On a football field somewhere in New Orleans, a thunderstorm was brewing, and the cast and crew of the lesbian teen sex comedy “Bottoms” grew worried as they watched each other’s hair point skyward from the electric charge in the air.
“Okay, we should get off the field because I feel like lightning may strike,” director Emma Seligman told the crew.
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They were gathered on that field to shoot Seligman’s second directorial effort, a satirical high school comedy about two queer, unpopular best friends, PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri), who start a female flight club at school with the ulterior motive of sleeping with cheerleaders. They promote it as a means of empowering women, and their peers actually join the club.
In an interview with Variety, Seligman unpacked the experience of bringing “Bottoms” to the big screen — from co-writing the screenplay with Sennott, to how she convinced former NFL running back Marshawn Lynch to act in her film, to the bonding experience of narrowly avoiding lightning strikes while shooting on location.
Seligman and co-stars Sennott and Edebiri needed no introduction on set. The three are longtime friends, having met several years ago at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. They’ve worked in pairs together in the past — Sennott and Edebiri appeared together on the Comedy Central sketch show “Ayo and Rachel Are Single” and Sennott starred in Seligman’s award-winning debut feature “Shiva Baby” — but the trio had been wanting to collaborate on a project together for years, and “Bottoms” was the manifestation of that desire.
Seligman and Sennott co-wrote the script of “Bottoms” together, taking inspiration from campy teen movies of years past, such as “Kick-Ass,” “Attack the Block” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” — while putting their own spin on the genre.
“I just miss that genre,” Seligman, who uses she/they pronouns, says. “I miss over-the-top high school movies…I just wanted to bring it back. And part of bringing it back for me is making it queer and female driven. But to me that doesn’t change the genre, it just is our version of it.”
“Bottoms” is hitting theaters amid a wave of new queer content, like the Amazon Prime Video rom-com “Red, White and Royal Blue” and the acclaimed Netflix series “Heartstopper” — but it’s not that common for queer women to be protagonists on the big screen. Seligman, however, has shown an interest in representing queer female identity since their first feature “Shiva Baby,” which started out as a short film for their senior project at NYU. Sennott stars in both the short and the feature as a college senior mentally unraveling during the uncomfortable, nail-biting encounter of attending a relative’s shiva — the Jewish mourning custom — at which her sugar daddy, ex-girlfriend, and parents are all present.
Having now collaborated on multiple films together, Seligman and Sennott balance their friendship and their working relationship. Seligman praised Sennott’s work ethic and determination, outlining the dynamics that make their creative relationship so generative.
“She’s so smart and skillful and understands the role that she’s in, whether it’s listening to me give her direction, or whether it’s going through the script in detail beforehand to prep for shooting, or whether it’s writing in a coffee shop, and literally having her pitch 4,000 jokes, and me trying to type everything as quickly as I can,” Seligman says. “Or whether it’s her listening to me vent at the end of a long day. It’s a wonderful collaboration and it has many elements to it.”
Like “Shiva Baby,” “Bottoms” explores queer identity, growing pains, and feminism with a refreshing sense of humor and intelligence, but it leans much further into the irreverent and absurd — while still maintaining its emotional heart. How did Seligman balance those two elements?
“It was really hard,” Seligman says. “That was a tricky dance from beginning to end, from writing it even up until the edit and deciding which joke went over the line and took us into another movie entirely. And at what points we felt like, ‘Okay, wait, this is becoming a little too grounded. And a little too emotional. This is still a comedy.’ So it was a lot of trial and error and a lot of experimentation.”
Some ideas didn’t end up on the cutting room floor, but were simply relegated to the background. “We did have to define the rules of this world and what was allowed and what was the limit of ridiculousness that we could have,” Seligman says. “There are certain things that technically are still in the movie in the background, but we don’t have overt shots of. So for anyone who wants to give it a rewatch, there’s things there.”
While “Shiva Baby” was an at-home SXSW premiere due to the pandemic, “Bottoms” premiered in person at SXSW earlier this year, to critical acclaim. Seligman reflected on the experience of observing an audience respond to their film in real time.
“It was amazing and cathartic and exhilarating, and made me understand what we missed out on the first time,” they say. “It’s the best medicine in the world to hear laughter in a theater in general, but especially within the context of something that you worked really hard on, it makes you feel like it was worth it.”
In addition to Seligman and Sennott’s quick-witted script, one can imagine that many of the laughs in the theater that night were in response to Marshawn Lynch’s scene-stealing moments. The former Seattle Seahawk makes his feature film debut as the unprofessional but hilarious teacher/club adviser Mr. G.
While Lynch has had cameos in shows and a small role in “Westworld,” he has limited acting experience, especially playing a character other than himself. But Seligman saw Lynch’s ad-libbed episode of Netflix’s “Murderville” and was convinced he was right for the role. Lynch, however, wasn’t sure he was cut out for the big screen when Seligman reached out to him.
“He was like, ‘What are you doing casting me in this? Like, I’m not an actor…are you confused?’” Seligman says. “And I was like, ‘No, you’re so funny. I think you’ll be so good in this.’”
They talked it over and Lynch eventually agreed. The project was meaningful to him because his sister is queer, and he was excited to support her through his role in the film. He also ended up bonding with the cast; Seligman shares that he taught the girls how to throw a football while hanging out backstage or in the green room during their downtime.
That wasn’t the only skill the cast acquired: “Bottoms” features plenty of fight scenes, and Seligman wanted them to look authentic. Inspired by Edgar Wright films and, indeed, “a little bit of ‘Fight Club,’” Seligman, director of photography Maria Rusche, and stunt coordinator Deven MacNair planned out several sequences that are simultaneously funny and impressive in terms of their physical execution. From sparring on the mat during fight club practice to a campy, bloody finale, “Bottoms” doesn’t pull any punches.
“We wanted the girls to do it,” Seligman says. “We didn’t want stunt doubles. We wanted it to look like our actors were actually kicking ass. It was just so cool to watch the actors get really good. They did this boot camp with Deven, and I would come visit them at the end of the day, and pick them up from class and see what they learned. It was just really fun, especially with Rachel and Ayo, because when it’s your friends, you’re like, ‘Sick. You learned that today. That’s really cool. I don’t know how to do that.’”
Though they might not have picked up the same fighting skills as their actors, Seligman can count the major accomplishment of directing two critically acclaimed feature films by the age of 28. Both projects center underrepresented identities and explore the nuances of womanhood through flawed, relatable and hilarious characters. Their advice for aspiring young filmmakers who want to experience the success that they have?
“It sounds so cheesy and overdone, but make space for yourself,” they say. “And don’t wait for anyone. And push, push harder than you’ve ever pushed in your life. Just don’t be afraid of rejection. Don’t wait. You just have to write the thing, and find the people, and make the thing and convince everyone you can…whether it be [to] give you money or to do you a favor or to support you or to write with you or to act in it or whatever it is.”
As for what’s next for Seligman, the filmmaker really wants to keep their options open. “I’d like to continue making things in completely different genres with queer characters and Jewish characters.” That said, there is one genre they seem most keen to tackle: “I’d really love to make a horror movie.”
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