Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Geri Cole

Promotional poster for SHIVA BABY

For the first part of our OnWriting Pride Month series, Geri is joined by Emma Seligman, writer and director of SHIVA BABY, to discuss the challenges of writing and directing a low-budget first feature, the ways Judaism and a love of cinema have shaped her storytelling, and how the film uses anxiety and a horror soundtrack to heighten the tension and the comedy.

Emma Seligman is a Canadian filmmaker. While studying film at NYU, she made a number of short films, including “Lonewoods,” “Void,” and her thesis project, “Shiva Baby,” which had its world premiere at the 2018 South by Southwest film festival.

SHIVA BABY is the feature-length adaptation of that thesis, and Seligman’s screenwriting and directorial debut. The film follows Jewish, bisexual college senior Danielle as she—along with her family, her ex-girlfriend, and, to her shock, her sugar daddy—attends a shiva for a barely-remembered relative.

The film—which premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival and has since received widespread critical acclaim, including the Best Screenplay award at Outfest 2020—is now showing in select theaters in the US and is available to rent on most major streaming platforms.

Seasons 7-9 of OnWriting are hosted by Geri Cole, a writer and performer based in New York City. She is currently a full-time staff and interactive writer for SESAME STREET, for which she has received Writers Guild Award and two Daytime Emmys. She also performs sketch and improv at theaters and festivals around the country.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Geri Cole: You’re listening to On Writing, a podcast from the Writer’s Guild of America East. I’m your host, Geri Cole. In each episode, you’ll hear writers working in film, television, and news break down everything from the writing process to pitching, favorite jokes to key scenes, and so much more. Today, I’m thrilled to speak with Emma Seligman, writer and director of the feature film, Shiva Baby, now available to rent or buy. A dark comedy, the film follows a young bisexual woman at a Shiva as she navigates her family, her ex-girlfriend, and her sugar daddy. I spoke with Emma about the challenges of writing and directing a low-budget first feature, the ways Judaism and a love of cinema have shaped her storytelling, and how the film uses anxiety and a horror soundtrack to heighten the tension and the comedy.

First official question, how are you? How are you holding up?

Emma Seligman: I’m doing great. How are you doing?

Geri Cole: Yeah? We’re doing all right, actually. We’re very fortunate here in Brooklyn, but it’s been ups and downs through this very unique time in history.

Emma Seligman: Yeah, I hear you. I was in New York for most of my time. I’m technically part of WGA East most of my time as a young filmmaker, and then I went back to Toronto during the majority of the pandemic to live with my parents. Now, I’m in LA, so I’ve been all over the place, but-

Geri Cole: Okay, wow.

Emma Seligman: Yeah.

Geri Cole: Doing all right.

Emma Seligman: Yeah. I’m good. I’m good. I consider myself lucky, for sure.

Geri Cole: Yeah. So congratulations. This film is fantastic.

Emma Seligman: Thank you.

Geri Cole: I’m going to echo everyone else and say that I cannot believe this is your first film. How long have you been studying film, and not just in school technically, but how long do you feel like you’ve been studying film?

Emma Seligman: That’s such a good question. Both my parents are big film buffs, so I had them growing up to watch more mainstream Hollywood stuff. Then I had TIFF as well, and the Toronto Film Festival had a lot of kids’ programs and teen programs to get kids involved with film. So I was a juror on their kids’ film festival jury when I was nine, and then I was part of their incredible high school committee that the still have called TIFF Next Wave, where teenagers get to plan events and their own festival and get other kids involved in film. So I feel like I’ve had the wonderful opportunity of studying film in different ways from … A lot of people in Toronto are just big movie lovers in my family, and we also have Hot Docs, the documentary film festival, so it’s just sort of a community of movie lovers. Then I also watched TCM with my dad and et cetera. Yeah, and then I went to film school, where it was a little more formal. But I think since I was a kid, yeah, unofficially.

Geri Cole: Wow. I didn’t think about how Toronto really is a very big film city and it does have a lot going on. That’s fantastic. Also, I’ve been to that TIFF kids’ festival.

Emma Seligman: Oh, really?

Geri Cole: And I had a lovely time, yeah. A few years ago, and it was great.

Emma Seligman: It’s awesome.

Geri Cole: So let’s talk specifically about Shiva Baby. Where did this character and story come from, and how has it evolved?

