Ever since it started playing the festival circuit in 2020, Emma Seligman’s feature debut Shiva Baby has been turning heads and generating a passionate following (check out our review from NewFest here).
The film is finally coming for everyone to see this Friday, and with its impending release I got to speak with writer/director Seligman about the journey it’s taken to get the movie here from its genesis as her college thesis short film.
Shiva Baby stars Rachel Sennott in a remarkable performance as Danielle, a 20-something woman who attends a shiva with her parents only to discover that both her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) and her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari) are also in attendance. Danielle’s day doesn’t get much better from there, as events continue to swirl around her to create an overwhelming, claustrophobic nightmare scenario that pitches the anxiety up to the level of a Safdie brothers movie.
Seligman discussed influences ranging from the Trey Edward Shults film Krisha to the oeuvre of John Cassavettes that helped shape her approach to the film. While drawing from great pictures, she also establishes her own distinctive voice here for a remarkable first feature that demands to be seen, signaling both Seligman and Sennott as people to keep an eye on to see what they deliver next.
Read below for my interview with Emma Seligman:
Mitchell Beaupre: The movie started off as a short film that you released back in 2018. Could you talk about how you expanded the material from the short to the feature? One thing that really stands out is how you introduced Danielle’s bisexuality by adding Maya into the film, a character who wasn’t in the short.
Emma Seligman: I wanted Maya to be a part of the short film originally, but I feel like short shorts are the best, and they also give you a better chance of getting into festivals, so I focused more on the internal kernel of what Danielle was going through. When I decided to go forth with the feature I knew that I was going to add Maya in, and I was so excited about that for many reasons. One, I wanted to show Danielle’s full sexuality, but also because I felt that Maya represented all of these things that Danielle isn’t within this community. Beyond those things, she also got to be the light at the end of the tunnel for Danielle. She’s this sense of hope because otherwise Danielle would just sort of have to rely on herself.
Expanding it was difficult in general, but adding in Maya and their relationship was the hardest thing. I hate expositional dialogue and didn’t want their history to be explained to the audience, so it was really tricky to express their past together. I also didn’t want to slip into the boat of queerbaiting and just have them look at each other a certain way, or barely touch hands, so I wanted to have a physical representation of their relationship, which was pretty difficult to do at a shiva. That was definitely the trickiest dynamic to include in the feature.
MB: The movie feels reminiscent of Altman and Cassavettes in the way that every room you’re in feels alive, where there are always a thousand different conversations going on in the background. Was it important for you that the audience get that sense of liveliness and activity throughout the picture?
ES: I don’t know if I necessarily thought about it in those words, but I did watch a lot of Cassavettes for reference points because I did want it to feel like we were sort of plopped in. I think that’s what he and Altman do best, is to create this entire feeling like it’s a documentary where you’re just in this one point of view in a room that has a whole other life. I’ve seen A Woman Under the Influence a million times and I think that, similar to the movie Krisha, was a reference for us, but mostly I took from Opening Night. In that movie Gena Rowlands is doing this play and she fucks it up every night, and then there are these lobby scenes after where everyone is talking about it, and they’re all so panicked. It’s so chaotic and claustrophobic, and I wanted the movie to feel a lot like that.
MB: You get added texture throughout the film with these little subplots that are seeded through the background. For example, in one scene Danielle is coming out of the bathroom and there’s a man going in who asks her if the bathroom has an open window or a fan in there. Then much later in the film, someone comes in the room and exclaims, “Jerry clogged the toilet!”. Were those elements always there in the script?
ES: I think for the most part they came up while we were shooting. We would have a moment and think, “Oh, that could be Jerry!”. That was actually my dad who said that line. He was like, “I want to be in it”, and then later he’s asking me, “Did you have to give me the bathroom line?”. Cilda Shaur, who played Sheila, I think improvised that line about Jerry clogging the toilet, and when she did it felt so perfect because we already had that bathroom line in there earlier. I think that’s part of the beauty of working in the same setting the whole time because you’re not only working with the same crew, you’re also there with the same cast who are all listening to everything. The cast members have been there since day one, so they can come up with these ideas that bring us back to this other thing from two weeks ago. Those tiny little subplots weren’t planned, but it felt fun when we could find them.
MB: Almost the entire movie takes place inside the house, which makes it very jarring in the moments when we step outside of it. There’s one scene midway through where Danielle and Maya are outside and you switch up the camera technique, so that instead of it feeling claustrophobic we are in their POVs as they stare directly at one another. What was your inspiration behind that shift in how we were seeing the characters for that scene?
ES: Something that was important to me, my DP [Maria Rusche], and my producers, was wanting to make each room and each portion of the house feel like a completely different setting. We wanted the differentiation so that you’re not just stuck in the same tone the whole time. I think putting them outside in general was so that they could have this space to breathe, this space to talk and not have to say everything through passive aggressive communication. We didn’t really get the chance to have wide shots in the house because then we wouldn’t be able to see any of the characters. I remember with that scene Maria brought up the reference of Moonlight, how in that film when the characters are looking at each other with that loving perspective with that straight angle, you just see them fully. I think we always wanted to try and change it up, but especially so when you’re in a setting like that. I feel like we even had some similar shots inside the house, but it didn’t necessarily feel that way because we had bodies blocking the view, which was always very purposeful.
MB: A lot of times when anxiety is depicted in a movie you see it as someone breathing heavy for about a minute and then they’re fine. Shiva Baby is able to capture anxiety in a very realistic way, where it’s prolonged throughout the movie. Could you talk about your process when it came to conveying that anxious state that Danielle is trapped in?
ES: I think that anxiety came through in every single layer of the filmmaking in terms of the partnerships that I had. It started with the writing, where I was thinking of a movie like Krisha which led me to Black Swan and then to Woman Under the Influence, and those ideas came into my head of not wanting to give Danielle a second to breathe except for in that one scene you just mentioned. I wanted to make sure that she couldn’t win, that there was always something fucking up her day. Then there was the cinematography and looking at movies like Opening Night and even scenes in The Graduate, anything we could find that was tight and claustrophobic.
We were also always trying to switch up Rachel’s performance and try different things so that the claustrophobia felt real, which put a lot of the pressure on Rachel’s shoulders. The fact that the house itself was actually really sweaty and tense helped, and then our amazing editor Hanna [A. Park] sucked all of the air out of the movie in the edit, getting rid of any pauses or ums between dialogue. I always pictured the dialogue to be overlapping, but of course the sound person never wants that, so there was a lot of layering voices in the edit. Then Ariel Marx’s score really tied it all together, with this very tense string composition like a horror movie score. The anxiety of it all was a thing that every department was so integral to creating.
Shiva Baby starts playing in select theaters and on VOD on April 2nd
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]