If there were ever a DVD director’s cut for Emma Seligman’s sophomore film Bottoms, it would start with her favorite deleted scene. “The movie opened with Rachel [Sennott] and Ayo [Edebiri] masturbating in the bunks,” Seligman recalls, sitting outside of her favorite local cafe in Bushwick. “I thought it was funny but, for test audiences, it was confusing where the movie was going to take place. That’s the only scene that I’m like, ‘Damn, I miss that.’” Even though it never made the final cut, Seligman successfully managed to bring her dreams of a raunchy and utterly chaotic teen coming-of-age comedy to life with the new film, opening in theaters August 25.
Fans have already dubbed Bottoms the “horny, queer Fight Club” of teen films. In fact, it’s the brainchild of Seligman and her co-writer-slash-BFF (and the film’s star), Sennott: a modern homage to fun-filled Y2K rom-coms. It’s a tale as old as time: two high school losers trying to ditch their virginities scheme up a wild plan to woo their cool girl crushes, played by Havana Liu Richards and Kaia Gerber. Naturally, shenanigans ensue: they laugh, they cry, they love, but in Seligman’s vision, they also throw a punch and a kick, wrestle, and ultimately, participate in an over-the-top, bloody football field showdown.
Following the success of her 2020 debut film, Shiva Baby, the 28-year-old Seligman was met with accolades from audiences and critics alike, securing her upward trajectory in a challenging industry. From an indie film shot in one location to a studio production with a bigger budget, bigger cast, and stunts, Seligman took the learning curves in stride. With support from her new mentors—executive producer Elizabeth Banks, and Don’t Look Up director Adam McKay, to name a couple—her director of photography, Maria Rusche, and pal Sennott, Seligman learned early on to ask for what she needed. “Maybe it’s a bad thing, but I’m never shy about the inexperience that I have, and asking for a little bit of hand-holding and for things to be over-explained to me,” she says.
Her comfort with the unknown and a particularly empathetic-yet-calm presence makes way for a symphony of diverse cast members. Only in Seligman’s world would we witness NFL star Marshawn Lynch and top runway model Kaia Gerber existing symbiotically onscreen—where the former consents to the latter taking a right hook to her classmate.
Throughout our conversation, Seligman gushes over Edebiri’s improv work as the nerdy, self-aware Josie. Edebiri, whose fame has skyrocketed with her Emmy-nominated turn in FX’s The Bear, happened to be a college pal and comedy partner of Sennott’s. Seligman admits “the stakes were so low” when she and Sennott were first conceptualizing the film in 2019, that Edebiri agreed to a starring role almost immediately. The timing of casting also fell into place perfectly with Gerber, who Seligman had been considering for the role of popular beauty Brittany. “Kaia was originally on our list because we wanted to fill the movie up with unexpected people who hadn’t acted before,” she says. “Somehow she got hold of the script and created her own sides and sent in her own tapes, because she really wanted it. Rachel and I were so flattered, first of all, but secondly, we were like, she’s so good and so funny and understands the genre that this movie is, and she’s playing it sincerely and yet also with camp.”
Sennott, naturally, took the lead role as scrappy underdog PJ. Since forming at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Seligman and Sennott’s creative partnership has evolved into a budding Hollywood powerhouse duo. Their origin story is a script in itself: two best friends climb the ranks of Tinseltown hand-in-hand, reflecting on their journey before every film. “Rachel and I will have some private moments or walks together where we’re like, ‘Look how far we’ve come. Let’s take this in, and we got this,’” Seligman says. Sennott serves as a comedic counterweight. While Seligman is not one to shy from giving others’ their comedic credits where they’re due, the one rather iconic Bottoms choice she takes full responsibility for is the essential-to-the-plot Avril Lavigne needle drop. “‘Complicated’ was our first choice, and then we were so shocked that we could get it,” she says of the kick-the-can scene of major conflict between PJ and Josie. “‘Come Clean’ was the alternative,” she says, referencing the equally early aughts-coded Hilary Duff song. “‘Come Clean,’ as Ayo put it really well, requires someone dancing and crying in the rain. It’s moody, but it’s not moody in a teen dirtbag way.”
“Teen dirtbag” is certainly not the way Seligman would describe her own 16-year-old self. Raised in a family of self-certified “movie buffs” in her hometown of Toronto, Seligman’s career started at age nine, when she became a jury member for the TIFF Kids Film Festival. After that pivotal exposure to international and independent films, there were three main moments she attributes to sparking her passion for directing: Kathryn Bigelow’s historic 2010 Best Director Oscar win for The Hurt Locker, meeting like-minded “film nerds” in high school as a member of TIFF’s Next Wave, and directing her first high school play with no prior experience. “I think that a lot of younger directors and a lot of female directors have this insecurity of, I don’t know what it’s like to direct, it’s this big mystifying thing,” she says. “There’s some secret that I don’t know, when really it’s just learning bit by bit the pieces that go into it.”
Her big debut came in 2020, when Shiva Baby finished production right as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “I remember Rachel and Molly [Gordon] were like, ‘This sucks.’ And I was like, ‘At least we finished the movie,’” she says of her first release. “Now that I’m going to film festivals with Bottoms, I’m like, ‘Oh, this is what I missed out on.’” Though with the SAG-AFTRA strike halting press and red carpets, she is once again facing film premiere obstacles. “It just feels like you have to laugh,” she says of the ill-timing. “That’s the only way to get through it. And just be appreciative for what you have had the opportunity to do.”
Seligman’s sophomore debut may not be getting the red carpet treatment, but it is perfectly positioned at the height of the theater renaissance. “It’s so weird and amazing and bonkers that everyone’s returning to the theaters in the middle of the strike,” she says. “The fact that Barbie is bringing so many people back to the theaters, Barbenheimer as a whole, but Barbie specifically. Of course, this is happening literally when our industry is on fire.”
Seligman’s career thus far has been marked by an ability to overcome the adversities of a constantly evolving industry. But unlike her Bottoms characters, getting socked in the face wasn’t part of the process. “No,” she replies when I ask her if she’s ever gotten into a scuffle “But I would love to get punched in the face.”
Bottoms in select theaters August 25.