Emma Seligman: It came from me. Well, I made the short film this is based on in college as my thesis, and I wanted to make something that was from a community that I understood and a world that I understood well so that I could write the dialogue easily. I think I made it personal almost on a practical level because I just wanted to execute well. I don’t think I realized how similar she was to me until I’d finished making the short film. I think I sort of thought the situation was funny. It seemed like a bar joke to me, like girl runs into her sugar daddy at a shiva. But-

Geri Cole: When you say it like … It does sound like a joke, yeah.

Emma Seligman: Yeah. I was like, “It’s funny.” I was like, “It’s going to be crazy. It’s going to be chaotic.” I didn’t really think too hard about her as a character. I don’t know. I think I just ended up vomiting a lot of myself into her without realizing or just sort of my pre-grad anxieties and just feelings of zero self-worth and sexual validation, et cetera. Then I think after when I started making the feature, I consciously started putting more of what I was going through at that time into it. So, yeah, I just pulled from anxieties in my life and just sort of put them on blast, made them all in one day, so it’s a lot worse.

Geri Cole: Yeah, wow. Also, I feel like I have to or don’t want to ask [inaudible 00:04:48] question. Have you had a sugar daddy? Is that a-

Emma Seligman: No, no, that’s fine. Everyone’s like, “So, wait, how personal?” I never had a full one. I tried having one, but it didn’t really work. Not every one of my friends, but most of my friends, at least, had an account, even if it was just for fun.

Geri Cole: Wow. Oh, okay. Yeah.

Emma Seligman: Yeah. I don’t know. Hookup culture-

Geri Cole: So just to see? Yeah.

Emma Seligman: Well, yeah. I think some people would tell funny stories and would be like, “You have to try this. It’s so funny.” But I think everyone, especially the young women, felt so dehumanized by hookup culture that we were like, “Fine, maybe I’ll get a sugar daddy then.” You know what I mean?

Geri Cole: Yeah. That was-

Emma Seligman: Then, actually, a lot of us did … Not a lot of us. A lot of my friends did become sex workers. Going from being like, “I want someone who’s going to care for me once a week and pay for me,” is not the same thing as you being ready to be a sex worker. I really only dabbled in it, but it was my friends that I mostly took from.

Geri Cole: More pulling from.

Emma Seligman: Yeah.

Geri Cole: So can we also talk a little bit about the process of adapting your short into a feature? What did that look like? How did you have to break it apart and put in structure, or what was that process like?

Emma Seligman: It was so much trial and error. Originally, I just wanted to fill it up with as much stuff as possible, and so I thought about how crazy can all these shiva-goer characters be and what’s all the stuff that can happen. It felt, by the end of that first draft, which took me a few months, very slapstick and very Death at a Funeral kind of vibes. So, after that, I was like, “Okay, what is this really about,” and I got advice from a mentor who read it that was like, “What’s actually going on?” Then I pulled it back and made it more grounded.

So it was difficult because I ended up feeling like I had to swing back and forth between wanting it to feel grounded and naturalistic but also having there be enough going on. I felt like every time I swung to it being grounded, not much more happened in the script beyond the short, you know what I mean? When I would go to it being slapstick, though, I was like, “Is this crazy?” It just went inch by inch, and I think that I’m very grateful that everything worked out the way it did because I had two years to just keep writing drafts and drafts.

Geri Cole: Oh, okay. So the process of adapting took two years?

Emma Seligman: Yes. Yeah. Because for raising the money and blah, blah, blah. But, in that time, I was like, “Well, I’m going to make it, so I’m going to keep perfecting the draft.” Of course, each time, I wanted to say I was done, but, of course, I wasn’t. So I’m not really sure at what point … I think the final click when I was like, “Okay, I know what the structure is now, I understand it fully,” was the November before we shot, and my third producer who came onboard just said, “I think Kim should get there way sooner,” because originally she was coming closer to the end, at least later in the film, the way she did in the short.

Geri Cole: Okay, interesting.

Emma Seligman: My producer was like, “That’s where all the tension is with the wife being there.” So I was like, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense.” Yeah, it just became a matter of, I don’t know, finding subtle ways to ruin Danielle’s day, you know what I mean, subtle in big ways to have everything cave in on her. It’s kind of a blur, but it was a lot of trying, and I feel like each draft added a moment, you know what I mean, or a scene that led to her nervous breakdown or whatever you want to call it.

Geri Cole: Yeah. I actually do want to get back to the pre-production questions of, yeah, raising the money and going to South by and all those things, but I also, off of this, though, want to talk a little bit. When I watched the trailer with my husband, he was like, “Looks like a horror film.” Then, after watching the film, I was like, “It is kind of a horror film in the tension because there’s so much tension and she’s trapped in this one location and can’t get out.” I wasn’t sure if that was a part of the structure or inspiration, that it does sort of have this horror film feeling.

