Making a film as an anxiety attack 'is about creating a narrative that doesn't have any room to breathe. So, it's just not letting your character catch a break,' says Shiva Baby director Emma Seligman.
Living a double life between what she wants to be and what others hope her to be, Danielle is trapped in a quarter-life cul-de-sac. Rattling her cage are concerned parents, nosy neighbours, and every so-called well-wisher armed with unsolicited advice at a ritual she can't seem to get out of. We have all been Danielle at some point, or at least known one. That's what makes Emma Seligman's debut feature Shiva Baby such a painfully relatable anxiety attack.
Initially a short film conceived for her college thesis, Shiva Baby becomes a living and breathing exercise in anxiety as a feature. The suffocating conditions become a test of composure, and watching Rachel Sennott's Danielle try to keep her cool makes for a riot of tragicomic absurdities. Though unbearably stressful to watch at times, the film is never not funny, maintaining a steady comical groove throughout. It follows a rich tradition of Jewish-American comedy, in which neuroses and insecurities have always reigned supreme. "Jewishness" of course has less to do with religion here, more to do with a cultural atmosphere, a deliberate rhythm and cadence to the dialogue, and the presence of an unserious man like Fred Melamed.
Ahead of Shiva Baby's release on MUBI, I Zoom-ed with Emma Seligman about the evolution of Jewish comedy, how she went about expanding a short film into a feature, and what goes into transfiguring an anxiety attack into film form.
Of all the anxiety attacks I have ever had, Shiva Baby was possibly the only funny one.
Emma: (laughs) Thank you.
On that note, let's talk about cinema as anxiety attacks. Safdie brothers have sure made a career out of it. Compared to Good Time or Uncut Gems, Shiva Baby locates the truth to a different kind of anxiety. So what went on your mood board?
Emma: Thrillers and claustrophobic movies. It's funny. Uncut Gems came out in December 2019. And when I watched it, we had just finished the cut of Shiva Baby. So, I hadn't seen it yet, and part of me is glad that I didn't, because I think I would have just tried to copy the Safdie brothers. (Making a film as an anxiety attack) is about creating a narrative that doesn't have any room to breathe. It's taking whatever your personal anxieties are, throwing them on screen and tearing them apart. I think a lot of people have social anxieties, family anxieties or sexual insecurities. So, it's just not letting your character catch a break. Cinematography, editing and music are the three most important things that can help create that anxiety attack. So, we watched a lot of Cassavetes movies and thrillers like Krisha and Black Swan. Then, our editor (Hanna A Park) just sucked all the air out of the movie. She didn't leave any room for oohs and ahhs. All the dialogue overlapped. Having a really good score that makes you feel tense then wraps it all up.
Anxiety is key to Jewish humour. From Woody Allen to Joan Rivers, from Seinfeld to Transparent, all their comedy is defined by some angst, be it sexual or existential. Shiva Baby mines its humour from a more millennial angst, kind of like Broad City in a way. How would you say Jewish comedy has evolved over the years?
Emma: Jewish comedy has adapted to different perspectives in different generations. Broad City feels so different from Seinfeld because they live in the same world but we're watching two millennial young women. Comedy evolves based on the era we're in, and who is the person telling the jokes: if it's a woman or a queer woman. There's always something to be stressed about, no matter what era it is and a Jewish person will generally find a way to be stressed about it. What creates the anxiety in these movies or shows is what changes.
There is a lot going on in Shiva Baby. We're following Danielle through it all but there are also other tangents at play. How did you stage your camera movements? Were you ever overwhelmed by it all during editing?
Emma: Because it's such a tight space, because the actors had such a limited availability in their schedules, and because we couldn't afford extras every single day, we had to be really strategic about how we shot and when. So we visited the house many times and then I also created a Lego set. And we sort of treated it like a play, and my cinematographer (Maria Rusche) and I looked at this Lego set and put characters everywhere. When we got to the edit, Hannah, our editor, had the shot list already. So she understood what needed to be done.
You spoke of the score being key to building on this claustrophobic chaos. What were your instructions to Ariel Marx?
Emma: I just told her I wanted something anxious, and the violin was her instrument of choice. I wanted violin and other strings because I wanted it to sound similar to klezmer music.
Those screeching strings give it a horror vibe. Was that deliberate?
Emma: I didn't want it to sound like slapstick or like Fiddler on the Roof because sometimes you hear those scores in Jewish films, where it feels like it's all one joke. I wanted it to still feel anxious and grounded. So she (Ariel Marx) sent me a sound library, and told me to pick the violin ones that I liked. Based on the ones I picked, she told me that was a horror score.
Could Shiva Baby have been a horror movie in a parallel reality?
Emma: I didn't imagine it as a horror movie but I should have. I kept saying "anxious" to every department head. I wanted it to be anxious. I wanted it to feel anxious. My main reference for Shiva Baby was Krisha, Trey Edward Shults' first film. It took place in one day and one location, and he did it so successfully. I knew that Shiva Baby would feel awkward and uncomfortable because that's the whole premise. The movie started me off on a track of just looking for ways to make it feel tense and claustrophobic. She can't leave. But I didn't want anyone being like silly here, asking why hasn't she just left. So, I didn't think of it as a horror movie but I should have because what I was doing after watching Krisha was just employing the mechanisms of horror, which so many great first-time filmmakers do because it's an effective way to keep the audience there without spending tons of money. That's what anxiety is: it's a horror movie. I just kept saying "anxiety" and then finally I realised "that's literally what a horror movie is." In my rolodex though, I was only going through thrillers in my head.
