Bottoms Director Emma Seligman on the High School Movies That Inspired Her

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Bottoms, 2023
Bottoms, 2023(Film still)

From Mean Girls to Grease, Emma Seligman lists off five of her all-time favourite high-school comedies that inspired her latest film

Despite increasing popularity across the UK, going all out for a Halloween costume that evokes your favourite character from a recent piece of pop culture remains an emphatically American pastime. Coinciding with the holiday – the weekend before Emma Seligman’s hotly anticipated sophomore feature officially begins screening in Britain – blood-splattered cheerleaders and BFFs in oversized rugby shirts with bruised faces were already gathering on social media overseas. “It’s awesome,” the director and co-writer of Bottoms tells AnOther. “I love seeing them.”

A modern rite of passage for filmmakers and an immediate barometer for a picture’s reach, these sartorial studies place Bottoms firmly in the canon of high-school comedies that centre teens contending with social hierarchies. Inserting, and then subverting the tropes that defined the genre in the 00s, the film operates with a queer lens that echoes Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader, borrowing some of the violent hysteria captured in Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation, all the while recalling the same silliness that defines much of Judd Apatow’s catalogue. As Seligman asserts, “It’s about two girls who start a fight club to try to lose their virginities, to cheerleaders.”

Co-written with Rachel Sennott – with whom she worked on 2021’s Shiva Baby and who stars here as the PJ to Ayo Edebiri’s Josie (the aforementioned best friends with co-ordinating stripes and non-existent sex lives) – the film is a confident vehicle for the pair’s combined sensibilities. “She’s the most hilarious writing partner,” says Seligman. “There were many different iterations over six years: us at NYU, us in various coffee shops in New York; over Zoom in our parents’ houses, in person in our producer’s backyard. We’ve levelled up as the years have gone on, but it’s always Rachel pitching jokes and me furiously typing it all up before we forget.”

In addition to Sennott, the director brought in Shiva Baby’s cinematographer Maria Rusche and editor Hanna Park, providing a shared history that instigated a welcome shorthand on set. “This was such a jump for me in so many ways, so to have those elements of consistency was very helpful,” says Seligman. Scored by Charli XCX (with notable montages set to Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart and Avril Lavigne’s Complicated), the resulting feature pulsates with millennial energy, inherently shaped by what has come before it, but with a firm eye on Gen Z.

Below, Emma Seligman discusses five high school teen movies that informed her approach.

Bring It On (Peyton Reed, 2000)

Bring It On was a big one because it’s got a certain amount of campiness and satire, but it’s also grounded and has this strong message of female empowerment in it. I just watched it so much growing up and then when we were shooting, my DP kept referencing it because they actually do quite an amazing job of ensemble blocking and beautiful framing. It has great sound effects and a fun soundtrack – with great performances – so we kept on coming back to Bring It On. Missy’s audition in particular was important, and also the climax of the film when they have their good routine and find that they kick ass.”

Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010)

Kick-Ass feels really stylistic and cool for a high school movie and was a big one for me in terms of the level of violence and horniness at the same time. And later, shooting the action sequences for Bottoms allowed me to flex certain directing muscles I hadn’t gotten a chance to use before, with the stunts and VFX and special effects. So that was really fun.”

Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004)

“I didn’t purposefully re-watch it, but I just knew in my brain Mean Girls was going to be such an influence. I have such a visceral memory of seeing that movie so many times when it came out as a kid. It was the first thing I saw with really flawed female characters on screen, at least in theatres. I feel like there was a lot of campy, cult classics from the 90s where there were teen girl characters doing bad things, but they didn’t achieve the level of mainstream success that Mean Girls did. And the amount of satire and critique that the movie has, and certain surreal and heightened sequences – like when they’re in the jungle, all acting like animals in the cafeteria – that movie goes to wild places. The Burn Book sequence too, in the hallways where everything’s crazy, the mall sequence … there’s so much.”

Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978)

“Just in terms of the colour palette, the vibe and the nostalgia that that movie has, [Grease] was a big influence.” 

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986)

“[This was] not a reference for Bottoms, specifically, but it is one of my favourite movies of all time. And I think I was looking for a John Hughes kind of school when scouting for Bottoms. I wanted it to feel kind of timeless. Even though it’s not a reference for this movie in terms of the themes and sort of, the tone, I think John Hughes was one of the first directors to ever take teen characters seriously. So there’s that, and the scene where he’s running home, jumping in slow motion on the trampolines in different backyards. And the last line!”

Bottoms is out in UK cinemas now.