Emma Seligman: That’s so funny when I hear people say that now because I’m so down to be labeled as any, for me, the film to be labeled as any genre and across genre. I think that’s so fun when people interpret it different ways, and I completely understand that. I never set out for it to be a horror movie, but I did keep saying, “It’s going to be anxious.” Then, by the time I got to the score process with my composer, she was like, “So you want a horror score?” I was like, “Oh,” and that was the first time anyone had said, “What you’re going for is a horror movie,” because, at that point, nothing was full horror until the score came in. Everything was very anxious and surreal, but I think the score just sort of wrapped up all the other things that we were going for.

Geri Cole: That was another one of my questions because the soundtrack is amazing. Let’s talk about the tone and music and setting up the soundtrack to the film.

Emma Seligman: Totally. Well, I think that the movie I kept coming back to in the writing and in the edit and in the cinematography and music was Krisha, Trey Edward Shults’ first film. He went on to make It Comes at Night and Waves, but his first film was about a recovering alcoholic who has to see her family, her estranged family, for Thanksgiving, and it’s all one day, and it’s all one house. I really was just trying to look for movies that took place in one day in one house or one location or maybe three days, and most of them were really tense. That one in particular is a psychological horror movie all the way. Once I watched that movie, he said he was influenced by Cassavetes, and then I was like, “Oh, I should re-watch Cassavetes’ movies.” So then I took from really anxious claustrophobic scenes there, and then it reminded me of Black Swan, and then I re-watched Black Swan. It ended up just sending me down this psychological, thriller-y spiral, but it never got to horror.

Just to answer that first part, it never got to me watching John Carpenter movies in my basement being like, “This is going to be Shiva.” But, yeah, when we got to the score, I originally didn’t want a score. I didn’t picture it, which is part of why I also don’t think I saw it as a horror movie. I don’t know. I wanted to go for a naturalism feeling, but when we were on set shooting this scene where Danielle is looking across the room and really taking in the baby while there’s women talking behind her and their voices are being drowned out, that’s the first time I realized how helpful score would be to really zone in on Danielle and what she’s feeling and not the dialogue of the scene, which, at that moment, I realized was just going to be background noise. I didn’t know that until we put it up on its feet. Anyways, then I figured out I wanted a score, and then I decided that I wanted something Klezmer-inspired with strings that wasn’t full Fiddler on the Roof, but, also, strings were so great for what I kept saying, anxiety.

Then we brought on Ariel Marx, who’s incredible, and she sent me a sound library of violin sounds and asked me to highlight my favorite sounds. All of the sounds I highlighted as my favorites were plucks and screeches and pulls, and then I sent that back to her, and that’s when she said, “That’s fine, but this is a horror score for a comedy,” and I said, “Oh, okay.” Then it clicked for me that that’s what we were doing, but, until then, I wasn’t sure. But Ariel’s so incredible, and she added cues in places I didn’t imagine them. She had a challenge. I never wanted it to seem like we were making fun of Danielle with the score. There’s some moments where the score, I think, is funny, and then there’s other points where I really, really wanted it to actually feel creepy and like it was sinking into you. If it was full, full horror score, it really would’ve, I think, been cheesy. So she found the perfect balance. She’s so wonderful.

Geri Cole: Yeah, she did an amazing job. It’s a fantastic element to the film. So going back a little bit to you were saying you screened your short at South by, and then what happened after that? How did you get to the, “Okay, people are interested, we’re going to make this into a feature?” Can you talk to us about that process a little bit?

Emma Seligman: Definitely. I wanted to make the feature always, and after we wrapped the short film in 2017, I started writing a feature. Rachel Sennott, who plays Danielle, was a huge motivator in that and kept checking in with me and asking what my goals were. So I was writing from the beginning, and then I brought on two of our three producers, Katie Schiller and Kieran Altmann, who went to school with me, and none of us had ever made a feature before. But then we got into South by Southwest, which we thought, “Okay, we’ll meet a producer there, and they’ll give us all their money,” but that didn’t happen. It was fantastic exposure and definitely gave us momentum, even if it was just on an emotional level. So, from that point, we tried to do it what we thought was the traditional way of going out to all the production companies that we’d interned for or worked for, and they all said no politely, but some of them would give us great advice nonetheless.

