Sex Work and Shivas — A Conversation with Writer-Director Emma Seligman

What starts with a blow job and ends at a shiva? This may sound like a vulgar riddle that my own Jewish mother might ask me just a little too loudly at a family gathering — but it isn’t. This question has an actual answer.

Up-and-coming writer-director, Emma Seligman’s short film, Shiva Baby had its world premiere in March at South by Southwest as a selection in the Narrative Shorts category. Upon Seligman’s return from her first festival run-around, I sat down with her to talk about Shiva Baby, the film industry, sugar babies, and then some.

Having grown up in a Jewish family in Toronto, Canada, Seligman made her way to New York for her undergraduate education. The idea for the short was conceived as part of her senior thesis in the Tisch Film and TV program at NYU; and, prior to graduating last May, she went through several drafts of a completely different script before settling in on what would ultimately become the short.

I ask her about the process of writing and landing at the crossroads of college sex work and Judaism, to which she recounts, “Originally, for my thesis I was trying to do something really experimental — an out of this world, post-apocalyptic, dystopian all female thing — but it was getting too complicated and my professor was like, ‘What is this?’

We both laugh at this sentiment, before she continues, “I realized I needed to write about something that I know. So, the short answer of why I chose the topic is that what I know best are Jews and sugar babies. I mean, I went to NYU and everyone I know knows someone who was on Seeking Arrangement.”

With a pithy 7 minute and 44 second run time, Shiva Baby follows Danielle, a New York college student who runs into her sugar daddy, Max, at the shiva of a distant family member. While at the shiva, Danielle learns that Max knows her parents, and the audience gets to watch and cringe with her through a series of uncomfortable revelations about Max’s personal life.

Comedian, actor, and writer, Rachel Sennott, plays Danielle with a precise subtlety making for a necessary naturalism in the performance. Danielle’s casualness as both a sugar baby and a daughter make the revelation of Max’s attendance at the shiva all the more delightful and awkward to watch unfold.

I describe to Seligman how the first time I watched the short, I caught myself finding it funny and wondering if that was the appropriate reaction to have. And then, after watching Shiva a second time in a Tisch screening room amongst a sizable group of the filmmaker’s family, friends, and peers — and hearing consistent laughter from the audience throughout — I again wondered about her own expectations for the film in terms of genre.

When asked if she intended for the film to be a comedy, she reflects, “When I was writing it originally, I was going for a dark comedic tone, but I don’t come from comedy… casting Rachel [Sennott] really shifted it into something else. Everyone says this about actors, but she really gave it her own edge and brought her own skillset to it.”

Seligman talks about a scene that needed an on-set rewrite due to a last minute casting change and how Sennott’s improvisational chops contributed to the success of that process. She admits, “Having her involved made it much more of a comedy. I think if I had cast anyone else it would have been a drama with some funny lines, but I was really happy with how it worked out. I think working with her has opened me up to comedy and the power of using comedy in a drama.”

We speak further about her experience as a festival first-timer at SXSW, and immediately discuss the presence of women at the festival. She reveals to me that 80% of the narrative feature films in competition this year were directed by women, a number that has grown since last year’s 70%, which she attributes to the two women who run SXSW: Festival Head, Janet Pierson, and Senior Film Programmer/Festival Coordinator, Claudette Godfrey. “I got to meet so many female filmmakers, I felt like I was in a parallel universe — not our actual industry,” she says.

Post SXSW, the young filmmaker is working on pre-production for the feature length version of Shiva Baby, a few short comedy projects with now-collaborator Sennott, as well as writing a TV series, which also incorporates a main character who is a sugar baby.

Here, I press more about the character of Danielle in Shiva and the concept of being a sugar baby, which Seligman refers to as “sugaring.” I wonder where her interest in this story comes from, and her willingness to tell it a few times over.

We delve into the muddiness of college hook-up culture, and she states, “There are so many confusing messages when you’re a young woman trying to figure out your sex life, and I think for the community of people I know who do this kind of sex work, it doesn’t seem that crazy if you’re already hooking up with dudes you don’t know anyway, to just capitalize on it.” She’s interested in this particular community of college student sex workers because she has seen it first hand amongst her peers, and because it stands out as different from other communities of sex workers who rely on the work for their entire livelihoods.

She is interested in looking at the role sex work might play in shaping a young woman’s view on sexuality and the societal imposition of insecurities on young women regarding their bodies and sex, all apart from providing material goods and financial support.

I ask Seligman if she feels a responsibility as a young, female writer-director in our cultural moment where there is a growing demand for the voices of women to be highlighted and a desire for the presence of dynamic female characters in film and TV. She takes a big breath and responds.

“I don’t want to say ‘It’s a good time for women in film’ because I think that’s naive and not necessarily accurate, but there are definitely shifts happening,” she treads thoughtfully. “I think that more complicated female characters are being accepted — and not necessarily ones that are likable. I’m excited about investigating those types of characters.”

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