Emma Seligman on chaotic black comedy Shiva Baby

Writer-director Emma Seligman talks us through Shiva Baby, her wickedly funny debut feature about a young woman trying to navigate her queer, sexual and Jewish identities

Feature by Anahit Behrooz | 07 Jun 2021
  • Emma Seligman

“I always felt like shivas were funny,” says writer-director Emma Seligman, referring to the funereal setting of her new black comedy, Shiva Baby. “They’re just like every other family event – people would be chatting and complaining and bragging, and I’d be like: ‘Didn't someone just die? And we're here gabbing about that bitch in the corner?’” She bursts out laughing. “I’ve always liked contrast and a shiva – at least in my reformed community – always felt like it had contrast baked into it. We're supposed to be sad, but we're sitting here talking shit about somebody.”

This delight in inherent contradiction is latent in every moment of Seligman’s debut feature. Adapted from her own short film of the same name (her university thesis project, no less), Shiva Baby is an object lesson in sheer chaos, a wickedly funny study of worlds clashing that is breathless both in its hilarity and claustrophobia. It follows an almost-graduate Danielle (played by Rachel Sennott, reprising her role from the short film) who attends a shiva surrounded by well-meaning yet domineering family members and – to her horror – her ex-girlfriend Maya, sugar daddy Max, and his beautiful wife Kim. The action takes place almost entirely in real-time in one small house, lending the coming-of-adulthood story a uniquely horror-like tone.

“It came out of practical reasons more than anything,” explains Seligman of this innovative approach. “I was worried about how to keep an audience on the edge of their seat and interested in staying in one house. I knew I was going to be able to make it funny, just because of my association with my community, but I was really worried it was going to be boring.” This was a concern that was, it turns out, utterly groundless. Every aspect of Shiva Baby, from cinematography to score, is meticulously crafted to ensure maximum tension as Danielle is buffeted from awkward situation to (more) awkward situation, the handheld camera close to her face, zooming in across the room, relentlessly moving in mimicry of Danielle’s all-too-relatable state of agitation.

“It expanded into this horror-ish genre organically over time because I was looking at how one-day, one-location films were effective,” she says. “At no point in the process was I like, ‘this is going to be a funny horror movie’. I was just trying to communicate to my department heads and cast that I wanted this to feel as anxious as possible. It started with cinematography […] and the next stage was the edit and sucking out all of the air. No ‘ums’ or ‘ahs’ or pauses – we didn't want to give Danielle one chance to breathe.” The final, breakdown-inducing string to her bow? The tongue-in-cheek, heart-racing score by Ariel Marx. “Basically, she just sent me a sound library of violin sounds and I chose all my favourites and she told me that was a horror score,” Seligman laughs.

This pervasive air of nail-biting anxiety is perfectly calculated to speak to the stage of life at which Danielle finds herself. Almost finished with university, adrift and uncertain about her place in the world, Danielle’s experience of life is as frenzied as the audience’s experience of the film, as she attempts to navigate not only her clueless parents’ concern for her future but also her own expectations of what it means to be an adult.

“That time in your life feels very chaotic,” Seligman says. “To be more specific, I think I felt chaotic, because I was trying to hold on to control and certainty and there was absolutely none of it. When you're in university – depending on your level of privilege, of course – it feels like you're in a bubble of adulthood and independence, but you're not really at all.”

For Seligman, and thus for Danielle, this divide between control and reality especially manifests in young women’s sexual lives, and the ways in which they maintain, or fail to maintain, agency over them. “I think a lot of my self-worth, or all of it that existed anyway, was from my ‘sexual power’, whatever that means,” Seligman says.

“For me, and I know for a lot of other people, it feels like you have no power as a young woman. You’re struggling with all of the reasons the world sucks for women, how you're not going to have control – all that starts to hit you once you become an adult. And then, if you happen to discover your ‘sexual power’ or the power of your body or your sex appeal, it's just going to run out. I wanted it to feel like Danielle was trying everything she could to hold on to that power that she thought she had, and to see it slip away in every scene.”

In Shiva Baby, the illusory nature of sexual power is magnified through a specific sex work context; Danielle’s unexpected confrontation with the man (the aforementioned sugar daddy, Max) she had neatly compartmentalised adding an extra, engrossing layer of sexual politics onto an already fraught crisis of identity. Seligman’s depiction of Danielle’s sugaring is refreshingly sharp and contemporary, a portrayal of sex work conducted through apps and based not in economic need but in a desire for sexual self-determinism.

“My friends and I were interested in sugar baby-sugar daddy relationships through that empowerment angle, whether it was real or not,” Seligman explains. “Because sugaring and sex work are so accessible now through sites like Seeking Arrangement, it changes what sexual power dynamics can be for young people. Hookup culture in college, at least in places like New York, sucks so much and feels so dehumanising and transactional. You're waiting to know if the person you're in love with is going to let you like, give them a blowjob in a week or a month. It's just so demoralising!

“The idea of someone who is in an arrangement with you, who is going to continuously validate you even if you're not attracted to them, even if you don't enjoy their company, even if you think they're a bad person, is very appealing. Especially for an older audience that might have a more outdated idea of what sex work is or why one goes into sex work, I wanted to ask the question, ‘why else would a young woman who is lacking control want to be a sugar baby, other than needing the money?’”

As Danielle attempts to reconcile her work as a sugar baby with the inquisitive bustle of her family, Shiva Baby becomes not just a tale of early 20s identity formation, but a razor-sharp mediation on how public and private identity clash and coexist. Danielle’s mother awkwardly ignores her daughter’s bisexuality when with family, while her ex Maya (a typically pitch-perfect performance from Molly Gordon) haunts Danielle with a hilariously flirtatious hostility. Elsewhere, Danielle clumsily navigates her Jewish family’s ceremonial condolences and banter all while trying to maintain her seductive position with Max.

“I was interested in the idea of a young woman having to confront the eight different versions of herself that she has to keep up for different people and herself,” Seligman says, reflecting on the film’s tension between individual and communal identity. “There are so many pressures put on young women, whether they're queer or Jewish or sex workers or not, to be so many different things all at once. I wanted to have two different versions of her. She’s a nice Jewish girl for whom her parents want a stable career and hopefully a male partner, but then college and hookup culture are telling her to be this independent, sexually empowered young woman who doesn't care what anyone thinks about her and carves her own path. And those two pressures are completely contradictory.”

It may take place in one house over one day, but through these tensions, Shiva Baby speaks to a universal experience of female coming-of-age and the riotous, anarchic ways in which it can unravel. “For me, at least, there was this ecstasy of finding out, ‘Oh my God! I do have some power: people want me and like me and validate me and make me feel strong’,” Seligman laughs. “But at some point, it runs out. The world doesn't care how much sex you're having. Are you going to enter the adult world? Are you going to pay your bills?”

Shiva Baby is streaming on MUBI from 11 Jun