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Emma SeligmanHandout

If Toronto-born filmmaker Emma Seligman’s new comedy Bottoms could be boiled down to an elevator pitch, it might be “Fight Club meets But I’m a Cheerleader meets Wet Hot American Summer.”

The film, outrageous and outré, follows two queer best friends (played by the film’s co-writer Rachel Sennott and The Bear breakout Ayo Edebiri) who set up a “fight club” in their high school in order to hook up with the two cheerleaders they each have crushes on.

The plan is as sound as anything else in the film, which is to say not very – Bottoms imagines a surreal Anytown, U.S.A., high-school environment in which the football players are treated as gods (even though they can’t manage a simple pass), the principal has a blood lust for a rival school and no one bats an eye when the local feminism-history teacher (played by NFL great Marshawn Lynch) flips through a porn magazine in class.

Bottoms is a big, wild, go-for-broke satire with an expansive canvas and budget to match – making it everything that Seligman’s first film, the intensely claustrophobic microbudget 2020 Jewish comedy Shiva Baby, also starring Sennott, was not. Which is what both energized and terrified Seligman.

Ahead of her film’s Sept. 1 release, the director sat down with The Globe and Mail in Toronto to talk about movies and mitzvahs.

I felt the guiding force of Wet Hot American Summer in Bottoms from the start. Was that your North Star while writing this with Rachel?

From the beginning. I don’t think we thought too hard about how divorced from reality this should be, but we knew that we wanted to stretch how much we could get away with in this world. I hadn’t seen Wet Hot until I started writing this script with Rachel, as it’s one of her favourite movies. It was a mix of that and the campy, female-centred nineties comedies I loved like Drop Dead Gorgeous, Sugar & Spice, Jawbreakers. We wanted to create something for women and young queer people that was fun and stupid.

Shiva Baby was made for just $200,000. Bottoms offers up a whole wide open world, with the resources scaled up to match.

It was exciting but challenging in every way. The money and resources for this were more than I could have hoped for, but no version of it could have been made smaller. It would have changed the inherent tone if we couldn’t have stunts or bombs going off. This was a set of 200 people without actors or extras, so you can’t move quickly on your feet, pick up your three people and move to another part of the house to shoot like in Shiva Baby.

Did you feel that you had your choice of projects in the wake of Shiva Baby’s success?

It was a slow, gradual build of meeting people and looking at other projects after Shiva Baby premiered at TIFF. The pandemic gave me a sort of grace period of writing and refining Bottoms with Rachel. And then we met producer Alison Small at Elizabeth Banks’ Brownstone Productions – she understood the script completely, because no other producers did. They were all like, “a comedy with girls fighting?” They couldn’t put the genres together. I was about to go direct something that conflicted with Bottoms, a director-for-hire situation, and I had to pick. I knew in my gut that I wasn’t going to push aside this script that I had been writing with my best friend.

You met Rachel during your time at NYU. What has the collaborative process been like?

Any time I’m questioning my faith or spirituality, I think about meeting Rachel and feel that maybe something bigger than me exists. It’s been the most grounding, humbling and exciting relationship. I think Rachel and I will collaborate in the future, but we also agree that we need a break. Working so closely with someone you’re friends with requires tough love. It’s not just, “You got this, girl,” it’s more, “Snap out of it!”

Shiva Baby is, obviously, a very Jewish film. Bottoms, not so much.

The film did have a lot more Christian stuff, though, but the test-screening audiences didn’t understand how this small town could be so sexual and Christian at the same time. I was like, “It’s a commentary!” But people didn’t get it, so we stripped that out. But I definitely want to continue to make Jewish stuff.

You’re from Toronto, but you studied at NYU and have made both your films in the U.S. Do you think of yourself as a Canadian filmmaker?

I definitely want to tell more Canadian stories, or stories that just take place in Canada. With Shiva Baby, I didn’t grow up in New York, these characters are Toronto Jews and this is coming from the Toronto Jewish world, but it took place in some vague suburb of New York. I felt conflicted about that. I love when movies have a specific location and you can tell that this filmmaker understands the community. I hope to be able to tell more authentic stories from a Canadian perspective.

Was attending NYU the dream for you growing up?

I didn’t think it was – I just wanted to go to film school. But I was just going through my old journals when I was 11 and it was, “I have to get out of here! I have to go to New York!” I feel very lucky that my mom and dad reluctantly supported my endeavours to be a filmmaker. And getting there was a full after-school activity, the intense application process and the fees. When I was at school and met another international student, I would go “I see you.” Americans, they don’t know the process.

It feels like Bottoms is going to be devoured in certain social-media circles. It’s a movie ready-made to be meme-ified, similar to Shiva Baby. How much do you pay attention to social reactions?

I’m not online – no Twitter or TikTok. But Rachel is, and she sends me the responses. I know that the success of Shiva Baby came from young queer women and young Jewish women online, and even though I wasn’t checking things I could feel their conversations acting as a launching pad that allowed us to succeed. When we premiered Bottoms at SXSW this spring and I was able to meet audiences in-person, it was all that you can hope for. When you’re making something for years on your own, you just hope that someone sees it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.



Directed by Emma Seligman

Written by Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott

Starring Rachel Sennott, Ayo Edebiri and Marshawn Lynch

Classification: N/A; 92 minutes

Opens in theatres Sept. 1

Critic’s Pick

Wild, brash and intensely ambitious, Emma Seligman’s new film Bottoms is the most excitingly original teen-sex comedy to come along in ages. Teenage best-friends P.J. (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) are in their senior year of high school and desperate to get laid before heading off to college. Their crushes, a pair of unattainable (and attached, presumably straight) cheerleaders, don’t seem to even know that they exist, so P.J. and Josie start a self-defence group that’s really a girls-only fight club in a bid to attract attention.

The wild plot mechanics are secondary, though, to the surreal high-school world that Seligman and co-writer Sennott create – a heightened reality that feels as wide and epic as the filmmaker’s first film, 2020′s Shiva Baby, felt claustrophobic and intimate. While Bottoms’ final leg dips ever so slightly into genuine emotion – forgetting its detached ironic cool – Seligman’s concoction is delightfully strange and unabashedly, proudly queer. The Canadian filmmaker also scores big bonus points for wringing a perfectly deadpan performance from NFL great Marshawn Lynch as P.J. and Josie’s fight-club mentor. B.H.

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