Two Weeks Notice. It's the title of 2002 romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant with cameos by D*nald Tr*mp and Norah Jones. It's also how much time costume designer Michelle J. Li was given to create looks for the new film Shiva Baby. The movie's premise is thus: Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is on her way to the shiva of an old family friend she does not remember, following an appointment with her sugar daddy. As one does. She has run-ins with her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), who her parents promptly tell her to avoid for reasons unknown, before her sugar daddy arrives at the shiva with his wife and infant daughter in tow. Simple, right?
The film has been getting rave reviews from critics. "As a team, [director Emma] Seligman and Sennott share a spot-on sense of comedic timing, knowing just when to throw in the next cutting remark, eye roll, or fake smile," reads one review. "They hit bullseye each and every time, all the way to the credits."
J. Li, making her feature film debut, was tasked with outfitting a cast of 13 — including Glee alum Diana Agron and Broadway veteran Jackie Hoffman. It was no small order, especially in a short time frame. Luckily, she rose to the occasion. Also luckily, there was one outfit that made the jump from the 2018 short which the new feature is based on.
"The blazer I wore in the short film and I feel like I could smell my sweat from two years ago in it," says Rachel Sennott. "I was like, 'Oh, my old friend.' And then obviously — and thankfully — Michelle had it washed so I didn't have to smell old me. But then I started sweating in it again and smelling new me." Li added a navy skirt to complete the look, with the goal of having Sennott's character look like she just threw an outfit together.
Below, a chat with Li about bringing the carefully crafted world of Shiva Baby to life — including all the complexities and complications along the way.
So let's start with a bit of your background. When did you first fall in love with costuming? And what was it about costuming?
It was really a happy accident, to tell the truth! Growing up, I knew that I wanted to have a career in the arts but always thought that would manifest itself in the form of studio painting or graphic design. Never in a million years, did I think I'd be doing what I am now. I was exposed to backstage theater as a high school student, which showed me the tremendous collaborative element of this industry. That's exactly the part that continues to keep me here. I love being able to bounce ideas back and forth with a team because I feel like that process enriches the product at the very end- no person is an island! I earned my BFA in costume design from Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama and I really loved every part of my education there — even if it did come with a few sleepless nights and missed social events.
Was there a film or television series or piece of theater for which the costumes were absolutely formative for you in your youth?
I remember watching Tarsem Singh's The Fall when I was about 15 and my little kid brain was blown to smithereens. Eiko Ishioka was the costume designer for that movie, and as an artistic entity, she did it all — from art direction, to graphic design, to costumes. I was so enamored with her ingenious and playful use of color, texture and silhouette in this film; those costume pieces will be burned into my memory until the day I die. It really transformed the way I thought about clothing as a storytelling device because that was my eureka moment — the first time I truly understood costume design could be more than just a t-shirt and a pair of jeans.
So Shiva Baby: how would you describe this film to someone that hasn't seen the trailer and knows nothing about it? It's kind of a whole experience, isn't it?
Yeah. The experience of watching Shiva Baby is sort of like trying to eat a three-course meal while being strapped into the seat of a roller coaster that's perpetually stuck at the dip. And if you were sandwiched between your grandma and sugar daddy.
You had two weeks on this project. How did you come up on board, and why so little time?
Three months prior to Shiva Baby, I was the costume designer on a short called A Portrait of Frances, Enclosed and Katie Schiller (one of the producers of Shiva Baby) was the co-director on the piece. Katie had told me that working with me was the first time she's ever collaborated with a costume designer, and it shed light on why my role was essential to the filmmaking process. Katie enjoyed working with me so much that she thought Emma [Seligman] and I could hit it off, because I would also be the first costume designer Emma was going to work with. Emma is the kind of director that designers dream about working with because she's sharp, witty, thoughtful and most of all, knows what she wants. She genuinely cares about what you as a costume designer can bring to the table, and since no one was under any illusions that this was going to be a fast and furious process, she gave me the blue sky to explore and told me not to be constrained by what the short film looked like. As for why the prep process was so short, oftentimes in indie film, all the departments are scrambling to get anything off the ground, so it just meant I had to buckle in for the ride.
