The dark comedy Shiva Baby (2020), tells the story of Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a bisexual woman and sugar baby. Accompanying her parents to a day-long shiva, a series of awkward and embarrassing encounters befall her. Struggling with her insecurities of self-worth, she’s surprised to see her old flame Maya (Molly Gordon), who with her future mapped out, becomes the measuring stick of the perfect young woman. The day worsens when she must spend time with her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrar), his successful and wealthy entrepreneur wife Kim (Dianna Agron), and their baby.
Emma Seligman’s feature debut is based on her 2018 short film of the same name, which premiered at SXSW and screened at the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival. The short and feature continue themes of female sexuality expressed in her earlier short film, Void (2017), about a teenage girl whose attraction to a boy in her class is complicated by her addiction to pornography.
Seligman talks with PopMatters about the influence of film and theater director Elia Kazan, her interest in sexual and non-sexual transactional relationships, and how as a young woman, power is sometimes found in “sexual validation”.
Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Both of my parents are big film buffs, but they’re not in the industry. I grew up in Toronto, which hosts TIFF [The Toronto International Film Festival]. They’ve great programmes for kids and teenagers, and so I grew up with film being a big part of my world.
I wanted to be a film critic for a long time. In high school I started directing theatre. I enjoyed working with actors and I took the plunge to try to direct a film when I applied for university. It was the decision whether I wanted to go to film school or not.
Film was always in my life, but never actual filmmaking.
Have your experiences directing theatre in high school influenced your tone or methods of expression in your films?
Directing theatre in high school allowed me to focus on performance and actors, slowing the moment down and focusing on each beat. In Shiva Baby, I chose one location for one day, which is a setting that works well for theatre but not so well in film. I chose this one location so we’d need a smaller budget, but it did help me draw on my theatre background.
It’s very cliché, but in my high school we learned about Elia Kazan, the Method, and the Group Theatre. We watched his films that were based on plays, like A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). I learned that he went from being an actor to wanting to be a stage director to then being a film director. I found that path inspiring, so I tried to look at the way he did it at every stage. His work has influenced me, as it has for many filmmakers.
In a scene toward the end of Shiva Baby, there’s a joke about an elderly woman who has had her driver’s licence revoked but still insists on driving home. Your approach to creating a humorous moment that we hear, but don’t see, shows an appreciation for nuanced beats of humour.
If I were to describe Shiva Baby’s comedy, it’s not trying to make people laugh out loud, but provoke a smile and a chuckle.
Less is more and subtlety is key. There’s a time and a place for certain jokes, or to see a certain joke played out visually. It’s always what is the scene about, or what’s happening? What’s going to be a distraction and also what’s the tone of the movie? This is a comedy, but it isn’t a laugh-out-loud comedy, so it made sense to see certain things and not others.
I’ve had the fortune of seeing it twice now with a very small audience. It wasn’t more than thirty people, tops. When the film came out in theatres in the States, I went to see it with Molly [Gordon, who plays Maya] and Rachel [Sennott, who plays Danielle. I wasn’t going to watch the movie, I was going to watch the audience. You’re right, it was a lot of chuckles and sniggers, which I’ve gotten used to.
In our test screenings, I showed it to friends to get their feedback while we were still editing. I was so worried as I was watching it, thinking, ‘Is it not funny? They’re not laughing.’ Everyone told me it was very funny, and I said to them, “That’s so weird, because none of you were laughing.” It’s the way people are responding to it that makes me happy. I also know some people are anxious when they’re watching it, and it’s hard to disturb that feeling with laughter.
You’re a female director, your first short was about a girl who’s obsessed with pornography, and in Shiva Baby your lead character is a sex worker. What image of femininity are you trying to depict in your work, and what do you want to contribute to the discussion of female representation in cinema?
With my first short and then with Shiva Baby, and in other work I’ll do in the future, I’m not trying to make any statements. It’s writing what you know. When I was in college there was the unfortunate feeling of having no power as a young woman. The only power you felt you had was your sexual validation or your “sexual power”.
Void is about what porn can do to your mind when you have a crush on someone–how it can make that crush become this weird hyper-obsession where you just want your body validated. Then with Shiva Baby, during this one day, it’s about her downfall when she realises that her power is limited. She’s hollow and she doesn’t have self-worth underneath that.
This is not a statement on all sex work by any means, or all sugar babies, or anyone that watches porn. These are huge topics, and I’m talking about one specific feeling you can have toward these when, as a young woman, you feel insecure. This is, unfortunately, common.
Sex can be extremely empowering and watching porn as a woman when we’re told not to can also be empowering. It can be many things. These are only two specific stories where there’s a lot of negativity in the characters.
It’s a common experience to feel powerless, whether in an educational or work setting, or with family and friends. Social interactions are built on power dynamics, and should Danielle have followed Maya’s path, she’d still feel insecure and powerless. The sex work, the career path are superficial–the real problems lie beneath these. We should be especially cautious about negatively labelling sexual lifestyles and expression, because life and human nature is too complicated for a black and white label.
