Adapted from her own short film of the same title, Emma Seligman’s debut feature Shiva Baby is an anxiety-inducing comedy. Our fav review so far is from Xtra’s Michelle de Silva, who called it “Uncut Gems for bisexual women with liberal arts degrees".
The film follows Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a bisexual recent university graduate, as she navigates a shiva (a traditional Jewish funeral). Against the backdrop of the religious ritual, she stumbles into a range of unexpected and unwelcome encounters: a suspicious mother, inquisitive aunts full of life advice and her sugar daddy and an ex-girlfriend. The film is a perceptive exploration of post-collegiate malaise, sexual identity, faith and the absolute horror that is an intimate family gathering.
Shiva Baby is a masterclass in ratcheting tension and wringing humour out of unease. Seligman has immediately marked herself as an assured voice and a filmmaker we can’t wait to see more from. For this month's ‘Deeper Into Movies’ column, Emma took us through a selection of films which informed her feature.
‘The Graduate’ (Mike Nichols, 1967)
Emma Seligman: From short to feature, this remained the most important reference for Shiva Baby for many reasons. The most obvious being that both movies share the universal theme of post-grad anxiety and not knowing what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. In my senior thesis class, my professor Yemane Demissie showed us a moment from the beginning of the film, a long take of Dustin Hoffman’s face in close up as he is being accosted by various people asking him about his future. It’s claustrophobic and shaky and Yemane advised me to consider this when short-listing my short.
I revisited the film when I was writing and developing the look of the feature. Studying it a little more, I found that there is so much dramatic irony used in the frame, where for instance, Anne Bancroft is close up in the foreground while Dustin Hoffman is out of focus in the background, lying to her husband about what they just did together. Since we had limited space and a tight schedule on Shiva, my DP, Maria Rusche, and I tried to use similar long takes to capture entire scenes so the schedule wouldn’t become burdened with extra coverage.
By the time we were shooting, the two of us had developed a shorthand where we’d label many shots as either The Graduate, Opening Night or Black Swan. I think we used The Graduate the most.
‘Krisha’ (Trey Edward Schults, 2015)
ES: After writing countless drafts of Shiva Baby, the feature, I decided to watch films that took place in one location over one day or a few days. Most of them were family dramas like Rachel Getting Married or August Osage County. The only one on my list that I hadn’t seen before was Krisha, which ended up becoming the most important stylistic reference for Shiva Baby, from beginning to end.
It set the anxious tone established in Shiva’s script, cinematography, edit, music, etc. Trey Edward Shults is a master at creating tension in a creatively constricted setting. Through his use of dramatic irony in the frame, Steadicam long takes, the colour red, the small physical moments of Krisha cutting vegetables and then her finger, etc., he is able to build so much stress that by the time she knocks the turkey to the ground, you nearly jump out of your seat. I tried (somewhat shamelessly) to create my own versions of these moments in Shiva, like when Danielle cuts her leg, eats bagels, puts food on her plate, knocks over a vase, kisses siddurs, etc.
I showed scenes from Krisha to every department head on Shiva, including our composer, Ariel Marx. When she asked me to send her references, this was the only film score that I could think of. Everything else was Yiddish Klezmer music.
‘It Felt Like Love’ (Eliza Hittman, 2013)
ES: I was fortunate enough to be taught by the incredible Eliza Hittman when she was an adjunct professor at NYU for one semester. Her directorial debut, It Felt Like Love, remains to be the most honest and disturbing portrayal of female sexual insecurities I’ve ever watched on screen. Though the protagonist, Lila, is 14-years-old and Danielle is 22, they are both deeply insecure lead female characters craving male validation in a damaging way. Lila is at the beginning of that journey and Danielle is at the point when you begin to realise how hollow that validation is.
I included this on a list of films I asked Rachel Sennott to watch before shooting. It was an odd assortment of sexual coming of age/insecurity/addiction movies that also included Palo Alto, Fish Tank and Shame.
‘Kissing Jessica Stein’ (Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, 2001) and ‘Keeping the Faith’ (Edward Norton, 2001)
ES: I saw both Kissing Jessica Stein and Keeping the Faith when I was six. Until Transparent was created in 2014, I didn’t see any other critically or commercially successful representations of modern reform Jews like my family screen. From my viewership experience, a lot of Jewish characters are either atheist/agnostic like in Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm or Woody Allen movies, where Judaism isn’t a huge part of their worlds. Or on the opposing end, they’re orthodox Jews, like in Disobedience or Unorthodox or in period pieces like Yentl or Fiddler on the Roof.
I don’t think I realised this as a kid but these two romantic comedies meant a lot to me and had a lasting impact. I related to the way Judaism significantly painted the settings of these films without informing the plot. They authentically represented how present Judaism is in the lives of reform Jews in a way I still rarely see in films and television. More importantly though, Kissing Jessica Stein and Keeping the Faith are both hilarious films that contain the perfect amount of schmaltzy while also having nuanced and endearing performances. I thought about these movies a lot when I first started writing Shiva Baby.
Watch ‘Shiva Baby’ now with Mubi 30 Days free.