NPR’s Scott Simon talks to director Emma Seligman about her first feature film, Shiva Baby.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
“Shiva Baby” takes place in small rooms with lots of food, lots of gossip from people who know and love everything about everyone else in the room – or believe they do. Somebody died. Therefore, after all, there is a Shiva, the Jewish tradition, to mourn the loss of a loved one. But not everyone in the rooms always remembers who.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “SHIVA BABY”)
RACHEL SENNOTT: (as Danielle) I’m so sorry for your loss.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as character) Thank you.
SENNOTT: (as Danielle) Yes. It is so sad.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As a character, crying).
SENNOTT: (as Danielle) She was so full of life, you know?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as character) Yes.
SENNOTT: (as Danielle) She was so – yes.
SIMON: Shiva Baby stars Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper and Fred Melamed. Emma Seligman, the talented Canadian director, comes to us from Los Angeles. Thank you for being with us.
EMMA SELIGMAN: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: When we meet Danielle, the main character here, for the first time, she is closing a deal. And by that I don’t mean she’s an Uber driver, do I?
SELIGMAN: (Laughter) No, it isn’t. She’s a sex worker (laughter). She’s a sugar baby.
SIMON: Yeah. And we meet her former lover at Shiva in the same small rooms. They are former lovers, kind of opposite points in their life.
SELIGMAN: Yes. I think Maya, her ex-girlfriend, represents everything she doesn’t have in her traditional Jewish community, so to speak. You know, she goes to law school and she’s really good at cuddling and working a little more in space than Danielle, who is much more insecure and has to kind of fake that sound bite of what she’s doing with her life. And I think in different ways, she feels a lot more insecure with Maya than with her sugar daddy Max, whom we see at the beginning of the film.
SIMON: Well, and it begs a question. Danielle is studying gender studies. 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 (laughter) is common at that age. I think that is an age old question in feminist circles, whether or not it is empowering. I think there are many women who gain empowerment and enjoy what they do. But she’s – Danielle is 20 and scattered and very immature, and I think I’m just trying to kind of mask this kid life she has with her parents and create that kind of sexually-augmented Carrie Bradshaw vibe that I like a lot of my friends feel and i did.
SIMON: Yeah. There are – well, there are a number of piercing moments, but I think of the one when Danielle asks her mother if you’re disappointed in me.
SELIGMAN: Yes. I think a lot of young women and a lot of people, especially at this time with COVID, have no idea what they are doing. And I think we’re looking at an older generation of our parents, or maybe even our older siblings, who had much more traditional career paths that were a little more guaranteed earlier, maybe even before 2008, you know? Now there are just not guaranteed ways everywhere and everyone has to find out. And I think that’s definitely a problem.
SIMON: Yeah. I have to ask this question nowadays too. You have some non-Jewish actors playing Jews.
SELIGMAN: Mmm hmm.
SIMON: Of course Charlton Heston played Moses.
SIMON: But throw that up – people these days raise questions about authenticity.
SELIGMAN: Yes. I mean, I think the conversation is extremely important and I look forward to getting into it. In context, however, it’s important to say that Rachel Sennott, who plays Danielle, stars, she was in the short film based on what I did in college. And I really think she’s the reason the film was made. And she’s not Jewish, which I understand when people are somehow disappointed. But the film wouldn’t have happened without her.
Knowing she was going to star, I tried to have as many others – as many Jews as possible – in the film to make it feel authentic. It felt like we were in a Shiva. And everyone else is Jewish. The only other person who doesn’t is Polly. And we waited so long for a Jewish actress to play the mother, but we just went on strike. And my mother, who is of course Jewish, told me from the start that Polly Draper had to play her. And I had to tell my mom that it’s not you. It’s a character. But my mom was like Polly Draper, Polly Draper, Polly Draper. I love “30 years”.
So yes. So Polly isn’t Jewish either. And I don’t want it to sound like I was defending my choices, but I felt like authenticity is important, but I think you have to give something in certain areas. And it felt extremely worth it to Polly and Rachel.
SIMON: Yeah. Fitting in the van without giving anything away is one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen in my life.
SELIGMAN: (Laughter) Well, thank you.
SIMON: The whole drama in this van that suddenly seems too small. How do you know when to end a story? Because it occurred to me that you could carry on in this van. You want to know what happens when they’re down the street, but – you know?
SELIGMAN: I think once your protagonist has reached the opposite point where they started – and I think in a movie that takes place in one day it didn’t make sense for me to solve everything. So I think when your characters have reached a point of serious transition and are no longer the same person as they were at the beginning of the movie, whether or not they achieved their “goal” or whatever their goal is the story.
SIMON: You’re already on your next project, may I ask?
SELIGMAN: Yes, I am. And it is with Rachel Sennott too. We both started writing another feature right after finishing the short film four years ago. So yes.
SIMON: Yeah. You – how will the movie be different in the post-pandemic era?
SELIGMAN: It is becoming so much more accessible to see films, to see indie films, especially online, that would otherwise not have reached this audience. I don’t think every Gen Z girl goes to art house cinema. Especially in the pandemic, it was wild for us to watch how many bisexual teenage girls or, as you know, Jewish teenage girls, or just young women in general, found the movie and spread the word. I think we’re going to see things in theaters again, but I also think this has changed significantly for the better, allowing younger viewers to help a film a lot more than the institutions that, as you know, once did prevented the success of a film.
SIMON: Emma Seligman – your movie “Shiva Baby” is now streamed on Utopia. If I may put it that 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: Thank you for being with us.
SELIGMAN: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE BY ARIEL MARX ‘”SHIVA BABY”)
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