Eventually, we were just not knowing what to do. We applied to grants, and we just couldn’t figure it out. Then we brought on our third producer, Lizzie, and she had just produced her first feature the year before, which was also an indie. She just recommended going out to people who hadn’t ever invested in film before and just convincing friends or family friends or friends of family friends by however many degrees you can go through to take a chance on you and to support the arts and support young women in the arts and to angle it. We ended up doing that. I mean, it was really hard, especially for people … Yeah, most of our investors … I use quotes because they were giving us small investments compared to what usually is done in indie movies, as you probably know. It was difficult. But then we finally, finally found … We found Rhianon Jones through a filmmaker friend who met me at a festival and wanted to share her investor recommendations with me. So we met this-

Geri Cole: Oh, wow.

Emma Seligman: Yeah. Never happened to me before, of course. Not to be like, “Whatever,” but all the dudes I had asked that never told me. It was the first female filmmaker I became close with and who had made a feature.

Geri Cole: Going to say not surprised. Going to say I’m not surprised.

Emma Seligman: Yeah. She was like, “What do you need?” I was like, “Oh, okay.” I even feel competitive with other women. I mean, I even. I feel like we’re naturally … This is a whole other conversation. But she connected me with this incredible producer, Rhianon Jones, who has her own production company where she gives 50K investments to first-time or up-and-coming female filmmakers. Once we had her on board, because she had had so much experience before, then we went back out to all of the connections and people from my life or our producers’ lives or Rachel’s life to be like, “Well, this producer wants to support us. Do you want to support us?”

We were raising money up until the very, very end, and I kept having panic attacks every night being like, “We’re not going to raise the money and Dianna Agron and Fred Melamed are going to show up and there’s going to be no movie and no set because we couldn’t raise the money.” So it was a race against time, and I wouldn’t have had that unless Rachel set a time bomb for us and was like, “It has to be this summer. There’s no way around it.” Because she just knew that if we said, “Well, let’s see,” it was going to be a whole other year, and we could only shoot in the summer in New York, as you know. I mean, you don’t always have to, but it just makes things easier.

Geri Cole: It’s a lot easier.

Emma Seligman: It’s a lot easier, even though it’s also harder because it’s so sweaty, so it brings on its own challenges. But, yeah, that was the process of development and pre-production.

Geri Cole: Wow.

Emma Seligman: Yeah, it was quite stressful but also normal because that’s always how it is, so … You know?

Geri Cole: Yeah, I guess. It’s the thing. It’s like, “Yeah, how does this happen,” and it’s like it’s just a lot of knocking on doors, I think, is what the answer is. Let’s talk a little bit specifically about the character of Danielle because I really loved her. Even though there were lots of adversaries in this location that she was trying to dodge, I felt like the person she was wrestling with the most was herself.

Emma Seligman: Ooh, yes.

Geri Cole: I really loved that dynamic. It really reminded me of … I don’t know if you’ve watched that series, I Love Dick, on Amazon. I think they only had one season. But I really loved that for the same reason, because I feel like it’s a thing that we don’t get to see a lot in film, specifically films about women, where it’s like she’s wrestling with herself. The other characters are just sort of like … She’s creating that battle with them. So, yeah, I mean, talk a little bit about that.

Emma Seligman: Yeah. The core of the short that I eventually understood after we had made it was that it was about a young woman realizing that she had no power, really, that she had been relying on sexual validation for power and that’s not foolproof or it’s more limited than she thought it was. So I think I wanted to just expand on that realization that I think a lot of young women come to when they feel so powerless and then they discover the power of sex and their bodies and validation. Then, slowly, they’re like, “Oh, wait, I actually have to build up my self-esteem. I can’t just rely on this.”

Geri Cole: I mean, it’s hopefully the realization, I think, that most women come to.

Emma Seligman: Right, hopefully.

Geri Cole: But not necessary a given because of the society that we live in and a gazillion other things. But, yeah, I did also want to talk about the gender politics of the film, of how women are generally encouraged to find their power in their desirability but it is obviously a not permanent thing. You shouldn’t be rooting your confidence in that.

Emma Seligman: 100%, yeah. I think, for me, that hit, not so surprisingly, as I was approaching graduation and other sort of anxieties were flowing through my mind and that was going away as something I could hold onto. So, yeah, I think she was reckoning with herself and her own worst enemy because she’s trying to hold onto that power in an environment that is so not conducive to that. With her sugar daddy finding out all this stuff about her that makes her seem less sexy and less independent, it’s harder and harder for her to hold onto that validation. So I just sort of went with that. Yeah, she’s her own … Other people are making it hard for her, you’re right, but, yeah, that’s such a good point, that she’s burying a hole for herself and it’s not going to go well. Yeah.

