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Punching Down: Emma Seligman on Bottoms

Ayo Edebiri and Rachel Sennott in Bottoms (Photo by Patti Perret)Ayo Edebiri and Rachel Sennott in Bottoms(Photo by Patti Perret)

The following interview was published in Filmmaker‘s Summer 2023 issue and is being reposted today as Bottoms arrives in theaters via Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Bottoms, the sophomore feature from Shiva Baby writer-director Emma Seligman, takes the concept of blood and guts in high school to a queer, campy pinnacle. Co-written by Seligman and Rachel Sennott—who starred in Shiva Baby and returns to act in Bottoms alongside frequent comic collaborator Ayo Edebiri—the project embraces a streak of absurdist satire that’s been present in Sennott’s sensibility since launching her highly popular, if now infrequent, Twitter presence. Coupled with Seligman’s directorial desire to “always do a different genre,” Bottoms is narratively refreshing yet gleefully referential, riffing on iconic teen comedies—Grease, Wet Hot American Summer, Mean Girls, a medley of John Hughes staples—while elevating the genre to an unparalleled plane of delightful weirdness. 

Sennott and Edebiri play PJ and Josie, respectively, two queer, outcast seniors at the type of high school typically conjured in age-old nightmares about realizing you’ve forgotten to put on pants while roaming the halls. The laws of physics (and general rationality) need not apply as the plot ramps up and the girls decide to establish a fight club—i.e., an after-school women’s self-defense group overseen by the school’s “feminism” teacher Mr. G (Marshawn Lynch)—as a ploy to hook up with two svelte cheerleaders they’ve long been eying. After all, they’ll be heading to college in the fall, and no one wants to arrive on campus with the stench of virginity trailing them. 

Cocky despite her wild unpopularity, PJ focuses on courting the stony Brittany (model Kaia Gerber), while insecure Josie pines after Isabel (Havana Rose Liu), currently involved with football star Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine), whose literal rule over the school’s social hierarchy manifests through posters (and even a Sistine Chapel–esque painting) of his visage plastered on every surface. Despite all odds, they genuinely do bond with the cheerleaders (and several other queer-coded “losers”) through the club; slaps, punches and kicks draw blood, bruises and, above all, wild desire. 

For Seligman, who uses she/they pronouns, Bottoms is a response to a genre that “queer people haven’t been able to be part of” historically. Yet unlike other recent high school comedies with queer characters, such as Booksmart and Love, Simon, Bottoms refuses to play into a grating, overly tender sentimentality. PJ and Josie aren’t kind-hearted, misunderstood individuals who’ve fallen victim to homophobic prejudice; they’re just as eager to punch down, exploit others and cause bodily harm as the macho jocks who ostensibly oppress them. This is what makes them so genuinely funny and compelling to follow: They don’t play into the “liberating” tropes that still render queer characters as one-dimensional protagonists and sidekicks. Don’t queers deserve to be just as toxic as everyone else?

I spoke to Seligman (who made our 25 New Faces of Film list back in 2020) in the weeks leading up to the release of their new film, which hits theaters on August 25 from MGM and Orion Pictures. Our conversation included insights on how much improv occurred on set, the gender dynamics inherent to embarking on a “scaled-up” production, the foundational homoerotic text of Fight Club, collaborating with hyperpop queer icon Charli XCX and much more. 

Filmmaker: Where did the seed of the story come from, and what was it like going from writing Shiva Baby solo to collaborating on the script with Rachel?

Seligman: I started writing Shiva Baby at the same time that Rachel and I started writing Bottoms. I met Rachel after we did the short film for Shiva Baby. She’s so ambitious and was 21 at the time. She was like, “What ideas do you have?” I pitched her my one comedy idea, then was like, “Would you want to act in it or write it with me?” She said yes, took out her planner and was like, “We should meet once a week, and you should come to me with pages for Shiva, then we’ll work on Bottoms.” She held me accountable [while] writing Shiva, so I had a deadline to meet. Then we were writing Bottoms.

It was so much fun writing with her and a completely opposite experience than Shiva in that I think most writers experience a sort of masochism when they’re writing: “This is horrible, no one’s ever going to want to watch this.” But writing a comedy with another person, especially someone like Rachel, is so much fun because she’s so free and, in the beginning stages, not so concerned with structure and having things make sense. I learned a lot from her in that way. The script took many forms over the last few years, but I’m grateful to have a partner that was able to weather the storm of notes and get it to where it needed to be while still maintaining our voice.

