Bottoms director Emma Seligman went from babysitter to cult filmmaker in three years

“There’s so much beauty and wonder to making and watching a dumb movie or a dumb show”

(Photograph courtesy of Corey Nickols via Getty Images)

Emma Seligman grew up in Toronto, loving John Hughes movies. Now she’s a member of Hollywood’s latest brat pack, along with Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edeberi. The trio star in the raunchy new film Bottoms, which Seligman also directed: it’s a modern rethink of the classic teen sex comedy where the male horndogs are replaced by their lesbian horndog counterparts. The plot centres on the formation of a female fight club which is, at least at its outset, a ploy for picking up cheerleaders. It’s not a perfect scheme, but the results are hilarious and represent a new realm of representation for queer female characters. “I don’t think these kinds of people have ever held the reins of raunch,” says Seligman, who co-wrote the script with Sennott.

Seligman was still babysitting to pay the bills when the pandemic began. Then came her directorial debut Shiva Baby (also starring Sennott), a dark comedy about Jewish traditions around sex and death that started as her NYU thesis project and turned into a Netflix-approved sleeper hit. Now, with Bottoms, Seligman has hit the box-office big leagues—one bloody fight scene, dick joke and sly feminist undertone at a time. 

In Bottoms, two scheming besties start a female-empowerment-focused fight club that is actually just a way to pick up cheerleaders. Before the specific plot came together, you said you knew you wanted to make a teen sex comedy with fighting. What pointed you in that direction? 

Growing up my favourite movies were sex comedies, or comedies in general, but usually there was some sort of romance or sex plot. And then I also loved superhero and adventure movies. Stuff like Attack the Block, Superbad, even Spider-Man, where there are a bunch of boys or just one nerd fighting to save the day. I wanted to combine these genres and make a teen movie with queer characters. We’ve made a lot of amazing progress with queer representation on TV and in film, but often when it’s queer teens on screen, they’re not allowed to have sexual thoughts. Whereas in most teen straight movies, and teenage life in general, sex is all people talk about, even if they have no intention of having it.

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So when Rachel Sennott and I sat down to write Bottoms, we were feeling a lot of frustration about the state of queer characters and young female characters on screen who weren’t allowed to be horny or flawed or selfish. I just wanted to do something with more raunch, because I didn’t feel like I’d really seen raunchy queer kids on screen.

You made Shiva Baby on a budget of $200,000, whereas Bottoms, which was bought by Orion Pictures, had a budget of $11 million. Was that something you were adamant about or were all of those extra zeros a surprise?

Navigating the budget jump was a step-by-step process. I was writing Shiva Baby at the same time that I was working on Bottoms. With Shiva Baby I was so conscious of every little decision that might add to the budget. Whereas with Bottoms, Rachel and I were just having fun. We wrote the script the way it appears on screen: special effects, fight scenes, multiple locations and hundreds of extras. All of those things cost a lot of money.

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When we were done and started shopping around we met with one studio and they were like, “Oh, do you need the bomb scene? Do you need all of these scenes in the hallway and classrooms?” And we were like, “Yes, it’s a high school movie.” And then we were so lucky to end up working with Orion and wonderful experienced producers Elizabeth Banks and Alison Small. They’ve worked on a lot of huge movies with huge budgets, so for them this was small. I remember they were like, “Yeah, it’s going to have to be small, probably like $10 million.” And we were like, “Okay!”

As a young, female, queer director, did you feel a bit like the future of horny lesbian movies was resting on your shoulders? 

I didn’t feel that way when we were making the movie, but as we got close to the release I started to worry—like, if this movie doesn’t do well, I hope that won’t inhibit other queer filmmakers from getting their movies made. I do feel like there has been a lot of progress. When you look at the success of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, there has been talk about it being historic for female directors, but more just about it being historic in general. I remember when Wonder Woman came out in 2017 and they were like if this movie flops like, that’s it for female directors.

When did you first feel like you could breathe after the release?

I felt I could have the tiniest breath of relief after the South by Southwest premiere, which was in March. The experience was a bit overwhelming. As a director you’ve spent all of this time in dark rooms during post-production and the edit, and then suddenly you’re watching your movie with a thousand people. The SXSW audience was amazing. I’m not trying to brag, but people couldn’t really hear the movie because everyone was so excited and riotous. My dad was getting mad because he couldn’t hear the dialogue. 

