Canadian filmmaker Emma Seligman explores sex, death, identity and comedy in ‘Shiva Baby’ at TIFF

Elisabetta Bianchini
·6 min read
Rachel Sennott as Danielle in 'Shiva Baby' (Courtesy of TIFF)

If there’s one filmmaker from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to keep an eye on it’s Toronto-raised Emma Seligman, who brought her witty, compelling coming-of-age feature Shiva Baby to this year’s festival.

The film follows a soon-to-be college graduate, Danielle (Rachel Sennott), who makes money as a sugar baby and ends up seeing her sugar daddy Max (Danny Defarrari), with his wife (Dianna Agron) and baby, when she goes to a shiva with her parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed). This happens while Danielle’s also being poked, prodded and questioned by relatives about her plans after graduation (or lack of plans), her weight and her love life, all while ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) is in attendance and praised for getting into law school.

Needless to say, this is an anxiety-inducing event for Danielle to navigate, something that Seligman described to Yahoo Canada as “an anxiety pressure cooker.”

Shiva Baby was initially a short film that Seligman started in film school at New York University (NYU) when her professor told her to write something in a world that she understood. She immediately thought of doing, something from her perspective, at a reformed Ashkenazi Jewish family function.

“I think that shivas are inherently just such funny and interesting settings to me,” Seligman said. “I find that even though someone has just died, the conversation topics stay the same as other family functions and they're just as nosy and uncomfortable and funny...asking about weight and your love life and bragging about children and grandchildren.”

The sugar baby component of the story stems from her experience with the culture while she was a student in New York.

“I went to school with a lot of sugar babies and sugar baby culture was a huge part of going to school in New York, and I know that it's also prominent on campuses like [University of Toronto] and in other cities,” Seligman said. “I just wanted to make something that allowed a young woman to be confronted with all of her anxieties and insecurities in one place as a sort of cathartic writing experience for me.”

As the filmmaker transitioned from the short to the feature film, Danielle’s sexuality is something Seligman wanted to explore further, particularly adding the ex-girlfriend character.

“I want to show that Danielle’s queerness and bisexuality is another thing that sort of isolates her within the community,” she explained. “But also to have a perfect foil character that's the stereotypically perfect Jewish girl going to law school and who has a career ahead of her.”

Fred Melamed, Rachel Sennott and Polly Draper in 'Shiva Baby' (Courtesy of TIFF)
Fred Melamed, Rachel Sennott and Polly Draper in 'Shiva Baby' (Courtesy of TIFF)

‘I was feeling a lot of contradicting pressures’

The way Shiva Baby navigates the balance between emotional moments its comedic, dynamic energy is a testament to the filmmaker’s inherent understanding of this world and her expert ability to translate that on the screen in a relatable. The pace of the incredibly entertaining film, with Sennott’s captivating performance as the lead character on the verge of a nervous breakdown, makes this a story that you don’t want to end.

“I felt like I was feeling a lot of contradicting pressures at the time when I made the short and I just sort of wanted to put all of that in one story and hope that other young women felt seen,” Seligman said. “I just hope that young women are able to see that and feel a little relieved or entertained by seeing that on screen.”

She went on to say that as she transitioned from writing to directing Shiva Baby, Seligman did have to re-navigate her initial experiences and how she overcame some of these personal moments.

“I think the only thing that I had difficulty in sort of getting at, personally, was Danielle's arc...figuring out her self worth and figuring out how to accept herself and love herself,” Seligman said. “That was something I felt was difficult for me in college and when I made the short, it kind of vomited out of me.”

“When I made the feature it was sort of like I was doing a psychological sort of review of where I was at 10 years ago. It was a little harder to connect to where that was because I felt like I'd grown past it… When you're directing it you're like, what did this feel like? How did I get through this again?”

Dianna Agron and Danny Defarrari in 'Shiva Baby' (Courtesy of TIFF)
Dianna Agron and Danny Defarrari in 'Shiva Baby' (Courtesy of TIFF)

‘I'm coming back to the festival that totally made me want to be a filmmaker’

The Shiva Baby feature was initially set to premiere at SXSW in March, with Seligman and her team finishing the film less than an hour before finding out the festival would be cancelled due to COVID-19 concern. Despite the setback, the filmmaker is excited to see the film premiere with her hometown audience, even with the hybrid virtual/limited in-person film screening format at TIFF.

Now based in New York, Seligman attributes her desire to be a filmmaker largely to her experience at TIFF growing up, being a Sprockets juror as a kid, now called the TIFF Kids International Film Festival, and joining the festival’s Next Wave committee in high school.

“This feels very warm and sweet, and full circle,” Seligman said. “I feel like I'm coming back to the festival that totally made me want to be a filmmaker so I feel really excited to be able to have its first big screening at a festival be for a Toronto audience.”

As entertaining and thoughtful as Shiva Baby is, Seligman admits that she was nervous to work with the actors in the film initially.

“I just tried to remind myself that I knew this film better than they did and that they needed me to help guide them through their characters and performances,” she said.

For her first feature film, after pitching the movie to a number of producers, Seligman and her team, including producers Kieran Altmann and Katie Schiller who were all friends in film school, raised the money to make this movie independently.

“We did have some people who were like, we'll give you the rest of your financing if we can control XYZ and not really feeling like they could trust me and my filmmaking abilities to pick the team that I wanted and whatnot,” Seligman explained.

She added that for any aspiring filmmakers, they should be “shameless” in asking people for money and should be prepared to think outside of the box when it comes to getting people’s support.

“I think a lot of people, as they should, look to grants and production companies to help you get it off the ground, like very established places,” Seligman said. “But I think that there's something to be said for just sort of going ahead and doing it and kind of figure it out on your own.”

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) takes place from Sept. 10 to Sept. 19. Information on screenings and tickets at tiff.net.