Toronto 2020: Emma Seligman talks Shiva Baby

Writer-director Emma Seligman spoke with Solzy at the Movies during the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival about Shiva Baby.

Emma Seligman
Emma Seligman. Photo credit: Sharon Attia.

Shiva Baby is holding the Canadian premiere during TIFF right after acquiring a distributor in Utopia. What were the some of the things you were looking for in terms of a distributor?

Emma Seligman: I think that was the main focus was always wanting someone that had a track record of supporting independent film and films directed by women. My really good friend Annabelle Attanasio, who made Mickey and the Bear, which we share producer from that movie in ours named Lizzie Shapiro. They had an incredible experience with Utopia. I always hoped for a distributor that would allow me to be really collaborative and offer my ideas on everything from press to the trailer and the poster and also just be included in the decision making of where it goes in foreign markets or where it goes after the theatrical or premium VOD or whatever release or hybrid that we have. I knew from Lizzie and Annie that they loved working with Utopia and that they were very collaborative. I think collaboration and support for independent voices and female voices felt key for me and my team.

What was your initial reaction when you learned that TIFF selected the film this year?

Emma Seligman: I was completely shocked. We submitted a while ago and didn’t hear anything. TIFF announced its sort of first sort of small lineup of films, their first wave of announcements, and they also said that it was going to be a slimmed down version this year. I was not even waiting for them to respond to me. I was like, Okay. We didn’t get it but I wasn’t expecting to. I felt really grateful that even though SXSW didn’t happen that we were in conversations with distributors and I felt like we were still coming out of it okay so I really wasn’t expecting TIFF. I was completely shocked.

Cameron Bailey basically jumped on a Zoom with us immediately after emailing us. We found a time within the hour to all hop on a Zoom. He was explaining how the festival is going to be different this year. I thought maybe because I had my experience with the high school committee—TIFF Next Wave—I thought maybe he was gonna say we didn’t accept Shiva but we’d love to do some sort of thing with you and Next Wave or something but then he just said, “Okay, we would love to include Shiva.” We were on Zoom and we’re all trying to keep it so cool but we’re totally shocked. I think later in the conversation he was like, “If you want to”—obviously, we want to so shock was probably the biggest feeling I had.

The film was supposed to premiere in March during SXSW and obviously, that didn’t go as planned. What was going through your mind in the days leading to the press conference that Friday?

Emma Seligman: I’m sure you can remember. I feel like press, filmmakers, and everybody that was going to attend SXSW was watching and reading constantly that this person had pulled out and this company had pulled out. We were really not rushing but we were in the last hour of post-production. We were sound editing every day. Between that and coloring and squeezing every hour we could to get the DCP finished to send it off to SXSW, that week was so strange because we were like doing our best to finish the movie but also we’re like, Is this gonna happen?

On Friday, I was babysitting while the kid I babysit was in gymnastics, I pulled up my laptop. I was checking by the hour for news about SXSW. I was watching the press conference that they had and I guess they were running like a few minutes late. It was so local and sweet. I feel like all the people waiting for the speaker to speak were like—I don’t know if they know they were on camera but they were just talking about their kids or whatever. I was anxiously like, Is this going to be the conference where they say it’s going to go or not go? I don’t know.

When they finally said it was cancelled, I wasn’t shocked because at that week leading up to it, I had wondered if that was going to happen. I was so disappointed mostly for Claudette and Janet and all the programmers there because I feel like they just had the rug pulled out from under them. They were the first casualty and didn’t have any time to come up with a backup plan so I felt heartbroken for them. I was just so exhausted from finishing the movie that I had a very delayed reaction. I was like, I think this is this is really bad but I don’t have the energy to even process it right now. That was my initial reaction. I was just really bummed for SXSW and for all the other filmmakers. You’ve been covering SXSW for so long. You know that it’s such a wonderful space for filmmakers to meet each other, be in community, and really just get to know each other and support each other’s films. I was so looking forward to doing that with the feature version because the short was at SXSW so I was disappointed for sure.

Going into that Friday morning, with all these companies pulling out left and right, I was emailing publicists, “Hey, are you all still gonna be there? Is this interview actually gonna happen?”

Emma Seligman: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, we were getting emails. The big companies were pulling out but then people that had asked us for tickets before were like, Oh, they’re actually only sending one representative from our company or agency or whatever. We just kept getting people pulling out and we were like,  Oof, I don’t know what this is going to be. Yeah, that Friday was interesting. My producers and I all just got drunk the next day and went for brunch. It was our way of dealing with it, which was nice.

