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Shiva Baby 10
Courtesy of MUBI

Shiva Baby is about ‘how being a young woman is a horror movie’

Director Emma Seligman and lead Rachel Sennott discuss their chaotic bisexual debut film, being hot on Instagram, and their next joint project, Bottoms – a queer teen fight club comedy

Rachel Sennott is a new kind of scream queen. Before the 25-year-old actor enters the frame in Shiva Baby, her character Danielle can be heard producing a deafening, comically fake orgasm. It’s so loud, your neighbours will assume you’re watching a streaming service that isn’t, let’s say, MUBI. But beyond Danielle ecstatically coming off-screen before she comes on-screen, Sennott’s “scream queen” qualities shine when Shiva Baby reveals itself to be a claustrophobic, nerve-wracking horror disguised as a romantic comedy.

Well, when I call Shiva Baby a horror, I don’t mean that Danielle’s life is at stake. Not literally, anyway. Instead, Emma Seligman’s tense, hilarious directorial debut depicts Danielle’s mounting social anxieties at a family gathering where her many secrets are about to be exposed. Forget jump scares – it’s all about Danielle’s relatable terror that her friends and relatives will swap notes and conclude that she’s a massive fraud. At any moment, Sennott’s face is similar to that of Drew Barrymore’s in the opening minutes of Scream.

“Emma and I were talking about how being a young woman is a horror movie,” Sennott tells me over Zoom, in early June, from a hotel room. For her, it’s 9am, after a late night shooting on her A24 slasher Bodies, Bodies, Bodies. “Bodies is more of a horror. But in Shiva, Danielle’s the only one in the horror movie. She’s like, ‘I’M FREAKING OUT!!! HELP!!!’ and everyone else is like, ‘These bagels taste weird.’”

In Shiva Baby’s first scene, Danielle’s bedroom antics are quickly unveiled as a financial transaction: the college student is paid by a sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari), for sex. However, the film’s catalyst is when Danielle swaps moaning for mourning and attends a shiva with her parents (Molly Gordon, Fred Melamed); at the funeral, Danielle discovers that other attendees include her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) and Max. Moreover, Max has brought his wife, Kim (Dianna Agron), and their baby. “Even though Jewish romantic comedies inspired the idea for the movie, I wanted the craft to feel different,” Seligman informs me, while sipping a beer, in a separate Zoom call from San Francisco. “So I focused on the anxiety.”

Seligman, who’s 26, met Sennott at NYU, where they initially shot Shiva Baby as an eight-minute student project. According to Seligman, sugaring was so common amongst her cash-strapped friends at NYU that extra research wasn’t required. In fact, Seligman once joined the website SeekingArrangement as a sugar baby, but only lasted one date. “It just wasn’t for me,” she says. “I’m not cut out for it.”

In contrast, Danielle is less open about her side-hustle, and pretends to her parents that she’s a part-time babysitter (they even recommend her to Max and Kim). However, Danielle doesn’t pay any bills; for her, sugaring is empowering. I ask Seligman if this non-monetary motivation is common, or if it’s simply the Save the Cat part of her screenwriting brain.

“That’s how I felt when I approached (sugaring),” the director says. “I didn’t need it. I was attracted to the appeal of power, even though there wasn’t much there when I was in it, and validation, which was there.” Many of Seligman’s friends felt the same. “In a world of hook-up culture where you feel so invalidated and there’s no consistency, and you have no control over when you are seeing the people you want to see, and have no control over how you want to be validated, or when you’re going to be validated, the idea of sugaring is appealing in different ways.”

In the same way that The Queen’s Gambit boosted an interest in chess, has Shiva Baby encouraged men with disposable income to become sugar daddies? “I hope not! I don’t know. It’s already pretty popular, especially in New York where there’s a lot of people in debt, and there’s also a lot of wealth and capital.”

Shiva Baby also marks Sennott’s first major movie role. In recent years, Sennott has otherwise gained notoriety as a sitcom star (during the pandemic, she was a regular on ABC’s Call Your Mother) and a stand-up (a YouTube clip titled “The Worst Part of Sitting on a Guy’s Face” has two million views). 

