How BFF filmmaking duo Emma Seligman & Rachel Sennott made Bottoms, their dream teen sex comedy
What Sofia Coppola is Kirsten Dunst, Emma Seligman is to Rachel Sennott. Since their Shiva Baby short film premiered at the 2018 SXSW festival, the writer/director and writer/actress became both BFFs and SXSW royalty. Despite the 2020 festival getting canceled when their feature-length version of Shiva Baby was set to debut, the film still became a smash indie darling once it was released in 2021 and made them two names to watch.
While producing Shiva Baby, Sennott and Seligman were already cooking their next collaboration — trading in funeral attire for fisticuffs in their outrageous teen satire comedy Bottoms. In the film, which just premiered at SXSW, Sennott and Ayo Edebiri star as PJ and Josie, two lesbian seniors, low on their high school’s totem pole. Both awkward in their own right, they're determined to get laid by their respective cheerleader crushes Brittany (Kaia Gerber) and Isabel (Havana Rose Liu). As the jocks of their rival high school football team start attacking girls, Josie, PJ, and their endearing friend Hazel (Ruby Cruz) start a fight club after school program — using empowerment as a front to hook up with cheerleaders and boost up their social standing.
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Co-written by Seligman and Sennott, Bottoms is an entirely different beast from Shiva Baby. Its tone is completely absurd, chock full of sight gags in every frame, frivolous humor, and gleeful violence that gives the queer girls the euphoric sex comedy they deserve. After years collaborating together on web shorts, most notably Comedy Central's Rachel and Ayo Are Single, Sennott and Edebiri's witty, offbeat banter shine in feature-length format.
Following premiere day, AP sat down with Seligman and Sennott to talk about casting a hilarious ensemble of newcomers, their collaboration process, working with Charli XCX on the score, and more.
[Courtesy of Orion Pictures/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer]
You started writing this in 2017. What was the inspiration behind Bottoms and what was it like working together again?
Emma Seligman: We just made the short of Shiva Baby, and I pitched Rachel my only comedy idea. With Rachel being a Virgo, she was like, "What's your plan? What other projects do you have and what's your timeline?" I was like, "I have one comedy idea and I want it to be a queer teen sex comedy for queer girls." But also, I wanted them to be heroes who save the day and fight in some capacity. That's all I had for her, and she was like, "Great. I want to see horny women," and came at it from her perspective. Then we hit the ground running.
Rachel Sennott: We knew the feeling of what we wanted to make, too. Then we went and brainstormed ideas. There was this giant whiteboard where we had a photo of us in front of it and we wrote out everything we wanted to put in a movie. It's so freeing when you're like, "We want to have a bomb, we want them to egg a house, the girls are going to be punching each other!" It felt like, for me, so much excitement and joy to feel that creatively together. The movie came out of that. I remember writing on the whiteboard and I'm like, "Oh, my God! We're going to do this?"
[Working together,]I feel like we're able to push each other and balance each other out. [We've gotten] into a place in a relationship where we can shoot ideas back and forth where you're like, "I'm about to say maybe the dumbest thing ever and I know she's not going to judge me," and if it's not a great idea, we're going to go, "Nope," and go for another one. We have such a language and safety.
How was it to pivot from something like Shiva Baby to this absurdist type comedy?
Seligman: It was really freeing because it hadn't really been so grounded in reality. Writing from Rachel's perspective, with her sense of humor, was really liberating. Especially with queer female characters to allow them to do whatever the fuck you wanted in the movie, it was completely different, and really fun, too.
Shiva wasn't always the most fun to write about because she's crying in the bathroom at certain points. With Rachel, she just makes me laugh so hard. Like you said, you would just pitch random ideas and they weren't always like the ones that made it in.
Sennott: Some of them are bad. Many of them were bad.
What was it like bringing Ayo Edebiri on, who Rachel's worked with before and pouring that familiar chemistry into feature length form?
Seligman: We always wrote it with Ayo in mind. I met her before I met Rachel and I was like, "If I ever needed that high school thing, this girl is really awkward." I didn't know she was a stand-up [comic at the time]. Then I watched Rachel's old school sketches, NYU days, and Ayo was in them. It was like this built in relationship was always planned.
Sennott: We always heard it in her voice, and I think you can see that in the movie. She's so amazing and she brings so much of her comedic timing and voice to it. I even remember having our meeting at that coffee shop on 7th avenue that was like, "We're writing a movie that you're gonna star in," and Ayo was like, "Okay. Yeah." Ayo was so special because it felt like we all know each other. We've been with each other on the ground level, even the basement level.