We had Purim the following week.

Emma Seligman: Oh, yeah, that’s true. Yeah. It was strange and then all rolled into the one. Everyone was like, What—SXSW was canceled?!? Then it was like, just wait and then a week later, everything else canceled. I feel like the first indicator for the rest of the world. Everyone in our industry felt it first and in the music industry and tech and everyone that was planning on going was just like, I think this is gonna be bigger if this was canceled. I think this means more. Anyway. Yeah. Very strange time.

I know that Wednesday was the last press screening I attended. I had done The Hunt on Tuesday afternoon and a Purim Seudah that evening. We had a screening of My Spy on Wednesday. Coming back from that screening—theNBA shut down, college sports shut down, and then Tom Hanks. That was really when it became serious.

Emma Seligman: Yeah, that Wednesday. I was actually at Annabelle’s house. She cooked me dinner. She’s from LA and we were both like, Should we go home? Both our parents were neurotically like, Come home! No, don’t come home! Don’t get on a plane! A plane is a petri dish! But okay, come home, but don’t but we don’t want to get it. That Wednesday—I remember. I think a lot of people do. The NBA, the Europe travel ban, and then Tom Hanks to top it all off. Annie and I were both like, Okay. We were both on the phone with our parents. We were supposed to have this face meal and yeah, that was the turning point. I’m in Toronto right now. I’m with my family. I left that Sunday because I think Friday was true when Trudeau was like, Canadians come home. I was like, they’re gonna close the border. This isn’t bad. I’m not gonna be able to get home. That sort of was the warning—that Wednesday to Friday of that week.

What has the audience reception been since Shiva Baby started to screen during the hybrid film festivals this summer?

Emma Seligman: I feel really lucky that it’s been for the most part very positive. I think that we’re finding we’re hitting our audience with young women, specifically young queer women. That makes me feel like I did my job right and we reached the audience that felt most important to me to reach. It’s been really nice. I think some people react like, Oh, that was such a great comedy, and then some people react a little more emotionally. It’s been across the board. The only criticism I’ve gotten is that it’s perhaps stereotypical and doesn’t portray Reform Ashkenazi Jews in the most flattering way but even still, when people say that, it’s like, Eh, it’s okay. I’m obviously from this world so I’m not trying to do it maliciously. It’s coming from a place of love. But so far, it’s been really nice and positive so I hope—knock on wood—that it stays that way.

While the feature includes the key beats from the short, I noticed that you expanded on Danielle’s sexuality in the film. Was this something you wanted to include in the short?

Emma Seligman: That’s exactly it. I wanted to originally have an X in the short. Short shorts for me work best. I didn’t have the time. I had always hoped and had the goal of making it a feature. I always told myself that once I could make it a feature, I would be able to showcase her bisexuality. I also think that in the short, her anxiety and insecurities are sort of specifically related to Max and the wife and the sugar daddy relationship versus in the feature, that’s obviously still a really important part but I really wanted to expand on how the community, her sort of isolation, and just difference within it makes her uncomfortable and extra anxious. I always wanted to have a young female character that was sort of her foil that got to show her sexuality but also got to represent especially for non-Jews watching what is, again, stereotypically a very adored in the perfect Jewish girl basically going to law school and whatnot and having a little bit more of a traditional path. I felt like Maya did both for me and for the film—she got to show Danielle’s queerness but she also got to represent everything that Danielle is not within that world.

Rachel Sennott and Emma Seligman in a BTS shot on the set of Shiva Baby.
Rachel Sennott and Emma Seligman in a BTS shot on the set of Shiva Baby. Photo credit: Annabelle Attanassio.

Outside of the continuity factor in such a small space, what was the biggest challenge during production?

Emma Seligman: I think probably working with our incredible but very busy cast members that we had to squeeze into one to two days to three days of shooting. It sort of goes hand in hand with continuity. It’s sort of a cop out answer because it is about continuity but really figuring out how to shoot them out an efficient way and sort of divide up scenes in a way where we could shoot one portion of it on one day and another like three weeks later. We had a lot of looks across the room sort of to Molly Gordon that were shot totally like just offhand and random times when we weren’t shooting the actual scene in which she’s being looked at.

