In her last year at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, Emma Seligman wanted to make a bold senior thesis film. She had an idea for a sci-fi dystopian story. "I think a lot of film students in their senior year want to go big or go home and just do something crazy — I was one of those kids," she says. "I wrote a first draft of this script, and my professor was like, 'I don't know what's happening here.'"
He advised her to write what she knew.
Seligman grew up in Toronto, Ontario, and aspired to be a film critic. "I really looked up to Roger Ebert. I watched Ebert & Roeper with my dad every week," she tells A.frame. But it was the Toronto International Film Festival that exposed the would-be filmmaker to independent and foreign films on a whole new level. She and her friends would wait in the rush line, scoring tickets for as many films as they could.
In high school, she was part of TIFF Next Wave, a committee of students that organizes events to get kids and teens involved in the industry. That's where she saw filmmakers, some her own age, making shorts of their own. "I had no idea what went into the mechanics of filmmaking. I only knew from a film theory point of view," she recalls. "I feel grateful for Toronto's push for film."
While at NYU, Seligman looked up to directors Jennifer Westfeldt, Tamara Jenkins, and Nicole Holofcener. Like them, she thought she'd be playing in the dark/romantic comedy space. At the time, many of her peers dabbled in "sugaring," which is something like transactional dating whereby the older or wealthier partner supports the other materially in exchange for companionship.
"Sugaring is sort of an unkept secret among NYU's female and gay male communities. When I was there, it was not a big deal to find out somebody was doing it," Seligman says. "SeekingArrangement had been around for a long time as a website, but now there was this cacophony of online dating. We were used to Tinder and Bumble. It didn't make it so out-of-this-world to get an account on the app."
Seligman briefly flirted with sugaring, but after one horrible date, never went back. "Still, there were many times where I got close to it when I needed money," she adds. Ultimately, she found that, for some around her, the appeal of sugaring came down to a sense of perceived power. "Within hookup culture in college, where almost no one can get the guy they’re hooking up with to be their boyfriend, there was some appeal to having someone — whether he be older or rich or whatever it was — consistently attesting that they find you attractive and want to spend time with you."
Seligman put her professor's advice, however clichéd, to use in Shiva Baby, her thesis short film that would evolve into feature directorial debut. The film unfolds during shiva, the week-long mourning period in the Jewish tradition, with a sugar baby at the center of it.
"I just feel like shivas are really funny environments," the filmmaker says. "The conversation topics stay the same even though someone's just died. It's the same amount of chattiness and nosiness and bragging." Seligman recalls several times she was picked up from dance class by her parents and taken to an acquaintance's home to sit shiva for someone she'd never met. It was just a part of growing up Jewish in Toronto.
In Shiva Baby, Danielle, who's just finishing college, finds herself going with her parents to a shiva for someone she maybe knows. There, she runs into her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) and her current sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari), his wife, and their baby.
"It sounds like a joke you'd tell at a bar — sugar baby shows up for a shiva and her sugar daddy's there."
In actor Rachel Sennott, the director found the perfect Danielle. Over the course of filming the short film and subsequent feature, the two became close. Sennott helped Seligman write the feature version and offered notes on various drafts. Sennott isn't Jewish, but is very much the rock of the film, "so I felt like I had to fill up the rest of the cast as much as possible with Jewish actors," Seligman says. "I felt like that would help with Jewish energy on set, even down to the small roles of the middle-aged women who are talking here and there, asking Danielle questions. That felt really important."
Shiva Baby is set almost entirely inside the house where the shiva takes place. Seligman worked closely with production design to make sure the space looked like a true bubbe's home, down to the macaroni salad and lox. "I was floored one day when my producer and her mom came back from Judaica stores with a Kiddush cup, a candelabra, a Hannukiah, a Seder plate." Still, shooting in one location was limiting. "We just kept coming back to the buffet and eating or putting more food on your plate or not," Seligman explains.
At the same time, leaving the house would've established a different story altogether. "I'm not really interested in a day in this girl's life," the filmmaker points out. "I'm interested in how her sex life and her family life give her a nervous breakdown."
Over 16 days of shooting, Seligman came to appreciate the space, and even rely on its consistency. "As a first-time filmmaker, there are 5,000 things going on at once. Your attention is naturally going to get split when you're inexperienced," she says. "I don't think I appreciated how much the comfort of knowing the home so well aided me in making the film until on our last day, we shot the first scene in the sugar daddy's apartment. Having one location actually made it extremely beneficial for a first-time filmmaker to really focus."
Staying in one place also echoed Danielle's emotional state, feeling trapped in the shiva and her life in general. Seligman relied on cinematography, editing, and music to give the film a claustrophobic feel and to put the audience in Danielle's shoes.
"Our DP, Maria Rusche, is incredible," she says. "We watched a lot of thrillers and psychological horror movies going into it and we developed a shorthand with a handful of references to know how we were going to break up that claustrophobia... We had to have my editor, Hanna Park, suck the air out of the movie so you just couldn't get a moment to breathe."
A debut feature doesn't come without its share of mistakes and lessons. Seligman, who was only 24 during filming, knows that well. One thing she'd look to avoid in the future is working with babies — unless they're professionally cast. "Ours was a friend's friend's baby, and that was really challenging," she admits. She also discovered pretty quickly that every actor has different needs and preferred ways of communicating. "I went into it with what I thought was the best way to direct actors, and then some of them want you to cut the film school bullshit and just be like, 'Am I mad or am I happy?'"
But perhaps most importantly, Seligman learned that making this movie, telling this story, would come down to "getting over imposter syndrome, putting on your director pants, and being like, 'I've got this' — and not letting my Canadianness or my womanhood tell me I'm not good enough."
By Nadine Zylberberg