“Ottooms” is a typical high school movie that follows all the common high school movie cliches. It includes characters like nerds and jocks, dramatic slow claps, romantic gestures on the football field, and graffiti-covered lockers. There is also a sad montage set to Avril Lavigne’s song “Complicated”. However, the main characters are PJ and Josie, who are labeled as “unattractive and untalented homosexuals”. They start an after-school fight club with the goal of having sex with the cheerleaders. The girls in the club punch each other in the face, teachers read porn magazines in class, and everyone tries to act “empowered”. Despite all of this chaos, the film somehow manages to be a heartwarming joy. Surprisingly, it may be one of the least serious films I have seen in a long time.
Emma Seligman, the 28-year-old director, is currently in London discussing the process of creating a comedy centered around amoral and sexually charged teenage lesbians. The journey was far from easy and quick, as Seligman and her co-writer Rachel Sennott, who also stars as PJ and previously worked with Seligman on her debut film Shiva Baby, began brainstorming the idea six years ago. Despite facing rejection from nearly every studio, except for one that showed partial interest, Orion Pictures ultimately gave the green light. Seligman acknowledges that the concept may not be conventional, but Orion understood it and she felt confident to push forward. Anyone involved in the making of this movie, whether it be the financing or the actors or even the sound editing, knew what they were getting into.
Surprisingly, given that they dreamed up the idea for Bottoms six years ago, it changed very little on its journey from page to screen. “Because the movie is so absurd, it existed in its own world,” Seligman says. “If we were trying to make something more timely, it might have evolved more. But, if anything, the jokes that were written six years ago are just more relevant.” One character says that her vagina belongs to the government, a line that was written long before Roe v Wade was overturned.
It’s difficult to determine the specific time period of the film, and this ambiguity was intentional. There are old-fashioned flip phones and CD Walkmans included, which was a conscious decision for both practical and artistic reasons. The creators purposely chose not to incorporate technology or social media into the film because they were aware of how rapidly teenagers communicate and did not want to patronize their audience. However, this also gave Seligman the opportunity to imagine an alternate timeline where LGBTQ+ characters could have been represented in various decades of teen movies.
At first, Seligman didn’t have any specific sources in mind, but once she and Sennott decided on Bottoms as a possible option, they watched older films in the queer genre such as the satirical But I’m a Cheerleader and the spy comedy DEBS. There’s even a nod to But I’m a Cheerleader in the film, when two characters go on a date at a restaurant called But I’m a Diner. Seligman mentions that the only other queer teen reference she had was the film Jennifer’s Body, which features a highly-regarded performance by Megan Fox as a flesh-eating character. Seligman explains that this was her main inspiration for portraying two teen girls kissing out of desire, rather than just for show or practice, which she considers to be a significant moment.
The film Bottoms contains a scene with sexual content, but it is not shown explicitly. The director explains that she did not want to push the boundaries of representation too far and was hesitant to include graphic sex scenes, unlike some male directors before her. She also had concerns about objectification and appropriateness. Despite this, the scene ended up being more revealing than initially intended. The director felt it was necessary to show the character’s accomplishment before the story takes a negative turn.
Bottoms embraces the idea of “empowerment” in their culture, using a fight club as a space for girls to openly discuss personal issues and secrets. However, the true intention of the club is for PJ and Josie to gain sexual conquests. Seligman clarifies that the empowering aspect comes from showcasing the flawed nature of the characters. She and Rachel wanted to break away from the common portrayal of female friendships as always supportive and loving, and instead explore the complexities and manipulations that can exist within them.
In the film Shiva Baby, Sennott portrays a young woman attending a shiva with her family. During this period of mourning, she encounters her highly successful ex-girlfriend and a married man who has been paying her for sex work. The movie is a concise and claustrophobic comedy, filmed on a limited budget, and based on Seligman’s short film that was her undergraduate thesis at New York University. The feature-length version was set to premiere at the SXSW festival in 2020, but it was cancelled due to Covid. Sennott recalls finishing the film just 30 minutes before receiving the news. She had expected it to be shelved, but she prefers to keep her expectations low, which she jokes may be influenced by her Jewish or Canadian background.
However, Shiva Baby did not simply remain stagnant. It made its rounds, earned recognition, and propelled Seligman and Sennott into the spotlight. Did the film’s success catch Seligman off guard, considering her modest expectations? “Partially,” she admits. “Deep down, I wanted to believe that it would do well. My main aspirations were to premiere at a festival, secure distribution, and fund my next project.” Yet, she did not anticipate the overwhelming support it received online. “It was truly lifted up by the enthusiastic response of young people, LGBTQ+ individuals, and young women who viewed the film at virtual festivals prior to its release. I feel like everyone united for their respective communities.”
Shiva Baby had a budget of $200,000, while Bottoms had a budget of $11.3m. Seligman acknowledges that the transition, especially in terms of size, was challenging. “During the making of Shiva Baby, I quickly felt like it was my own film. However, it wasn’t until the end of production on Bottoms that I really felt the same way.” For Shiva Baby, she collaborated with friends from her film school. With Bottoms, she was leading a much larger team. “I was working with men and people much older than me who were technically reporting to me. Although they were all wonderful, it was a group that I wasn’t accustomed to working with. It pushed me out of my comfort zone.” Elizabeth Banks, known for her roles in The Hunger Games and Pitch Perfect and as the director of Cocaine Bear, is one of the producers of the film. “She simplifies it by saying that the only way to learn how to make movies is by making them. So I just had to dive in.”
The films Shiva Baby and Bottoms were released in quick succession, leaving Seligman in a phase of brainstorming for her next project. She plans to continue collaborating with her trusted team, including Sennott, Rusche, and Edebiri, who stars as Josie in Bottoms. Seligman enjoys having her friends by her side and appreciates the shorthand they have developed in their working relationship.
Can Seligman be enticed to join the popular movie franchise, like indie directors Chloé Zhao and Barry Jenkins have done in the past? Has Marvel approached her? “No, they haven’t,” she replies. “I am open to any genre and it would be a privilege to be considered for anything. However, I am not sure if I would excel in that type of work or if it is my destiny.” She grins. “But if it can have a strong LGBTQ+ representation? Absolutely.”