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Behind the Lens of 'Bottoms': A Conversation with Maria Rusche

When I watched Bottoms, the energy and excitement in the theater was palpable—during the entire film, the audience cheered on the equally questionable and entertaining decisions of the protagonists Josie (Ayo Edebiri) and PJ (Rachel Sennott). While the film feels like a return to the classic teen comedy, part of its appeal lies in its focus on the characters’ queerness, and their imperfect messiness. Bottoms is new territory for the teen comedy, with its surprising violence and depiction of a strange, nonsensical world.

The combination of comedy and unique visual aesthetic choices are cementing its spot on the list of masterful high-school movies. The fight scenes especially stand out as some of the most visually captivating and unexpected moments, so much so that I was inspired to delve deeper into the film’s overall stylistic approach. That led to me to speak to the director of photography, Maria Rusche, about the motivations and challenges behind creating the visual language of Bottoms.

Ceci: How has it felt to see this overwhelmingly positive reception of ‘Bottoms’?

It's been awesome! It's really cool to be able to make a studio movie with friends and actually make the movie we want. Typically studios can take control of what you're making because they want to make it marketable to the most people, and they don't want to offend anybody. [Emma Seligman, the director and co-writer of Bottoms, and I] talked so much in development about the kinds of movies that we wish we had when we were in high school.

Superbad came out when I was in high school and was the coolest, funniest movie at the time, but you couldn’t really be a girl and be funny—that was not possible in the world of Superbad. It would have been cool to have a movie [like that] with girls or queer people. So it's really comforting and makes you feel less alone that so many people want to see that [too]. It's been really fun to see how rabid people are for more sh*t like that, and I hope it means that more people will get opportunities to make more of their own stuff.

How do you think you adapted the visual language of ‘Bottoms’ to feel familiar to high school comedies while also injecting a new creative and fun perspective?

That’s such a good question because it’s so hard to make something new now. [Emma and I] watched a bunch of high school movies and we were like, okay, what are the beats that every high school movie hits? A big one is the introductory shot, like in Mean Girls, where you're introduced to everybody at the school when they're in the cafeteria and it’s like there are the band geeks, then there are the jocks, and then there are the other groups. We tried to hit some of those beats, like when [PJ and Josie] go to the carnival and they see the hot girls and then they see Mathieu and you're kind of introduced to the world.

That way, when you're watching the movie, you're filling in some of the blanks. But then by changing the content of that kind of scene, you’re able to say something new with it. So we tried to combine the look of high school movies with some of the visual markers of action movies and superhero movies, like Kick-Ass or Attack the Block, where the kids get to be action superheroes. It helps you buy into the world to use this action visual style to tell a high school story that you've seen a thousand times.

Can you talk a bit about the process of conceptualizing and filming some of your favorite scenes? I'm curious to hear a bit more about these action scenes, especially the big fight scene at the football field at the end, which was really fun and shocking to watch.

That was definitely one of my favorites and one that we spent a lot of time on, because we felt that if the whole conceit of this movie is that these girls start a fight club, then we really had to deliver on how good they are at fighting, and how cool it is at the end to really drive home their feelings of being the heroes, sort of.

When we were thinking about the action fighting between girls in movies, it usually just sucks, it’s like hair pulling. We actually had somebody ask during the prep process like, “Oh, do the girls use their sexuality to fight somehow?” and, literally at the same time, Emma and I were like, “No, no, that's not it.” But we really wanted to see girls beating each other up and that meant it was important to actually see the actresses doing the stunts. We didn't want to do a lot of cutting and use stunt doubles. When you see the fight scenes in [Fight Club] they're so happy, like they're covered in blood and they're blissed out and it's so visually evocative of the kind of feelings we were trying to get out of them. These girls are really connecting through this activity, and it's separate from whatever other bullsh*t is going on around them.

Looking ahead, what new insights, skills, and ideas that you learned from ‘Bottoms’ do you want to apply to future projects? Did ‘Bottoms’ change the types of projects you want to be a part of, or was this always a movie you wanted to make?

It is a perfect combination of a lot of the movies I love. I love action movies and high concept ideas because what's so fun about movies is that you can say something about the world allegorically or metaphorically that is harder to do in real life. You're controlling every element of the movie, so everything has meaning, whereas life can feel so random and chaotic. I really like high concept, stylized movies and I've always loved comedy, so to be able to combine those things was so exciting.

I think something Emma is so good at is combining elements of different genres, and that's really how you make something new nowadays. I'm hopeful that I'll get to do more of that. I really love heist movies—I'm dying to make a heist movie. But I also got really lucky meeting somebody that I really like making movies with. I realize it's unique and special to get to make movies with your friends, so I do hope I'll get to do more of that as well.

Since our magazine primarily caters to college students interested in everything arts and culture, what advice do you have for young people who hope to work in film?

I feel like our generation—or, at this point I feel old—was pitched on loving what you do and doing something you love for work. That can be really tricky when your identity is wrapped up in the way that you need to make money to earn a living.

So that's mostly just a cautionary tale; it's not all glamorous, obviously, and it's tough to get taken advantage of a lot. I think you can see it right now with the [writers and actors] strikes. I mean, the arts are not really valued right now. The people making art don't feel valued, because we don't need the studios to make movies. We're the ones actually making the art, and they're just kind of the gatekeepers.

I think developing your own taste and being a nice person really goes a long way, especially in a collaborative art form. People hire people they get along with, and that's just the truth.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

All photo credit to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer


Ceci Mestre is a sophomore in the College majoring in American Studies.

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