Shiva Baby is obviously a very personal project. How much of you is in Danielle, and how much of your own family and all the conversations did you end up including in the movie?
Emma: There's a good chunk of old me. There's definitely stuff that I've taken from my family. My mom is not my mom. She is always like that's not like me. But they are inspired by my family members. I wrote down pretty much every uncomfortable moment or conversation I was in between the ages of 16 and 23. I baked in half of those lines and moments and put them in Shiva Baby. So pretty much every interaction Danielle has with another woman — that's not her mom and not Maya — at the shiva comes from a real moment. I think Danielle's insecurities all came from me. I have never run into an ex-girlfriend or a sugar daddy or both in one day at a family event. (Laughs) But everything that Danielle is anxious about at that moment is what was going on in my head. I think for every young woman, or young person, sometimes it feels like a horror movie inside your head when you don't know what you're going to do, and you're feeling so much pressure. So, I definitely put all of that into it in terms of just the emotion.
Those are very relatable emotions. I haven't run into an ex-girlfriend or sugar daddy or both in one day at a family event either. But I can still relate to so much that Danielle goes through. I have had so many of those uncomfortable conversations about college, career and settling down with relatives. To me and every other writer struggling to write fiction, can you please advise us on how to build universality through cultural specificity?
Emma: The year that I went into making Shiva Baby, Ramy had come out, and The Farewell too. Both are just two small examples, and there's so many others to pull from. I loved them and I saw myself, even though I'm not Muslim and I'm not Chinese. So that gave me encouragement. Transparent too encouraged me to make Shiva Baby culturally specific. They encouraged me to just write authentically from my perspective. I think the more culturally specific and more authentic it is to you and your perspective of the world, the more universal it becomes. I think sometimes when people are trying to pander and make things less Jewish or less Indian or less queer, it feels watered down and inauthentic. For me, Shiva Baby isn't about Judaism. The world is Jewish, and that allowed me to write the characters from a place of confidence because I felt like I knew them so well and how they speak, but I don't think that there should be any concern if the story in and of itself isn't really at its core about a cultural specificity. Even in Ramy, it's about his exploration into becoming more religious or learning more, but it's really just about him trying to figure himself out and trying to be a good person. Obviously, that's the whole setup of the show because he can't because he's a shit. (Laughs) But to me, in terms of looking at your characters, there's so much deeper usually to them than one specific culture or identity that they hold.
The food in the movie also adds to its resonance. When you're stuck at a ceremony you had no real intention of going to, food can feel like a saviour, something to do to avoid uncomfortable conversations and small talk. It's a relatable feeling too.
Emma: Food adds to what we were talking about: specificity. I was so excited because I wanted the food to feel like my childhood and to feel as specific as it was on all those occasions that I would, like you said, go to the table when I felt uncomfortable and awkward. On a practical level, food was the main source of activity for the characters in this movie because they're really just standing around and talking. There's not a ton that you can do in one house in one day. There's no room for a chase scene. So, food was the thing that I kept coming back to because there wasn't really much to do with their hands and the actors need something. The script needs people to be doing things in order to feel like a natural normal human and to read well on screen. It also had to be cheap because food is expensive. When you're shooting, that's also what food brought to the table. It was messing with our budget. (Laughs)
Polly Draper and Fred Melamed, who play Danielle's mom and dad, are excellent as always. Can you describe the experience of working with veterans like them, and relative newcomers like Rachel Sennott?
Emma: Polly and Fred, I didn't realise went to Yale School of Drama together. They knew each other before, but I didn't know that. So there was this wonderful kismet or fate as we say. They had this chemistry already even though they hadn't seen each other in years. That was like someone blessing us for sure because they had this dynamic built in already. Fred had every line memorised. He's such a theatre actor. Polly had many opinions about her character and wanted to change the story for her character. She wanted to create more of an arc for the mother so that she seemed wiser and more aware that something's happening with her daughter, which eventually I understood and we met in the middle. I'm so grateful that she pushed me because I obviously don't hold her perspective. Rachel, I felt like I can't even understand how I directed her because we've been doing this for four years. I just feel like she's part of my training. Molly Gordon (who plays Danielle's ex) can't say the same line twice. She always says a different version of it. She always ad libs. It was a great learning experience because they all need different things from me and they all need me to communicate it to them in different ways.
Going back to Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket to now your own, lots of indie filmmakers have started their careers by expanding their short films into features. What went into your decision to turn your short film into a feature? And how did you go about expanding it organically?
Emma: I went into my senior year of university, saying that my thesis was going to be a proof of concept for my first feature. I was going to try really hard to do that. Obviously, if it didn't, if I made a great short film and then just couldn't figure out a way to make it a feature, that would have been fine. It's not a guaranteed strategy of making your first film, but it has so far been a very successful one. In recent years, Krisha was a big reference, as well as Thunder Road, Obvious Child, Pariah, and Whiplash. It just felt encouraging. It was really helpful to have a proof of concept, like this is how it's going to look and feel and here's like a bite-sized version of it.
Looks like our time's up. Wish we could discuss Shiva Baby at greater length, but thanks for taking the time to speak to me. I can't wait to see what you come up with next.
Emma: Thank you so much. This was lovely.
Shiva Baby releases on MUBI on 11 June.