Filmmaker Emma Seligman spoke to Solzy at the Movies ahead of the world premiere of her narrative short, Shiva Baby, premiering Shorts Program 2 at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival.
Emma, thanks for joining us today. How are things treating you?
Emma Seligman: I’m great, thank you! I’m really excited to be here.
Your thesis film, Shiva Baby, is premiering at the SXSW Film Festival. Can you talk about what a thrill it is to take the film to Austin?
Emma Seligman: It’s a really surreal experience to screen at SXSW. Shiva Baby was my thesis film and a lot of amazing young filmmakers worked on it with me, so I’m really proud to bring it here.
This is by far the funniest film I’ve seen that’s set while a family is sitting shiva. How did you get the idea for it?
Emma Seligman: Thank you! Well, I grew up in a very close-knit Jewish community in Toronto, where I was dragged by my parents to tons of shivas, usually for people I had never met. When I got to college at NYU, being a sugar baby or sex worker on SeekingArrangement.com was really popular and I would hear a lot of stories from friends and classmates that I thought were pretty entertaining. One of my friends told me about a Jewish lawyer she met through the site and I immediately wondered what it would be like if a Jewish girl ran into her sugar daddy at an event, just because my community back home is so interconnected. I thought the most natural environment for such an awkward encounter would be a shiva because shivas draw out so many random community members to pay their respects, so you never know who you’re going to run into.
Is there a potential for a feature film or do you fill that it works best as a short?
Emma Seligman: Yeah, we’re actually developing Shiva Baby into a feature now. I’m working on a new draft and we aim to shoot by early 2019!
How did you get into filmmaking and who are some of your influences as a filmmaker?
Emma Seligman: My parents are both huge movie buffs and I also grew up going to the Toronto International Film Festival every year. As a kid, I really wanted to be a film critic more than anything else, but I was always interested in filmmaking too. In high school, I really enjoyed writing and directing theatre, so that’s when I started thinking more seriously about being a filmmaker.
I have too many influences to name here but specifically for Shiva Baby, I drew the most inspiration from Transparent and Jill Soloway, the master of modern Jewish sexually frustrated characters. Xavier Dolan has also been a big influence on me in the last few years, since he’s really skilled at exploring young sexual identities and loves to put his characters in brutally uncomfortable family environments. My biggest influence in general is probably Nora Ephron. I have a lot of Jewish female writers in my family, so my sister and I definitely grew up worshipping her.
You wrote film reviews in high school and have worked behind the camera. Even though I’m a film critic, I’m also an aspiring filmmaker myself and working on a script when my schedule allows. Does being a film critic in the past help inform your decisions as a filmmaker?
Emma Seligman: Definitely! I’m not the kind of director who grew up with a camera in my hand but I think watching and analyzing every movie I saw as a critic gave me a great eye and definitely a solid understanding of good and bad storytelling. I always thought film critics could never make movies but the transition for me was a lot easier than I expected and I’m guessing feels very natural for you too.
Have you thought about going back to writing reviews or are you having too much fun on the production side of things?
Emma Seligman: I would love to write reviews again one day. For right now though, I am really enjoying writing and directing for film.
Outside of premiering the film, is there something that you’re looking forward to doing while in Austin?
Emma Seligman: My aunt used to live here for a while and she has many places she wants me to see, so I hope I get a chance to explore more of Austin outside of SXSW!
Thanks again for your time.