Emma Seligman’s “Shiva Baby” Is Bisexual Chaos Incarnate

The out filmmaker reflects on her heartfelt, hilariously awkward feature debut.

Shiva Baby is the feature debut from writer-director Emma Seligman, but you wouldn’t know it by how deftly the film wrestles with tired stereotypes about bisexuality.

Birthed from a short film Seligman made as a student at New York University, Shiva Baby follows Danielle (played by Rachel Sennott), a directionless college graduate-turned-sugar baby who is confused about everything except her sexual orientation. Dragged to a shiva by her neurotic Jewish parents, Danielle runs into Maya (Molly Gordon), her overachieving ex-girlfriend. As if that weren’t awkward enough, she has another unexpected run-in with Max (Danny Deferrari), her sugar daddy — and the wife and baby she didn’t know he had. The feature-length version of Shiva Baby premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival and has already garnered widespread praise.
 

NewNowNext caught up with Seligman ahead of the film’s release today (April 2) to chat about being bisexual and Jewish, tackling sex work as a writer-director, and Shiva Baby’s conception, bisexual chaos and all.

Tell me a bit about the inspiration for the story.

I made it in as a short film in college at NYU. I just wanted to make something small that I could get done, and I chose a Shiva because I thought out of all my Jewish family events, they were the funniest in their contrasts. I felt like people still spoke as if it was any other holiday, even though someone had just died. And there were a lot of sugar babies at NYU. I was coming to a point in my life where my sex life and my family life were butting heads, all of these pressures to have a career and be stable, and then the rest of the world — being an independent, sexy young woman who doesn’t care about anything at all — but you’re still relying on your parents. The short was only seven minutes, so when I got to make it a feature, I got to expand on all these things that I felt like I couldn’t do with the short.

I feel like there are so few films about bisexual women, let alone bisexual Jewish women. Was that something you had in mind when you wrote the script?

Yeah. I wanted Maya in the short and it didn’t work out. So I was like, “Okay, well, I’m going to make it work in the feature.” I knew I could make Maya a part of the story in this way where it’s on Danielle’s journey and it’s an obstacle, but also a sort of saving grace at the end. It was really important to me. I just kept feeling like, “No, I really want to make sure it’s clear that Danielle is bi.” And she is so confused in a million ways — the world is sending her all these confusing messages. Beyond anything, I just wanted to make a comedy with a positive representation of bisexuality.

Emma McIntyre
Emma Seligman.

I loved that Shiva Baby isn’t a coming-out story. Danielle’s bisexuality causes her some strife, but it isn’t a core conflict in the film. Was that intentional?

Yeah. I mean, I’m getting sick of those stories too, even if they are positive. I’m not against them. People do have different or hesitant coming-out stories, but I feel lucky that mine wasn’t that hard. The hardest part for me wasn’t coming out as bisexual; it was then teaching my parents what bisexuality was and having them understand it and not pass it off as experimenting. … My mom and dad were very supportive of me, and I know that it’s not that way for a lot of people, but I feel like when I watched movies and TV growing up, I was like, “I don’t think I’m going to come out because from what I’ve seen, it seems like everyone’s always mad when you do it.” So I didn’t want [Shiva Baby] to be a coming-out story. I wanted Danielle’s bisexuality to be part of her character because to me, those are my favorite kinds of LGBTQ representation — like Dan Levy in Schitt’s Creek.

There’s this really earnest moment in the film where Danielle claps back at her mom for writing off her bisexuality as “experimenting,” and that really resonated with me. Why did you include that exchange?

It’s happened to me a few times. Now, I finally feel like my mom gets it, and my dad is trying so hard to understand. When you’re a woman or a femme who is bi, it’s always, “Oh — well, you’re just experimenting,” or, “You’re being promiscuous.” But if you’re a guy who’s bi, it’s always, “Well, then you’re really just gay.” I don’t know what that is, but I think that promiscuity is something that parents can understand. Because in their minds — or in maybe the world’s minds — if you have any sort of fluidity, whether it’s gender or sex, they just want to put it in boxes. If you’re gay, you were born that way; if you’re bi, it’s a choice.

That is so real, oh my god.

In that sort of vein, I wanted to portray the way that I think a lot of liberal, middle-aged people — specifically liberal Jews, for me — act. I feel like Jews are always like, “Of course, we’re liberal. We love the gays!” And then it’s your kid who’s bi, and they’re like, “Wait, what? No. I don’t get this.” I just wanted to show that it’s not always like [middle-aged Jewish people] are angels who support everything. They’re still a generation above us and need to understand and listen.

From left: Molly Gordon and Rachel Sennott in Shiva Baby.

At first, Maya is very judgmental of Danielle for being a sugar baby, but her attitude changes after she lets Danielle explain why she does it. How did you approach writing about sex work?

I feel like I was walking this middle line where I didn’t want Maya to be like, “I love it!” or treat Danielle like a girl boss, getting that money and getting sex, because [sex work] is hard. It’s still a job, and honestly, I think it’s the hardest job in the world. But I still wanted it to be clear that this is Danielle’s choice, and that there is something she gets from this and enjoys about it. I wanted to give her the chance to make that clear to the audience, but I also didn’t want to have her explaining herself. I mean, she does end up having to explain it to Maya, but I hope that I created this box where it was not her having a dramatic monologue about sex work. I was aiming for this more intimate moment where she’s just sort of saying where it comes from.

Danielle and Maya have such an interesting dynamic. That whole “high school ex who you can’t avoid whenever you’re in your hometown” is totally a thing. Can you tell me more about developing Maya’s character?

I wanted to include someone who was going to be a representation of all the things that Danielle wasn’t in the stereotypical Jewish setting. I didn’t want her to be a stereotype, but she’s got her life figured out. She’s a schmoozer. She’s adored by the middle-aged Jewish women, she’s charming, and she feels comfortable in this setting, and Danielle does not. I think the trickiest part about not just her, but their dynamic, was establishing all this history without it being like, “Remember when we dated? Remember when we were best friends in high school, wink wink?” It really came down to Molly [Gordon] and Rachel [Sennott] figuring it out with me.

Do you have any advice for other young queer women pursuing a career in film?

I feel like for any filmmaker, but especially the more othered you feel, you have to act like a straight man. You just have to. … Especially when it’s your first film, you have to really rely on yourself and your peers and the people who are helping you make this happen — the people who care about it, whether it be your producers or your actors or whoever you’re bringing into the mix with you. So, yeah. I guess just get comfortable being rejected, and then believe in yourself. No one’s going to give it to you, which sucks. Rely on yourself to do it.

Shiva Baby is out now in select U.S. theaters and on VOD.

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.
@_sammanzella