Millennial angst, kvetching and a nerve-racking setup: How to give a comic film-writing masterclass

For Shiva Baby, director Emma Seligman draws on the unintentional comedy of her upbringing

There’s an understandable flurry of chatter and excitement around Shiva Baby, the auspicious first feature from NYU graduate Emma Seligman. A chatty, anxious, and very Jewish comedy – starring Rachel Sennott, Polly Draper, Molly Gordon, and Fred Melamed – has, to date, screened at South by Southwest Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and OutFest LA, where it won Best US Screenwriting.

Seligman was subsequently named one of Variety’s 10 Screenwriters to Watch and one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film.

“I feel like I want to make minimal dialogue films,” laughs Seligman. “In film school, I really wanted to make something seriously cinematic, like you hold on one shot for 10 minutes. But every time I tried to make something like that, I found out that the only thing I know how to do is write is tons of dialogue and characters.”

Shiva Baby has plenty of both. The film offers an uncomfortable culture clash. Danielle (played by internet celebrity and Call Your Mother star Rachel Sennott) – is a young, bisexual Jewish woman, who is sugaring her way through her gender-studies college programme, with the assistance of the older, sleazy Max (Danny Deferrari). When she attends a shiva with her playfully critical mom Debbie (Thirtysomething’s Polly Draper) and well-meaning father Joel (A Serious Man’s Fred Melamed). Danielle is disconcerted to find her over-achieving ex-girlfriend Maya (Book Smart’s Molly Gordon) is a guest. Worse still, Max, accompanied by a glamorous, successful wife (Glee’s Dianna Agron) and bawling infant daughter, turns up.

Danielle was previously unaware of Max’s family, just as he was unaware that she was not, as she claimed, a law graduate. A bracelet, a misplaced phone, and too much wine add to the escalating tensions in a farce that plays like Uncut Gems with laughter.

The Coen Brothers were an influence, says Seligman, as was Mike Nichols, Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto, Joey Soloway’s Transparent, and the films of Martin McDonagh. She watched and re-watched such one-setting family dramas as August, Osage County, Rachel Getting Married, and Trey Edward Shults’s impeccable Krisha.

Many details, however, were semi-autobiographical says Saligman, who, in common with her film’s heroine, is bisexual and Jewish.

“I definitely took from my own experience,” says Seligman. “And it’s funny. I usually say that I did that out of practicality. I guess for your first feature or your first play or your first book, whatever it is, like, it’s just so helpful to read from your own experience. And, I definitely took from the anxieties I was feeling at that time in my life in general. But also, the thing I probably took the most from was from the setting and from the world and the characters of the Jewish family and community and from Jewish family functions. There’s a lot of myself that I put in there.”

Originally a short

Shiva Baby may be Seligman’s debut feature but, aged 24, she has been a presence on the cinematic landscape for years. As a teenager, the Canadian writer-director wrote film reviews for the Huffington Post and served as a Sprockets juror on the TIFF Kids International Film Festival.

She originally made Shiva Baby as a short film while studying at New York University, drawing inspiration from her own family who, she says, “are funny but they don’t know they’re funny” and also the high number of fellow NYU students who were sugar babies in order to make their way through college.

“It was so common among the female student population,” says Seligman. “I didn’t want to make it seem like: ‘oh, it’s great and fabulous and empowering’. I think female empowerment is separate from sexual power, But at the same time, I think we’re all really tired of seeing negative, desperate stories about sex workers. I wanted to create something that was somewhere down the middle, where it’s affecting her life in different ways, sometimes bad ways, sometimes just confusing. I was more interested in asking: ‘what does this actually mean?’. And what is it doing for your self-worth? I think sugaring allowed me to represent and question a lot of power structures and gender dynamics.”

An early transactional scene ends with Max hilariously explaining that sugaring allows him to help women.

“Most of my friends that sugared used sites like Seeking Arrangements and that was definitely something you’d see,” says the director. “There were even a few young guys who didn’t have tons of money and who genuinely seemed to think that they were doing something good, that it was an honourable endeavour, like charity, or mentorship, or something? And sometimes it was a bit like that, but most of the time it was not.”

Millennial angst, kvetching, and a nerve-racking setup add up to a masterclass in Jewish comic screenwriting. “The next great ‘Jewish movie’ was just made by a 24-year-old female director,” ran a Times of Israel headline last April. “The most claustrophobic film event of the year,” opined the Chicago Reader.

The confined setting was, however, a practicality as well as an aesthetic triumph.

Working on a small budget with two producer friends from NYU and Mickey and the Bear’s Lizzie Shapiro, Shiva Baby depended on local casting to save on hotels and trailers. A Lego version of the set was used for blocking. DOP Maria Rusche worked out every shot in advance. Even the food required special handling, or rather non-handling. An elaborate Jewish spread of lox, bagels, and rugelach was not actually consumed, despite the menu’s centrality to the narrative.

“Most of the food went bad,” says Seligman. “No one could touch it. It was out for days and they would still have to put it back in the fridge at the end of every day. Obviously it was not very edible. And the lox was one of the most expensive parts of the budget. There was spoilage, And it was sad but that’s the stress and fun of filmmaking on a budget.”

Shiva Baby is in cinemas and on MUBI from June 11th 

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