Filmmaker: How long was that process, approximately?

Seligman: We started writing it in 2017, six years ago, and shot the movie [during the] spring of 2022, so five years all in all.

Filmmaker: How faithfully did actors stick to the script?

Seligman: There was a lot of improv—mostly from Rachel and Ayo, but we knew that going into it because they’re both comics, and they’ve worked together so much. I’d also say Marshawn improvised so much. So many of his scenes don’t involve an active scene partner. He’s just doing his thing—it’s the perfect setup for someone to just go off. I wanted the other actors to feel comfortable ad-libbing, but most of them weren’t comedians. There was quite a lot of improv from [the cast], sometimes unprompted, where I was like, “What are we doing?” But it was a learning experience for me to figure out how to let the actors feel free while also making sure we were still on track time-wise and getting the scene done in the way that we needed at the end of the day.

Filmmaker: Rachel and Ayo have this collaborative past, as do you and Rachel. How did you foster chemistry amongst cast members when several of you are already very close friends and collaborators?

Seligman: On a creative level, we have [Maribeth Fox], a wonderful casting director. We made sure that with each person we were not only hiring a great actor who understood the role and could play their performance really straight, which we think is funniest, but also fit the chemistry of this world we were creating. Life always imitates art in a weird way. The cast became kind of like a high school group. They’re not high school students—they’re in their early- to mid-20s, obviously—but they started bonding and grouping up as if they were in camp. It’s a testament to the newer actors—who aren’t comedians—that they all bonded so much, because that was a difficult environment for them to come into. In my mind, I was like, “We’re all young, we’re all the same age, it’s chill.” But actually, there are still other dynamics at play, especially for actors who are already so vulnerable, many doing comedy for the first time. On a friend level, they all got along quite well. That is something that might’ve been a challenge initially for the outsiders, but they all seemed to get along in the end.

Filmmaker: In the past, you’ve stated that with Shiva Baby, you strived for naturalism in terms of performance and tone. Bottoms feels a lot more like it’s leaning into slapstick and the uncanny. What prompted you to pivot?

Seligman: Rachel and her tone. If I was writing this on my own or with somebody else, it probably would’ve been more straightforward—maybe still like a studio high school comedy but not so campy. Once we just started writing the jokes, I never had a moment where I was like, “Wait, this is shifting tones. This is weird.” It just was like, “That’s funny,” and we kept on writing the jokes. Wet Hot American Summer was a north star for us when we were first feeling free and wanting to create something stupid. I hope to always do a different genre. I really, really don’t want to do the same thing twice, and my favorite directors are those who do different genres. So, I think it’s just an exciting new challenge, but I didn’t think too hard about needing to do something totally different.

Filmmaker: What were some of the challenges and creative boons of scaling up with Bottoms in terms of cast, location, sets and the story itself?

Seligman: Everything. Everything was a gift and an opportunity to prove myself as a director who could handle a bigger scale, and I’m very grateful to MGM and Orion in particular for that. 

The stunts were challenging. I’ve never done that before. Getting my handle on VFX and how to prepare for that when shooting on the ground was not challenging but [rather] a learning experience. I think most challenges were the boring things, like overnights. I’d never done overnights before, and I was like, “I’m never writing night scenes outside ever again.” And it wasn’t a challenge, but understanding how much time it takes to do big crowd scenes, where there’s so many extras. It takes so much time to funnel them in and out and place them in the right spaces. Big, big crowds. With Shiva, we had background actors, but so much of the time that was like, four people, and we were just crowding the frame in the right way. I relied heavily on my DP, Maria Rusche, who had never shot a movie on this budget level but had certainly been on set in G&E on massive movies, much bigger than Bottoms. Any time I was confused by why something was happening, she filled me in. I didn’t like base camp. I didn’t like the fact that the actors weren’t in front of me—that was a challenge. I wanted to be able to go talk to them, then go talk to Maria, then back and forth. There’s probably a million more things that were really, really hard. But every challenge was just more information in my back pocket to go forward. But I did keep saying I was getting sick of the learning experiences. When will I have learned everything I need to know?

Filmmaker: Did this learning curve and the hassle of hiring extras go into the gag about the other team’s fans not showing up? 

