Bottoms' Emma Seligman on 'shitty queer characters' and the importance of realistic female friendships

The director of the revered high school comedy speaks to woo about wild humour, male fragility and girlification

The director of the revered high school comedy speaks to woo about wild humour, male fragility and girlification

By Darshita Goyal02 Nov 2023
9 mins read time
9 mins read time

Think of the last five movies you watched, chances are most (if not all) of them were neatly packaged to be stories with a clear moral. Of course they’re not as primitive as bedtime storybooks but there’s a theme, perhaps a hidden lesson, that the film wants you to take away. The last decade has witnessed a surge of mindful, inclusive, thought-provoking cinema; even certifiably bad Christmas movies leave viewers with notes on love and gratitude.

So when you watch Emma Seligman’s teen comedy Bottoms, it may feel like a refreshing but sharp slap in the face, forcing you to shut down the overthinking and truly immerse yourself in the utterly nonsensical and hilarious plot. The very horny film stars Rachel Sennott (who also co-wrote the movie with Seligman) as PJ and Ayo Edebiri as Josie, a lesbian best friend duo in their senior year of high school with one golden goal: to lose their virginity.

Not only are PJ and Josie self-proclaimed “ugly, untalented gays” but they also have massive crushes on the school’s hottest cheerleaders, Isabel (Havana Rose Liu) and Brittany (Kaia Gerber). So when cringe flirting and borderline stalking don’t result in any success, the duo decide to form a girls fight club to lure in their crushes with the promise of teaching self defence. After all, no matter how hot you are or where you rank on the social scale, stories of harassment and abuse sadly remain the same. This is where the movie enters peak chaotic energy, oscillating between surreal and stupid, silly, and violent.

To really enjoy Bottoms, it’s important to not take it too seriously. The film is set in an unhinged universe where a teacher sanctions a student fight club, watching girls wail on each other till they’re bloody and nauseous. Here, the queer characters aren’t just flag bearers of representation, they’re deeply flawed teenagers who often use female empowerment in an attempt to get laid. As Seligman tells woo, “I wanted to create something for queer audience members where they could see themselves on screen and just have fun. I didn’t want them to have to think too hard about their identity or any problems.”

The movie is also chock full of unsettling jokes about school bombings, rape, abuse, absentee parents and second-wave feminism, each leaving you in fits of laughter and mild disbelief over how the movie made it past censor boards. But the creators intended for these shocked gasps from the audience. In walking a tightrope between sensitivity and insanity, Bottoms creates a utopian world where teenagers are allowed to be more fixated on their sex lives than the repercussions of patriarchy. And honestly, it’s good out there.

Ahead of the film’s UK release on November 3, woo sat down with Seligman to chat about the film’s inspirations, its meathead male fragility and wild revenge plots.

This interview includes some spoilers for Bottoms

The film doesn’t take itself too seriously and the humour reflects that, as we see in the scene where the fight club discusses rape. How did you create a balance between the laughs and establishing boundaries?

Emma: We tried to establish that boundary early on. We did have jokes that got close to the edge and we decided that we wouldn’t go past that. But honestly, we expected more people to be offended by the humour than what we’ve heard so far.

The revenge sequence in the movie was pretty wild. How did you and Rachel write that up?

Emma: Revenge movies and revenge plots are so much fun. We had a great time at the whiteboard, just thinking about the best ways that these girls could plot revenge. We came up with the most crazy ideas, most of them ended up in the movie like with the bomb and [Jeff’s] car, and the girls driving up there in a weird van. The revenge theme allows you to have a lot of fun and play with reality in a way that other elements of comedy don't.

Were there any ideas on the whiteboard that didn’t make it to the final film?

Emma: Yeah, there were tons, there was an idea that the football players take these weird steroids that make them [look] like monsters. There were a lot more bombs, there was also an idea that the club would be a knitting club, I don't know why, I can't really remember. There was a lot that wasn't used but probably for the best.

Bottoms really plays into the Gen Z narrative of therapy speak being manipulative and the death of the girl boss, the characters literally use the guise of female empowerment to get laid. Why was it important for you to make a film with this approach?

