The 28-year-old director Emma Seligman first met Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri, the stars of their second feature film, Bottoms, a comedy about a high-school queer-female fight club, when they were all college students at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Seligman was at Salon Series, a collaborative space where Tisch students perform for their peers, when they watched Edebiri (who now stars in The Bear) crack a joke about the actress Maggie Smith. No one got the joke, except for Seligman. At the time, they had a vague idea for the main character of Bottoms: an awkward, adorable, and slapstick-funny girl. “I remember thinking, If I ever make that movie, [Edebiri] should be her,” says Seligman.

Ayo Edebiri and Rachel Sennott in a scene from Bottoms.

Sennott, who recently appeared in HBO’s The Idol, first worked with Seligman for the director’s thesis, playing the lead in their short film about a Jewish twentysomething who awkwardly encounters her ex-girlfriend, sugar daddy, and her sugar daddy’s wife at a family shiva. In 2020, Seligman turned the project, titled Shiva Baby, into a full-length feature. The movie, Seligman’s directorial debut, won them the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award at just 26 years old.

“It sounds cheesy, but I felt like I knew [Sennott], like we were sisters in a past life,” says Seligman. Sennott co-wrote Bottoms, which hits select theaters next Friday, and plays the cunning yet obnoxious PJ. Edebiri plays clumsy yet endearing Josie, while Kaia Gerber and Havana Rose Liu play the popular cheerleaders that PJ and Josie unsuccessfully pursue.

The poster for Emma Seligman’s directorial debut, Shiva Baby.

Before Shiva Baby, Seligman’s only experience directing outside of Tisch was in her high-school theater group. A Toronto native born to Jewish, movie-buff parents, Seligman grew up writing a film blog and movie reviews, while also working behind the scenes on school plays. Seligman considered becoming an actor, but they became engrossed in “shepherding characters out of” other actors.

In high school, Seligman’s mother sat them down and said, “I think we should really pursue [film school] for you, if it is what you want,” recalls Seligman. “I’m so lucky that my mom could tell I was devoting so much time to this, and she really wanted to give me the shot of going somewhere like N.Y.U.”

“It sounds cheesy, but I felt like I knew [Rachel Sennott], like we were sisters in a past life.”

Around the time they graduated college, in May 2017, a professor asked Seligman what their “vision of life” was, in terms of their career. Whether it’s queer girls in high school in a Scott-Pilgrim-meets-Bring-It-On kind of movie or it’s queer girls at an intimate Jewish funeral, Seligman knew they wanted to “tell queer and Jewish stories in genres and worlds where we haven’t seen them—something familiar, but through a different perspective.”

Regardless of the storyline, Seligman’s screenplays are always funny. “I think comedy just normalizes any uncomfortable topic that audiences might not see as much,” they explain.

When it came to bringing Bottoms to life, Edebiri and Sennott bounced jokes off each other, just like they did in college, when they performed stand-up at open mikes across New York City together.

Sennott in a scene from The Idol, with Troye Sivan and Lily-Rose Depp.

“I think that Rachel felt a strong desire to go further with the raunchy and edgy jokes,” says Seligman. “She and I both feel like we still haven’t seen female characters—especially teen female characters—be allowed to be as horny and selfish as they actually are.”

As for wanting to collaborate with Sennott for a third time and with Edebiri for a second time, Seligman says that “all you have in this crazy industry is the people that you love to work with and the people that you know you work well with. You start to understand why directors always work with the same actors. Because it’s easy. We speak the same language and they inspire you.”

Bottoms hits theaters on August 25

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Carolina de Armas is an Associate Editor at AIR MAIL