Seligman: That’s just a technical thing we tried to cover up. Actually, I think it came more from a storytelling level. Like, yes, it would’ve been a massive hassle to just double the amount of people. Also, at the time we were still shooting under stricter COVID rules, so 200 extras was the cap. But the football field could fit so many more people in the stands, and we had to make it look full. We were more concerned—I don’t want to spoil it—with the ending. We didn’t understand why the opposing team would be comfortable with what’s happening and not doing anything. We kept on being like, “We’ll figure it out, we’ll cover it up with some joke,” and then thankfully Ayo eventually did.

Filmmaker: You talked about reuniting with your DP, who also shot Shiva Baby. What conversations did you have when it came to nailing the film’s visual language, particularly when it’s so different from your previous collaboration? It seems like both of you are still in places in your career where you’re kind of learning from doing.

Seligman: Totally. I think in a similar way [to how] we did Shiva, we watched a lot of references together, then created a language and shorthand where, when we were on set, we could reference things very quickly with each other. The cornerstone of my visual references on this were Edgar Wright movies like Scott Pilgrim [vs. the World]. Then, she brought in The World’s End, which I’d never seen before but is an ensemble movie. We had to choreograph our fight scenes, just the two of us, so we looked at that a lot because we wanted the girls to be fighting. We wanted the camera to be connecting the fighting in a fun way, without being all forced perspective and just throwing in stunt doubles, so we looked for something that could be funny and also look badass. 

Very quickly, just from the references I was showing her, we figured out the blocking and compositions that we liked. Everything needs to be centered when we’re shooting the football players and very even when we’re looking at the authorities or people who have power. Then, with our girls, everything is asymmetrical. I mean, it’s so silly, but eventually the way that we shoot the girls is the way we start off shooting the guys at the beginning of the movie. We looked at a mix of action-y movies and comedies that have things happening on multiple focal planes, like levels of humor in the background and foreground and midground, etc., where you can catch different things, like Anchorman and Zoolander—especially Zoolander, [which is] shot very dramatically. I rewatched [Zoolander] when we were getting into shooting, and [originally] I just didn’t realize the way that his visual storytelling emphasizes the comedy so much. When you really look at it, it’s a lot of very tight close-ups and push-ins for dramatic effect. Maybe now that’s been co-opted by the studio comedy.

We also pulled from a lot of old Americana movies because we wanted the movie to feel nostalgic. Technically, it doesn’t take place in a specific time period. We wanted to create a feeling of an old American teen movie because I felt like we’re catching up on so many eras of teen movies that queer people haven’t been able to be part of. I wish that I could’ve seen a queer Grease or American Graffiti growing up. So, we pulled from those or John Waters, like Cry-Baby and other movies. That’s what created the color palette that we used. Also, Attack the Block and Super 8 and these sort of adventure movies, where it’s a group of boys trying to save the day. And Bring it On, which was always a comedic reference, but Maria kept on bringing it back in as a visual reference because that movie’s actually so good at blocking their ensemble in a funny and dynamic way. The frames are very interesting. 

Filmmaker: To that point, I wanted to ask about the gonzo production design. It possesses this absurdist quality that adds a lot to the visual gags, and it has this almost cartoonish vibe to it in a way that is very theatrical and campy. How much of the budget went into set decoration, wardrobe and overall aesthetic execution? How much of that are we seeing onscreen?

Seligman: Honestly, I don’t know. I need to become a better internal line producer within myself. But I had incredible conversations with our production designer, Nate Jones, who was local to New Orleans, where we shot the movie. No matter what his budget was, he always executed my vision. He was quite experienced, which was very helpful. I’m sure that, internally, he was fighting for more or being savvy. But he was always able to get what I wanted, and he was also so game for the absurdity of it all. We kept on joking that he was making Grease and my DP was making Kick-Ass. It was like an action movie within a John Hughes world. He understood our color palette and was so game, especially when we were location scouting, trying to find high schools that had old brick and textures that are a little more timeless.

In terms of the set decoration of the crazy signs and the sort of Sistine Chapel painting, he was so excited. I think I was like, “Well, I want crazy stuff like this,” and it allowed him to be creative and suggest ideas. It’s always fun when you can create a collaborative, free environment. Most of those signs were probably Rachel’s ideas and were written in the script or came about while we were brainstorming on set with Nate. It takes people who really understand the tone and are really down to offer their ideas.

