How the Director of 'Shiva Baby' Dealt With Rotting Lox to Make a Brilliant Comedy
The dark comedy is out now on VOD.
One of the biggest challenges first-time feature director Emma Seligman faced on the set of her hilariously tense debut Shiva Baby, now out on VOD and in theaters, was olfactory. The movie takes place almost entirely at a shiva, the traditional gathering following a Jewish funeral, where the protagonist Danielle (Rachel Sennott) runs into her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari) and her ex (Molly Gordon) while fending off nosy questions from her parents (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper) and their friends. As with any large Jewish event, there is a giant spread of delicacies: rugelach, bagels, cream cheese, lox, egg salad, tuna fish. And when you're shooting multiple takes it's a sensory nightmare. "The smell of lox is disgusting when it's been sitting around forever," Seligman explains. "I think the audience forgets that. I was like, 'you know it has to be tuna salad, egg salad, and smoked salmon.' Three of the worst foods to have sitting around."
The buffet, however, was crucial to Seligman's vision for this intense comedy built on deeply uncomfortable interactions. "My experience at family events is finding my way back to a buffet when I feel awkward," Seligman says. Not only that, but the chorus of yentas continually comments on Danielle's appearance, making her presence near food another looming menace. Every interaction on screen in Shiva Baby is fraught—and that's just the way Seligman wanted it.
An expansion of a short Seligman made while she was still at NYU, Shiva Baby opens with Danielle having just finished a tryst with Max, who thinks he's helping her pay for law school. (He's not. She's still an undergrad with very murky ideas of what she wants out of life. Something to do with feminism and media.) She's summoned to Westchester by her parents to pay her respects to a now-deceased elderly acquaintance. First, she runs into her high school girlfriend, who is actually in law school, and then she locks eyes with Max, who, it turns out, knows her father.
Bits and pieces of the story were taken from Seligman's life. She herself grew up in a Reform Ashkenazi Jewish community in Toronto, and briefly experimented with sugaring. "Shivas always felt like there was inherent contrast in them because the conversation topics stayed the exact same as they were at a bris or a bat mitzvah or Rosh Hashanah, even though someone has just died," she says. "I always thought that was funny in a dark, morbid way, and then I was like, 'Oh, it was funny if there was a sugar daddy there.' And that would be even more of a contrast, having sex and death together."
In shaping the character of Danielle for the feature, Seligman dug deep into her own insecurities and neuroses, looking back on her not-so-distant end-of-college anxieties. (Seligman is still only 25.) "I started really psychoanalyzing that time in my life, almost to an unhealthy degree, where I was like, I just want to move on from that traumatic time," she says. But it was crucial to drawing out the ways in which young women are forced to confront different versions of themselves depending on the circumstances.
Shiva Baby, in its own strange way, also operates sort of as a romantic comedy as Danielle and her ex Maya rekindle their connection through barbs lobbed at one another. Seligman revisited (Jewish-themed) rom-coms like Kissing Jessica Stein, Crossing Delancey, and Keeping the Faith in prep, but then tried not to shoot her version in the typical styles of the genre. Instead, sometimes Seligman's film feels more like it's taking cues from horror, with busybodies waiting around every turn to pounce.
It helps that she shot on location in a house in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, which Seligman reconstructed, not to scale, in Legos to prep how the camera would move around the space. "It became a lot about how to build these moments as Danielle's panic attack, nervous breakdown vibes are getting worse and worse," she says.
So how did they figure out the lox situation? It was another delicate balance. As soon as a scene was finished shooting, the offending food items would go back in the fridge. And for the moment Sennott had to take a bite, one side of her bagel was adorned with fresh lox and the other with a slice that had been exposed to the elements. "It's not a cheap food to keep getting stocks of, so we had to be strategic in that way too," Seligman says.