Interview: Emma Seligman on Creating the Room to Grow in “Shiva Baby”

As Emma Seligman was preparing the short that would lead to her debut feature “Shiva Baby,” one of her professors had recommended that she buy a Lego set to create a shotlist when she wasn’t especially fond of storyboarding.

“It was definitely not to scale, and the figurines were huge and took up almost the entire space of the room,” Seligman recalls of how she and a friend were using a living room to quite literally block out scenes when developing the comedy. “I like thinking things out in real time and being able to say, ‘Okay, no, it said this, so actually it’s angled this way” versus this having to draw it out repeatedly. It definitely allowed me to easily communicate to my [cinematographer Maria Rusche] what I wanted and for her to communicate back.”

While Seligman would occasionally whip out a smaller version of the Lego set when adjustments needed to be made on location, she’s built something far greater with “Shiva Baby,” an architectural marvel at just 77 minutes where one layer of stress is piled atop another for Danielle (Rachel Sennott), whose decision to support herself as an artist after leaving school with a side gig catering to sugar daddies comes back to haunt her when she runs into both one of her clients (Danny Deferrari) and her ex-girlfriend (Molly Gordon) at the wake of a family friend, with the presence of both her parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed) and his wife (Dianna Agron) making things all the more uncomfortable. As delicious and twisty as the babka being served, the film rarely leaves the crowded house where personal space may be hard to come by physically, but nonexistent when it comes to nosy questions from relatives and neighbors.

The more overwhelmed Danielle appears, the more Seligman’s skills, as well as those of her cast and crew, shine through, expertly torturing her heroine in an all-out immersion into madness and finding inside the messy situation a most elegant tribute to embracing personal heritage while carving out an identity for oneself independent of it. Even during a festival run when “Shiva Baby” couldn’t be seen on the big screen, set to premiere at SXSW before it was the first cancellation of the COVID-19 pandemic, its breakout potential was undeniable, emerging as huge crowdpleaser virtually across the globe from Adelaide to Indie Memphis to Toronto, Seligman’s hometown where she once entered TIFF’s youth program Next Wave wanting to be a film critic in her teens and left wanting to be a filmmaker. The world is richer for it and with the film now available to all through virtual cinemas and on demand, the writer/director spoke of the intricacies involved in crafting such a razor-sharp character study, having a partner in Sennott to take the leap with from a short to feature and the significance of her TIFF homecoming last fall.

Something that’s masterful in this that I wouldn’t want to go unremarked upon is the sound design – what was it like figuring out how to create a graceful way through chaos as you do?

It was a dance between what we wanted to hold the most power. Is it the baby crying? Is it the music? If you’re speaking about the score specifically, Ariel Marx is just incredible, and I let her guide me to where she thought the best moments would be for the score in the movie, so I was very grateful that she indulged me in this core score for this comedy. But there are many parts that go into [the sound design]. Hanna Park [the editor] just sucked the air out of the movie — we took out every single pause we could find and made sure as much as we could that our dialogue was overlapping, so that was a huge part of it. There’s not many sounds you can work with at a shiva, there’s only so much mumblings in the background that you can do, so I felt like it was important to us to just create chaos other than with voices, like with the coffee clinking and the glass breaking and I think [Danielle’s] pushed into a table of some sort by accident, stuff like that. But I feel grateful for the team we had. It was a very collaborative process.

It surprised me to learn that it may not have been until you got to the actual location to figure out where the action in each scene might take place. What was it like to figure out?

I feel grateful that we had so much time with the place because I knew that when I wrote it beforehand, things were going to change once we got there. The house is basically a character, so t was a huge relief when we found out we could visit the place a few more times and then get a week to be in there before we shot, [which generally] never happens. It felt very, very comfortable, especially for a first feature. I got to really understand each and every shot and each and every room and every intricacy of how many extras we were going to have that day. It was the most cooperative part of the process with my DP and I showing our shot list to our producers and our AD and all of us working out together what was possible and achievable but as we were there physically. It was also great to know what the place was beforehand because then I could also write each scene to have a different vibe for each room, like putting a scene specifically in the bathroom meant that there was going to be more natural light and that does something emotionally to change the tone of the scene, so I[having] access to the space so well beforehand completely informed so many decisions throughout the filmmaking process.

