Emma Seligman’s Hollywood
The first rule of Emma Seligman’s queer fight club is girls get to be really, really horny.
There’s a joke in the opening scene of Bottoms that immediately confirms that the sophomore feature from director Emma Seligman is not only the frontrunner for funniest movie of the year — it’s also a contender for one of the most quotable films of the decade. The film begins with PJ (Rachel Sennott), a bossy, caustic lesbian, pestering her more mild-mannered, also queer best friend, Josie (Ayo Edebiri), to accept that this is the year high school will be different. This year, they are both going to fuck. “Do you want to be the only girl virgin at Sarah Lawrence?” she asks, exasperated.
Six years after the inception of Bottoms and less than a month before its theatrical release, Seligman and I are heading to eat lunch at the upscale vegetarian restaurant abcV. She’s out of her photo shoot clothes, sharp trousers and an undone tank, and back in the breezy summertime uniform of cargo shorts and an oversized button-up; she laughs at how it must look juxtaposed with her smokey eye makeup and pinned-back raven curls, also from the shoot. There’s quite a bit to discuss as we settle into our seasonal fare: how she grew up a shy Jewish girl in Toronto, her warpspeed Hollywood trajectory, making queer stories. But first, we must talk shop for “women and gay people” — which is to say, we’re discussing astrology. Specifically, how her creative collaborator and frequent leading lady Sennott’s textbook Virgo qualities of scheduling and organization have transformed Seligman’s life.
At this point, the lore between Seligman and Sennott has become well known by their fans; the two met during their time at New York University in 2017, when Sennott auditioned for Shiva Baby, back when it was still Seligman’s senior thesis and a short film. “[Rachel] knew I wanted to make Shiva Baby a feature and asked if I had any other ideas. I told her about Bottoms, and she just seemed so ambitious to me,” she recalls. “We talked about the idea and she was like, ‘Cool, yeah, I'm doing it. Great.’ And then later, she pulled out her planner and helped create a schedule for us. I would be nowhere without her.”
Seligman and Sennott knew what Bottoms would be from the get-go. Seligman wanted to create a teen comedy where the heroic, queer female lead was trying to have sex; Sennott wanted to make art about flawed women being horny without any hesitancy. They had the points of inspiration locked and loaded, looking to seminal comedies like But I’m A Cheerleader, Sugar and Spice, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Bring It On, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Kick-Ass. Sennott was always going to be one of the film’s leads, and Seligman knew exactly who should star opposite her: another friend from their NYU days, Ayo Edebiri. The pair met at a party among a crowd of self-serious film students, where Edebiri cracked a Downton Abbey joke, and no one laughed except Seligman. She was immediately sold. “She's so cute,” they say (Seligman uses both she and they pronouns). “She's endearing and genuine, she wears her heart on her sleeve and isn't afraid to be nerdy.”
The high school world within Bottoms, where two gay girls start a fight club to “put [their] fingers inside” cheerleaders, takes the camp silliness of its predecessors up 10 notches. Like in most teen comedies, football players rule the school, but they’re also worshiped to the point of idolatry by the faculty and most of the town. There’s a recreation of Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel’s ceiling fresco on school property, but in lieu of Adam reaching to touch God’s finger, it’s the school’s quarterback and illiterate villain, Jeff. A pep rally’s opening act is an abridged wet T-shirt contest (literally). When Josie finally gets her cheerleader crush Isabel (Havana Rose Liu) in her room, Isabel’s taken aback by a plain oversized hoodie. “Oh my God, I always wanted one of these,” she says with a warm, melt-your-heart smile. “But my mom says they hide your figure and make you look ugly.” (It’s also all scored, much to Seligman’s delight, by Leo Birenberg and Charli XCX: “I made it into her top 0.5% of Spotify listeners this year,” she says of the latter. “It was a big achievement for me.”)
In Bottoms, queerness is not a lesson to be learned. Much like your average heterosexual teenagers, PJ and Josie are also hormonal, selfish, and, frankly, kinda shitty. “I'm getting more and more tired by the second of queerness being the plot of movies or the conflict,” Seligman says. “I just want to see more of them dealing with other stuff in their lives.” In fact, the characters say it the best themselves: “No one hates us for being gay, everyone hates us for being gay, untalented, and ugly.”