Emma: Totally, Rachel and I weren't doing it consciously but I think we were tired of female friendships on screen being portrayed in an unrealistically over-supportive way. You know, where female friends need to be like, “you're amazing” and “girl boss” and “you got this” and “you're an angel, you never do anything wrong”. We wanted to show more flawed female characters, those that didn't care about feminism or empowerment. So yeah, having them use feminism to get laid felt like it was a fun way of playing with that concept while operating within it.

Even the portrayal of queer and teenage characters felt authentic, there was an honesty about just how horny they were.

Emma: I just wanted to see more flawed queer characters on screen and Rachel wanted to see more flawed female characters on screen. We’ve gotten more of these in the last 10 years but we still don't have a ton of references. It's not a great thing, but progress in representation is showing the shittiest versions of female, or queer or any sort of othered character, that hasn't gotten as much of a chance to be shitty and have humanity, so that's why it felt important.

A lot of the characters don’t label their sexuality, why did you decide that?

Emma: We just didn't feel like it made sense in this movie. There was a moment when we were writing, where we felt pressure to label all the characters and to make sure that the audience knew that Isabel was bisexual so that it didn't look like Josie was trying to prey upon her. But it just felt so forced, like we were talking down to our audience and at the same time we were trying to explain to an older audience what was going on. So we just took inspiration from Gen Zers in terms of the way that sexuality and labels are viewed. It’s not to say that [labels] are not important, they are, but I think that it's so cool to see so many young, queer people not feel the need to identify themselves. We just took inspiration from that and let ourselves play.

Bottoms released at a time when a lot of films are looking at male fragility from a comic lens, like the Kens in Barbie. Can you tell us about this comparison?

Emma: We just wanted to have fun while making fun of men. We weren’t trying to tear them down, but we were looking at these football towns and football movies where boys can get away with whatever because so much is riding on them, economically and culturally. We just had so much fun working with Nick Galitzine and Miles Fowler, while playing with that fragility. It also allowed us to make this critique while being so silly and stupid which I think is the best way.

Nicholas Galitzine is known for playing very poised, put-together characters. How did you help him adapt into this brawny, hyper masc role?

Emma: It wasn't hard at all. I think Nick played a version of this character in a posh way or like the romantic, poised male lead in YA projects so many times, that he was ready and excited to make fun of that, and flip this kind of character on its head. Also from the perspective of him being English, he had a lot of fun playing this super all-American character, and that's the way he pitched it to me. I loved that because I'm Canadian so the two of us had fun crafting the most American character together.

You have talked about the teen movies that inspired Bottoms, but if you had to think of one teen film that you wanted Bottoms to be nothing like, what would it be and why?

Emma: Ooo spicy! I wouldn't say that I didn't want it to be like this film but I didn't want to watch it again for inspiration because I didn't want to copy this movie in any way. Superbad was such a big influence, and to me it’s like the North Star for any high school sex comedy. It’s been so ingrained in so many of us that I just knew that its influence would infiltrate the movie without me even referencing it at all. So I made a conscious choice to not rewatch it and to stay away from it as much as I can over the five or six years that it took to create Bottoms. So it's not that we didn't want it to be anything like it, I just didn't want to copy it.

Almost half a decade of work later, when the film hit cinemas, the response was explosive. What was the most impressive and/or surprising compliment that you received about the movie? Who was it from?

Emma: I wish I had a more specific answer but anytime that a young person or a teenager says that the movie got them or their generation, it makes me feel flattered. Rachel and I started writing this when we were like 21 or 22, even then we knew that we wouldn't fully understand how teenagers at that point talk or how they use social media. We definitely knew that by the time the movie came out we would feel even less connected to them. Growing up, I watched teen movies that were often written by adults who didn't understand me or my friends and my generation. So anytime a teenager has told me that they felt like the movie got them, that to me is a very, very big compliment and surprising because I didn't expect it.

Bottoms releases in theatres across the UK and Ireland on November 3