With the somber, sardonic “Shiva Baby” behind her, Emma Seligman’s newest project “Bottoms” glimmers with bloodlust — in every sense of the word. David Fincher, step aside: A scrappier, sexier fight club has just entered the building.
“ ‘Fight Club’ just felt the most silly and stupid in a way of trying to lose their virginities,” Seligman said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “It felt the most ridiculous in terms of how horny, and how shitty, can these characters be?”
Seligman has certainly hit the mark for horny and shitty characters: PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) are unpopular best friends who start an all-female fight club at their high school in an attempt to become cooler and lose their virginities to the popular cheerleaders they like. Uninhibited and hilarious, the darkly satirical sex comedy has everything: impressively gory fight scenes, cartoonishly sexist football players and risque bouts of roasts. But raunchiness aside, what makes “Bottoms” great is the honesty and heart at its core.
“We really at first didn’t want to write characters that you needed to care about at all,” Seligman said. “We were really tired of seeing female characters that need to be understood and treated like fully well-rounded humans, where we need to understand their backstory in order to know why they’re being selfish or being shallow. We were like, they should just be allowed to be all these negative things. But we were slowly encouraged to ground it a little bit and therefore care more about the characters, and therefore have it be funnier in a way, because you believe them, and you’re supporting them.”
This counterbalance of ridiculousness and authenticity puts “Bottoms” on par with films that walk a similar comedic line. Seligman cites this genre of stylistically weird, provocative comedies as tonal touchstones for her. From classic high school chick flicks such as “Bring It On” and “Mean Girls” to vulgar slapsticks “American Pie” and “Superbad” to the action-packed magical realism of Edgar Wright’s filmography, “Bottoms” riffs on a medley of comedic paragons. Still, the film manages to remain seminal: Its unabashed portrayal of horny female sexuality — horny queer female sexuality, at that — has thus far been severely underrepresented.
“Sometimes it can feel like there’s pressure because it’s queer, and there hasn’t been too much representation in terms of our reference points,” Seligman said. “Should we explain this? Should we identify this person’s sexuality or over-explain something to a straight audience? But then it also feels really fun and fresh and empowering to just do whatever and have the characters be queer.”
As one of few sapphic films that are shamelessly sexual, “Bottoms” certainly empowers. But not everyone agrees: The crew faced complications when it came to finding filming locations and product placements — apparently, brazenly horny and violent lesbian teens make for wildly offensive content.
“I guess people don’t love seeing this onscreen, because usually when you see violence against teen girls onscreen, it’s being perpetrated against them,” Seligman said. “There was something empowering about these characters doing it to themselves as a means of letting out their angst and their frustrations with themselves and the world.”
Indeed, the film’s fight scenes shine brightest — thanks to an intensive boot camp for the actors, complex cinematography and a generous budget. In comparison to Seligman’s low-budget directorial debut, “Bottoms” had $11.3 million to spend on elaborate stunt sequences, special effects and a catchy pop soundtrack composed by Charli XCX. Between both of her films, Seligman (who started “Bottoms” while also working on “Shiva Baby”) has demonstrated an impressive duality and ability to extend herself across a diverse cinematic range.
“I looked forward to meeting (Rachel Sennott) and having her make me laugh and whatever, as I was writing this more deeply personal, darker story,” Seligman said. “That’s the only way I was able to write both of them in their own way — because they were so different. I think if they were more similar in tone, I might have started to feel like I was doing the same thing twice.”
Like Seligman, “Bottoms” star and co-writer Sennott is also a graduate of NYU. After playing the lead role in “Shiva Baby,” she reunited with Seligman, the two working closely together to write their second collaboration.
“She changed my writing process in that she allowed it to be much more free and creative,” Seligman said. “I think I feel open to co-writing again. It’s challenging in its own way, because you have to get your head inside of someone else’s, and there’s so much of that for directing that writing alone can sometimes be a nice, independent process.”
Both of Seligman’s projects are proof of the pair’s undeniable creative chemistry and magnetic talent. This generation’s female Scorcese/De Niro, queer Sofia Coppola/Kirsten Dunst, up-and-coming Ford/Wayne — the pairing boasts an unimaginable potential.
“I definitely want to work with Rachel again. I think we both do,” she said. “I have a million ideas, and I’m excited to explore them. As opposed to ‘Bottoms,’ (which) was ready to go right after ‘Shiva Baby,’ I’m taking a little bit more time to figure out what the next endeavor is. But I hope that it’s equally weird in its own way.”