Friday, September 8, 2023

Reverend's Interview: Dressed for Success in Bottoms

Many of us have been captivated this past month by season 2 of Heartstopper, the acclaimed Netflix series about a group of nice, largely well-behaved LGBTQ teens. Well, get ready for Bottoms, a raunchy, politically-incorrect new movie that serves as the virtual antithesis of Heartstopper but I still recommend. It is now playing in select theaters.

This comedy directed by Emma Seligman (Shiva Baby) focuses on two queer girls, PJ and Josie, who start a high school fight club in an effort to lose their virginities to cheerleaders. Their bizarre plan works. The fight club gains traction and soon the most popular girls in school are beating each other up in the name of self-defense, with some self-discovery worked in. But PJ and Josie soon find themselves in over their heads and in need of a way out before their plan is exposed.

Rachel Sennott, who previously starred in the similarly provocative Shiva Baby, headlines the cast as PJ and co-wrote the screenplay with Seligman. Ayo Edebira (also currently seen in Hulu’s The Bear) plays Josie, and British actor Nicholas Galitzine co-stars as a charmingly narcissistic football player. Galitzine is currently making viewers swoon as Prince Henry in Amazon Prime’s hit gay-themed romance Red, White & Royal Blue. Bottoms also boasts a music score co-composed by pop singer-songwriter Charli XCX.

There are an abundance of LGBTQ teen characters in Bottoms, which was actually titled Gay High School Fight Club while Seligman and Sennott were writing it. As Sennott recalls in the film’s press notes: “Emma had this idea to do a queer teen high school story, and I wanted to do a comedy where the women behave badly and the main characters are sort of unlikeable. We connected over that and spent the next few weeks outlining and brainstorming.”

Seligman described the inspiration behind the script. “Our initial references were Superbad or American Pie or the many other teen movies with male leads trying to lose their virginity,” she said. “Rachel and I felt that there are just as many flawed, superficial, horny teenage girls as there are flawed, superficial, horny teenage boys. Those were the initial references, then Wet Hot American Summer, Bring It On, Sugar & Spice and Drop Dead Gorgeous, and all these Y2K teen movies helped shape the tone of the movie.” While they aimed to have positive representations of queer teen sexuality, Seligman and Sennott really wanted to show just how messy women can be.

1999’s homoerotic drama Fight Club, which co-starred Brad Pitt and Edward Norton and was directed by David Fincher, is another inspiration referenced multiple times in the film. Ultimately, Bottoms has abundant heart as well as moments of bad taste plus a great montage set to Bonnie Tyler’s classic song "Total Eclipse of the Heart", an awesome finale, and some hilarious bloopers during its end credits.

Eunice Lee

Another standout element of the movie are its character’s costumes, drawn from influences spanning different time periods, film genres and dramatic tones by designer Eunice Lee. Lee began her career as a high-fashion stylist and a fashion journalist before entering the film industry. She is currently designing costumes for the upcoming Twisters, a big-budget sequel to/reboot of the 1996 tornado thriller Twister.

Lee recently took time out of her busy schedule to speak with me via Zoom:

CC: Hi Eunice! I’m really excited because in my 25-plus years of interviewing filmmakers and other talent, I’ve never interviewed a costume designer! Maybe for myself and the less familiar, can you kind of explain what exactly a costume designer does or how do you approach your work?
EL: Oh wow, sure! Costume designers are responsible for designing the overall look and every outfit for every character that you see on set or in the film.

CC: Where does the design process typically start for you? I know some directors will read scripts and they’re picturing certain actors in certain roles. When you’re reading a script, are you picturing the costumes or the fashions the characters might be wearing that immediately or does that come later on?
EL: Well, the first time I read the script I read it in totality so I don’t really think about the fashion. I think about who these characters might be. My process is really to create backstories for characters, like what makes each character a whole person and not just a character. We see them for an hour and a half to two hours and that’s not their full story, and to create something, or a person or a character, that doesn’t feel shallow you kind of have to understand what got this person or this character to this place to begin with. And so I just start creating these backstories for everyone.

CC: That’s cool, that’s interesting. And you got your start in fashion journalism, is that right?
EL: That’s correct, actually. I went to Parsons School of Design (in New York City) and while I was there getting my BBA I interned my way through Conde Nast. Then I moved to London and got my Masters at another fashion school in fashion journalism, and I kind of stayed in that high luxury fashion space for a very long time (laugh).