Seligman: The basement level of NYU.
Sennott: Just being able to come together on such a bigger scale was incredible.
Seligman: The fact that we got to do that on the level that we did was amazing. Ayo is incredible, and I feel like on the page, Josie is usually read as passive, more insecure, and small, but Ayo made it jump off the page, really made it her own. I love the character that we wrote, but it could have [gone] so many different ways and her way allowed Josie to have so much personality. So, I'm very grateful that she ended up being part of that.
How is it casting the rest of the costars? They have such charismatic energy and there's so many great newcomers onscreen.
Seligman: We had an incredible casting director, Maribeth Fox. It was the first time I saw casting like a true art form, because she was like, “Everyone needs to be unique. You can't just have people playing the roles. Every offering had to have a singularity."
Sennott: She kept saying "singular," and we were like, "It's our new word."
Seligman: We adopted it. We were looking for people who were grounded in their characters so they could just play it straight. We didn't want anyone to ham up the jokes — we wanted people to believe their characters and [to] say the ridiculous stuff that they were saying with sincerity. That's Rachel's favorite brand of comedy and mine, as well. But that was always just a go-to. It is exciting that they're newcomers.
Sennott: It's so thrilling. The first night watching tapes, we were eating sushi, had a glass of wine, and we were like, "Oh, my God, tape night! We're going to watch the tapes!" Havana [Rose Liu who plays Isabel's] tape, we screamed. We were like, "That's Isabel." The level of commitment when she was sobbing, she was so in it, so funny, and so real. It thrilled us. So many discoveries.
Was there any improv incorporated on-screen? How much improv versus what was on the page ended up being shot?
Seligman: In terms of the balance of improv versus written, Rachel and I definitely [did] both. 50% of [Rachel's] dialogue was improvised because there were so many moments where we planned like a shot walking down the hall, and didn't have anything written for it. It ended up becoming Rachel and Ayo figuring it out, doing a dance, and then finding the way back into the scene.
Sennott: [In terms of improvising as a director on set,] it was so impressive to watch Emma. There are so many moving parts. There were on Shiva, but on this we've got 300 extras, a mascot with a huge fake penis, the crew was huge, so many changes happened. There was a whole week [when we were] shooting overnight on a football field and every single night there were thunderstorms and lightning. It was so funny because when [that was] happening, I was in the trailer with all the actors doing Truth or Dare.
I'm texting Emma and she was like, "Okay, we have three options. We either move this around, we shoot this in the school tomorrow, but then the turn around will be like this!" Everyone is like, "When was your first kiss?" Emma is like, "We will lose our money tomorrow!" But it was so impressive to watch her adapt and grow into that space. We had changes like that on Shiva, but instead it was like the toilet upstairs won't flush, everyone has to pee in the backyard.
Emma, was it hard for you behind the lens trying not to break whenever something hysterical happened on-screen?
Seligman: I'm pretty good at keeping it together. However, there were random moments where I couldn't control it. It was the mascot. Every time we were shooting the mascot with the giant penis, I was covering my mouth so hard. I was smiling every time and I heard the crew laughing, trying to keep it together.
The “Complicated” by Avril Lavinge needle drop, was that always in the script? And how was it working with Charli XCX on the score?
Seligman: We wanted a Y2K sad girl anthem. It was either that or "Come Clean" [by Hilary Duff].
[Then in terms of working with Charli XCX,] the main artist that I listened to on the Bottoms playlist as we were writing was Charli. She had [Rachel] on her podcast and she was a fan of Shiva, and then she was like, "I heard you're doing a new movie and I would love to do something for it.” She probably meant a song, and I was like, "Wanna do the score?"
What is so amazing about her, not only does she have a singular voice, but she can do an emotional [song], she can do fun, she can do exciting, everything. She also happens to be a queer icon who is so beloved, is such an incredible ally, and supports queer artists so much. Then [composer] Leo [Birenberg] took her sound and implemented it everywhere. It was a collaboration between the two.
Given that this is your second feature together, what is the biggest takeaway that you learned from this entire experience?
Seligman: Work with your friends. I can talk for hours about all the little things where I'm like, "Won't do that again. Got it," but having Rachel and our [Director of Photography] Maria [Rusche], who did Shiva as well, was the only way I could get through it. It was a reminder of why people work with the same people over and over again.
Sennott: It was like, "Who do you want to be with at five in the morning when a bomb goes off?" For so much of college, I felt like I needed permission to write something or make something. Emma inspires me and empowered me in making this movie with her. I do really feel like I could do anything now and I'm not scared to, because we got to make this.