Geri Cole: Yeah. The thing that made me think this or rather how it is sort of this commentary on women rooting their value in their desirability, because I feel like she gets … Then after she feels really crushed, she goes and she kisses Maya, and then it’s like she’s juiced up again because it’s like, “Oh, right, pulling from that power of desirability,” which I thought was really great. I actually do want to talk about their dynamic, which I thought was fantastic, where they’re frenemies, ex-lovers, or it’s like what?

Emma Seligman: Thank you.

Geri Cole: Can we talk a little bit, I guess, yeah, about that relationship?

Emma Seligman: That was the trickiest to write by far because I don’t really like expositional dialogue, especially in a film that I wanted to try to keep as grounded as possible. I struggled the most in writing and then in directing, in terms of their performances, and then also in the edit with how to establish that they have this history. It’s contentious, but it’s also loving, and they’re attracted to each other, but they also hate each other and they’re competitive. They also have that sort of Snake Person or Gen Z can’t communicate with each other and have all these lovely feelings for each other but are resenting each other for reasons that are unfounded and don’t have any basis.

So it was the trickiest to write, and I think that once we brought Molly and Rachel on board, it really … Well, Rachel was already on board. Once we brought Molly, who played Maya, on board, it just made things a little bit easier. But I think the key to crafting that dynamic was trying so many different takes in terms of their performance because as much as I … I remember when Molly came we had a day of rehearsal before, just one day, and it was unpaid, so she was really just giving us her time. We tried to put it up on its feet, and she was like, “So am I excited, or am I nervous, or am I angry with her,” and I was like, “You’re all of those things.” She was like, “I can’t. You need to distill this a little more simply for me.”

So I did have to figure out what the main beat change of that opening scene for the two of them was, but, also, it just came down to trying takes where they’re flirtier, trying takes where they’re a little angrier, trying takes where they’re cuter and more competitive, et cetera. Then, when we were in the edit, we just tried to find a balance. Even when we did that, when we first showed it to … We did a few test screenings for friends and former professors, et cetera, and the first reaction we got was, “I don’t understand their dynamic.” So it continued to be a problem because we wanted them to be mean with each other but then they kiss and have this moment. What we were trying to go for is the sort of contention that I think a lot of young people have with the people they’re hooking up with, whether it be queer relationships or straight relationships, in that you’re like, “I hate you, but I like you.”

Geri Cole: Yeah. “I kind of want to be you, but, also, I want to be with you.”

Emma Seligman: Yeah, totally, totally. I also thought Maya sort of … I can’t do expressions anymore in COVID. I want to say knock two birds out with one stone. Is that the way you say it?

Geri Cole: Yes.

Emma Seligman: Kill two birds, not knock them out. Okay.

Geri Cole: I just usually say, “Two birds it. I want to two birds it.” [inaudible 00:23:33].

Emma Seligman: Just make it shorter. All metaphors are gone now. I was joking with Molly yesterday. We were like, “The straw that broke the dog’s ass,” or something.

Geri Cole: [crosstalk 00:23:45]. I don’t know.

Emma Seligman: But I thought that she also could provide this foil character within the community of someone who is more comfortable in their skin when it comes to their career and their future and schmoozing and is doing the things that are a little more traditional within this community, like very clearly knows what she wants to do, whereas Danielle doesn’t.

Geri Cole: Speaking of the community, this writing plays a lot with Jewish stereotypes, but it’s all done with love. Can we talk a bit about your experience with Judaism and how it’s shaped this story? Also, do we need to explain what a shiva is to listeners? I feel like I knew. I don’t know. I feel like it’s a thing people know.

Emma Seligman: Yeah. Just in case maybe. I don’t know. Sometimes, I explain it and people are like, “I obviously know what that is,” and I’m like, “Okay.”

Geri Cole: “Sorry.”

Emma Seligman: “I’m sorry. Trying to make it easier.” Yeah. A shiva is a seven-day process after someone has passed away where it’s sort of like an extended wake or just post-funeral gathering. The point is really just to be there for the person who is mourning or their family that is mourning. Depending on how religious you are, it can take shape in different ways, and there’s different rules. But, generally, it’s just a lot of food, people bringing food, and it’s slightly enjoyable because you’re trying to be in this middle process where you’re not grieving alone in your own sadness, you’re trying to share stories and remember this person’s life. But, also, it’s just, at the end of the day, a family and community event, and there’s the same amount of schmoozing and bragging and complaining and nitpicking-

Geri Cole: Gossip.

