Skander Halim and Marcos Siega Interview Pretty Persuasion

The challenges of getting any film made is tough, just ask Skander Halim and Marcos Siega. Especially, when you want to dive into the world of teenage girls having sex with their teachers. Which is the precisely the subject matter that their upcoming film Pretty Persuasion deals with. We asked them about that struggle and what it was like to have James Woods take a kleenex out of his bathrobe pocket that he didn't use on his nose:

So how were you approached for this film?

Marcos Siega: My producing partner, Matt Weaver, brought it to me about five years ago. He was a fan of my music videos and he was trying to find me a project; I read it, loved it, and had to convince Skander not to direct it.

Skander Halim: Which was really easy because he was the first one who I didn’t have to tell what I was trying to do, so he was just continuing what I had started. It took five years for this film to get made and with one of the hottest up and coming directors attached or me, who at the time was not and I didn’t want to wait 20 years.

Marcos Siega: We tried to do this and I would give Skander updates, like ‘Ok, we got Evan Rachel Wood, we got James Woods, Ron Livingston, we’ve got an amazing cast.’ And then we’d go to the studios and they all were saying no.

Why didn’t anyone want to make this movie?

Marcos Siega: I think it’s the very reason why I wanted to make it. I was reading scripts, and it had a protagonist that was completely unlikable, it didn’t wrap itself into a nice little bow and as a filmmaker trying to make his first film, I looked at it as something that excited me. The proof is that every actor who I sent it to said yes immediately and they responded in that same way.

So when you get Evan Rachel Wood and James Woods, does that change or help you in the way you’re going to look at this movie?

Marcos Siega: I thought it was going to help; I think once you get those names attached, the studios can say we can raise ‘x’ amount of money. I think with this cast in any other script, the studios would have given us money. Actually, the studios were going to give us money, but they wanted us to change the ending, change this and take out that and I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to make this movie.

Did you have to fight hard to get it released without a rating?

Marcos Siega: No, it was just a matter of making the movie. Studios wanted it if we made those changes, and Samuel Goldwyn came in and said ‘I want it, and I want it made how you want it.’ And my thought was what if they come back and say ‘NC-17’ and how that’s going to effect how we try to sell this movie. If it came out ‘NC-17,’ they were going to put it out unrated; we ended up getting an ‘R’ rating.

How did you approach the subject of writing about girls?

Skander Halim: I didn’t really do any research; I probably would have been arrested if I would have done some research. But I just thought back to my own high school times, which I’m no prodigy, but it’s still fresh in my mind and stuff hadn’t changed that much since my days at high school. And for dramatic purposes, I exaggerated some of the meaner one’s and came up with Kimberly (Evan Rachel Wood).

Marcos Siega: And the litmus test for me was when I sat down with Evan, she had read the material and the other actresses, they really gave me the information. They would tell me that teenagers today really don’t think of oral sex as sex. Things have changed, I’m only in my thirties, but when I was a teen Spin the Bottle was a big deal; and now today, Spin the Bottle really isn’t a big deal. I knew we were dealing with information that is more relevant today.

How close were you to the setting of the area where the story takes place?

Skander Halim: No, I grew up in Ottawa, Canada

Marcos Siega: Queens, New York.

Skander Halim: The idea for me came when I spent a year in LA and I had this idea for this movie, but there was something missing from it. And when I was here, I knew it would serve as the perfect back drop. It let me explore some of the themes and ideas better.

The main character in this has to sacrifice some of her morals for fame; have either of you ever had to sacrifice anything for fame?

Marcos Siega: I’ve only had to sleep with four producers, so that’s not bad. (laughter) But, not personally; the movie deals with so many issues, I never saw it being about just one thing. The voice I hear in the script, I loved what Skander had done and peppered the story. It’s a satire and that’s what satires do; I don’t think the movie should be taken seriously.

The last ten minutes of the film tends to take a different direction and tone than the rest of the film. What is your opinion on that?

