The latest Mubi release Shiva Baby revolves around one of the days of the week-long ritual mourning period in Judaism. The day goes badly for Danielle (Rachel Sennott), who meets her ex-girlfriend and her older lover and his wife at the shiva. The critically acclaimed comedy is based on 26-year-old director Emma Seligman’s own experiences and is expanded from her 2018 short film of the same name.
Seligman spoke to Scroll.in about the movie’s themes of bisexuality and cultural conflicts. The filmmaker will be reuniting with Rachel Sennott for a project and adapting Shiva Baby into a series, she said.
There are many elements to Danielle’s angst colliding in one space. What was the starting point for the story?
So much of it came from me and my life. I always wanted to set something at a Jewish family function, especially as I wanted my first film to feel easy for me in terms of writing dialogue, and a Jewish family event was an environment I could write more easily. I find shivas funny and liked the inherent contrast of making humour out of sad occasions and tragedy. At shivas it’s particularly interesting to see people laughing and the vibe not changing in spite of it being an occasion for mourning.
Are the characters based on your family members?
None of them are direct depictions of family members but loose inspirations or amalgamations. But a lot of the lines said to Danielle, by characters other than her parents, are lines I heard at these events and wrote down word for word over the course of many years.
What did you do to expand the short into a feature?
I knew I had to add a chorus of other characters who represented different aspects, especially Maya, Danielle’s ex, and Kim, Max’s wife, and their relationship. I also added more fun moments, and the ultimate element that allowed it to expand was to make Danielle’s anxiety so horrible that she might have a nervous breakdown.
I also had to find the right tone. When you expand something so small into a feature, and it takes place in one day, in one location, it takes some trial and error to figure out what the right tone is to sustain a story within such a constructed space.
Danielle has a lot going on for one day: encountering her ex girlfriend, fending off the curiosity of nosy aunties, her unscripted future, vague degree, her sugar daddy and his family.
We had to figure out a balance of the cacophony and the characters.
Danielle is always searching for and holding onto power, as much as she has left. If she gets it from Maya, she holds on to it but gives it away to Max and then tries to regain it. That allowed us to figure out the flow of all of the chaos that was happening.
What did it take to create the claustrophobia and capture Danielle’s anxiety?
I looked at a lot of thriller films, particularly Krisha (2015) and Opening Night (1977). I wanted to make sure the script was airtight, with no space for Danielle to breathe. When we got to the house, then we looked at setting each scene in the right room because some rooms felt more claustrophobic than others. We achieved these feelings mostly through cinematography, editing and music.
Our cinematographer Maria Rusche suggested using anamorphic lenses, which made the walls feel like they were caving in on Danielle slightly, but not so distorted that it didn’t feel real. She also used zooms and other good stuff. In the edit, Hannah Park just sucked the air out of the movie. All the dialogues overlapped and all the ‘umms’ and ‘aahs’ were taken out – like there was no moment of pause. In terms of colouring, we wanted to go from sort of normal to deep hell – that is, deep red. The music created that horror genre feel.
The use of a horror-oriented score for a comedy effectively build up suspense and tension.
Throughout, I was really worried that no one was going to be interested in staying in the house. I kept saying we need to push the anxiety and understand her anxiety underneath the voices and comedy.
Initially I didn’t want a score, but I began to realise its merits as we went along. I wanted something closer to Yiddish Klezmer music but it had to be anxious, anxious, anxious. Ariel Marx sent me some references and what I picked turned out to be a horror score, even though I am not a big horror movie person.
Danielle says that sex gives her power and validation. At the same time, the script is very casual about her bisexuality as well as having a sugar daddy. Plus there’s her Jewish identity. Are all of these your identities as well?
Yes, these are the identities that I hold. I was not a sugar baby though, but I did try it and many of my friends did. It was a big part of the culture of women and gay men at NYU. I could put a lot of my insecurities about validation into Danielle.
My friends and I felt quite invalidated by hook-up culture at college, by the dehumanisation of our bodies being used without getting validation from people we wanted to date. Part of what made sugaring so appealing is the element of consistency, that guarantee that someone was going to be attracted to you was very appealing because no one in my community was dating. However, I wanted to be careful and considerate when handling the sex work identity and not make it seem like its awesome or that she loves it, nor paint it as an awful career which she dreads.
Is sexual identification important to you?
It is, for sure. When it fits and feels authentic it is wonderful to have authentic representation, especially of bisexual characters because we really don’t have many examples of positive and nuanced characters in popular entertainment.
Which films or shows have achieved this authenticity?
Lots of them are sad, though authentic. I love The Miseducation of Cameron Post. It was so clear to me that the character in Call Me By Your Name was bisexual. Queer representation has covered a lot more ground on TV, especially with bisexuality, sexual fluidity and gender fluidity. Look at Pose, Schitt’s Creek and Transparent.
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