On Twitter, Sennott regularly goes viral for raunchy one-liners (“this summer is all about going to a restaurant and then looking at ur ankle bracelet while ur boyfriend fucks you”), while one of her latest Instagram photos consists of her in her underwear, reading the script for Bodies, Bodies, Bodies, with a knowing caption: “pic of me hard at work”. Does she find the sexual nature of these posts to be empowering? And, if so, does that make social media her sugar daddy?

“I feel empowered from Instagram,” Sennott says before stopping herself. “Make that the pull quote: Rachel Sennott feels empowered because of Instagram. No, I do, because I was not very confident in myself or in my sexuality. I didn’t feel like anyone was attracted to me. I was really insecure. I had a bunch of food issues. My skin was always breaking out. I was very uncomfortable in my body. In my head, I was like: ‘OK, I’m going to be hot on Instagram – even if I don’t feel hot, I’m going to be hot, and present as hot, and act hot, and then I’ll feel hot’. Taking photos that were very aware and ‘sexual’ on purpose made me feel more in control and confident in myself.”

Danielle, however, shrinks into her body, and feels worn down by sheer geography: at the shiva, everyone is crammed into a tiny house. Subsequently, Danielle often spins multiple lies – to whoever’s listening, to whoever’s eavesdropping, and to whoever’s staring from across the room. She cultivates a separate persona for each relative and is asked by her mother to downplay her bisexuality. While Danielle can speak frankly to Max, that relationship is, by definition, roleplay. She can never be her true self, if such a thing exists.

“I really related to Danielle because in between shooting the short and the feature, I was graduating from college,” Sennott says. “I went to college for acting and, all of a sudden, I started doing stand-up and tweeting stuff like: ‘I’m being fingered in the car!’ My parents were like, ‘We thought you wanted to do plays?’ Also, I got more comfortable in my sexuality when I was in college. Suddenly, you have this version of yourself that you form, and your family still have this idea of who you were for 18 years, and they collide. It feels like you have to pretend a little, because it’s so jarring. Hopefully it goes away when you’re older, and then you can be real with your family. But also, are you ever going to tell your family everything?” She laughs. “Probably not.”

“I was very uncomfortable in my body. In my head, I was like: ‘OK, I’m going to be hot on Instagram – even if I don’t feel hot, I’m going to be hot, and present as hot, and act hot, and then I’ll feel hot’” – Rachel Sennott

When Danielle adapts her behaviour to accommodate the surrounding people in a small, sweaty room, it’s effectively crowd work without a microphone. Did having a background in stand-up help? “I never even thought about it like that before, but she literally is putting on a performance for all the different members of her family,” Sennott says. “It’s like she’s doing it in a black-box theatre.”

Sennott also confirms that Danielle’s dismissal of Kim, the owner of three businesses, as a “girlboss” was improvised. “There was a period where, to be a girlboss, you had to be a woman with a job and a reusable coffee mug, and everyone wanted to be a girlboss. Now, I feel like we’re in a post-girlboss society, where everyone’s like, ‘Oh, women can exploit people, too. Watch out.’” Sennott adds, “Also, Danielle’s undermining this woman and taking away what was probably years of work to create three businesses. It’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re a girlboss’ – it’s so mean. It’s all she can do, because she needs to feel better about herself.”

Really, Shiva Baby is a film about denial. At the shiva, there’s a dead body in the house, yet everyone nibbles on snacks, makes small talk, and discusses anything but death. Moreover, the awkwardness between Danielle and Maya lingers from their relationship’s lack of closure. “Young people have difficulty communicating their emotions and being vulnerable with each other,” Seligman says. “Me and my friends were often scared to tell the people that we liked that we wanted more from them, because we thought it would end things, and it’d be too bold or risky or crazy to actually have a conversation about something.” (I observe that Seligman expresses this thought so beautifully that it contradicts her statement, but I’m too incapable as a communicator to say this out loud.)

Like Rachel Brosnahan in The Amazing Mrs Maisel, Sennott plays a Jewish character despite not being Jewish. So how does it feel to read that she’s nailed the specificities of Jewish humour? “It’s a compliment,” Sennott says. “I think it’s about anxiety. Emma was saying that anyone who’s on the East Coast, who grew up on the East Coast, has that kind of humour. Because I’m a very anxious person, I really relate to Danielle. I personally have a lot of invasive thoughts – I’ll get a thought and can’t let it go.”

