How Rachel Sennott Changed My Life

Shiva Baby's writer-director Emma Seligman on her lead actress, who also took on the role of friend, champion and support system.

“We’re shooting Shiva this summer. It has to be this summer.”

Rachel Sennott told me this in the fall of 2018, nine months before we’d shoot my directorial debut, Shiva Baby. She had watched a year-and-a-half go by since I told her I wanted to make my first feature and she didn’t want to see another summer pass. Otherwise, we would have been aiming to shoot this past summer in COVID and then probably have to aim for this upcoming summer coming out of COVID and then possibly for the next summer after that.

Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott during the making of Shiva Baby (2018).

I met Rachel in the spring of 2017, when she auditioned for my thesis project (Shiva Baby, the short film). She looked awkward, relatable and anxious and like a girl I could run into at a shiva. Before casting her, I watched comedy sketches she wrote and acted in and I saw her in a few of my friends’ thesis films. I later learned that she skipped acting class to audition for student projects. Instead of focusing on Shakespeare sonnets, she prioritized getting to know the film students. She also performed standup at open mics at least once a night and had goals to go well beyond that. It was clear that even at 21, she was already enacting control and autonomy over her career and I wanted to remain close to her magnetic ambition.

When we shot the short film, Rachel made it her own. She brought a style and comedic voice that shaped the project in a way I couldn’t have expected. The small student cast and crew slept on location in a small Sheepshead Bay house we found on Airbnb. The night before we wrapped, Rachel and I went for a walk around the neighborhood. I told her I was going to expand the short into a feature within a year and she responded with such enthusiasm. Up until then, when I told other film students this they kind of always said, “OK, yeah, good luck with that,” but instead, Rachel was encouraging.

Rachel Sennott in Shiva Baby (2018).

Two months after we wrapped, she asked me what my weekly and monthly goals would be to make the feature happen. I didn’t have any, but she’s a virgo and helped me make a plan.

Over the next year, she read multiple drafts and held me accountable to self-imposed deadlines. Soon, our incredible producers, Katie Schiller and Kieran Altmann (my friends from NYU), would begin to share the weight of accountability. When the short premiered at SXSW in March 2018, Rachel came down to Austin with me. In our Airbnb, she’d go over our goals, including our one-year and three-year ones, over and over again. For the next six months, we struggled to finance the film. No magical producer appeared at SXSW with $200,000 and all the production companies my producers and I had collectively interned for rejected us. So when I said, “Maybe we’ll have to shoot it next summer, in 2020,” she spoke to me more sternly than she ever had before, saying, “You said it was going to be last summer. That didn’t happen. … We’re shooting Shiva this summer. It has to be this summer.”

By that point, I had exhausted myself to get my U.S. visa. (I’m Canadian.) I could either crash or keep building the momentum till I would inevitably crash a year later. At this time, our third producer, Lizzie Shapiro, came on board. I met Lizzie at SXSW when she was about to produce her first feature, my friend Annabelle Attanasio’s Mickey and the Bear. Fresh off her experience of financing a sub-million indie, Lizzie pushed us to look for money in unexpected places. Between the five of us, we started harassing pretty much everyone we’d ever met who could give us anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000. My filmmaker friend Amanda Kramer introduced us to an experienced executive producer, Rhianon Jones, who quickly came on board. Rhianon’s stamp of approval then encouraged our other EPs (who’d never invested in film before) to jump in.

Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott on the set of the feature version of Shiva Baby.

Rachel set that ticking time bomb nine months before we shot. As we got closer to August and chased every dollar we could find, I tried to mentally prepare myself for an experience I knew would test the limits of my anxiety. On top of prep with my D.P., Maria Rusche, and finding actors with our casting director, Kate Geller, I listened and relistened to every director’s interview I could find through the DGA podcast, Hollywood Reporter roundtables, etc. From all these interviews, I jotted down their tips on just about everything – lens choices, improvising, composing, etc. However, one thing none of these interviews discussed was the emotional and physical toll directing puts on your body, particularly for first-time directors. By January of 2019, my producers and I were already running on little sleep while we each tried to hold down our different jobs. Without even realizing it, I had stopped spending time with most of my friends.

Throughout it all, I relied on Rachel. She helped us find financing and checked in on the latest drafts but her most significant contribution to the movie was providing me unconditional emotional support. I depended on her in a way directors should never depend on their actors. The job is set up to be the other way around. Each night, when I couldn’t sleep, I called her crying, saying I didn’t think we could raise the money in time and that I shouldn’t have thrown away two years of a social life for an impossible goal. I’d given everything I could to this movie and I feared that it wouldn’t work out. I had nightmares of Dianna Agron and Fred Melamed showing up to set, only to find an empty house in Flatbush.

But every night, Rachel talked me off the ledge. She’d reassure me that it wasn’t for nothing, that we’d find the money, we’d make the movie and when it was done, I’d get my life back.

Rachel Sennott in the feature version of Shiva Baby.

It didn’t happen as soon as we would have liked. After the comedown of the production adrenaline rush (another thing I didn’t learn about in director interviews) and after six months of post, our SXSW premiere was cancelled due to the pandemic. This was two years after our short premiered at SXSW in 2018. Rachel went to Connecticut and I stayed with my family in Toronto. Six months after quarantine started, I got the incredible privilege of attending a screening of Shiva Baby at TIFF. As a filmmaker from Toronto, it was a dream come true, but as I looked at the 40 people sitting in a 500-seat theatre, I couldn’t help but wish Rachel, our producers and the rest of our Shiva family was with us.

However, as I finish writing this six months after that screening, four years after we shot the short film, I sit across from Rachel at LAX, as we wait to board our flight to New York, where we’ll attend our first premiere.

I look back at those nights she’d calm me down and tell me we’d finish what we started on that walk and it would all feel worth it. She was right and I’m all the more grateful she would pick up the phone and repeat this to me.

Featured image shows Rachel Sennott and Emma Seligman on the set of the feature version of Shiva Baby.

Emma Seligman is a Canadian writer-director based in New York. She expanded her SXSW short film Shiva Baby into a feature film of the same name starring Rachel Sennott, Polly Draper, Dianna Agron, Molly Gordon, Fred Melamed and Danny Deferrari. Shiva Baby, the feature film, was selected to play at SXSW, TIFF, Outfest, Melbourne International Film Festival, Deauville American Film Festival and many others. Shiva Baby has received rave reviews and will be distributed by Utopia on April 2. (Photo by Emma McIntyre.)