“That Was When I Felt Like I Had Made It”: Emma Seligman’s Big Break

The Shiva Baby writer and producer on the year that changed everything
Emma Seligman, Filmmaker (Illustration by Jordan Andrew Carter)

Shiva Baby, about a sugar baby who encounters a client at a shiva, premiered at TIFF in 2020 to critical acclaim. Since then, its 26-year-old writer, director and producer Emma Seligman has become an indie-film darling and is now working on her second feature film and an HBO TV show.

For the longest time, I wanted to be a film critic. I watched At the Movies With Ebert & Roeper with my dad growing up and I wanted to be Roger Ebert.

I went to Northern Secondary School in Toronto, where the drama program is a bit of a cult, very similar to Glee. In Grade 12, I used a camcorder to make my first film—a really shitty short that I used to apply to film programs at NYU and USC. One of the admissions people at USC told me it was not great from a technical standpoint. It was really bad, but I guess it was good enough to get me accepted to NYU.

If the Northern drama department was competitive, NYU was next level. There was a social-climby aspect to the school, to the point that sometimes I felt like “Am I trying to get an education or am I trying to be big on Instagram?”

I went into my last year of university wanting to turn my short thesis film into a full-length feature because that’s what many filmmakers have done before me—Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash and Dee Rees’s Pariah, for example. Most of my classmates spent their time helping out on-set with commercials, where you could make industry connections. But I wasn’t working on a Plan B; I was just trying to pursue my Plan A.

Securing funding for the film was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I signed on my producers, Katie Schiller and Kieran Altmann, and we would brainstorm, “I have this family friend who knows someone who is really rich.” Then we’d try to convince them to bankroll the movie. We were raising money up until the very last second before shooting. Even then we didn’t have enough, so we had to keep fundraising throughout. We made the entire film for $200,000.

We had just finished mastering it when we found out that SXSW, where we were supposed to premiere, had been cancelled due to COVID-19. After that, I threw in the towel for a bit. I went back to live with my parents in Toronto for a year, and I did Zoom Q&As for pretty much every Jewish and queer film festival in North America. Then in July 2020, I learned that we got into TIFF, which was a dream come true. The critics responded very well, but I was more moved by how many young Jewish and bisexual women reached out to me or talked about the film on social media.

I’m working on two new projects now. Bottoms, a film I wrote with Rachel Sennott—the lead in Shiva Baby—sold to MGM/Orion this fall. I’m also writing a pilot for a TV show, Sugar, with a similar premise to Shiva Baby, for HBO Comedy.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the total success of the movie. I’ve had a delayed reaction because I did not expect it. Shortly after the virtual edition of SXSW, I signed with an agency—that was when I felt like I had made it. It’s their job to connect me with producers and studios, so I won’t have to beg for money from distant cousins on my next project.