“For me, it’s ten times more important that the writer, director, creator, and inspiration person behind a story is the religion or culture they’re representing,” Seligman says. “Specifically, I can only speak to the Jewish and queer experience, but it’s trickier when it comes to the actor conversation – for me, clearly, because Rachel’s the lead, and Polly Draper, who plays her mother, is also not Jewish. It’s not ‘do or die’ for me. It’s not something I 100 per cent need. I think the more authenticity the better, and the more money and support you have, depending on your budget, the more choices you have.

“Young people have difficulty communicating their emotions and being vulnerable with each other. Me and my friends were often scared to tell the people that we liked that we wanted more from them, because we thought it would end things” – Emma Seligman

“I hope as time goes on and I’m doing more projects, I can be more authentic with the casting choices that I’m making. But if someone’s good for the part, it feels important that that takes precedence over the specificity of the background that they come from. But I do understand people who hold different opinions when it comes to that, and I understand that a lot of people are disappointed to learn that Rachel’s not Jewish. I feel fine being criticised for my casting decisions, because I do know it’s important to people.”

For the script, Seligman drew from personal experiences at family gatherings, including the moment Danielle’s elderly relative offhandedly remarks, “And this is us in Israel at Mason’s bar mitzvah – I mean, Israel, Palestine, whatever they’re calling it now.” I assumed that the line was satirising a privileged westerner’s disconnect with world politics, but Seligman tells me otherwise. “No, it’s generally much more heated. That was something I heard someone say at a Passover Seder. I’d never heard someone feel so apathetic to what’s happening. I just thought it was a funny line.” Last month, Seligman protested on the streets of LA on behalf of Palestinian rights, but notes: “I didn’t feel like there was room for a hot debate about Zionism – which I think might usually occur, as opposed to a line like that.”

Next up, Seligman is developing a sitcom pilot called Sugar with HBO and Adam McKay. While she’s hesitant to reveal too much (when I ask if Sennott will be in it, Seligman responds, “Wait, what did Rachel tell you?”), she can discuss Bottoms, the movie she’s writing with Sennott for Orion Pictures. The plan is for Seligman to direct and Sennott to star. According to The Hollywood Reporter, “Bottoms follows two unpopular queer girls who start a fight club to have sex before their high school graduation”. Hang on – what is a fight club? Like the David Fincher film?

“It’s more like a self-defence club,” Seligman explains. “They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re mostly punching each other. We call it a fight club because it’s two girls trying to prove that they’re tough, appealing, and attractive to other women, like the cheerleaders at their school. I wanted to put on screen the film I wish I could have seen when I was in high school when it comes to fun, more raunchy depictions of queer women – or queer people in general.”

“We’ve gotten the conversion therapy story, the very cutesy story, and others as well – I love a lot of those movies. But Rachel really wanted to see something with really shitty female characters who are just despicable in their actions in the way that we’ve seen a lot of male characters in raunchy comedies, and I wanted something for queer teen girls. We met in the middle.” So we’ll see some 17-year-old girlbosses? “In their own way, perhaps.”

”I just want to play messy, complicated, female characters who do things you don’t always agree with, but you’re rooting for them anyway” – Rachel Sennott

Meanwhile, Sennott has to finish dying or not dying in Bodies, Bodies, Bodies, an old-school slasher written by Cat Person author Kristen Roupenian and co-starring Pete Davidson, Maria Bakalova, and Amandla Stenberg. Does Sennott’s knack for conveying anxiety mean she’s gravitating to horror? “I don’t know,” Sennott says. “Bottoms is a super-campy comedy. I just want to play messy, complicated, female characters who do things you don’t always agree with, but you’re rooting for them anyway. Sometimes those women find themselves in scary situations – the more dramatic or scary something is, the funnier it can be.”

Either way, with Bodies, Bodies, Bodies, Sennott completes her ascension from the horror-ish of Shiva Baby to a bona fide horror. I explain why my article’s opening paragraph will refer to her as a scream queen. “I like the comparison to the screaming at the beginning of the film,” Sennott says. “And I like being called a scream queen because I like being called a queen. It’s like being called the birthday girl. Any sort of title, I will take it.”

Shiva Baby is in select cinemas for one night only with a special Q&A on June 9, and is on MUBI from June 11