TIFF 2020 Women Directors: Meet Emma Seligman – “Shiva Baby”

Emma Seligman is a Canadian filmmaker based in New York. She graduated from NYU’s Undergraduate Film & TV program in May 2017, where she made her first two short films, including her thesis, “Shiva Baby,” which premiered at South by Southwest Film Festival 2018, went on to play at Woodstock Film Festival, and Palm Springs ShortFest and is now a Vimeo Staff Pick. She then expanded it into a feature film.

The feature version of “Shiva Baby” will screen at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, which is taking place September 10-20.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

ES: “Shiva Baby” is about a young woman who has to confront different versions of herself when she runs into her ex-girlfriend and her sugar daddy at a family shiva. Taking place in a day, the story is an anxiety pressure cooker that forces Danielle to confront all her worst insecurities without completely self-combusting.

To me, it’s about a young bisexual woman reckoning with her family, tradition, and independence. More importantly though, it is about that bitter realization many young women have when they realize that their sexual power isn’t as far-reaching as they thought and that their self-esteem can’t be entirely fulfilled by sexual validation.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

ES: I made the short film this feature is based on when I was 21 and channeled a lot of my anxieties about my future and my feeling of powerlessness as a young woman into this story. For my final project in film school, I was encouraged by my professor to write something that I knew and I felt that I knew shivas and sugar babies quite well.

In college, sugar babies made up a huge part of my community, and growing up, I always found shivas to be the most humorous family events. Despite the fact that someone had just died, people still ate bagels, complained, showed off their children, and crossed boundaries. I always loved that contrast and thought a shiva would be a perfectly anxious and hilarious setting for an insecure young woman to lose her mind in.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

ES: For many young women, trying to be nice girls with secure careers ahead of them while also trying to be independent and have liberated sexualities can be insanity-inducing.

I hope young women are able to watch this and feel seen in their insecurities and recognized for putting up with the contradicting and suffocating pressures put upon them. I hope they are able to find some humor and relief in this story.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

ES: Besides financing, which seems impossible for every low budget film, our biggest challenge was scheduling all the incredible actors we got. We were so lucky that we got to work with such an amazing ensemble cast but they all had varying crazy-busy schedules.

Since the movie takes place in a day, we had a lot of long scenes and we often had to shoot a scene over the course of four different days with weeks in between. This means our actors often had to perform to a wall — or on good days, a PA.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made. 

ES: After a year of my producers and I getting turned down by many production companies, we reached out to every non-film person and pitched them the opportunity to be an investor. My filmmaker friend Amanda Kramer introduced me to Rhianon Jones from Neon Heart Productions, who focuses on supporting independent female filmmakers. Once Rhianon became an executive producer on the movie, we were able to get more people on board.

The majority of financing ended up coming from a collection of small investments from various people connected to members of our team. Besides Rhianon, no one had ever invested in film before. We tried to target people who supported the arts and generally didn’t find success with anyone who didn’t already have a love for film.

The most helpful part of financing the film was writing it to take place in one day at one location, so that we could shoot it for under $250K.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

ES: My parents are huge movie buffs and raised me to want to become a film critic. I’m also incredibly lucky that I come from Toronto, which is a huge film-loving city. I grew up going to TIFF and was a juror for their kids film festival, Sprockets, when I was nine.

In high school, I was part of TIFF Next Wave, a high school committee that runs different events and an amazing festival to get teenagers involved with TIFF and film. There, I met many filmmakers, including some female filmmakers. I always loved writing, but TIFF Next Wave allowed me to see myself directing, too.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

ES: The best advice I received was to be shameless when it comes to reaching out to people and pitching yourself. That was incredibly helpful for me to remember when we were raising the financing for the film.

The worst advice I’ve gotten and tried not to take is to wait till the timing is right for you as a filmmaker, or until you’ve gained more experience, before you make a feature.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

ES: The advice that I try to tell myself whenever I have to pitch anything, and would say to other filmmakers as well, is to try to have the same amount of confidence that my male peers have when they walk into a room.

I’m actively trying not to second guess myself when I naturally always worry that I’ll come off as overconfident or cocky.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

ES: This changes quite a bit. Last summer I would have said Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” but my answer to this question is often Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto.” I’ve never seen a film so accurately portray the suffocating and debilitating nature of young female insecurities. I saw the film when I was 18 and had such a visceral reaction to the self-consciousness and relatability of the female characters.

I rewatched “Palo Alto” a few times while developing and preparing to make “Shiva Baby.”

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

ES: We finished a rushed and intense post-production process on our movie the day we found out SXSW was cancelled and we wouldn’t be premiering there. Since this past year-and-a-half has been so incredible but also exhausting, I’ve been taking this opportunity to pause and refuel. However, since I’m living back with my parents, I also feel like I’m trapped back in my movie.

The best ways I’ve been able to stay creative are through collaborations with other writers. I find the process of setting goals and meetings has been good for accountability and also allows me to connect with my friends at a time when we all feel disconnected.

W&H: Recent protests in the U.S. and abroad have highlighted racism and anti-Black police brutality. The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

ES: I think there are changes that must be made at every level of the industry that are individual, systematic, creative, and educational. Producers, directors, and department heads need to be going out of their way to make sure their crews have better BIPOC representation behind the camera and need to be held accountable by a Reframe-like initiative that assesses the diversity of each set.

More than anything else, film schools need to be making more of an effort to have a bigger BIPOC student population. I am incredibly privileged to have had a wonderful film education and realize that most aspiring filmmakers do not have that financial opportunity. Film school is so important to introduce filmmakers to each other and give each other the connections to get on set that will last throughout our careers.

Additionally, I think producers and studios need to make more of a concerted effort to look for and seek out BIPOC voices and stories and take greater “risks” on individuals who may not have had the privilege of going to film school or the ability to afford making short films, etc.

September 13, 2020
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