Emma Seligman: … and cheek-squishing. It’s also just a place for people to gather, especially if it’s in the Reform community. I can’t speak to other communities. I grew up in a Reform Ashkenazi community in Toronto, which was really close-knit and traditional in the sense that we didn’t have traditional customs, we never covered the mirrors or things like that that are a little more following the rules, but we just saw each other so much and my family was so big and close that we just kept up traditions like shivas and brises and gatherings for all of us. I’m a third-generation Toronto Jew, so it’s just a way of life. I saw my family and my community all the time, and I often went to shivas where I didn’t know the person who died. I would probably maybe know the main mourner, like the person who was grieving the most or the family that was grieving, the immediate family, but I would’ve never met the person who passed away, and would be like, “What are we doing? Where are we going?” That only happened a couple times, but, often, I was like, “I don’t know what’s going on.”

Yeah. That was how I grew up, and I think part of me, when I got to school, realized I really missed having, I never thought I would admit this, but having my huge Jewish family and community, and I started looking for a Jewish community that took me a little bit to find in New York. But, yeah, it does play with stereotypes. It’s tough because I think stereotypes, unfortunately, sometimes, at least speaking from my community’s stereotypes, have truth in them, and I literally just-

Geri Cole: 1000%.

Emma Seligman: I put down so many moments that had happened to me, and, of course, these are collections of moments that happened over the course of many years, so I put a lot of them in one day. So, yeah, it definitely extends the stereotype, but I think as Danielle’s day is getting worse, we’re getting more into her own head, and it’s becoming a lot more from her perspective and less objective as her day is dwindling, and it becomes a little more surreal. Yeah, I try to be as loving as possible when it comes to the stereotypes, and I think that what felt most important to me is that the parents but specifically the mother character counteracted the stereotypes with a lot of love and caring because I think the Jewish mother stereotype is often just nitpicky and annoying.

My mom’s not really as big as Polly is in the movie. It just made for more of a conflict for the mom to be getting involved. My mom’s like, “I would never do that, I would never get that involved,” because she’s also Canadian. But she is that loving, and so it frustrated me seeing movies growing up with Jewish mother characters who were just annoying because I was like, “My mom loves me so much, and that’s the quality that I associate with her the most.” So, yeah, that’s sort of how I did it. But I wish I had more time to get to know the other characters. We did what we could, yeah.

Geri Cole: Yeah. So since this is your first film and it feels like a very personal story, do you feel like there is a type of story that you’re attracted to and/or … This is going to lead into the what’s next question.

Emma Seligman: Yeah. I don’t know. I’m most interested in telling films from my perspective, but I hold different identities, so that can be a lot of different things. I think after seeing the reaction to this movie and also the goal that I set out for, I would love to continue to tell bisexual stories because that’s something that I’ve found that a lot of people were excited about, especially young women, young bisexual women, so that was something I hadn’t even really thought about. I don’t know. There is better bisexual representation in TV, so I felt like it wasn’t that crazy that I was doing it. But then I thought about bisexual representation in film, and I was like, “Oh, yeah, there’s still not that much of sexual or gender fluidity in the stories we tell.”

So I would love to keep doing that if it applies, and I definitely really want to keep telling Jewish stories, but I don’t want to force it, and I’m also just open. I think this past year I have two projects that I’ve always wanted to do that now I feel very lucky I’m in development for that I still don’t know if they will go, if they’re going to be green-lit. One of them is a very loose adaptation of Shiva into a series more about the-

Geri Cole: Oh, okay.

Emma Seligman: Yeah, yeah. More about the sugar baby world and college.

Geri Cole: Definitely watching that if it goes.

Emma Seligman: Thank you. Yeah. Fingers crossed. Then Rachel Sennott and I started writing another script right after we wrapped the short that’s a very campy high school sex comedy about two queer girls who start an underground fight club at their high school to try to win over the cheerleaders. It’s like a Wet Hot American Summer meets, I don’t know, American Pie or Superbad but with queer girls all over the place.

Geri Cole: Nice.

Emma Seligman: Yeah. So those are the two things that have meant a lot to me, and, clearly, they reflect my perspective still, but most of this past year I feel like I’ve … Sitting at home in quarantine, it’s been a lot of pitching on stories that I didn’t write or that weren’t my idea that came from an article or whatever and just putting myself up for the job now that I have representation. I’ve been surprised by how many stories that aren’t really directly my perspective that I’ve been like, “Oh, this would be so cool.”

