Hi, this is Bizhan Tong and I’m the writer, producer and self-funder of THE ESCORT, a feature chronicling gender perception within society by way of the sex industry.
Now today I’m here to talk to you about five problems I faced when making THE ESCORT, the trials and tribulations we encountered, what it would mean for production and how we overcame them. But before I do so, let’s take a brief moment to recap the journey and explain how we got to this point.
Now for those of you watching I’m an avid fan of film, molded by it, living it, breathing it, dependent on it. And after writing my first feature screenplay at the age of 12 I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life.
I’ve spent almost everyday since writing or tinkering with scripts. I made my first proper short in 2008 for the short film called TICKET about toxic masculinity and earned my first producing credit that same year with FIX, a feature about drugs starring Olivia Wilde.
Then after I continued to rise as later projects and honed my craft to the course at Raindance and volunteered to shoot corporate videos for free in order to try out different styles with SOMEONE I KNOW production designer Charles McCarry on a TV series I was developing.
Finally I formed a production company (Phoenix Waters Productions) in 2015 in order to bring my stories to life tell of different genres amassed over a decade of all high-concepts dealing with personal and social themes and the first feature I wanted to make was THE ESCORT.
Now I had no funding in place but I knew this story was special and the right feature debut. So I set money aside from my day job to fund the film. I spent several months interviewing current and former sex workers to lend credence to the script.
It was important to me that their views be echoed in the particular character’s words rather than my assumptions, wrote the screenplay with budget constraints in mind, two characters, one location and spoke with an accomplished female director about helming the project, but exploring the escort industry wasn’t of interest to her. And so I made the decision that this would be my feature directorial debut as well.
Cut to almost three years later and THE ESCORT is about the premiere in New York at the Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema.
Reaction from those who’ve seen it has been immensely positive. Distributors are already making offers. The company now has exceptional board of directors and I’m busy prepping my next feature NIGHT RIDE.
The first few years weren’t easy and so without further ado here are five problems I faced when filming THE ESCORT.
A nine day shoot. Actor Kevin Lesley plays the client Eric in the movie and does a phenomenal job, as well. Kevin had other film commitments at the time which meant we only had 9 days to shoot a feature because on day 10 he would have to shave his head for a role.
And knowing THE ESCORT takes place in real time there would have been glaring continuity errors and I didn’t want to slap him with a Fantastic Four wig. Plus I didn’t have the budget for one.
Now we had one month between casting Olivia Moyles as the title character and shooting the film as it was still finalizing the crew and searching for the right location to keep production cost low.
So I went to the studio room in Canary Wolf where the actors and I would work on refining the characters, their world and the execution of their dialogue. I had a very specific approach in mind.
The actors continued to rehearse themselves in even the studio or on Skype and I went for the script listing every shot I wanted. Please note I could only afford one camera. So for a lot of retakes it was important not to keep the action static. That way I could keep production efficient and ensure them we were moving at pace. Doing the shoot the camera op, DP and I would hold a meeting every morning on the train to discuss the shots we needed while in the evening the actors would rehearse while I would sleep at 2:00 a.m. the next night and wake up at 3:30 for the following day’s shoot.
And kudos to the cast. There was one scene in the kitchen where it was important to accomplish it in one take which was a challenge for all in the technicolor climate but especially for them as was a lot of dialogue as they couldn’t afford to flub a line.
Everyone was passionate, everyone was involved and on the last day we shot for 17 hours straight in order to complete the film culminating the bedroom scene shoot, which was the trickiest and more emotional one to do.
Fortunately morale was in tact which is the key to success in any production.
2. Noisy Neighbors!
A war zone next store. If I could make any change to THE ESCORT is would be shoot at another location not because of the location itself which I am grateful to have been offered but because of the property next door which sounded like a Michael Bay blockbuster. Prior to the shoot I had been advised that building works would be completed prior to when principal photography began. Alas when we arrived on set, we found this wasn’t the case and had to battle our way through the sound of power drills, saws and heavy machinery for the duration of the shoot.
While the builders were saying we were shooting a porn film, I never even told them the title. Ultimately, there was a lot of negotiating involved.
Ultimately, there was a lot of negotiation involved and I would frequently visit the house to arrange time slots of silence or ask for a specific amount of time to get a take right. But we also used that time to stay productive. When it was noisy we would shoot B-roll footage or take lunch so we could shoot when they were on break.
And during an off-screen monologue when the camera needed to focus on the listener’s reaction, we decided to shoot the scene and weave in the monologue in post.
Now not everything was sorted this way. The bathroom scene which was shot perfectly had to sound butchered. But thanks to ADR work by Phil Clemens and a positive relationship with the builders next door, we were able to get through it and the final tract is a testament to this and it doesn’t look or sound like we faced these problems.
3. A change of DP
While the director has a vision. The director of photography is operative to the execution of that vision. And so the look, start and feel of the film had been discussed well in advance as a DP perceives it from a technical standpoint.
