By Robert Moran
Writer/director Emma Seligman (centre) with Ayo Edebiri and Rachel Sennott on the set of Bottoms.Credit: Patti Perret/ Orion Releasing
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You’d hardly tell from the fun finished product, but Canadian filmmaker Emma Seligman had an eye-opening ordeal making her second movie Bottoms, the playful follow-up to her indie breakthrough, 2020’s Shiva Baby. In the US, where LGBTQ rights are being increasingly eroded, it seems even the idea of making a “campy, queer, Gen-Z, high school comedy” can put the powers that be on edge.
In New Orleans, where the film was largely shot, the pull of Christian conservatives blocked access to filming locations; corporations who loudly wave their Pride flags told Seligman the movie was “too offensive to be associated with”. As the 28-year-old told Film Independent earlier this year, “I was just so naive, and I think I remain naive, when it comes to making sexual movies or gay movies or whatever it is, and I think that’s a good thing; I just keep trying to be like, ‘There’s an audience for this somewhere, so I’ll just keep making it until people tell me not to.’”
Considering the film, even in its limited-release opening run in the US in September, was a box office success – as Deadline reported, its $46,105 per-venue average was the highest for a movie on 10 or more screens since the Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All At Once achieved $50,131 in March 2022 – it’s clear Seligman’s on the right track. Not that Bottoms had such lofty aims.
“The desire was to make a queer teen sex movie, just as simple as that,” Seligman explains over Zoom from London, in the midst of a personal holiday-turned-promotional junket. “And then some sort of hero’s arc, some sort of fighting-to-save-the-day situation.”
Josie (Edebiri) and PJ (Sennott) are high school nobodies who start a fight club in an attempt to hook up with hot cheerleaders.
Her mood board piled references from countless Y2K-era teen comedies: the satirical absurdity of Not Another Teen Movie (2001) and Wet Hot American Summer (2001); the candy-coloured camp of Jawbreaker (1999), But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) and Bring It On (2000); the slick action of Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010). “I’ve never pulled so much from my rolodex of movies I loved growing up,” laughs Seligman. “I was going through my childhood and picking out these movies I loved that might not usually be studied on a sort of cinematography reference level. But we certainly had fun pulling these back up.”
The result – a film centred on two high school losers, PJ (The Idol‘s Rachel Sennott) and Josie (The Bear‘s Ayo Edebiri), who start a “fight club” with the sole aim of hooking up with hot cheerleaders – is an instant rewatchable cult classic, at once fresh and nostalgic and bubbling with its charismatic leads’ dark, goofy humour. “Rachel, she’s just so funny,” says Seligman of the film’s star and co-writer Sennott. “I could have never written something this funny; most of the jokes in the movie are hers, or were improvised by her and Ayo.”
Bottoms marks Seligman’s latest successful gig with Sennott, who first broke through in the director’s acclaimed feature debut Shiva Baby, which won the Independent Spirit Awards’ John Cassavetes Award in 2022, given to the best film made on a budget under $1,000,000 (Shiva Baby did it on just $200,000). The pair met as students at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts, when Sennott auditioned to appear in Seligman’s thesis project – the short film that Shiva Baby was born from – and immediately bonded.
“I think we both felt like novelties to each other, because we’re both hardworking and ambitious but also young women and, like, silly – and when we met in school, we were surrounded by a lot of people who didn’t take our aspirations seriously,” Seligman says. “I think we were inspired by each other’s ambition, and we just balance each other out so well on a collaborator level.”
Kaia Gerber as Brittany and Havana Rose Liu as Isabel in Bottoms.Credit: Patti Perret/Orion Pictures
With her comic presence on social media, her star turn in Shiva Baby and the A24 horror fave Bodies Bodies Bodies (2022), and most recently as audience surrogate Leia on HBO’s controversial series The Idol, Sennott has become a generational it girl of sorts. Seligman says watching Sennott’s success has been boggling. “It’s like when you have a sibling – and we do feel like siblings at this point – you just step back and go, oh my God. Watching her and Ayo’s careers grow, after we’ve gone to uni together and been there with each other before any of us were successful or even working in this industry, it’s pretty surreal to see them both, like, rising.”
Seligman’s similarly been catching heat. The success of Shiva Baby got her courted by major studios and gave her access to a significantly larger $11.3 million budget for Bottoms. We’ve seen it regularly: young directors getting immediately tapped by studios like Disney, or Marvel, after some indie success to helm their next tentpole. Did Seligman experience that?
Sennott with Polly Draper in Seligman’s acclaimed feature debut, Shiva Baby.
“Yeah, I feel grateful I had options after Shiva Baby, and I felt attracted to some opportunities that were coming my way – nothing crazy, not Marvel or a franchise or anything like that, but just cool chances to collaborate that were more director assignments,” she says. “In another world, I would have loved to have done that. But it felt wrong in my gut to just cast away this script I’d already written with Rachel, that we had taken five years to write, that was ready to go. That was why we chose to make Bottoms next.”
If Shiva Baby hinted at it, Bottoms confirms Seligman as a directing talent; the way she navigates the film’s audacious tonal digressions so comfortably is skillful. It seems filmmaking success was destined for Seligman. As a child in Toronto, watching At the Movies with Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper – the US’s version of our own David and Margaret, basically – with her dad, she harboured dreams of being a film critic. “Roger Ebert, thumbs up, thumbs down,” Seligman deadpans, “I just wanted to be him.”
At 12, she even started an online film blog, titled, quite wonderfully, Confessions of a Teenage Film Buff. Seligman looks mortified when I tell her I found the blog online. “No, it does not exist any more,” she insists. Sure, but I’m literally staring at her teenage review of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers as I write this. “I did write some reviews for the Huffington Post, and the only one that’s still up is Spring Breakers because I was quoted in the trailer,” she says. “There were so many others that I’m so glad can no longer be accessed online.”
I can’t bear to tell her that I’ve spent at least a fortnight trawling through her Teen Ebert scrawlings (the internet never deletes). Regardless, the seeds were already planted for Seligman’s future vocation. “I liked writing and I knew nothing about the camera, so I just assumed I had, you know, zero ability to achieve that,” she recalls. “It wasn’t until I started meeting more young filmmakers that I realised it was actually… not that it wasn’t hard, but I just started to understand how it worked. And that was it, I needed to pursue it.”
Bottoms opens in cinemas on Thursday.
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