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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Bottoms’ and the tricky tone of a horror-indie-drama-action-teen-sex comedy

The director Emma Seligman, center, on the “Bottoms” set with Ayo Edebiri, left, and Rachel Sennott.

By Melena Ryzik

In “Bottoms,” a pair of teenagers start a fight club in their high school gym. The twist: The pugilists are lesbians, and they are whaling on each other — in the guise of self-defense — as a way to attract the hottest cheerleaders. (It’s a satire on many levels.)

Writer-director Emma Seligman had the idea and sold the script — to Elizabeth Banks’ production company — even before her feature debut, “Shiva Baby,” put her on the indie filmmaker map in 2021.

“I really love teen adventure movies,” Seligman said in a phone interview, “and giving queer kids the chance to be in that story.”

Seligman, 28, grew up in Toronto in a family of film buffs. “Everyone here is always just talking about movies,” she said. By 10, she was a judge at a children’s film festival; later she got involved with the Toronto International Film Festival. She studied the subject at New York University, where she met the two stars of “Bottoms” — Rachel Sennott (who co-wrote the film) and Ayo Edebiri, a breakout actress from “The Bear.” (Seligman has an eye for talent: “Bottoms” also features Nicholas Galitzine, of “Red, White & Royal Blue,” as a quarterback boyfriend; and former NFL player Marshawn Lynch as a teacher with questionable methods.)

“Shiva Baby,” about a young woman who encounters her sugar daddy at a shiva, was based on Seligman’s experience of Jewish life and on her college milieu. “I went on one sugar date,” she said. “Not everyone was doing it, but so many people were doing it to the point where it was so normal.” (It wasn’t ultimately her thing.) “Bottoms,” though it exists in a heightened world, is also personal. “It’s just wanting to see yourself,” said Seligman, who is gay. As she recalled Banks telling her: “You can’t underestimate how much young people want to see themselves onscreen.”

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: “Shiva Baby” had a small cast and essentially one set. “Bottoms” has an ensemble and multiple locations. How did you prepare to scale up?

A: The jump was quite challenging. I knew there were going to be a million and one lessons I was going to have to learn, but I just didn’t know what they were going to be. It’s like knowing you’re about to get hazed but not knowing how.

I tried to have conversations with as many directors as I could to get their advice — Adam McKay, Greg Berlanti, who directed “Love, Simon,” and Atom Egoyan. It was helpful, but most of them were like, “You’re not going to know until you’re just doing it.” I went to [Elizabeth Banks’] house before we shot, and we talked about costume and hair and improv — it wasn’t her giving didactic advice. It was me asking: “As a director, how do you prepare to do this?” And everyone was like, stop asking questions. Stop getting in your head.

Q: Rachel Sennott has starred in both your films. What clicked with you two?

A: Neither of us were in the industry or came from industry families. Her level of ambition and organization and her intense work ethic were really inspiring. It’s a wild thing to be like, “I’m going to devote all this time to writing two screenplays, when there’s nothing in the world telling me that this will work out.” Her energy was: “It’s not crazy, we will do it, and we will make a living.” It’s rare for someone to want to see you succeed as much as they want themselves to succeed.

Q: How did you envision Ayo Edebiri in this role?

A: I met Ayo at a party before I met Rachel. I had a vague idea of “Bottoms” in my head. And I was like, “Oh, if I ever made that high school movie, that girl would be so funny in it.” It’s been really incredible to watch her grow into the success that she’s become. It’s not a surprise at all to me, but I feel a little bit like I have street cred because I’m like, “Yeah, I knew.” She’s just so funny. We finished “Bottoms,” and “The Bear” came out a month later and her world changed.

Q: Where did you want to focus your satire?

A: The way queer teen characters are always so innocent in teen movies. Whether they’re being traumatized or finding love, they’re so sweet and often don’t have any sexual thoughts at all — or if they do, they’re not expressing it, or they’re not talking in a vulgar way. And we also wanted to satirize the way female friendship is often shoved down our throats onscreen with teen girls — characters that are like, “I love you, queen! You’re the best thing ever!” We wanted to make fun of that.

Q: “Bottoms” builds on a lot of the teen movie canon, starting with “Heathers.” What else did you use as a reference?

A: We pulled from that era of the ’90s — I guess “Heathers” is the ’80s — but that kind of female, campy, driven, high school and murder [comedy].

“Bring It On” was a big reference. That movie strikes such a beautiful tone of campiness while caring deeply about the characters — it’s right on the edge. “Pen15,” definitely — looking at the show about this beautiful female friendship, that was so ridiculous and stupid at the same time, and so relatable. That came out right around when we started writing. “Wet Hot American Summer” was a big one. There’s not murder in that. But they do get addicted to heroin for the day. And Liz is in it, which is also great.

Q: How did you find the right tone?

A: It took a long time to figure that out. I don’t think Rachel and I originally intended to have the audience care about the characters that much. We actually felt like in female comedy, there’s too much stress on, “Care about these girls” and “Care about the friendship.” We wanted to give the female characters a chance to be so [terrible] that you’re not supposed to care about them at all. But I think over the years, as we would get notes from our producers or the studio, we let up a little bit.

I really think tone is always the trickiest thing to master. And I would love one day to do a movie that’s just one genre, to see if it’s any easier than a horror-indie-dramedy-action-teen-sex-comedy, or whatever we did.

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