I also think this just totally contradicts what I just said, but there’s something really nice about also escaping into someone else’s world, if there’s still a main connection with a really interesting female character because I think that it’s great telling personal stories but, also, it can be very energy-sucking to keep pulling up from yourself. Sometimes, I want to just have an arm’s distance, which I’ve been surprised to learn feels healthier, depending on the situation. Yeah, so we’ll see. I really want to do every single genre and so many different kinds of stories. If it happens to be a queer story or a Jewish story or a great female story, then that’s great, but it doesn’t have to be.

Geri Cole: Yeah. I saw Bo Burnham talk about Eighth Grade, which I don’t know if you saw, but I thought was great, and him writing that middle school girl. I thought he did a really great job writing about a school girl, and the question was, “How did you do such a good job writing a middle school girl?” He’s like, “Well, I know anxiety. I was just writing that.” You can connect with characters that you wouldn’t anticipate through very human things, like anxiety, like fear, like that kind of thing.

Emma Seligman: Definitely, yeah. It’s sort of interesting finding that and being like, “Oh, no, even though this character is way older than me or going through a midlife crisis or whatever it is, yeah, I can relate to that feeling or whatever it is.” For sure.

Geri Cole: My favorite questions that I love talking about on this podcast is the idea of success because it’s such a tricky thing, I think. So it feels like you’ve had a lot of success with this film, your first film. Does it feel like success, one, because that’s the other thing, I feel like a lot of times when people’s like, “You’re big, this is so great,” and you’re like, “Is this what success feels like because I feel anxious.” Does it feel like success, and then what does success look like to you?

Emma Seligman: It’s tough because I’ve been in COVID so I think that … I’ve been in COVID. We’ve all been in COVID. So the success has come in ways that it wouldn’t usually have if it was a different year. When we got into TIFF, that was really exciting, but there was 30 people in the theater and I was like, “This is my dream since I was a kid, but it” … I loved it so much. I feel so grateful for the experience. But I was like, “This feels like I’m in a dream somehow,” like a weird dream where it feels half-real. Then I remember we won best film at the Indie Memphis Film Festival, which was lovely, and I was doing this Zoom awards show, and then I shut my computer and was like, “Oh my God.” I told my mom, and she was like, “That’s so great. Can you walk the dog?”

It’s come in waves, and I think now that I’m sort of at the other end of it and the movie’s been out and I’m done everything I can be with the movie, like press and working on the trailer and the poster and things like that, now it’s starting to sink in. I generally have really delayed reactions that take a little bit to process. I’m a little slow. Yeah, it feels like success, but it also feels like pressure. Everyone’s like, “This is so great,” and I’m like, “Oh my God.” Immediately, my thoughts turn negative, and I’m like, “What if I fuck up the next one?” Yeah, I feel the success, for sure. It feels really, really special. But, at the same time, when it’s your first movie, you don’t know anything else.

I feel really grateful that I made this within two years or I shot it within two years after I made the short film, which I know doesn’t happen often, but, at the same time, I grinded my body into the ground and didn’t have a life outside of it, which I do not regret and I think it made the movie at the end of the day. I was down to do it. So I think it’s tricky because it didn’t take me five years the way it often happens, and then COVID happened, so I didn’t really get to celebrate. It’s trickling in in an odd way, the feeling of success, if that makes sense.

Geri Cole: Yeah. I mean, yeah. At least, for me, I always feel like success … And this is bad, I need to see a therapist. It’s always where I’m like, “Oh, if something good happens, something bad’s going to happen.” I immediately am like, “Oh, is this good? I better watch out,” which is messed up.

Emma Seligman: Totally. I think there’s another pressure, though, on women and any marginalized community. You feel the extra … We don’t get the same free pass to make shitty movies. I think that’s getting better, but it’s-

Geri Cole: But not really, not fast enough.

Emma Seligman: It’s gotten slightly, slightly … But, still, I think about all my favorite female filmmakers, and I’m like, “Yep, they haven’t had a bad one yet,” in recent years especially. So, yeah, no, you got to talk about that in therapy, for sure. Yeah.

Geri Cole: And I’d also like to talk a little bit about you said you had a mentor and about how mentorship has played a role, you think, in getting to this point.

Emma Seligman: Definitely. Well, I made the short film in school, so I felt like my professor was pivotal and my class also, but especially my professor, Yemane Demissie, who, at that point, by the time I graduated, I had taken four classes with him. I don’t want to pick favorites, but he was a very special professor at NYU, the one that I had the closest relationship to. Yeah, he was absolutely pivotal when it came to shaping the structure of, not even the structure, but the transformation of the character, which is what holds up any script. What is the transformation? Otherwise, why are we watching this if the character doesn’t change in some way, even if it’s in a really small way? So he was absolutely pivotal in creating that. What is Danielle going through? Why is this day so important?

