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,” Emma 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 knows.
Emma grew up in Toronto, Ontario, and aspired to be a film critic. “I really looked up to Roger Ebert,” she says. “I watched Ebert & Roeper with my dad every week.” But it was the Toronto International Film Festival that exposed Emma to independent and foreign films on a whole new level. She and her friends would wait in the rush line after school, 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 just had no idea what went into the mechanics of filmmaking. I only knew from a film theory point of view,” she says. “I feel grateful for Toronto’s push for film.”
While at NYU, Emma 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. In fact, a lot of my friends, at one point, had a [SeekingArrangement] account,” Emma says. It was a natural evolution of the original dating apps. “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.”
Emma briefly tried 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.”
Emma put her professor’s advice, however clichéd, to use. She would set her thesis, which would then evolve into her first feature, Shiva Baby, inside a home 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,” Emma says. “The conversation topics stay the same even though someone’s just died. It’s the same amount of chattiness and nosiness and bragging.” Emma 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 her Reform Jewish upbringing in Toronto.
But when her aunt passed away suddenly during her freshman year of college, Emma and her family sat the full seven days of shiva together. “I wasn’t coming in and out. I just stayed there every day, all night, as you do, even in a Reform setting. I felt like I could sit in it. And at the same time, my body was changing and the way I was dressing was changing in the normal 18-year-old way. Suddenly, I’m getting all these questions, now that I’m 17, not 12.”
Emma logged these experiences for her thesis, and for Shiva Baby. In the feature, Danielle, who’s just finishing college, finds herself sitting shiva for someone she maybe knows. Aside from her parents, she runs into her longtime friend and high-school love Maya (played by Molly Gordon) and her current sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari). All of it—plus questions about her love life and her future—is enough to make Danielle spiral.
“It sounds like a joke you’d tell at a bar—sugar baby shows up for a shiva and her sugar daddy’s there.” –Emma Seligman
In actor Rachel Sennott, Emma found the perfect Danielle. Over the course of her thesis and subsequent feature, the two became close. Rachel helped Emma with her writing and offered notes on various drafts. Rachel 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,” Emma 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. This was limiting in terms of what they could shoot; “We just kept coming back to the buffet and eating or putting more food on your plate or not,” Emma says. But 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. I’m interested in how her sex life and her family life give her a nervous breakdown.”
Emma worked closely with production design to make sure the space looked like a 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 … I was like, ‘This is it!’ This is the silver material that I wanted everywhere and didn’t know how to describe it.”
Over 16 days of shooting inside, Emma 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. I felt like I wasn’t as good with the actors that day because I was focused on the furniture and the lighting. Having one location actually made it extremely beneficial for a first-time filmmaker to really focus.”
And since there’s only so much one can do in a house, at a shiva, Emma relied on cinematography, editing, and music to give the film a claustrophobic feel, and to put the audience in Danielle’s shoes–with the feeling of being launched into adulthood without a complete sense of self.
“Our DP, Maria Rusche, is incredible,” Emma 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. Shot-listing it to a really intense degree also helped.” So did an emphasis on editing. “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,” Emma adds.
A debut feature doesn’t come without its share of mistakes and lessons. Emma knows that well; she shot this one at the age of 24. One thing she’d look to avoid in the future is working with babies—unless they’re professionally selected. “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 when it came down to shooting intimacy, sensitivity was critical. “Anything that involves nudity or even kissing... As a first-time director, that was extremely different to navigate,” she says. “As a woman that feels like she knows everything about #MeToo, I think I felt a little overconfident going into it. I was like, ‘I’m a woman, this is a cast and crew of women. I’ll just turn the monitors off and it’ll be a limited crew.’ It’s just so much more vulnerable than that and your sensitivity really needs to be as turned on as it can be.”
But perhaps most importantly, Emma 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.”
Take a look at Emma’s six favorite Jewish films—and how they paved the way for Shiva Baby (in select theaters and VOD April 2).
Photos by Maria Rusche.