'Shiva Baby' Director Emma Seligman On Gen Z, Sexuality, & Taking On Hollywood
If you think your family functions are awkward, wait until you see Shiva Baby. In the movie, soon-to-be college graduate Danielle (comedian Rachel Sennott) has the misfortune of running into both her sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari) and her ex-girlfriend (Molly Gordon) during an uncomfortable afternoon with her loved ones. It's a smart, painfully funny meditation on sexuality, relationships, and the pressures Gen Z face. And all that's intentional, according to Shiva Baby's director, Emma Seligman.
The 25-year-old Canadian director, who first created Shiva Baby as a short film for her thesis at New York University, drew directly from her own experiences to help the movie hit close to home for viewers. Case in point: the setting, a Jewish mourning tradition called a shiva. "I thought about doing it in a Jewish family, because I felt like I understood those characters really well," Seligman tells Elite Daily. "And being in college, I wanted to make something that puts family and sex at a crossroads, because I feel like that's when you're growing up and both things are important to you at the same time."
In adapting Shiva Baby into a feature-length film, Seligman was able to explore that and much more. Ahead of Shiva Baby's April 2 release in theaters and on demand, Seligman reflects on how she brought the story to life.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Elite Daily: Are there any elements of the movie and Danielle's character that were particularly inspired by your own life?
Emma Seligman: I mean, I never ran into my sugar daddy at a shiva, but I did briefly try sugaring — it only lasted one date. Mostly, I got inspiration from all my friends who did sugaring. That community at NYU is pretty big. I was interested in the level of appeal that [sugaring had to] a young woman in terms of a sense of power or control, whether that's real or not, that attracted them to it.
And I've been to so many shivas that I felt like I understood the setup of it really well, and just family functions in general.
ED: In your view, what steps should creators take to ensure they're telling stories about sex workers authentically and responsibly?
ES: Get to know sex workers, or do your research and consult with them, depending on the type of sex work you're portraying. I think [it's important to understand] there are so many different kinds of sex workers, so many different kinds of sugar babies. I mean, sugar babies differ based off the college campus you're on.
I think what goes beyond anything [is] portraying them as real, fully formed human beings. I can't speak for sex workers and say that everyone loves it, but I think what they're lacking in representation is [there's] this negative stamp that their lives are ruined and they would rather be doing something completely different. And that they had shame or guilt around what they do, or their partners or family don't know what they do. Just from the little research I've done outside my friends, I debunked a lot of myths that sex workers are hiding in secret. A lot of them are just living their lives so boldly and freely, and don't want to be doing anything else. So more research needs to be done, and we need to be learning more from sex workers.
ED: One major element that was expanded from the Shiva Baby short film was your exploration of Danielle's sexuality. What does incorporating bisexual representation into the movie mean to you?
ES: It meant a lot to me. I'm bisexual, and I feel like I haven't seen enough bi representation on film — or at least bisexuality, pansexuality named specifically. I think sometimes it's sprinkled into a lot of female characters' lives without understanding much about it, or [they are] bisexual stories labeled as gay stories. I got to portray my sexuality, and I just wanted it to be as authentic to my experience as possible.
The character of Maya (Gordon) accomplished so much for me. It represented all the things Danielle isn't in terms of her community, as a nice Jewish girl. I also got this sense of hope and light at the end of the tunnel for Danielle [because of their relationship] that, otherwise, I don't know I would've found for her on a day that's otherwise pretty awful.
ED: What do you hope young viewers take away from this movie?
ES: Particularly [for] young viewers, I wanted to show there's contradictory pressures put on young women. I think [there's pressure] from your family or traditional, outdated forms of society, to like, find a stable career, find a future partner, adhere to these standards. And the rest of the world [pressures you to be] an independent, sexually empowered, free young woman who doesn't care what anyone thinks about you, and don't listen to anybody. Those two pressures are put on women and are completely contradictory. For me, when I was approaching college, I felt so torn between those two things. So I hope young viewers are able to watch it and feel seen, and I think Gen Z teens are probably much more aware of those pressures and rejecting them earlier in life.
ED: Speaking of Gen Z, how would you say Shiva Baby speaks to your generation?
ES: I think Maya and Danielle's relationship represents [how] my generation doesn't know how to communicate when it comes to love and dating and relationships. I feel like no one wants to be vulnerable and it's sort of a competition of who wants to care the least. So I hope my generation is able to watch it and feel recognized, but also see what can happen when you don't communicate.
ED: Have you ever had trouble being taken seriously as a young creative? If so, how did you deal with that?
ES: All the time. I think the thing that was hardest to do was assert myself as a director on set, working with these actors who are so much older than me, that had tons more experience. I just had really great friends there to remind me that everyone is there to create my vision. I think the only way to get over it is telling yourself, no matter what your gender is, [to] act as if you're older and have experience and let that filter through your body.
ED: What's next for you?
ES: I'm trying to further develop a sugar baby story into a series. And Rachel Sennott and I have been working on a script for the last four years [that's] much more campy and broad. It's sort of like Wet Hot American Summer, but it's lesbians in a fight club in high school. I think it's going to be fun. I'm crossing my fingers.
Shiva Baby is in theaters and available on demand now.