Filmmaker: You mentioned the choreography and orchestrating these fight scenes, which are really intense and funny. I’m curious if working on Shiva Baby and painstakingly blocking and maneuvering in a single location primed you for this?

Seligman: 100 percent. With Shiva Baby, I used a little LEGO set of the only location in the house to tell my DP what I wanted and be able to communicate like, “The camera goes from here to here.” But I also used that with our producers and AD to make them understand everything: how many extras we needed, if we had that actor there that day, if we needed to change the shot. I really feel, and especially Maria feels, like blocking, understanding your geography, is everything. It informs so much, and it’s the way to communicate how you’re going to capture a scene, especially in the edit, as well. And with an ensemble like this, it was challenging. We abandoned the LEGO set, but Maria had a big white board that had little stick figure people. We would draw the sets and move these little people around, like a board game. I really, really am grateful for Maria, because especially for the big set-piece scenes, like the final homecoming game sequence, there’s so much going on at different points. And Maria was like, “Josie’s over here doing this at the side of the field. What are the cheerleaders doing at this point?” And I was like, “Who cares? This is where we are. Let’s just try to get through this and shotlist this.” And she would be like, “It’s important for understanding how this will cut in the edit, and understanding what’s going on by the time Josie gets back to the center of the field.” I’m very grateful that Maria always has an eye for that and cares about departments that aren’t hers and how the movie’s going to effectively work on a storytelling level. 

Filmmaker: It’s cool that Maria insisted on a physical component you can use with your hands to visualize what’s going on in a scene since you had done something similar on Shiva Baby.

Seligman: Actually, the LEGOs were something my professor suggested for Shiva—I came to [Maria] with the LEGO set that I built. I always feel so anxious about my shotlisting because I didn’t come up through cinematography or photography. I’m always just wanting to prep as much as possible and make sure my DP understands everything I’m trying to communicate, because I feel like I’m trying to overcorrect for some sort of lack of knowledge—which I think is, unfortunately, a little bit more common in female directors, but that’s a digression. But, yeah, Maria loved the LEGOs and was like, “Let’s do that again.” I was like, “Should we build LEGO sets?” And she came much more prepared with something that we’ll probably use going forward.

Filmmaker: I did want to ask about the experience of being a woman/nonbinary director on set. Obviously, with your first feature you had this very tight-knit collaboration with lots of women or nonbinary folks who you may have worked with or known in the past. Did “breaking into the industry” also come with navigating a more male-dominated territory or getting pushback from men in certain instances?

Seligman: I think that it’s weird because most of my directing mentors and peers, up until very recently, were men. What’s so interesting is that the pushback or discomfort didn’t come from our studio, which is entirely female. I feel like some people have stories of not being listened to by their bosses, but it wasn’t like that for me. 

You know, I was a little naïve. I thought, “There are many more of us”—in terms of female directors. I didn’t think that there would be problems. Now, I haven’t met one female director who scaled to a bigger budget and didn’t experience people questioning her, calling her difficult or—and I hate to use this word because it’s been overused, but—gaslighting her. I don’t want to shit on the men that I worked with, because everyone did such a wonderful job. I don’t think anyone was malicious or trying to knock me down, but I feel like there’s a weird hesitance toward telling a young woman that she can’t get what she wants because they don’t want to upset her. Maybe they could tell a man, “That’s not achievable,” a little straighter. But it ended up driving me in circles and making me go a little crazy because people would say, “Yeah, we can achieve that,” and then it wouldn’t be done. I would say, “Where is this thing? Weren’t we prepared to do this today?” And they would either say, “I don’t remember that conversation”—obviously just the definition of gaslighting—or skirt around the fact that they told me that we could do it. I almost feel like there’s sort of something happening on both ends, where no one wants to say they yelled at the female director, especially a young female director. No one wants to say they made her cry. They’re dancing around your emotions and don’t want to get in trouble. But it’s weird because I sometimes would’ve preferred if anyone—not that I think anyone would have yelled, but that someone would’ve yelled at me, as opposed to treating me like I was this delicate flower! 

Again, these things can always be tricky. I hope it’s clear that I don’t want to shit on anyone because I did really have a wonderful crew. But it was weird. Thankfully, none of this pushback came from people who were compromising my vision in terms of the people giving us the money at the end of the day and the people whose names are on the line. It was more just a human level of learning. I don’t really have many men in my life, so this was so foreign to me, even beyond the little interactions that [bolstered] my understanding of how to work with a different gender that I hadn’t worked with before.