How familiar were you with shivas and the ways people dress at them prior to working on this movie?
Not really all that familiar. I've never attended a shiva, though I've been to a few bar and bat mitzvahs growing up. That was one of the reasons why I was a little obsessive in gathering information and hearing from first hand sources. I wanted to be accurate and respectful in my portrayal of shivas while still being true to the script and story. I discussed shiva traditions with the actors and pulled from their personal experiences. I even had an hours-long phone call with Emma's mother about the dress etiquette surrounding shivas. For our film, we focused on looking at reformed shivas in particular and that gave me the leeway to inject comedy through the clothing. Deborah Offner, who played Ellie, wore this incredible devoré checkerboard shawl that instantly turned her costume into borderline cocktail wear — which was hilarious because you're at a funeral.
What was the biggest challenge — and I'm sure there were many — given your time crunch?
One of my biggest challenges was making sure that I had everything ready for the fittings. I had to fit all the principal talent the same day they arrived, sometimes an hour before they had to go on camera for the first time. It taught me to be decisive and confident in my design choices, which is sometimes the unexpected benefit of having a time constraint! Our location also had three flights of stairs and the actors were being held in rooms across all floors. So imagine me, a 5'2" chick, schlepping a full clothing rack to each room while halting on the rickety stairs when scenes were rolling.
Can you walk me through executing a particular look you love?
Emma and I spoke a lot about creating visual callbacks between the characters conflicting with each other to increase the tension. Like many great things in life, it was half serendipity and half planned. One of my favorite looks involved Joel (Fred Melamed) and Max (Danny Deferrari). In the film, they're both wearing blue dress shirts — total happy accident. I had shopped Max's entire outfit before pulling from Fred's real-life closet for Joel. At first, I was in a panic because I was like "Shoot, they're in almost the exact same color," but then I was like "They're in almost the exact same color!" For the two daddies in the movie? Chef's kiss!
In what ways did COVID further complicate an already high pressure circumstance?
We actually filmed Shiva Baby in the wet hot summer of 2019. The film was supposed to premiere at SXSW 2020, but we all know how that went down. It would've been impossible to film this same movie under COVID protocol because we crammed into this tiny old house in Ditmas Park with little air circulation and we shared a lot of spaces. For example, my wardrobe room was also the hair and makeup room, in addition to being the production office and the digital imaging technician's station. This space was probably 20'x20'. This is ordinary for indie productions and it also lends itself to the whole cast and crew becoming really tight knit.
So in some senses, you got lucky to have completed filming before the panny, but still had to contend with the reality of movie theaters being closed and festivals going digital. What has this experience, including the time crunch and the COVID of it all, taught you about costuming that you'll take with you in the future?
It taught me that I'm more resilient than I think I am, but that it's also okay and important to ask for help when you need it. I couldn't have pulled this off without the incredible support of the producers and production team, who always tried to find a way to say yes to any request that came from me. Whether that was finding a way to hire a day shopper because I was stuck on set or running to a local yarmulke factory because my shipment was delayed, they found a way to pull it off. You have to lean on the people around you because it's a team effort. And that's the beauty of it all.
What's next for you?
In addition to costume design, I also do production design. I designed a feature coming out soon called Dating And New York, directed and written by Jonah Feingold. It's a fun romantic comedy starring Jaboukie Young-White and Francesca Reale. Shiva Baby producers Katie Schiller and Kieran Altmann were also involved in this production, so you know it'll be a hoot. But as any seasoned freelancer can tell you, my future books are open so feel free to give a call.
Welcome to "Wear Me Out," a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.
Photos courtesy of Shiva Baby/ Michelle J. Li