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Bizhan Tong Interview by Jason Palmer

black and white poster for the newly released The Escort film

Tell us about your new movie The Escort.

The Escort tells the story of a man (Eric, played by Kevin Leslie, The Rise of the Krays) who pays for 60 minutes with an escort (Veronica, played by Olivia Moyles) in order to convince her to leave her line of work.

Veronica is no damsel in distress while Eric is no saint, and what follows is a verbal battle of wits charting sexual politics, power, and what intimacy means in a ‘swipe-right’ world. I wanted the film explores gender perception within society as a whole, treating the escort industry as a microscopic prism of society to examine nature of relationships in the digital age.

How did the idea for the project first come about?

I wrote The Escort after being inspired by a chance encounter with a sex worker en route to a work function. While I declined her proposition, in the conversation that followed I was struck by how well-versed and engaging she was, and I was left filled with questions about the industry and the stereotypes surrounding the profession.

At the same time I was keen to achieve my longstanding ambition of forming a production company which would tell high-concept stories while enacting positive social change, and because of my personal passion in championing women’s causes with respect to gender diversity, income equality, and harassment in the workplace I felt shedding light on the escort industry and understanding the women behind the profession was a worthy cause worth pursuing.

I subsequently reached out to current and former sex workers in an effort to ensure their voices would be heard – I was keen to base much of Veronica’s dialogue on real life discussions. After having various conversations, including a roundtable discussion one morning at a coffee shop in Finchley (which must have been quite a sight for the staff!), I felt I could write the screenplay in a way which truly reflected the experience of these sex workers.

This type of film and subject matter demands a lot from its actors. Tell us about the two leads in The Escort and what they bring to the roles?

In order to feel invested in the journey I needed actors who could meet the hefty requirements of the roles – The Escort is set in real time and is a dialogue-driven piece dealing with sensitive subject matter, so it was important to cast actors with great chemistry and the ability to carry the story. Fortunately Kevin Leslie and Olivia Moyles were more than up to the task.

Kevin was the first to be cast – we had previously discussed working together and he was keen to get involved with the film. Kevin brings nuance to his character and acts as a surrogate for the audience – some of the questions posed mirrored my own during the conversations I had researching the industry – but Eric also harbours secrets of his own. Kevin had the unenviable challenge of portraying a character who could win the sympathy of the audience one moment and alienate them the next, a challenge he rose to brilliantly.

The character of Veronica is even more complex, and with the added pressure of needing to do justice to those in the sex work industry. Veronica’s chameleonic nature is reflective of the profession she is in: she conveys different personas to her clientele while concealing her true self. Finding the right actress to convey this  was a challenge. An extensive casting search went underway before Olivia Moyles earned the role of the title character on account of her audition and chemistry with Kevin.

I am thrilled with the performances of both the actors, and their talents have been recognised by the nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress in New York.

Is there room for any improvisation from the actors or do you stick squarely to the script?

My belief as a director is when an actor has been given a role the character belongs to them. The Escort is fast-paced with rat-a-tat dialogue having been heavily influenced by Sorkin, Mamet, and His Girl Friday when writing the script and each scene was carefully planned imposing limitations to any major improvisation. At the same time the snappy back-and-forth meant the actors weren’t keen on improvising either as it would diminish the impact of those scenes due to the frequent rehearsals undertaken to make those verbal battles fly. With that said both cast members had twists to the dialogue so there remained a strong personalisation element to the portrayal of the characters.

It was also crucial that while every scene was meticulously planned none of our actions would impact the actors’ freedom – this was their world to operate in as they saw fit and, almost like a documentary crew, we didn’t want to intrude.

 What challenges did you encounter bringing The Escort to screen?

The Escort faced numerous challenges. I had a very limited budget, as the film is entirely self-funded, but took this into account when devising the screenplay and used the restrictions to my creative advantage. It was also tough wearing multiple ‘hats’ during the production process, as I was playing the role of writer, director, producer and financier, so sometimes it was difficult to balance these roles effectively.

During the shoot, too, we encountered several obstacles. Time was against us – Kevin was committed to another film so we only had 9 days to make our feature, so every aspect of the production had to be organised with military-grade precision!

Meanwhile, having been told that work being done in the building next door would be complete by the time principal photography began, we arrived to find that, (somewhat inevitably), this wasn’t the case and we had to operate between the sounds of chainsaws, power drills, and hammering…a challenge to say the least!

The problems kept coming: on the one day we had set for outdoors filming we awoke to freakishly high winds and rain; my original cinematographer had to leave production early for personal reasons; a disaster meant we lost the climax of act one (and the back-up), which we then had to reshoot at another location instead. Even the reshoot was marred by personal tragedy as my mother was diagnosed with cancer 2 days before the shoot.

Despite these challenges, the combined passion of the team and the unshakable belief we had that this was a story that needed to be told meant we were able to pull together and create a film that we could all be truly proud of.

You are taking The Escort on the road now (on the international film festival circuit). How has that experience been for you?

I’m very excited to unveil the film to audiences across the globe. Naturally, having spent almost 3 years of my life bringing this story to screen the chance for it to finally be seen by eyes other than the editor’s and my own invites a level of apprehension as well as joy.

Fortunately though the reaction so far has been immensely positive and the movie was recently nominated for various awards in New York (and elsewhere) ahead of its world premiere, so it has certainly been a wonderful experience so far. I look forward to screening The Escort around the world to film goers who share a mutual passion for cinema.

Tell us about Phoenix Waters Productions.

Phoenix Waters Productions is a production company which addresses my two biggest loves – telling great stories and enacting positive social change. I formed the film production company in 2015 to develop projects for Film and TV telling a range of stories across various genres that deal with pertinent social themes ranging from racism to consent. I wanted to fuse audience entertainment with narratives that would make people think about issues long after the ending credits roll.