CC: So, what inspired you or led you into costume design?
EL: It’s more serendipity than anything else. Long story short, I suppose: After London and being in this very competitive space as a stylist, I went to Seoul for a holiday and I was introduced to this Italian filmmaker who felt very passionate about setting me up with this Korean-American director because he was in town prepping for his next indie film. I had never done a film before, I had never even considered it. But this director asked me to go to LA and meet with this designer that he had hired, and he let her know that he wanted me to be a part of this project. And so, a few months later, I was in Seoul and traveling around South Korea on that film and that’s where I met (actor-producer-director) Justin Chon, who I’ve collaborated on multiple films with including Blue Bayou and Jamojaya, which premiered at Sundance this year.

CC: That’s awesome. Yeah, serendipitous is definitely the appropriate word there. So, talk to me about Bottoms. How did this film or project find its way to you?
EL: It’s not very exciting. I got sent the script through my agents and I’d heard of Emma Seligman because she had just done this great film called Shiva Baby. I love dark comedies and I just felt like, “here’s this really young girl who just graduated NYU doing something.” I mean, she really had her finger on the pulse in terms of comedy and I thought she would just be really fun to collaborate with. So I really fought to be a part of this film and I really wanted to work on something that really highlighted the LGBTQIA community.

CC: Bottoms is a very funny movie and your designs for the women in the cast are certainly noteworthy, but one of the funniest things about the movie for me was the football players and how they’re in their uniforms the entire film. Was that how it was written or was that the director’s choice or your choice, or was there consultation about that?
EL: (Laughs) For sure. That was an Emma idea. We had multiple conversations about this but I really used Fight Club as an example for this film, not just for the obvious but because I love the way that Michael Kaplan, who designed Fight Club, utilizes the use of gender to signify or kind of juxtapose these really masculine, macho acts of fighting and beating each other up. But then you have Brad Pitt wearing women’s robes and these tight floral shirts and, like, these really camp glasses. It just kind of normalizes it as a masculine thing, and I loved the idea of making the silhouettes for these football players as feminine as it can get within the parameters of it still being a uniform. So, we used smaller padding. We used very, VERY tight uniforms. I mean, I sized down for everyone and it was a nightmare! (Laughs) Most days, we thought the seams were going to rip. The boys could hardly get themselves inside the uniforms. It took two costumers to help every football player.

CC: That is too funny! You mentioned Michael Kaplan and that raised a question for me: Are there other costume designers, either living or deceased, who have really inspired you or you really kind of admire?
EL: Oh, I mean I don’t want to leave anyone out but I love Sandy Powell (a 15-time Oscar nominee and 3-time Oscar winner). I think Heidi Bivens (Euphoria, Reservation Dogs) is very exciting; I think that she is just a phenomenal designer who really has her finger on the pulse. And Jenny Beavan (an Oscar winner for Cruella and Mad Max: Fury Road). There are so many, honestly, I just don’t even know how to answer that question. I think the one thing about choosing designers, for directors, is that everyone will bring a different perspective. You’re never going to have two separate designers who bring the same thing to the table.

CC: Hmm, that’s interesting to think about. In the film’s press notes, it mentions that you “connect with characters from diverse and LGBTQ communities.” Can you talk a little bit about that connection or attraction?
EL: Sure. I mean, I’m gay and I’m a Korean-American who grew up in Orange County in a very Christian, Korean bubble (laughs). It was suffocating for me but I luckily escaped. I moved to New York and, you know, just seeing different representation of our community there and then, furthermore, moving to London and getting to see the variety of style and types of people in our community just really opened my eyes to the diversity and the individuality of each person.

I also think the way that gay people are portrayed to mainstream media is so different from how we see ourselves and, sure, in the gay culture there’s going to be super-camp men or there’s going to be women who present themselves as super-butch. But the reality is that’s not the entirety of our community, and I really wanted to do a film where I could show that there’s this ultra-feminine character who you don’t know if she’s gay or not. And there’s another character who’s still trying to figure out who she is and her place in the gay community and how she wants to express herself to the world. I thought that it was really important to bring these different types of style and show each character as a full human as opposed to just a caricature or stereotype.

CC: Are there any other big-name or known filmmakers who you really hope to work with sometime?
EL: Yeah, I’ve always wanted to work with Wes Anderson (Asteroid City, Moonrise Kingdom, et al), which kind of feeds the stylized side of my brain, but there are other really exciting people. I think Jonah Hill is an incredible filmmaker. I loved what he did on Mid90s and that version of storytelling is really exciting as well. There are so many people I want to work with!

CC: I can see you working with Wes Anderson. I think your sensibilities and style would line up really well.
EL: Thank you! We’ll see, but I do think that things that are meant for you do come and things that don’t just aren’t meant for you. But it’s been exciting so far!

Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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