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‘Scott Pilgrim’ in a John Hughes World: How ‘Bottoms’ Filmmaker Emma Seligman Pulled Off Its Highwire Act

The world of “Bottoms” isn’t always the most coherent (better not to apply any logic to why a high school football mascot has a felt dick); but being a teenager isn’t the most rational experience. One of the film’s great strengths is how director and co-writer Emma Seligman creates a flexible reality for the world of its perennial losers PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri). The two heroes start a self defense club in an effort to get laid, and what starts as a hilariously thin ruse culminates with in the girls punching, kicking, and pounding a rival football team to death in order to save doofy jock Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine) from sprinklers filled with pineapple juice.

“It was like ‘Scott Pilgrim’ in a John Hughes world,” said Seligman when they were a guest on IndieWire’ Filmmaker Toolkit podcast.

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The climatic fight scene is a perfect example of how “Bottoms” occupies the Venn Diagram of “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World,” “Fight Club,” and “Bring It On,” in delivering its action comedy. Complete with speed-ramped takedowns, C4 explosives, swords, and blood spurting all over the astroturf, Seligman and their team calibrated each element of the fight so that the audience can track how the girls come closer together as friends, even when beating the crap out of each other.

Tying the film’s heightened visuals to the outsized emotions of the characters, and managing the tone well enough to make both funny, required a lot of planning and collaboration. Seligman worked with cinematographer Maria Rusche and stunt coordinator Deven MacNair on white-boarding each sequence to nail down the physical jokes, fight language, and tone; they’d then shoot pre-vis of the fights on the film’s locations and share iMovie edits with editor Hanna Park, to make sure that each bit of choreography would gel with the overall rhythm of the movie.

“It’s so rare in a movie, especially for a comedy, for you to end up in the edit with [a sequence that’s] exactly how you shot-listed it,” Seligman said of the action sequences. “I got really excited and I felt empowered, especially as a female director, to be like, ‘Yeah, we planned this whole sequence and we previs’d it, we did each and every step, and the actors look amazing.’ It made me feel like I could do just a pure action movie [or] a horror movie.”

That pre-planning and preciseness was especially important when action was paired with music, Seligman and Park timed specific moves of PJ and Brittney (Kaia Gerber) or Josie and Isabel (Havana Rose Liu) to hit at exactly the right beat. “I’m like, ‘this tackle is really important, guys. It needs to come at the bridge [of the song,]’” Seligman said.

Of course Seligman and Park had to trim down some of the fight choreography in the edit, and ended up toning down the kind of whip-pans or noticeable transitions that might have made “Bottoms” a little too cartoonish. “But it ended up being pretty close to what we imagined for it, when we were first cutting it together,” Seligman said.

BOTTOMS, from left: Rachel Sennott, Ruby Cruz, Ayo Edebiri, 2023. © United Artists / courtesy Everett Collection
“Bottoms” ©United Artists/Courtesy Everett Collection

It didn’t end up even being the action that took up most of the time in the edit. One of Seligman’s and Park’s core challenges in terms of maintaining the tonal and comedic arc of the film was the sheer amount of jokes they needed to sort through: which ones were right and which were too far.

“Bottoms” has what Seligmen herself describes as some “what the fuck” casting choices. “[We’re] taking people from totally different worlds who have different personas and putting them in this mixed bag together [which makes] audience members be like, ‘what?’ That was our inspiration for having an influencer and having a model and having a former NFL player and a serious actor,” Seligman said.

In addition to Kaia Gerber (the influencer), Havana Rose Liu (the model), and the former NFL player (the always hilarious Marshawn Lynch), there’s Sennott and Edebiri, who form the film’s hilarious center. Seligman let the entire cast loose in shooting “Bottoms” to push the limits of their personas; but then the director had a mountain of footage to sift through. “I got a lot of advice when it comes to directing improv on set, but I didn’t ask anyone’s advice on editing improv and editing a comedy,” Seligman said.

BOTTOMS, from left: Ayo Edebiri, Rachel Sennott, Zamani Wilder, Summer Joy Campbell, Havana Rose Liu,  Kaia Gerber, Virginia Tucker, 2023. © United Artists Releasing / Courtesy Everett Collection
“Bottoms”©United Artists/Courtesy Everett Collection

Different directors take different approaches to editing: whether they need to see every single take or not and build each scene up from its base components, whether they need the editor’s assembly as a springboard to try things a bunch of different ways, or some combination of approaches. “I definitely am someone that needs to see every single potential concoction of a scene,” Seligman said. “And that was exhausting because there are so many great alts. There’s so many different ways a joke can land. There’s so many versions of certain lines that Ayo and Rachel especially improved that it was much, much harder than I thought it was going to be.”

The jokes of “Bottoms” are as serious as it gets. They need to work on their own merit as a core pleasure of the horny teen comedy, but they’re also a constant signpost of how heightened and elastic, or how grounded, the world is. Getting the jokes right allows the film to walk a constant slack line between caring about PJ’s and Josie’s friendship and laughing out loud Hazel (Ruby Cruz) sets a tree on fire.

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