One of the many pleasures of the film festival circuit isn’t just getting to experience some of the biggest titles of the upcoming season, but, more often than not, finding hidden gems in the mix of it all that initially weren’t on our radars. This is the case with first-time director Emma Seligman, whose film, “Shiva Baby,” was one of the biggest surprises at this year’s Toronto Film Festival (after initially being selected for the canceled SXSW). Originally a short film, the story follows a young woman attending a shiva with her family and the hurdles that come with confronting messy current and past relationships. Our critic called it “hilarious,” writing. “’Shiva Baby’ is a savagely smart comedy that dives deep into excruciating embarrassment. It’s a marvel and will pull you to the end of your seat, biting your nails in second-hand cringe.”
“Shiva Baby” just played at this year’s NewFest film festival. We spoke to the director Seligman about writing the film while at school, what story she was excited to expand on, and why the Coen Brothers are such influences.
I know this project started as a short film. So, when in the process of working on it, did things move in the direction of making “Shiva Baby” a feature?
Emma Seligman: It was pretty early on that I thought that it had the potential to expand, but I wasn’t sure if it was going to work. I thought it was a good enough premise to sustain a full-length feature, and if it could do that while being creatively interesting then that would be great, one because I already had the proof of concept after making the short in college, and also the one-day story element is good for a first time film that has been done successfully before with films like “Krisha,” so I’d hoped that I could make that work. So yeah, pretty early on I wanted to try.
You wrote the short while still in school, correct?
Yeah, it was my final project. Most seniors in film school take something along the lines of a year-long course where they get to workshop their feature script and hopefully make them, and that was what the short was born out of.
Is it kind of surreal, then, to have something you worked on in your final year of school have such legs later on?
Yes, it’s really surreal, it is all totally unexpected and feels like a dream. Whenever I speak about it in terms of looking back when people have no idea and ask how I made the movie and I mention the short it almost sounds seamless, like the kind of thing that most students or first-time filmmakers would hope for and it was certainly that for me. But it was never something that I thought would happen. You know you always have these ambitions that keep you motivated, so you are never necessarily sure that the ambition will actually be reached as opposed to being something that just keeps you working. But yeah, it was so surreal and the process was all-consuming, from the inception of the short to working with collaborators from film school as producers who also hadn’t made a feature before but believed in it. We ended up putting in all our energy and time for the two years after we graduated to make the film, and now it’s been three. It’s surreal but it also feels weirdly like it makes sense after the level of time and effort we put in. It most feels exciting to have that payoff.
While expanding the script to fit a feature film, was there a storyline that ended up growing organically or that surprised you, or was there one you were the most excited to work on that wasn’t in the original short?
I think what I was excited to explore the most was the character of Maya (Molly Gordon,) which I knew I wanted in the feature. I originally wanted her character in the short, and then, you know, I prefer short shorts, I think the shorter the better, and that they have a higher chance of getting into a festival program. I also always knew I wanted Danielle (Rachel Sennott) bisexual and I think that was another reason that she didn’t fit into her community, on top of all the other things that are part of that which make her feel uncomfortable over the day. So that was something I was really excited to explore, just to be able to portray something about that sexuality on screen that I don’t really see on films too often. It was also nice to just have another female character to work with that also made all the hits that Danielle takes over the film have some redeeming silver lining. In terms of other things, I was excited about getting to dig a little deeper into the relationship between Max and Kim, which I couldn’t get too into in the short.
Danielle is such a fully realized character. Was there any of yourself that you put into her while writing?
Definitely, as I was writing I sort of subconsciously vomited her out of me. In college, when I was writing the short I wasn’t thinking too hard about the choices I was making for her and didn’t have a lot of film space to get into the film world as opposed to making the plot and hook land. Then when making the feature I do feel like I analyzed a lot of myself, but I was sort of a past version even though it wasn’t that far in the past. I feel like when I graduated I started to overcome a lot of the anxieties that most young women feel at that time in their life, where they are thinking about things like power dynamics, sexuality, and their self-worth, and in making the feature I consciously tried to draw on what really made me the most anxious at the time to really tap into the worst things that could happen to Danielle over the course of her day.
Did the anxiety portion of the film also help influence where you chose to shoot in making it feel as claustrophobic and stressful as possible?
Absolutely, the anxiety drove every aspect of the process in terms of the writing and getting it into a tight script that was very clear cut, and the cinematography that I feel incredibly grateful to have worked with such a wonderful artist, Maria Rusche, who gave so much time to me about how to make it claustrophobic but not repetitive as you are stuck in that space for the majority of the film. It needed to have that dynamic of different ways of shooting to make it feel exciting and all add up to create that unified feeling while never really doing that same thing too many times. She and I spent a lot of time watching, I wouldn’t say horror but rather anxiety-driven films, in order to just recreate that closing in feeling, which took a little bit to figure out. Initially, we were like, are we shooting this like a romantic comedy or what’s the deal here, so the anxiety hook was what we found to set the tone for most of the process, down the way we shot it to the music and the pace of the editing. We made it tight and quick to make it feel like you never really had any room to breathe, so yeah stress and anxiety found its way into every page of the film.
When you mention things like what you were looking into for influences and knowing that you graduated from school a few years ago, are there any directors who you do look for on a consistent basis for inspiration, or is that more of something that is always changing?
I think it depends on the project, but certainly, because of how this took up all my time in the last three years, I think that the Coen Brothers will always leave a lasting influence on me. They’ve done so many different genres that I’d also like to be able to do, like transitioning into things other than comedy. But they’ve also done a lot of Jewish content and are the masters of the methodology and tone that I really wanted to tap into, especially in the case of “A Serious Man,” which is probably the best example of the feelings I was looking to dig deeper into. I also think that Joey Soloway with “Transparent” were huge references in terms of tone, writing, and that claustrophobia, I think they were probably the most important. I don’t reference their work a lot because I think so much of their work has seeped into me that I don’t think I ever would have even had the idea for “Shiva Baby” if “Transparent” hadn’t come out. And then, this may sound a little pretentious, but John Cassavetes was someone we came back to quite often as I think he is one of the masters of claustrophobia and tension, so we watched “Opening Night,” which is a very anxious film. I actually watched that film because it has a shiva scene in it and I was wondering how they shot it, but we didn’t end up taking anything from that scene but we did take some things from the few scenes in the theater lobby after every performance after Gena Rowlands would fuck it up or do something different and everyone would hate on her, but anyways it just ended up being a really random reference for us. And Mike Nichols, those would probably be the main four, with “The Graduate” probably being the most obvious example.
“Shiva Baby” is still playing film festivals and a formal release date has yet to be announced.