Bottoms was a nerve-wracking, testing upgrade for Seligman. In the early days of Shiva Baby, Seligman didn’t have an insider understanding of the film industry and figured her best shot would be to take her thesis, use it as a proof of concept, and go to a film festival — anything to make the dream happen. TLDR: It worked. The film became a critical darling, gaining popularity with theatrical distribution and a spot on HBO. In 2022, Shiva Baby won the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award, which is given to films budgeted at less than $1 million by Film Independent. That same level of grit and hours clocked writing in coffee shops applied to Bottoms. “It's so cool now that we get to reflect back and be like, ‘It worked,’” she laughs. “We didn't know anything. We just did it because we wanted to.”
Shiva Baby, which follows the unmoored college student Danielle (Sennott) as she unexpectedly confronts both her married sugar daddy and her irritatingly composed ex-girlfriend at a claustrophobic family shiva, was shot on a tight indie film budget — one so strict that Seligman wrote the script with financing in mind. “Every single creative decision was made knowing or thinking about the budget and what we could afford,” she admits. On the other hand, Bottoms, which she co-wrote with Sennott at the same time, was conceptualized without any limitations. “When we were writing Bottoms, we weren't thinking about the budget. I look back and it's kind of nice that I was able to write both at the same time, to have one that was more of a free expression of stupid creativity, and then one that had to be very, very intentional in every way possible.”
Still, with her sophomore feature, she was no longer the director of a movie where the tight cast filmed in one house, but the director for a studio feature with a 200-person crew and MGM footing the multimillion-dollar bill. Along with director of photography Maria Rusche, they choreographed brutal fight scenes with little experience. “It felt very professional and it made me be like, ‘I can't joke around. I have to be professional in front of the crew. I can't, like, gossip.’” The days were long, the overnights were brutal, and she had to helm the ship with a brave face. But she had her moments.
“I’d be crying, saying, ‘I can't do this. This is so hard,’” she remembers. Much like with Shiva Baby, Sennott was her rock, and when needed, a motivational coach. “She’d be like, ‘Snap out of it! You're directing a studio movie. You have to. This is a dream. Save your tears for later.’” Seligman also had the support and mentorship of Elizabeth Banks, who served as a producer on the film, who deeply understood what she was going through, and pushed her to set the bar high from the beginning. "I remember talking to [her], and she was like, 'You’ve got to wear the mask. You’ve got to not go out. You have to set the examples as the director.'”
With two solid films under her belt in three years, it feels like Seligman can figure out how to do whatever she wants. There’s a steadiness to her that’s apparent in both her work and in person. She’s not here to shine bright and burn out fast. Seligman appreciates the Denis Villeneuves, Greta Gerwigs, and Christopher Nolans of the world, those who refuse to sacrifice their artistry and vision on big budget films. “My idols are those who make studio commercial movies and maintain their artistic vision, as opposed to getting swallowed up and eaten by the machine and making stuff that everyone wants you to make.”
One of the standout performances in Bottoms goes to Marshawn Lynch, the former Seattle Seahawks running back and one of the naturally funniest people alive (his beloved and much-memed “I’m just here so I don’t get fined” press conference interview might as well serve as an audition tape for all future acting gigs), who plays the mentally checked out, newly divorced teacher who signs on as PJ and Josie’s fight club advisor. He had never been in a movie before, but Seligman knew he was perfect for the role. “I think he thought I was crazy,” Seligman laughs. “He was like, ‘I think you got me confused with someone else.’”
Lynch ended up signing on to Bottoms for a simple, yet deeply personal reason, one that proves Seligman’s fight to keep pushing queer stories into uncharted genres: Lynch’s sister is queer, and Seligman said it meant a lot to him to be a part of it. “I think I'm enjoying being on this track record. I want to be able to make something as big as Barbie one day, but I also don't want to bite off more than I could chew,” she says. “I just want to continue to make movies with queer characters in genres we haven't seen before.”
Top Image Credits: Thom Browne top c/o Saks Fifth Avenue, Co pants c/o Saks Fifth Avenue, Lady Grey ring, Tag Heuer watch, Talent’s own necklace and earrings
Photographs by Ackime Snow
Styling by EJ Briones
Hair: Clara Leonard
Makeup : Samantha Lau
Photo Director: Alex Pollack
Editor in Chief: Alyssa Vingan
SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid
SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert