The Escort dir. by Bizhan Tong
It's time for interviews, it's time for novelty but it's mostly time for independent films. Our column focuses today on a love story, a romance, with some really interesting narrative ideas.
The film was premiered at the Italian MedFF and immediately received a solid response, succeeding, immediately, to meet the consensus of the public. We asked some questions about production and main charaters: Olivia Moyles and Kevin Leslie .
Good reading to everyone #GR2E
1) What was your project for the film The Escort born of?
I was inspired to write The Escort after a chance encounter with a sex worker whilst I waited ahead of a client meeting for my role at the time in wealth management. While I declined her proposition and expected the conversation to end there, the woman decided to engage me in conversation about various topics, and I was struck by how far from the stereotype of sex workers this woman was. By the time I left to see my client I was filled with questions about the industry and a desire to know the answers.
At the same time, a longstanding ambition of mine has always been to form a production company which would tell high-concept stories while enacting positive social change. Because of my personal passion in championing women’s causes (I am part of the Gender Diversity pillar of a major UK bank), 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 that their voices would be represented accurately (as opposed to basing the film on my assumptions of the industry). After having various conversations I wrote the screenplay on the basis of these discussions and set out to make the film.
2) In such a film we would have expected nude scenes that did not occur. Choice of directing to reach a wider audience?
Power play is an important theme of The Escort and both characters needed to be on equal footing. Stripping either character would have unbalanced that footing and I wanted to make sure neither character appeared vulnerable through nudity or otherwise – it was the verbal debate that would challenge their beliefs and reveal their true selves.
Because of what the story represents, featuring sex and nudity would have gone against the message of the film, and so it felt necessary to spotlight the personalities alone of the characters, one of whose profession happens to be sex.
3) How did the casting take place for the choice of the protagonist?
Casting the two roles was essential as the audience’s investment in the story would make or break on their performances. Kevin Leslie and I had discussed together for some time, and he loved the script. He had a clear understanding of my vision and was very interested in playing the client but his prior filming commitments prevented this. However as the shoot date was pushed back and his schedule became available I was able to cast him as Eric while continuing the search for Veronica.
After creating a shortlist, a day of auditions was held with Kevin acting opposite each actress in order to examine both their ability to play the role and how well the two leads played off each other. While the auditions were strong and a high level of talent was on display one individual stood out whose understanding of the character and chemistry with Kevin made her our ultimate choice: Olivia Moyles would Veronica.
4) a story that has as its object the drama and love, have you based on real facts?
The Escort is intended to act as a platform with which to give those in the sex industry a voice, and current and former sex workers were interviewed to ensure their views are echoed in the title character’s words. I spent several months interviewing women in that profession, from escorts to telephone sex workers and even an adult film actress (who cameos in the film as a client on Veronica’s phone) so much of what is heard is based on real conversations held. At the same time there are elements in the story around love which are inspired by real events – a monologue about a man who gave up meat in the name of love is based on a friend – as well as my own romantic beliefs.
5) What was, if you can say, the project budget?
The Escort was entirely self-funded, so the production budget was very low but I was able to receive significant support from friends to stretch that budget further. By writing the screenplay with a low budget in mind – 2 characters, 1 location, all set in real-time – these constraints were turned into creative strengths.
6) What critical issues emerged during the shoot?
The Escort faced numerous challenges during the shoot and while I am keen to avoid comparisons with other troubled productions like Heaven’s Gate and Fitzcarraldo we did encounter some obstacles.
Time was against us: Kevin was committed to another film so we only had 9 days to make a feature which meant every aspect of the production had to be organised with military-grade precision and the whole team had to be on the ball at all times…we had quite a few late nights preparing!
Meanwhile, having been told that work being done in the building next door to our shoot would be complete by the time principal photography began, we arrived to find this wasn’t the case and had to operate between the sounds of chainsaws, power drills, and hammering - a challenge to say the least!
On the one day we had set for outdoor filming we awoke to freakishly high winds and rain. My original cinematographer had to leave production early due to a personal matter, and a disaster meant we lost the climax of act one (including the back up) which we then had to reshoot at another location instead (and even then the reshoot was marred with personal tragedy as my mother was diagnosed with cancer 2 days before the shoot).
Despite these challenges, though, I had every confidence that the end product would be as I had envisaged it, due to the dedication and ability of the whole team.
Kevin Leslie: This was probably one of the most challenging shoots I’ve ever had the pleasure of being involved in, not only because of the time constraints trying to shoot in only 9 days but also how much dialogue and subtext there was in the script. Some days we would be running up to 15 pages of dialogue, so at times we were running the scenes almost like a theatre show! There’s was a lot to learn in terms of dialogue but it was what wasn’t being said that I think made this piece even stronger.
Olivia Moyles: Our fight with the natural light was a huge challenge, as with 9 days to complete a feature length film, time was definitely not something we could afford to waste! Working on an extremely low budget and with time constraints was difficult that’s for sure and gave us a real insight into what it is to shoot a low budget feature. It’s a credit to the team we had that we managed to successfully complete this wonderful project.
7) What other projects will you do?
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 an homage to the ‘80s movies I grew up watching from The Hitcher to The Lost Boys, and a passion project of mine as I have wanted to tell this story since I came 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. The series deals with various social issues under the guise of being an adrenaline-fueled thriller, and production designer Charles Lagola (The Good Doctor, Sons of Anarchy) is involved.
Besides those I have various other projects at different stages dealing with pertinent social themes ranging from racism and xenophobia to consent, discrimination, and terrorism all in the pipeline.
8) You have been selected at MedFF thanks to the popular jury, formed by members in the theater, it means that your film likes people. What effect does it make you?
I am first and foremost an audience member who loves to watch great films whether it be Fellini, Lean, Powell, or Scorsese, so for The Escort to be officially selected at MedFF and be nominated for awards by a jury of film lovers means the world to me. I am delighted that you enjoyed the film, and that it reached people’s hearts.
Kevin Leslie: Which leads perfectly onto how thrilled I am for all the team involved, especially Bizhan, that the film is captivating audiences and as part of the Official Selection getting nominated for Best Feature Film. Every single person involved in this film deserves all their hard work and unique skills to be accoladed. Knowing what we had to go through to get this feature made and the relentless commitment from Bizhan to see it through and complete the film, I couldn’t be prouder to see The Escort finally reach its audience.
Olivia Moyles: This was a project close to the hearts of all of us, and a story we were intensely passionate about shooting. As a woman in the industry I had many a connection to this subject; as I hope women from all career paths and backgrounds will find a little bit of themselves in this story. To see the film and hard work of the incredible team behind this project being recognised means the world.
9) Ask the director: is there anything you would have changed?
If there is one change I would have made it would be to shoot The Escort elsewhere. I was informed that building work next door to our filming location would be complete by the time we started shooting but this wasn’t the case, and the loud sounds of saws and power drills meant I had to change our schedule with an off-screen monologue shot through the sounds of hammers and drills. We fixed this in post-production, but it would’ve been easier if we didn’t have to!
The first time I saw the movie I asked myself: Fuck but where are the nude scenes? But the key to reading is another, it does not focus on what Olivia Moyles does in his private life but on what he feels and suffers.
10) question to the beautiful actress: you are nominated as best actress at MedFF, are you happy? What are your plans for the future?
Olivia Moyles: Absolutely delighted and humbled. Without the team believing in me and supporting me in this role and project and beyond I wouldn’t have this nomination. My plans for the future are to continue to be involved in stories that I believe in as much as this one, and ones that people from all backgrounds can relate to.
11) With what instruments did you shoot the film?
We initially used the C500 Mark I but due to budget constraints switched to the C300 Mark II. We used 2 single colour LED light panels, a tripod, and a slider, the last of which proved challenging when capturing the shot for certain scenes but fortunately good teamwork allowed us to get the shots. We also used a 70-200 Canon lens, a 24-70 Canon lens, and 2 Sennheiser radio mics noting the contained spaces in which the characters reside.
12) The DC Blog would like your trailer on the front page, you will be followed by about 10,000 people ... a beautiful achievement is not it?
This is a wonderful achievement for which all of us express our thanks. Our goal has always been to share The Escort with a wider audience in order to spread the film and message, and we are touched that our trailer will be put on the front page of The DC Blog. On behalf of the whole team who made The Escort we would like to thank you for your support and hope everyone who views the trailer will enjoy it enough to check out the film.
Danny Caprio's Review
The Escort is a film with a peaceful plot, a novel from another era that has as its object a difficult love story full of obstacles. Kevin Leslie is the prince of fairy tales that, armed only with the feeling he feels for the protagonist Olivia Moyles, does everything to overcome the many pitfalls that would exist in such a relationship. Bizhan Tong does not create a love story between a prostitute and a man, but he draws a story between a girl in need and a prince with human feelings. The first time I saw the movie I asked myself: Fuck but where are the nude scenes? Is the girl a prostitute or not?
But the key to reading is another, it does not focus on what Olivia Moyles does in his private life but on what he feels and suffers. On the pain of being aware that the person for whom something is being born is in another room with a client who is violating her intimacy.
I greatly appreciated the director's care in creating an elegant film about a lustful and often vulgar world like that of escorts. Bravissimo Bizhan Tong.