Did knowing what Rachel Sennott could bring from the short change your ideas for what this could be as a feature?

Definitely. On the creative level, she just made it her own. She brought so much style and humor to it, I felt like I was having such an active collaborator in real time, and that’s rare on student films on an independent level where you see someone who cares so much and is so dedicated and so passionate about making it the best thing it can be, so once I had that, I was like, “I need to stay with her.” Even separately from her talents as an actor and a comedian, she’s so ambitious, organized, caring and strategic and I knew that I just wanted to be around her energy and take it into making this feature and trying to get it made. I don’t think it would have been made without her. But she radiates a really special charisma, enthusiasm and ambition that is contagious, so I knew that I had struck gold when we were working on the story.

Was there anything that you may not have expected, but once the film started to take on a life of its own you could really embrace?

Yeah, a lot of it would be Polly Draper just breaking out into a new scene she’d written [where I’d be] like, “Okay.” [laughs] Some of those lines made it in, but I never went into things feeling they were going to be exactly the way I’d written them. I knew beforehand that I was going to be surprised by a lot of things that came out of us reading it for the first time day of, so the pattern was going up hair and makeup, where [the actors] were in their chairs and having them run the scene for the first time. Anytime, you get the actors to run the scene for the first time, which is usually a table read when you can afford it, you’re going to find lines that don’t work, that the flow isn’t right, or [there are] just words you want to alter and change. There’s always something that changes, even if it’s really small.

The day that was heavily different was [when] the “baby shake” song came out of nowhere — that was Polly’s idea. That was a song she sang to her sons and she thought it would be funny, and she convinced me to put it in. And the most dialogue out of all the movie was changed for that scene because Dianna, Rachel and Danny were really trying to figure out the tone of [how] to play Kim, and Danielle and Max [respectively], basically saying that he’s cheating on [Kim] with [Danielle] to each other’s faces. That scene took a lot of reworking in the hair and makeup chair, and was probably the most surprising in terms of what we got out of it when it was done.

It’s always interesting to me on a first feature like this where it’s recounting someone looking for direction in their life and the filmmaker themselves has obviously achieved this major accomplishment of their own. What’s it like to have a feature under your belt?

It feels really, really good. It’s been a big, significant four years for me, and I feel very proud of myself and of Rachel and it’s wild to be on the other side of it, especially during a year like this. But I’m excited to move past this angsty, traumatic part of my life that I feel like I kept trying to dig out for material for this movie and make stuff about other things that go beyond the scenes of millennial graduate angst, so we’ll see what happens.

I couldn’t be more excited for what’s next. And I had to ask, after learning you were actually part of the inaugural class of kids to be part of the Toronto Film Festival’s Next Wave program, what was it like to actually have your premiere at the festival nearly a decade on?

It was so surreal. I felt like I was in odd dream — one because Cameron Bailey was doing the Q&A and intro, but two, because I was looking out at a 500-seat theater and there were only 40 people scattered throughout it, so I definitely felt like I was having a weird dream. But it was so incredible to get the recognition. TIFF made me want to be a filmmaker not just TIFF next wave, but I was part of Sprockets as a kid, which was their kids’ film festival and I went down there every year [when] before they had TIFF Bell Lightbox, they would do partnerships with other museums, and it meant a lot to me.

It was also the first and only time thus far I’ve seen the movie in a theater on the big screen and I was also glad because I was living with my parents for a year in COVID quarantine in Toronto, which was not great for many reasons — you’ve just watched my movie [laughs] — but it felt like fate that that happened when I was there. I got to go with them to see it. They couldn’t come to either of our our limited capacity premieres that we had this week in New York and LA because of the travel restrictions right now between Canada and the U.S., so I’m really happy that I got to share such an important moment of screening the film with the two of them.

“Shiva Baby” opens on April 2nd at virtual cinemas, supporting your local arthouse. A full list is here. It is available on iTunes.