Bottoms has been compared to a lot of ’90s classics. Fight Club, obviously, and then comedies like Bring It On and But I’m a Cheerleader. I also saw a lot of ’80s influence: Heathers, Revenge of the Nerds

Some of the references go all the way back to movies from the ’60s and ’70s that took place in the ’50s and ’60s—that classic Americana vibe from movies like Grease, American Graffiti. And then John Hughes movies, which I watched a lot growing up. With the location in particular, we wanted something very ’80s. We wanted the school to look like the school in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, one of my all-time favourite movies. I didn’t actually watch Heathers until I was a lot older, but I can see how that movie influenced and affected all of the movies that influenced me in the ’90s: Jawbreaker, Sugar and Spice. That was the Heathers effect. 

Am I right to say that Bottoms is both satire of these kinds of movies while also just being one of these kinds of movies? 

Totally. I don’t think we ever sat down and said, “Okay, the movie’s got to be aware of itself but not too aware of itself.” That balance comes to you instinctively as you’re doing it. I do remember there would be times when an actor would be improvising and it would be like, “This is crazy,” whatever was going on. And I would have to tell them to stop because they were taking us out of the moment. Like, the movie has to exist in this crazy world where this group of young women is taking revenge in very violent ways. And so, yeah, it ended up becoming both the thing and the thing that made fun of the thing. And then we were able to add another layer of satire with music, which was a lot of fun.

Before you were a big-deal director, you were a student at Northern Secondary in Toronto. Were you the angsty film kid, talking about New Wave cinema, smoking French cigarettes? 

Ha. There were a lot of film kids at Northern when I was there. They had a very dedicated drama department, plus a film history class and a playwriting class, so I was definitely not the only film nerd. Most of the guys were obsessed with stuff from the ’70s: Stanley Kubrick and that kind of thing. I was more of a Turner Classics fan. 

You went to film school at NYU. Did you contemplate staying in Canada? 

I applied for Canadian universities as well and I definitely had my backups. I think the idea of going to NYU to study film was just sort of the dream. And then it was a dream come true when I got there. 

You moved home to Toronto during the pandemic. How come?

It was March of 2020. I finished making Shiva Baby, a feature-length version of my original thesis project, which was supposed to premiere at SXSW. The festival was cancelled like, literally, half an hour later. I was babysitting at the time and then it was lockdown and I had no money. There was that day where Trudeau told Canadians to come home. I packed up my life and was on a plane two days later. I stayed for a year. 

At this point were you thinking that your film career was dead in the water? 

Shiva Baby had yet to find a distributor so I wasn’t sure if it would ever get a release. As was the case with many other industries, no one understood the state of film and particularly independent film. I was like, Maybe that’s it; maybe I’ll become a teacher. But then a few critics ended up reviewing SXSW movies even though there was no festival. Shiva Baby got a few good ones in the Hollywood Reporter and IndieWire. Then, jumping off that, I got an agent and we started pitching Bottoms over Zoom meetings. I was still in Toronto when we sold the script to Orion that November, which was exciting, but you still never know if it will move forward. And then I was back in New York when we got the green light in September of 2021. 

What was the biggest surprise about directing such a large project? 

Just the number of people and trying to understand what everyone’s job was and why they were all there—how I wrote this stupid movie in a coffee shop with Rachel and now all these people were expecting something from me. It was very different from film school, where you’re just with a group of friends, or even Shiva Baby, which was friends and a tiny budget so it felt like film school. With Bottoms, it was much more professional. I definitely felt young to be doing what I was doing. 

I guess no one sends you to management school before you start this kind of job.

God, no. I would vent to my mom about how the day was going, and what problems I was having and she’d be like, “You have never had a boss”—the boss being the studio—”And you’ve never worked at a company before. What you’re dealing with are just totally normal and universal work complaints.”

How would you describe your leadership style? 

I think overcommunication was something I learned. Being a woman there’s that weird line you have to walk where you have to be firm, but you can’t be too rude. So often when I was giving an instruction, I would say something like, “Okay, we should have this” or “We’ll need that,” and then things wouldn’t get done. So I started saying, “We need this, can you copy?” And then saying it three more times over the next few days. Everyone is so stressed and busy on a film set and sometimes it’s in one ear out the other. So I would describe my management style as “Copy. Copy. Copy.” I try to always just be nice, though. Like, I don’t think I’ll ever get to a point where I need to be a man now and throw things around. 

I have seen several reviews that describe Bottoms as some version of “delightfully dumb.”Do you take that as a compliment?

I do. There’s so much beauty and wonder to making and watching a dumb movie or a dumb show. I love absurd humour where the plot doesn’t make sense. I think, particularly for queer audiences, we deserve to watch something dumb where we don’t have to think too hard and can also see ourselves on screen. It doesn’t have to mean more than trying to have sex or whatever. My co-star Ayo Edebiri has talked a few times about how everything is political and therefore being dumb and stupid is a political act. We made an active choice to make a dumb movie. And that feels good to us.

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