective perspective on where I was. I had one day of rehearsal, just with Molly and Rachel, the day before we began the shoot, and it was the scene where their characters see each other for the first time at the shiva. It’s the most complicated scene in the film, at least in terms of the performances, as it has to reveal that these two characters have a shared history, that they love each other but they also hate each other and there’s a passive-aggressiveness apparent between them. Getting them on their feet for the first time was really difficult and challenging. I’m so glad we had Molly and Rachel try out a few things during the rehearsal, but we still didn’t really nail what the scene was that day. I called Annie later that evening and was like, “I’m just a child! I don’t know how any of these actors are going to listen to me on set. This is just crazy. I shouldn’t be doing this. We finally raised all of this money and now I’m going to be a horrible director.” Annie talked me off the ledge, so to speak. With that being said, yeah, it does take a day or two on set for you to be like, “OK, this is my movie.” The worst thing you can do is not be a competent director and allow yourself to be a pushover. Everyone is going to be looking toward you [for guidance], and that’s your job, whether you’re experienced or not.
The night before our shoot began, I couldn’t sleep (which happened many nights in the lead up to production), so I watched a short documentary on Vimeo that another filmmaker friend, Olivia Peace (director of Tahara), recommended, which was called DICKS: Do You Need to be One to be a Successful Leader? The filmmaker was essentially trying to investigate if you needed to be an asshole to get shit done, and the consensus was that you didn’t but that you had to be incredibly stern. However, he had only interviewed one female filmmaker [Karyn Kusama] and she admitted that she couldn’t be an asshole because then she would be perceived as a bitch, and so she couldn’t always be incredibly stern on set. In its own way, watching the documentary helped me a bit the night before [we began the shoot].
Filmmaker: You mentioned watching films that used one central location, and I believe you found yours (the home where the shiva is being held) via an Airbnb listing. How much time, if any, did you and your DP, Maria Rusche, have inside the home before the shoot kicked off? Or could you only go off photos that were uploaded to the Airbnb listing?
Seligman: Luckily enough, we had the opposite experience, as going through Airbnb allowed us to have a more personal relationship with the homeowners. It was left up to the homeowners’ discretion, of course, as it’s totally against Airbnb rules to be messaging listers, asking “Hey, would you be okay with us turning your home into a movie set?” But the house was actually something we secured before we had most of the production money in place. We were trying to get all of our ducks in a row so that we could prove to potential investors that we were ready to go, i.e. “We have our DP, we have our house, we have this, we have that, etc.” So, my producers and I created a list of potential locations we might be able to shoot in. While we met with different people throughout our scouting, one group of incredible homeowners allowed us to visit two or three times before ultimately giving us access to their house for a week before we even began shooting.
We used that week to work on mapping out the specific blocking and to confirm which actors we’d have on which day. From there, we began switching dialogue from one middle-aged female character to another, based primarily on cast availability, i.e. “We can’t pay Cilda [Shaur] to come in and work another day, so why don’t we just give this line to Rita [Gardner]?” I feel extremely grateful for the prep week we were given within that house. Once we arrived, I understood what the house looked like, so I made a LEGO set replica. Yemane had actually recommended I try that on Shiva Baby, the short, but I didn’t unfortunately. It turned out to be a game-changer for how my DP and I went about creating our shotlist.
Filmmaker: Did being in such an enclosed space affect the type of lenses you wanted to use and the angles you wished to emphasize? It feels extremely tight and claustrophobic in that house, although maybe that’s a feeling that was purposefully created through the camerawork. I imagine all that crew and the cast cramped in a house together required everyone having to constantly shuffle out of each other’s way.
Seligman: Definitely, and most of the lens choices were ultimately made by Maria. I was involved, of course, but I was looking to her [for guidance] and gave her a full shot list of what I wanted for close-ups, wides, oners, etc. And yeah, there were always a bunch of people behind the camera, and the house was always more packed than it looks on camera. We weren’t trying to make the house look smaller but that’s just the way it was.
Maria made the very smart decision (that I never would have known to make) of obtaining anamorphic lenses for the shoot which, again, we really couldn’t afford. Thankfully, Sal Giarratano at Panavision was an angel and gave us a hand. Maria used Kowa anamorphic lenses to curve the frame in a subtle way that doesn’t give it a fisheye or funhouse-mirror effect. I don’t have experience with anamorphic lenses, but Maria incorporated them to make the viewer feel like the walls were closing in on Danielle, while simultaneously making sure that in wides the viewer was able to observe all of the cast in the background clearly. The Kowa anamorphics worked great for that. Maria also provided me with references of other films that had shot with those lenses and we took those to our producers to further illustrate our plans.