When the original DP needed to leave early for personal reasons, this threatened to derail the plan we had in place. I was conscious that this would distract the cast and crew as I needed them focused and giving their all, particularly the actors who had some challenging scenes to perform. So we agreed to keep this news from them after the replacement was found with the DP continuing until the end of the week.
During each break from filming I would leave the house in an effort to find someone on such short notice and fortunately the DP introduced me to someone (Beau Richard James) a steadicam operator who agreed to step into the DP role in order to keep production on track.
The other problem was style as their visual angles would be different than each other. Fortunately my intent had always been that every scene would be shot in a subtly different way to effect the story and those characters in that moment. So how can that style be different from what I was trying to do in the context of what I was trying to do as long as it wasn’t radically and Beau worked tirelessly along with other camera operators often putting in extra days to get the look and shot.
We had this transitional period as we moved from one DP to the next and because of his production stayed on track and we crafted some of the finest moments in the film from the dance scene to the bedroom with our new addition to the team.
4. The British Weather
Freakish wind and rain during a supposed sunny out door shoot. THE ESCORT takes place in real time and it was important that it set during the day since nighttime shady activities tend to be synonymous with each other. And I wanted to underline the activities that go on in quiet, pleasant neighborhoods on seemingly bright days.
We had set one morning to set all the outdoor scenes based on the schedule we had in place and the weather forecast. But unfortunately one of the freakiest moments on the shoot, that morning was met with high winds and light rain. That mean Kevin’s clothes were flapping about in the wind and they had to almost shout their lines to be heard. The equipment had all been moved outside of the shoot so prepping a different scene and moving inside would have taken at least an hour. And I knew based on the schedule shooting in on a different day would have sacrificed time on more technical and more technical and emotionally challenging scenes.
This is why I pose a question to you, what would you do? In our case Beau waited until mini hurricane outside until there was a brief moment when the winds and rain subsided and we were able to shoot the scene.
But we were extraordinarily fortunate to get it. So I’d been keen to hear your thoughts.
5. No Backing Up The Backups
Loosing the Climax of Act One
If there is one piece of advice that I would give anyone is to have a good day director. It was the biggest shock during production that we lost the climax of Act 1. Not just the original but the back up leading to subsequently forming multiple backups for the rest of production. One take remained in tact, but it only showed one of the actors and we knew we had no choice but to reshoot say for a brief flirtation of having it done anime style but it was something we avoided.
We prepped to shoot five months later when Kevin had grown his hair but we no longer had access to location and had to shoot at Liverpool Street.
Now this poses it’s own challenges because it’s clear we’re shooting at a different location. And considering that we have the escort’s apartment, this would be a problem. Now we looked at various options, maybe we’d have a blow-out in the background and shoot it there. But what we ultimately decided to do was to have the props on the set and most importantly the sofa since that is where the climax moment takes place, bring that over to the set and film in a very tight manner that would focus on the characters’ faces. This actually worked ideally for us because looking at the scene and what was occurring there was an argument and we were looking to break them apart.
So from a visual standpoint we thought why not just have them not share the scene? So two days before we were about to shoot the film, I had a personal issue and my Mom was diagnosed with Cancer. But this was important that we keep it quiet from the cast and crew again because I need them to focus and give it their all. It was an emotional scene. It was an important scene to do. And so I worked with them, I kept these personal things private and we were able to shoot the scene.
We worked afterwards through editing, it enabled us to utilize the scene that we had (that one take) that we had in the location with what we created afterwards.
Fortunately it meshed and worked well and I’m really proud and happy with what we’ve created.
So those are the five problems I faced making THE ESCORT and I hope you never have to face those during your production and ultimately thank you very much for your time. I hope this was an educational one. And I wish you the best of luck with your films. Thanks!
Bizhan Tong is the founder of Phoenix Waters Productions, a company focused around making films that spotlight topical social issues.
The company have just finished their first feature film: ‘The Escort’, following a man who pays for 60 minutes with a sex worker with a view to convincing her to leave her line of work. What follows is a lively verbal battle exploring sexual politics and what intimacy means in a ‘swipe-right’ world.
The film is premiering in New York and London this summer, having already been shortlisted for a number of awards.
Bizhan has been writing screenplays from a young age, launching his first business aged 14 selling DVDs to raise funds for his filmmaking equipment. It was while studying Maths at the University of Manchester that he produced and directed his first short film: ‘Ticket’, exploring themes of toxic masculinity, which starred fellow student Rory Girvan (Stella, Sky One). Following this, Bizhan earned his first producing credit aged 20 working on feature film ‘Fix’, starring Olivia Wilde (Tron, The Lazarus Effect), before founding Phoenix Waters Productions in 2015.
Following ‘The Escort’, Phoenix Waters Productions are starting work on ‘Night Ride’, a tense hitch-hiker thriller which explores the shortcomings of the American Dream, and the price to pay for human success.