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Emma Seligman On Directing Her First Feature Film, 'Shiva Baby'


"Shiva Baby" takes place in small rooms with lots of food, lots of gossip from people who know and love - or think they do - everything about everybody else in the room. Someone has died. That's why there's a shiva, after all, the Jewish tradition of mourning the loss of a loved one. But not everyone in the rooms always remembers who.


RACHEL SENNOTT: (As Danielle) I'm so sorry for your loss.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Thank you.

SENNOTT: (As Danielle) Yeah. It's so sad.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, crying).

SENNOTT: (As Danielle) She was so full of life, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yes.

SENNOTT: (As Danielle) She was so - yeah.

SIMON: "Shiva Baby" stars Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper and Fred Melamed. Emma Seligman, the talented Canadian director, joins us from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.

EMMA SELIGMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: When we first meet Danielle, the principal character here, she's completing a business transaction. And I don't mean by that that she's an Uber driver, is she?

SELIGMAN: (Laughter) No, she's not. She's a sex worker (laughter). She's a sugar baby.

SIMON: Yeah. And we meet her former lover at the shiva, in those same small rooms. They're former lovers, kind of an opposite points in their life.

SELIGMAN: Yeah. I think Maya, her ex-girlfriend, sort of represents everything she's not within, like, her traditional Jewish community. You know, she's going to law school, and she is really good at schmoozing and can work the room a little bit more versus Danielle, who's much more insecure and has to sort of fake this soundbite of what she's doing with her life. And I think in different ways, she feels much more insecure with Maya compared to her sugar daddy, Max, who we see at the beginning of the film.

SIMON: Well, and it raises a question. Danielle is majoring in gender studies. By calling her sex work empowerment, is Danielle using her academic training to fool herself about what she's really doing?

SELIGMAN: I think she has no idea what she's doing, which I think is (laughter) common at that age. I think that's sort of an age-old question within the feminist circles, if it's empowering or not. I do think that there are many women who gain empowerment from it and enjoy what they do. But she's - Danielle's 20 and scattered and very immature and I think just trying to sort of mask this child life she has with her parents and put on this sort of sexually empowered Carrie Bradshaw kind of vibe, which I feel like a lot of my friends and I did.

SIMON: Yeah. There's - well, there are a number of piercing moments, but I'm thinking of the one where Danielle asks her mother, are you disappointed in me?

SELIGMAN: Yeah. I think a lot of young women and a lot of people right now, especially in this time in COVID, have no idea what they're doing. And I think we look to an older generation of our parents or maybe even our older siblings who had much more traditional career tracks that used to be, maybe even just pre-2008, a little more guaranteed, you know? Now there's just no guaranteed paths everywhere, and everyone's got to figure it out. And I think that's definitely a concern.

SIMON: Yeah. I have to ask this question in this day and age, too. You have some non-Jewish actors who are playing Jews.

SELIGMAN: Mmm hmm.

SIMON: Of course, Charlton Heston played Moses.

SELIGMAN: (Laughter).

SIMON: But does that raise - nowadays people raise questions about authenticity.

SELIGMAN: Yeah. I mean, I think that the conversation is extremely important and one in which I'm excited to engage in. Contextually, though, it's important to say that Rachel Sennott, who plays Danielle, the lead, she was in the short film that this was based on that I made in college. And I truly believe she is the reason that the feature film got made. And she's not Jewish, which I understand if people are sort of disappointed by. But the movie wouldn't have happened without her.

So since I knew that she was going to be the lead, I tried to have as many other - as many Jews as possible in the movie so it felt authentic. It felt like we were at a shiva. And everyone else is Jewish. The only other person that's not is Polly. And we were holding out for so long for a Jewish actress to play the mother, but we were just striking out. And my mom, who's, of course, Jewish, was, like, from the beginning telling me that Polly Draper needed to play her. And I had to tell my mom, well, first of all, it's not you. It's a character. But my mom was like, Polly Draper, Polly Draper, Polly Draper. Like, I love "Thirtysomething."

So, yeah. So Polly is not Jewish either. And I don't want it to sound like I'm defending my choices, but I felt like for me, of course authenticity is important, but I think you have to give in certain areas. And for Polly and Rachel, it felt extremely worth it.

SIMON: Yeah. Fitting into the van, without giving anything away, is one of the funniest scenes I've ever encountered in my life.

SELIGMAN: (Laughter) Well, thank you.

SIMON: All the drama packed inside that van, which suddenly seems too small. How do you know when to end a story? Because it occurred to me you could go on in that van. You want to know what happens when they're down the road, but - you know?

SELIGMAN: I think once your protagonist has reached the opposite point that they've started in - and I think in a film that takes place in a day, it didn't make sense for me to solve everything. So I think once your characters have reached a point of serious transition and they're not the same person they were when the movie started, whether they achieved their, you know, quote, unquote, "goal" or not or whatever their objective of the story is.

SIMON: You're already on to your next project, may I ask?

SELIGMAN: I am, yes. And it also is with Rachel Sennott. The two of us started writing another feature right after we wrapped the short four years ago. So yes.

SIMON: Yeah. Do you - how is film going to be different, do you think, in the post-pandemic era?

SELIGMAN: It's becoming so much more accessible to see films, to see indie films, especially online, that otherwise wouldn't have reached these audiences. I think not every like, you know, Gen Z teenage girl is, like, going to the art house cinema. Especially in the pandemic, it's been wild to watch for us how many bisexual teenage girls or, you know, Jewish teenage girls or just young women in general have found the movie and spread the word. So I think we'll go back to seeing stuff in theaters, but I also think it's changed significantly for the better by allowing younger audiences to help a film much more so than the institutions that, you know, once prevented a film from having success.

SIMON: Emma Seligman - her film, "Shiva Baby," is streaming now on Utopia. If I may put it this way, may the memory of this film be a blessing to you.


SIMON: I'm sorry. I can't say that with a straight face.

SELIGMAN: Oh, that's beautiful. I haven't heard that yet (laughter).

SIMON: Thanks so much for being with us.

SELIGMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARIEL MARX'S "SHIVA BABY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.