That being said, some of the oners in the film came about because we didn’t have time to waste, so we shot certain scenes via three or four long oners where the camera goes from one room to the next, then holds on Danielle, then that transitions into another character’s coverage), then we flip the camera around and the scene continues.
Filmmaker: There’s been much discussion about the role of food in the film (including a very detailed Grub Street article). For some viewers, perhaps the food serves as an educational tool in connecting certain types of foods to certain religious customs. Who is then tasked with coordinating all of that on set and what types of discussions do you about purchasing the right spreads and assortments? A movie like this needs to be detailed and deliberate in those choices!
Seligman: Much of that was coordinated by our production designer, Cheyenne Ford, and our art team of Jayne Clark, Jack Doben and Hayden Ciampini. Those were the people I went to. As Jason Diamond notes in that wonderful Grub Street piece, I kept telling my team things like, “Make sure there’s a bagel spread! We have to make sure there’s a bagel spread!” Then we wound up with just bagels and lox, and I had to emphasize, “No, a spread! We need cream cheese!” This was really important. It was actually somewhat of a surprise to me that when shooting a short, food often turns out to be the most expensive part of production. Now with the feature, we needed even more food, some of which had to consistently be replaced so that the actors would have fresh food to bite into for additional takes.
Something that Jason gets at in his article is that lox is expensive, right? Fish is expensive to keep purchasing and replacing, so our art team developed a system that we definitely did not have on Shiva Baby, the short. Part of that system involved making sure the house didn’t smell every time we finished a take, so they would immediately [refrigerate] the lox after each take. Even as Rachel was rehearsing with the food and going over blocking by herself, she used a real bagel but couldn’t use lox, because we just couldn’t let it go bad and stink up the house. We were less concerned with her eating bad fish (I mean, that would suck for her) than with the smell it would leave. It was tricky, as I’m not originally from New York, so I had to ask myself, “Where exactly does one get mandel bread and party sandwiches here?” There are lots of Jewish food establishments in New York, of course, like Russ & Daughters, that are authentic, but the food in the film had to be authentic to me as well—i.e. I always ate mandel bread growing up, but I didn’t have hamantaschen. But we had to make a compromise.
While there were, at times, a language disconnect between my gentile art department and I, they were always ready to run out and get the right cream cheese if I told them what we currently had was not the right cream cheese. They were very dedicated and game when it came to things like that. I would ask them to bring back party sandwiches for a certain scene and they were like, “Totally!” but would then come back with very secular sandwiches. But that was okay. When you have very little money to work with, you have to make do with what you can. I tried to do the best I could with that and I feel grateful for what we did.
Filmmaker: There was a redband trailer released recently that amps things up to a hysterical degree, so I wanted to ask about the ways you’ve learned to market the movie and lean into particular narrative threads. Through the new one-sheets and pull-quotes being prominently displayed in your marketing materials, the film has its own identity now. It’s very engaging! Is it simply a case of “the more specific you are, the more universal it becomes?” What are the ways you’ve been able to get the film seen by audiences from vastly different backgrounds? Does the way you discuss the film change based on whom you’re trying to reach?
Seligman: I honestly think the marketing has been the result of our film team and our distributor, Utopia, being extremely specific about the audience we wanted to go out to. In response, or in conjunction, with that, the marketing was influenced by fans of the film. The people who’ve loved the movie thus far have mostly been young women/teenage girls on Twitter and TikTok posting various things about the movie (many of those wound up as pull-quotes we used in promotional material). Once we identified the audience the film was really hitting with—young Jewish women, young queer women and young women in general—I was really happy, as that was our target audience. I also wanted the film to be somewhat universal, of course, to be able to connect with older Jewish audiences and older queer audiences, but our main audience has skewed younger.
I think Utopia has been extremely smart about all of this, saying “OK, let’s do a redband/‘trash trailer,’ where we include all of those tweets that sum up the sense of camp and fun inherent in the movie.” Thanks to being in quarantine for much of last year, we had time and attention to dive into that. I’m lucky that Utopia let me be involved in that aspect and help where I could. I essentially had final cut on both trailers and our composer, Ariel Marx, created a score for each. I had final approval for the film posters as well. I don’t think this freedom is provided very often, and I look back on it now thinking, “Well, thank God I was able to participate in five million Q&As with, say, the Albuquerque Jewish Film Festival where I was talking to like 17 women in their 50s!” We had the time for me to talk to each of these different audiences and subsequently created, if not a grassroots campaign, than a ground-up campaign. This is how we were able to find the right audience for the film: we responded to their excitement and included them in our outreach.