In terms of a non-continuity—because that’s a little boring—answer, the crying baby. The baby was not supposed to cry. I’d written her not to cry and he was a guy—he was a boy like a baby playing a girl. He could not stop crying and it was such a learning experience. Queen Dianna Agron really just was a baby whisperer. I don’t know how she did it. But basically, I think the biggest challenge is working with a crying baby and rewriting some scenes to accommodate for, Okay, he’s crying and sort of changing the tone of a lot of scenes and then getting him to stop crying for the few moments on the last day where we really just needed him to be silent for the intensity or for the whatever at the scene so the crying baby was definitely tough.

What were you looking from Rachel Sennott and Molly Gordon in terms of their performances?

Emma Seligman: I hoped that when we were casting Maya that we could just find someone that had an innate chemistry with Rachel. Before they even met each other, I just felt like they would get along so well and bounce off of each other so well. I was right so I really didn’t have to do too much work to get them to be very playful with each other. I think that it was difficult in what I was looking for with them is sort of allowing their characters to have different layers and a nuance to their relationship, which is hard to do when they meet and then you shoot the movie within—they had met the day before and then we were shooting. They’re supposed to have this long history and all this background. I think I was looking for them to sort of fill those gaps in their relationship and be able to walk that fine line of being sort of jealous and having issues with each other and having this sort of bitter resentment that comes with sort of an old friendship like that but then also having like a lot of love, attraction, and care for one another. I felt that they did that really well and rose to the challenge.

One of the things I love about the film is how you’re able to capture the claustrophobic feeling that so many of us have during family gatherings especially Jewish ones. What was the biggest challenge in trying to capture this?

Emma Seligman: I think, not letting that feeling feel stale to always keep that claustrophobia active but it’s hard to do that and not have it just feel repetitive. I think that finding ways with our DP, Maria Rusche, who’s incredible, and our editor, Hanna Park, and our composer, Ariel Marx, just constantly finding ways in which we could change up the way we were doing the claustrophobia. It mostly came from the way that we shoot it and Maria is—I tip my hat off to her for that. But yeah, just sort of finding different ways to do claustrophobia—we had a lot of references like Krisha, Black Swan, and an old Cassavetes movie called Opening Night, which I watched originally because it had a shiva scene and then ended up not using any of that from the shiva scene but there’s all these claustrophobic scenes in the theater anyway. Looking for references and how different filmmakers have done claustrophobia. Also never letting Rachel play into the claustrophobia, not overdoing it and having her literally look like she’s suffocating but sort of always just directing her to try to stay chill and try to stay like above it all because I think that sort of makes it worse when you when you feel that as an audience member

When I was posting my review on Letterboxd during Outfest, I was looking at some of the other reviews and one of them mentioned it would make a great double feature with Uncut Gems.

Emma Seligman: I’m glad. That’s a huge compliment. We shot this in the summer before that movie came out and then it came out and it was amazing for so many reasons but I felt it was so on brand for what I want to do. And my DP was like, Well imagine if we just shot the whole movie like this (Emma makes hand gestures around her face). She’s like, We had a similar thing going but it wasn’t entirely just like this. I can see that and I take that as a huge compliment so thank you.

How has the pandemic been in terms of being creative—has it been easier or harder?

Emma Seligman: I think it comes in waves. I think overall, for me, it feels harder because I’m living with my parents. I think that’s the biggest thing that it feels creatively inhibiting more—that feels like the biggest thing out of the time that we’re in just because I can’t focus and I don’t have the sort of space that I usually have. But in other ways, it’s been great because I feel like I have a lot of friends who are also trying to be creative and are finding difficulty in doing it. There’s been a shared sort of communal accountability in trying to help each other get our goals done. I’ve entered a few co-writing situations, which I think has been really nice because it’s kept me on goals but it’s also a nice way to like see my friends that I feel really disconnected with. It’s definitely been challenging. There’s some times where I just don’t want to be creative at all. I even just feel so tired from sending emails and using up that kind of energy. There’s other times where I feel like a huge wave and a burst. So for me, it’s just constantly a roller coaster. I don’t know how it is for other people.

I definitely get that. There are days where I know I need to watch a new film to review it and I’m like, yeah, I’m just gonna put on Jurassic Park again or another old film.

Emma Seligman: Yeah. I completely feel that. Or like, I’m just gonna keep listening to the same music. Like I’m just gonna sit my corner. Yeah, definitely.

Shiva Baby is currently playing film festivals. Utopia will release at a later date.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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