“Bottoms” might just be unlike anything you’ve seen before — and that’s by design.
Writer-director Emma Seligman pulled inspiration from left-of-center cult classics like “Jawbreaker” and “Wet Hot American Summer” for the Orion Pictures release, resulting in a fearless, hard-R absurdist sex comedy that’s at once violent, cringey and heartfelt — and feels boundary pushing.
Refreshingly, it doesn’t spend a minute second-guessing what it is, but Seligman admitted that’s only after tirelessly calibrating its tone with cowriter and star (and previous “Shiva Baby” collaborator) Rachel Sennott.
“That was the hardest thing about making this movie,” Seligman told TheWrap of striking the tonal balance of “Bottoms.” “Making a lot of movies, tone is really tricky to achieve — especially with a comedy — in terms of navigating how much you care about the characters, or how much emotion there should be. From writing it up until literally editing it, [we were] trying to figure out what what was hitting the limit of how crazy we were allowed to go while still having the audience in our hands. You want to be giving and caring to audience members and not throw them around all over the place and have them in seven different movies.”
Looking at the story, “Bottoms” definitely seems like a difficult needle to thread. Centered on a pair of unpopular, queer high schoolers named PJ (Sennott) and Josie (“The Bear” Emmy nominee Ayo Edebiri), the movie charts their ill-advised effort to seduce and hook up with their popular crushes — Brittany (Kaia Gerber) and Isabel (Havana Rose Liu), respectively— by starting a fight club for girls at their school with the help of a woebegone faculty advisor, Mr. G (played by a hilarious Marshawn Lynch).
Dressed up as an effort in feminist bonding, the two lie and manipulate their way through bloody noses and black eyes while never losing sight of their horny end goal.
“There were versions of the script that were more grounded, where we cared more deeply about the characters. And then there were definitely versions of the script where you didn’t care at all and it was just total ridiculous stupidity, which was also fun,” Seligman said. “But throughout making it, every step of the way up until the last second it was like: Is this joke taking us out of this world?”
Read on to learn exactly how she and Sennott pulled it off, their desire to lean into taboo subjects through humor and why their creative partnership across two feature films has remained so fruitful.
I was lucky enough to see this film as part of Outfest at the DGA, which I think was a really awesome audience to see it with. What did you think of sitting and watching this film with a sold-out crowd? I know your first film didn’t get that treatment due to the state of COVID at the time.
It was amazing. I love that theater and that audience. I was a great, great crowd and really enthusiastic. It’s always really nice to be able to watch something you made in theaters that’s a comedy that people can laugh at. And it was also especially nice to share it at a queer film festival and see how certain jokes landed better than potentially other audiences. So I had a great time.
I really want to dig into your exploration of tone with “Bottoms” because it is so unabashedly itself, never questions what it is and is so absurd and grounded at the same time. Did it feel like a balancing act for you as a creator and working with Rachel to navigate what the tone is going to be?
Definitely, yeah, I think that was the hardest thing about making this movie. Making a lot of movies, tone is really tricky to achieve, especially with a comedy, in terms of navigating how much you care about the characters, or how much emotion there should be. From writing it up until literally editing it, [we were] trying to figure out what what was hitting the limit of how crazy we were allowed to go while still having the audience in our hands. You want to be giving and caring to audience members and not throw them around all over the place and have them in seven different movies. So that was definitely tricky.
There were versions of the script that were more grounded, where we cared more deeply about the characters. And then there were definitely versions of the script where you didn’t care at all and it was just total ridiculous stupidity, which was also fun. But throughout making it, every step of the way up until the last second it was like: Is this joke taking us out of this world?
You definitely weren’t afraid to lean into the absurdity of the premise. What were some inspirations that you were pulling from? Were you looking to any films of the past that have those high jinks, that R-rated absurdity that you’re playing with here?
Totally. I think that on the campiest end of the spectrum, it was “Wet Hot American Summer.” Looking at all the decisions they made in that movie, they didn’t care at all — they just had so much fun and it was so ridiculous. And then everything that came out in that era that was female-driven like “Sugar & Spice” and “Jawbreakers” and “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” “But I’m a Cheerleader.”
Then in terms of finding that balance, “Bring It On” and “Mean Girls” and “Superbad,” honestly, were references, because I feel like maybe they’re not as absurd and ridiculous. But “Bring It On” definitely borders that a little bit. It’s almost getting to the level of absurdity with how much they care about cheerleading. But all those movies have heart.
The beauty of seeing a film like this with an audience is that you can see the real-time reaction. And I won’t spoil it here, but there’s one memorable joke about the “gray area” of the girls’ experience with sexual assault that gets a catch-in-your-throat sort of laugh. It seems to me you’re really saying something about what it is to be a woman today, and I’m curious what the intention was of incorporating humor has emotional heft alongside the more absurd.
I think that it sort of comes out subconsciously as you’re just trying to fill in the world and fill in the characters and what they’re trying to do. You know, I think when it comes to dark subject matters, especially when it comes to being a woman or a queer person, I do — and I think we do — end up laughing about it more than we end up seriously talking about things because that’s the only way to get through it.
Within the context of that joke… it’s not like we were purposely like, ‘How do we sneak in commentary on what these women are going through?’ But I think that it just kind of happens when you’re trying to make a satire and reflect the world that these teens are living in. I think so much of the time with teen comedies, especially nowadays, they’re in worlds where none of these issues seem to really be part of their lives or the culture that they’re in. I feel like anytime we approach really taboo or dramatic or current, dark subject matter with high school stories, it’s quite dark and tragic. And that makes sense. But these are just the jokes that fill up the world of these characters.
When it came to casting this film, the chemistry between Ayo Edebiri and Rachel Sennott is probably the most important thing for its success. What what was it like discovering and calibrating the chemistry that these two have together?
It was so beautiful. I already knew they had chemistry, because I used to go to their comedy shows in New York that they would do together with other wonderful alt comedians that are now popular, which is so cool — like Patti Harrison, Ziwe and the Please Don’t Destroy guys. I already knew they had this chemistry, but it was so cool to watch it happen in front of my eyes in real-time.
Watching them play off of each other, even in real life, as friends is hilarious to witness. But I think in trying to get to certain parts of the scene or figure out, how do we make this plot point clear, or whatnot — especially when it was scenes just between the two of them — it was really beautiful to watch two friends do their thing and to be able to manipulate the chemistry and be like, ‘Oh, my God, now I get to do this with the chemistry.’ To find this plot point, we get to highlight this emotional moment for this character while using this relationship that I already knew existed.
And you have this continued creative partnership with Rachel. What is something that you feel like she brings out of you as a creative, and what’s something that you might bring out of her?
I think that she encourages me to literally just write more. I think that I can get quite in my head and be like, ‘It has to be perfect.’ And she really just encourages creativity and lets me think and write more freely. That’s informed how I write in general, in terms of getting something on the page and not overthinking it, and then going from there.
And I think that I’ve challenged her to be a little bit more thoughtful about the details and less concerned with just getting it off in time to meet our deadline and our goal. As friends and people, she’s encouraged me just to be more confident, honestly, and to not take no for an answer, and to kind of see through people’s bulls–t and be like, ‘Yeah, OK,’ and just continue moving on. I don’t really know what I’ve done for her in that realm — she seems to be fine on her own.
“Bottoms” hits theaters Friday.