Nothing’s black and white, and when you’re at that age where you’re approaching graduation, you’re trying to think about what’s the best thing to do. Unfortunately, I saw things simplistically as either good or bad, right or wrong.
Molly, Rachel, and I talked about what each of them have that the other person doesn’t. We spoke about what they’re jealous of and insecure about within each other, because women especially, we’re constantly jealous of each other. You want something that you know someone else has because you think it’ll solve your insecurities, or it’ll make you feel better.
You’re right, you can’t win when you’re putting everything on one thing, and you’re not able to create nuance. This comes with getting older and appreciating the complexities.
Director Christopher MacBride, of Flashback (2020), told me, “…society has created a shared agreement of how we will perceive the world. Once you’re born, you’re forced into perceiving it in the same way others have before us, beginning with your parents.” One of the themes of Shiva Baby is a tendency to project guilt and shame onto others. The guilt and shame Danielle feels is partly a projection of the fears of those around her.
Danielle does have shame and guilt, but it doesn’t have anything to do with sex work. When she sees Kim, it’s not the getting paid for sex that makes her feel guilty, it’s understanding that Max is married, and this is her position and role in this other woman’s life.
Her guilt and shame is about being a fuck-up and a millennial without any plans, and not understanding what she’s doing, while also being arrogant. Not all, but a lot of young liberal, New York artsy people who go to a liberal arts school think they know everything about the world, but at that age you’re still so stupid. When you feel that afraid that you’re going to fuck-up and you’re an idiot, you project that onto other people. Danielle projects that onto her parents.
All of these people are just their to love her, they’re curious about her life, but she’s making them the villains, these leeches because she’s insecure. It’s that thing when you walk into a room and you think everyone knows. Danielle thinks everyone knows where she has come from [sex with her sugar daddy], but nobody does.
Watching the film, I thought the characters were judgemental of Danielle, but this could speak about how I emotionally connected with the character.
To a certain degree they are judgemental. I grew up in that world and I know it’s not judgemental, but it sometimes can be perceived as being extremely so. It’s a normal sign of love; it’s the language of love. Some of the other characters she’s talking to, it’s definitely judgemental. There’s a lot of comparing and bragging, so it’s not all in her head.
I spoke with Anja Marquardt recently about The Girlfriend Experience series 3 (Lodge Kerrigan, Amy Seimetz, Anja Marquardt, 2016-), and she said, “…what’s of interest is a dissection of transactional relationships, and how the broader world we all live in has a lot of transactionality to it.”
The introduction of Danielle with her sugar daddy, Max, is important because it introduces the idea of transactional relationships. The story then spirals outward to look at how the relationships of Danielle’s parents, her family, and friends have a transactional dimension.
I’m thinking of Max and Kim. It’s transactional both ways, but her transaction is she values more what she’s giving to him. She’s the money and the power giver, the person who is controlling the situation. For Danielle with her parents, she’s definitely on the opposite end.
You can’t help but have your parents remind you that they’re paying for your life, especially when you’re getting bratty, or you think you’re independent. My parents over the years reminded me of that. Sometimes it feels like Jewish guilt, or just guilt in general. You don’t have to be Jewish to be reminded that [your parents] are paying for you, so you should go to this thing, or you should do what they say.
This is a transactional relationship, and not every kid has that with their parents because many kids are off on their own. Their parents can’t afford to pay for them, or for college. For Danielle, it’s definitely a transactional relationship.
I wanted to have a sugar baby/sugar daddy relationship because so much of feeling insecure and having no self-worth is based on the transactions we have in our life. Much of the college dating life, at least in the States, is a hook-up culture. It feels even more transactional to me than a literal transaction because sometimes there’s less of a connection. The transactional nature of a lot of different relationships was important to me.
Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, where it changes you as a person? If so, does this position the creative process as a transactional relationship?
It’s transformational because this was from a short to a feature. I was 21and in college when I started writing the short film [Shiva Baby], and the movie is coming out when I’m 26. It has been a while and I feel that when it was released, it was shedding the last five years off my body in a way that I didn’t expect. It definitely feels like a transformation.
You put all your energy and time into this one thing, and to a certain degree it’s transactional because you are now giving the world your movie. They’re giving you their love or criticism, and that will affect the rest of your career. I want people to like it, to write good reviews and tell their friends about it, but they want to be entertained. It’s transactional, but the transactional and the transformational elements are separate.
Risker, Paul. “Christopher MacBride | Flashback”. DMovies. 8 June 2021.
Risker, Paul. “Anja Marquardt’s Storytelling Scorcery in ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ S3”. PopMatters. 21 May 2021.
Shiva Baby is streaming exclusively on MUBI from 11 June 2021.