Having been quietly writing screenplays for the past 18 years I wanted to bring my slate of projects to life, and fortunately the reception to The Escort has enabled me to form a board who share a passion for socially conscientious filmmaking and are highly accomplished in their respective industries: from Fiona Francois (President of the British-American Business Council in LA and Chief of Staff at InvestCloud) to Jeff Green (angel investor who formed Balanced Boards which promotes gender and ethnic diversity across global boards), while Trevor Green of Entertainment Film is supporting me with advice.

The aim is for Phoenix Waters Productions to make a positive contribution through the filmmaking process. An example of this is on the project The Sit-Down – we are looking to hire only individuals from the BAME community both in front of and behind the camera in order to address the decline of BAME employment in the film production sector and provide opportunities many are denied.

You are a Highgate native – what was your upbringing like in the area and how did you get to be where you are today?

For me Highgate is the jewel of London and will always be an integral part of who I am – the first years of my life were spent in Bloomfield Court with fond memories learning to ride a bicycle in Highgate Woods, and the defining years of my childhood were spent at Highgate School.

My upbringing at Highgate instilled a belief that any dream was worth pursuing if you had the passion and drive to achieve it, and the resilience to persist onward no matter how rocky the road may be. My school valued innovation, which led me to start a DVD business while at school in order to fund my filmmaking equipment (and have an excuse to watch movies of course)! I have to credit my school teachers who inspired me to constantly write, and the bonds I made at school continue today – Stewart Allan, a friend I hadn’t seen since my time at Highgate came on board The Escort to support as a camera operator on the film.

Strong female characters are desperately needed onscreen, now more than ever. What do you make of the current shift in the zeitgeist taking place in Hollywood right now, and how does The Escort address this issue?

The advent of #MeToo and #TimesUp is a welcome jolt not only to the filmmaking community but society in general. The resulting spotlight on Hollywood has paved the way for progress to be made and I hope we are reaching a time when no woman (or man) will ever have to face such harrowing experiences again. I look forward to seeing more female characters of all types onscreen from young adult adaptations (we are desperately in need of our next Hermione Granger or Katniss Everdeen) to more adult fare. With 52% of audiences being female, I believe that the business case alone will persuade more investment into such projects, leading to a greater array of stories reaching our screens. I also wish to see greater income equality with female crew-members (especially if they have the same drawing power as their male counterparts)m just as much as I want to see more female screenwriters, DPs, and other crucial roles in the filmmaking process which are currently largely inhabited by men.

The Escort was written over the end of 2015/start of 2016 and we shot the film in 2017. It was only during post-production that the Weinstein scandal broke, the Presidents Club affair took place, and a seismic shift occurred throughout the Western world. Many of the stories told at this time were similar to tales I had become aware of when researching this movie, reflecting both the longstanding nature of unaddressed toxic male behaviour and how prescient this film is, having captured an unfiltered view of society told through the escort industry.

The Escort was intended to be a platform to elevate the voices of those working in the sex industry. Despite these major shifts occurring, sex workers often remain shut out of the conversation even though their work makes them particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. I hope The Escort will be part of an increasing list of creative project addressing this issue.

Many believe that we are in a golden age of TV right now and that it has overtaken Film. What do you think about where TV and Film are as mediums today?

As an avid binge-watcher there has been a notable rise in the quantity of quality shows. While my favourite shows were released long ago – Twin Peaks and 24 – their influence has been strongly felt over the past few years, as movie stars increasingly headline series which feature characters with more scope for complexity than is possible in the time constraints of a film.

Budgets have also been raised significantly, with some TV budgets rivaling films (Game of Thrones and The Crown being two such examples). Our streaming tendencies and sheer volume of content have given audiences a wider offering; while the serialized nature of TV drama can now be seen in film (I would argue the Fast & Furious and Marvel franchises are massively successful not only because of the quality of storytelling but the serialized aspect of it). I am however concerned that mid-budget productions in film are being lost as projects tend to gravitate towards low budget fare or blockbusters, much to the detriment of cinema.

Film and TV complement each other well, and both mediums have their own advantages: TV shows offer viewers a chance to connect with characters on a longer-term basis and explore more complex relationships, for example, while a film as breathtakingly tense as Chris Nolan’s Dunkirk surely demands to be seen on the big screen.

Can you tell us about your future projects?

My next feature in development is Night Ride, a road-trip thriller about a hitcher who is picked up by a family of serial killers which explores the dark side of the American Dream. It’s a homage to the ‘80s movies I grew up watching from The Hitcher to The Lost Boys, and a passion project of mine having wanted to tell this story since coming up with the idea in 2006. I am presently in the process of casting and interest has been strong – the positive reaction to The Escort helped – with discussions underway for two Oscar nominees to potentially join the film.

Separately, I am developing a TV series, Thieves, about a team of criminals who have 7 days to rob the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Another passion project of mine – 7 seasons have already been mapped out – the show deals with various social issues while remaining an adrenaline-soaked thriller, and production designer Charles Lagola (The Good Doctor, Sons of Anarchy) is involved.

Besides these I have various other projects at different stages dealing with social themes ranging from racism and xenophobia to consent, discrimination, corporate harassment, and terrorism which are slowly moving forward, and am currently in the process of writing an action script, Witness Protection, too.

The Escort was my trial by fire, and having spent close to two decades building a slate of projects I am excited that due to the success of my first feature I finally have the opportunity and support to bring many of these to life.

About Jason Palmer (144 Articles)
I think that "Back To The Future" is the greatest film of all time and will fight anyone who challenges that!