Filmmaker: Obviously, we need to talk about the film’s queer inversion of Fight Club, David Fincher’s film in particular, which has been long associated with a certain type of “film bro,” as people love to call them. Yet Bottoms and Chuck Palahniuk’s original novel are both entrenched in a queer perspective and posit that drawing blood is just as sexual as swapping other bodily fluids. They’re both great takedowns of heterosexual masculinity. Can you talk to me about drawing from the film and the novel and this idea that fighting is perhaps linked to sexual repression and desire, particularly in terms of queerness?

Seligman: Firstly, I haven’t read the Fight Club novel. However, I do know that the intent of the novel and of the film, to a certain degree, were not understood by a lot of their audiences that love them the most. So, that was definitely in the back of my mind in terms of fighting being an outlet for men in that movie to experience intimacy in a way that they’re not allowed to in other ways. 

I tried not to rewatch Fight Club while we were making it. I didn’t want to copy it. I worried that it was going to sink in my head. Even in the writing process, I didn’t want to make [the film] an homage to anything. But then, my DP did bring it in eventually, and we looked at clips together. Then, I was like, “Fuck it, I’m rewatching this.” So much of the time with filmmaking, not to be so cheesy, but it’s subconscious. I don’t think Rachel and I were really thinking about the deeper themes or the queerness that has now come out of our understanding of the origins of David Fincher’s Fight Club. But it’s all in there. 

At the end of the day, that is [Josie and PJ’s] strategy for how to get physically closer and more intimate with the girls that they want to sleep with. Drawing blood is an outlet. It is sexy to many people. There’s a deep connection there. And the way that Fight Club is shot a lot of the time is incredibly sexy, in a weird way, and trying to capture a similar excitement was really important to us. We didn’t want to make it look like these characters didn’t know what they were doing or that they weren’t excited to do it and they just wanted to get it over with in order to fuck these girls. We wanted to make sure that all of those characters—especially the other girls who think it’s this pure form of solidarity or coming together—were particularly excited to be there the way that the characters in Fight Club are excited to be there. It’s not just this sad self-defense thing, but it’s fun, cathartic and hot. When I think about some of the things that Fight Club and our movie have thematically in terms of what you’re asking, there are probably more connections than I thought.

Filmmaker: I’d be completely remiss not to ask about collaborating with Charli XCX on the music for the film. I know that she contributed a song to Bodies Bodies Bodies, which Rachel also starred in. I also know that Rachel and Charli have crossed paths socially and professionally. How did you all come together on Bottoms, and what was the sonic vision there?

Seligman: When we first were writing the movie, the playlist that inspired me was almost entirely Charli. I’m a huge fan of hers. There’s a reason why she’s a queer icon beyond her doing good work for the community. She’s got a sonic style that’s really interesting, unique, fun and poppy, but also emotional and unexpected in a way that always makes you want to dance. 

We got very lucky. She’d seen Shiva, was a fan and reached out to Rachel. Rachel and [Charli] became friendly. Then, she was doing a song for Bodies and offered us the same thing and said, “If you wanted me to do anything musically for this, I’d be happy to.” I pushed it further and asked if she would do the score. She wasn’t necessarily apprehensive, but she was like, “If I were to do the score, it probably wouldn’t be a typical score. I would want my voice to be an instrument, and I’d want to bring on my two producers, A.G. Cook and George Daniel,” whom she collaborates with frequently and are incredible artists in their own right.

The studio and I paired her with another composer, Leo Birenberg, who’s incredible. So, Charli and her team created the palette for the movie—all of the instruments, the sounds, the theme for the movie that replays multiple times and many other key moments and cues for the score. Then, for all the transitional beats and for the big action climactic sequences, Leo took their sound and implemented it in a way that mixed it with a little bit more of a traditional score in the places that we needed it.

I’m very grateful that Charli, A.G. and George really created something unique, dynamic and fun. I think it was only one day—the way that they work is they just improv in a studio together, and it’s very impressive. And I’m very, very grateful for Leo taking it, implementing it and cutting it to picture, because that is incredibly hard. It was a beautiful collaboration in the end, and I’m very grateful I got to work with one of my favorite artists of all time. I got into her top one or five percent of [Spotify] listeners this year, and I was very proud of myself.

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