“Wholesome queer characters make me angry”: Emma Seligman on her new teen sex comedy, Bottoms
The blockbuster from the 28-year-old Toronto-born director stars Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri as two lesbian teens who try to woo their cheerleader crushes by starting a fight club
Being a teenager is an emotionally volatile experience. Few among us can say they gracefully handled being hit in the face by hormones, existential dread and an acute awareness of their own bodies. But what if there were more actual hitting involved? This is one of the essential questions posed by Bottoms, Emma Seligman’s new teen sex comedy. It follows two “ugly, untalented gays,” played by Rachel Sennot (Shiva Baby) and Ayo Edebiri (The Bear), as they start a high school fight club in the hopes of their cheerleader crushes thanking them with a makeout session.
The premise may sound unhinged, but it’s clearly giving the people what they want—Bottoms clobbered the box office as soon as it opened. Here, Seligman—a 28-year-old Toronto-born director and co-writer who worked with an $11.3-million budget—talks about imposter syndrome on set, why she’s passionate about shitty queer characters and the closest she got to a fight during her own high school days.
You grew up around Yonge and Eglinton and then moved to New York, graduating from NYU’s film school in 2017. Before your first film, Shiva Baby, was released in 2021, you were taking babysitting jobs for extra cash. Were you a good babysitter?
I think I was pretty good. I babysat this one kid for three years in New York. She was wonderful. I tried to instill my Canadian manners into the American kids, which was challenging, but I think it made a difference.
Since then, your directing career has catapulted, and now you’re fresh off of Bottoms, which is already closing in on cult-classic status. What has that experience been like?
The reaction to Bottoms feels like a slightly bigger version of what happened with Shiva Baby, where most of the talk about the movie is virtual. It’s from young queer people and young women who are having conversations online. I can feel it from a distance, energetically, and of course it’s created enormous success for the movie. But, outside of that, it hasn’t really had a huge impact on my day-to-day life.
So the fame hasn’t gone to your head?
Ha, definitely not. I hope not. I think my family and friends would tell me if it had.
You’ve talked a lot about how it was difficult to get industry people to understand that these teen girls would literally be fighting one another—even when you were on set. Why do you think that was hard for people to grasp?
Probably just sexism and internalized misogyny. I don’t think anyone meant anything by it; they truly just hadn’t seen it before. We were also trying to combine a few different genres, and with other sex comedies, like Superbad or American Pie, there isn’t as much fighting, and certainly not girls fighting. So, even though the movie was about a fight club and there were stunt sequences written out, maybe they couldn’t imagine it because the tone and genre was so particular. That plus a little misogyny.
I saw the movie in theatres—there was a lot of gasping, in a good way. Was that the effect you were going for?
We weren’t trying to shock anyone. It was just meant to reflect the reality of a fight club situation. If we were going to have a bunch of girls who don’t know how to fight suddenly punching one another, it should feel surprising. And once we saw the first few audiences react to the movie, it was clear that the violence was contributing to the humour—sort of playing with what people expect in the realm of comedy. It added to the excitement you hopefully feel when you’re seeing a movie in theatres.
Movies starring loser high school characters trying to get girls are a time-honoured tradition. What do you think a version with queer teens adds to the canon?
I mean, we’re losers too, right? I think that this kind of teen movie is a universal genre—almost anyone can insert themselves into the role of teenage loser, no matter their gender or age or sexuality. Even people who were popular felt insecure in school at some point, and we all have some experience with crushes. So I was happy to get to do a queer version of that, and I hope that we see many more.
Given the current attacks on queer and trans rights, there may be some pressure to create LGBTQ characters who are wholesome or sanitized. Why did it feel important to go to the other end of the spectrum and create characters who are openly deceitful and horny?
To me, that’s true representation. I get really angry when I see wholesome queer characters on screen, because I don’t know anyone who’s like that, regardless of whether they’re queer or straight. For so long, portraying queer characters as wholesome was considered such a wonderful swing against ideas of queerness as inherently perverted. It was important to establish us as people who had morality and innocence, especially for young characters. But I don’t feel like those are real people, so that’s why I tend to write shittier characters.
Was it challenging to wrangle a 200-plus-person set on Bottoms as a relatively new director?
It was hard. I struggled to untangle what felt hard because this was my first time doing a big movie versus what felt hard because I was a young queer person in this role. To be honest, I think everything was hard because it was just such a big step up from a small-budget indie. The crew was really nice, but in my head I was like, No one likes me—I don’t have any experience. I think honestly everyone else was mostly like, It’s fine—I’m just here to work.
The two leads are played by Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri, who are former NYU classmates and close friends of yours. What’re the pros and cons of working with your buds?
One pro is that it’s so much fun. Especially coming off of really low-budget sketches or indie movies and going to everyone’s grimy comedy shows, it feels like, Oh my god, we’re making a movie. This is sick. There’s also a lot of trust there. I think the challenging part can be asserting yourself as the director. In smaller projects, things can be a bit more fluid, but in something of this size, these particular roles exist for a reason. It could be difficult to make the final call when there was any level of disagreement, especially since I was already feeling some imposter syndrome. They were always great about it, but it was hard for me to wrap my head around at times.
Sennott and Edebiri also improvised some of the film’s dialogue. How do you balance letting actors riff on the script while keeping things under control?
I don’t think I found that balance. I’d never worked with improv before. Initially, I tried to be pretty conservative about it—a lot of other directors had advised me to be really specific about when I wanted improv to come in, and always to get a take of the scripted dialogue first. But Rachel and Ayo just love having fun, and they’re so good at improv. Often what they improvised would be funnier than what was on the page. Though honestly, on set, it’s hard to tell—the crew isn’t allowed to laugh, and I find it hard to observe humour as a director. You’re always thinking of a million things. Mostly I would just panic because it wasn’t what was written in the script. Luckily, when you have such talented actors and crew, it’s an embarrassment of riches once you get to the edit.
Did you find yourself nostalgic for your own high school days while working on the movie?
No, just because the movie was so American. It felt pretty distant from my own experience. This summer, though, we did a screening at TIFF. I used to spend so much time at the LightBox in high school, and I did have this weird nostalgic moment where I was brought back to those days while I was watching Bottoms. I also made the film because it’s something I would have wanted to see in high school, so maybe there is some course-correcting in that. Perhaps if I’d seen something like this, I would have known I was queer earlier. Maybe I just would have been more stressed out and confused, though, so I’m not sure it would have worked.
Did you get into any fights as a teen?
Definitely not. We would fight over, like, which drama room we got to rehearse in. That could get pretty testy—I wouldn’t say physical, but certainly tense. The closest I got to fighting was being on the rugby team in grade nine.
You’ve said before that you hope to inject queer characters into all your favourite genres. What’s next on the list?
I would love to do a straight-up action movie. Queer characters have been in a lot of horror movies now, but I’d like to do my own version. Definitely a western at some point, though I suspect someone else will get to that before I have a chance.
Any plans to make a movie set in Toronto?
I would love to. My other movies don’t have a specific setting, so that’s something I would have to figure out. For Toronto to really be a prominent, purposeful setting, I would need to feel like it’s contributing to the story and the tone. But I do have some ideas.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.