Skander Halim: I don’t think the end comes out of no where; there’s lines and jokes sprinkled throughout that come to a halt. For example, when Kimberly is watching tv and says ‘I want to get rid of all the stupid and annoying people,’ I think we both agree that we’re dealing with some serious issues in a comedic way. I know that we’re dealing with some serious sh*t here and at the end the day, these things really aren’t funny when you get down to it.

Marcos Siega: That’s one of the things in the script that’s unconventional. You’re laughing, you’re laughing and on page, there’s a shift. As a filmmaker, that’s a challenge; how am I going to approach that? I tried to take that as Skander puts it when she says ‘There’s so many useless people,’ it’s totally in step with what that third act is. When you’re in the theater and you hear people laughing, laughing, laughing and then the last 15 minutes, there’s dead silence, I know people are going to walk away who aren’t going to get it, who can’t accept the tonal shift. But I think that’s what makes the film really interesting. It’s not conventional.

Did you have anyone in mind when you were writing the characters?

Skander Halim: No, I try not to do that, because when they start casting you might say ‘Well that’s not who I had in mind.’ So it was easy for Kimberly because I didn’t know anyone who could pull off that role; that’s another reason why I didn’t think this movie was going to be made, cause I thought they were going to have to get a 30 year old actress who looked 15, or they would have to get one of the best performances by a teenage girl and it turned out to be the latter. We got our first choices.

Marcos Siega: The movie is all of our first choices; I had originally cast Evan as Brittany and I had Jena Malone as Kimberly. I got to a point that after sitting down with Evan, and this is before she had done Thirteen, I had only seen her in Once and Again. It’s one of those things I can’t make excuses for and I don’t know what prompted it, but I felt like Even got it and I really saw Evan as Kimberly; she really understood the material. And as we waited to raise the money, I felt Jena started to look older and Evan started to look younger. And that’s a tough decision, cause I think Jena Malone is an amazing actress, but at the end of the day, I think Evan hit it out of the park, she’s extraordinary.

Were there any scenes that you were excited to see on screen?

Skander Halim: I think the dinner table scene; I had actually shot that myself as a demo. And I thought if I could shoot that for $10, I can’t wait to see it with James Woods and Evan Rachel Wood. I think that scene is quite something.

Marcos Siega: It’s the same scene, it’s a scene that had always stood out in the script. It’s the role as a father and you think ‘How can he be saying these things.’ When I read it, I was so excited to see it; it’s the only scene in the movie in the entire movie I had to rehearse. I had Jamie King, Evan, and James Woods come up to my house and we went over it a couple times. When I see criticisms about the movie, I read that James Woods is over the top and I take responsibility for that because in that scene, I had seen what Skander had shot, he did a short film called The Family Dinner that was kind of a calling card for this movie. It was funny because I had read it differently; before we shot it, I had them just read it over and it wasn’t funny at all, it was kind of kind of disgusting what is coming out of his mouth that my first inclination was that you have to be able to make people laugh at this and the only way to get away with the Anti Semitism and what he’s saying is to be absurd and to be really funny. And now that when I see it, I know that it works from where it started and where it ended up.

Was the ‘klennex shot’ James’ improv, or was it in the script?

Marcos Siega: That was all James Woods, and I have to give all the credit in the world to Evan for not breaking character. She obviously recognized it and knows exactly what it is and was able to keep it together. I had to loop a piece of it because you could hear the crew laughing in the background. It crosses the line and I chose to put that one in there rather than one where he didn’t take it out because what’s the point in doing this movie if you’re not going to push the envelope. You gotta go there; this is a movie no one wanted to make so why not go there.

Skander Halim: There are a lot of people who said we want to make edgy teen films, but really what they were talking about was Mean Girls, which it goes to a certain place and then it stops at a safe zone. We wanted to jump over that line.

Marcos Siega: And once we were able to do it with investors counting dollars; they weren’t saying ‘I’m giving you $100,000 so you have to do it this way. You know what, we believe in you, we believe in the movie, so go make the movie you want to make.’

Pretty Persuasion also stars a semi-topless Jane Krakowski. It opens in theaters August 12th, it's rated 'R.'