Over the course of the two years, I had other former bosses give really great advice that just comes from years of experience. They were all producers, but they’d created many films and worked on many scripts and gotten them to a good place or created bad films and learned why they didn’t work. So I think the role of mentorship is so pivotal, and that’s why film school’s so great and such a privilege and a luxury, because you are getting all of that insight. Sometimes, it’s not great and I become like, “Oh, they’re right because they’re older than me and they know everything because they’ve made a million movies.” Sometimes, you have to find the advice that works for you and not take it all on so immediately. But, yeah, mentorship is very important, for sure.

Geri Cole: Actually, that feels like really great advice, is to find the advice that works for you but not feel like you have to take it all. Is there any other advice that you feel like you got that you were like, “This one I’m definitely keeping,” and has become a mantra or anything?

Emma Seligman: This is more specific, but after I made the feature, Yemane watched it and was like, “In the next movie you do, I challenge you to find something with more activity because it’s just a bunch of people standing around and talking at the end of the day.” I tried to fill it up with eating and her getting the cut and then the thing dropping and her getting to kiss the [inaudible 00:38:56] and kissing and … I tried to do as most as I can, but it was really, at the end of the day, people standing around and talking. So activity is key, and I did find that also in directing the actors. They need something to do to ground them. So that’s something more specific.

I think in terms of just general advice, especially when you’re directing and you have imposter syndrome, it really came down to, “This is your job to tell them what to do no matter how young you are or how inexperienced you are.” That took a little bit to set in because I just wanted them to like me. I wanted the cast to like me and to approve of me. I never felt tension coming from them, but I really had to set in that, “Your job is to tell them what to do and to lead the pack.” I think just remembering that and everyone is there because they believe in you and they believe in their vision, especially if it’s an indie. They wouldn’t be there otherwise if they’re making no money. And if they aren’t listening to you or they aren’t there to support you, then they shouldn’t be there and that’s not your problem or your fault. They’re creating the issue.

So I think leading the way and also leaning on your collaborators. They’re there to help you. It’s not a one-man or a one-woman show or one-person show. You have people there to support you, and everyone is there to play their part, whether it be your department heads or your AD or your producers. People always say everyone … This made me feel a lot better going into shooting. Everyone on set is there to support the director, and the director is there to support the actors. That made me feel so much better going into it because everyone also always says if there’s a fuck-up, it falls back on the director, and that’s true, but I realized your producers are there or your AD to be like, “Okay, these are our three options now that this location fell through or whatever it is. Which one do you want to do?” So it’s important to have good collaborators.

Geri Cole: Do you think that you’ll continue to both write and direct?

Emma Seligman: Yes, but I think, at this point, I’m more interested in directing just because … I’m going to continue writing, but writing is … And we’re doing this for the WGA. It is exhausting, and if it’s at all-

Geri Cole: Sure is.

Emma Seligman: … personal, it’s like it takes a lot out of you. It’s just so tiring. Because when you’re directing on set, yes, you have to try it different ways and maybe you have to do pickups. But you’re doing it there, and there’s a certain amount of time you do it in, which is anxiety-inducing, but, also, it’s not like … Unless you’re Martin Scorsese or whatever, you can’t keep directing for … You can’t keep being like, “Let’s do this again.” But with writing and also with producers and everyone controlling the setup, they were like, “Nah, do another draft,” and you were like, “Okay. My time is so meaningless, right?” I mean, we are valued, but you can always do another draft, but you can’t always do another take. So, yeah, I’ll continue writing for sure, but I think, at this point, I’m more interested in learning more about directing and practicing that and using those muscles more because I’ve felt so much more comfortable with writing for so long.

Geri Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. No, 1000%. Obviously, the great thing about writing is that I only need myself and I can do it wherever I am, but, also, I can do it wherever I am. It’s like it never ends. It’s never over.

Emma Seligman: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Geri Cole: I guess on that note we can wrap up the podcast about writing-

Emma Seligman: I love writing. Thank-

Geri Cole: … which we love, by the way.

Emma Seligman: Yeah. Thank you, WGA. Keep writing. Keep on keeping on. Yeah.

Geri Cole: Awesome. Thank you so much for talking with us today, again, and congratulations. This film is amazing. I can’t wait to see what you do next.

Emma Seligman: Thank you so much for having me. This was lovely.

Geri Cole: That’s it for this episode. On Writing is a production of the Writers Guild of America East. Tech production and original music is by Stockboy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America East online at, and you can follow the guild on social media @wgaeast. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. I’m Geri Cole. Thank you for listening, and write on.

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