Deon Taylor is a director who doesn’t sugarcoat. He hopes to find a way to please audiences while simultaneously telling them a story that affects women and children throughout the world. He also gets bonus points for revealing to me we lived about 25 minutes away from each other in Sacramento. His latest film, Traffik, out Friday, is a blistering story of survival that draws from both ’70s-era thrillers and a real-world story ripped from the headlines. Taylor sat down with The Young Folks to tell us more.
Spoilers Are Discussed at End
I had to talk to you about Traffik especially since it’s set in Sacramento where I live!
Get out of here! Get out of town!
I don’t know where exactly you filmed everything, but it was great to see my city represented, again, in cinema.
We shot downtown, the Capital, midtown restaurant. It was fun to get to travel from Sacramento up to El Dorado Hills, Tahoe. We created Sacramento Post [where the main character works]. It was awesome. As a matter of fact we shot at Sacramento News and Review’s office.
Were there any challenges filming in Sacramento that’s different than filming in a big city like New York or Los Angeles?
No. I’ve always shot around Sacramento. I’ve shot three movies there now and the only reason I left is when you’re working with small budgets there are no tax incentives. The city is not equipped at this time to give the filmmaker anything back, that’s the challenging thing for me as a filmmaker. I’ve been to the mayor’s office a bunch of times [asking] even if you can give me some street permits for free it would help. It became very difficult. Why I brought Traffik back – because I hadn’t shot in Sacramento for two years – was because this story really resonated with me because I live there. My daughter is twelve and I started getting these emails from school [about] being wary about dropping your kids off at the Roseville Galleria [Mall]. Young women are being trafficked. I read that and was like, “That don’t mean us; we’re black.” Just as dumb as that sounded I looked online and was like, “Wait a minute, what’s going on?” I quickly learned, number one, how bad and how incredibly scary this trafficking epidemic is, not just in the country, but where I live. So then I found the majority of the young girls and boys that are being trafficked are minorities. It just sent a chill over me and the more I started researching the more I was appalled that I didn’t, and I’m telling myself I should have looked at this more. And with a daughter it heightens that for me. This was how I made the movie.
One weekend my daughter plays video games, and she’s on the game. We go in her room at 11:30 at night – and it’s a weekend so she can stay up late – but she’s having a conversation with someone through the computer. I’m like, “Who you talking to?” She was like, “This is a boy I met online playing.” I said, “He’s up at 11:30 at night on the game too?” We looked at it and, just by chance….I read a thing on the game that said, “Where do you live?” As I checked the computer we started scrolling backwards over the course of three weeks. This kid or man, whoever it was on the other side, had been asking all kinds of random questions throughout the conversation. Things that a 12-year-old would never be able to decipher. One day: “What city are you in?” The next day, three days later: “What middle school do you go to?” You could tell it’s someone doing this. At this point, obviously the computer went away, but on top of that it drove me into the space to make this movie.
I have never, in my life, thought I’d be a conduit or a director that would make a movie around trafficking. As I started researching I became more interested in it. I started writing the screenplay and as I was writing the screenplay the challenge became how do you make a movie that would be interesting in this world because no one wants to talk about it. I created the storyline; I started reading stories about trafficking rings, sex rings; small cities, how they’re transported; random people, how they’d fallen into trafficking, and that’s my thing with the storyline. [And then] I got it. We’ll do this incredible love story about this journalist who stumbles into this ring. Once we decode the ring we’ll actually take the audience down the rabbit hole so they can experience what the other side of the world looks like. It was fun making it and it was great because, obviously, I wanted to do something that would affect the kids in my area. They can actually go to the movies, watch it and then do what my daughter did which is go “Dad, this is crazy!” This is why when you see something you say something because there are no movies out that they would gravitate to that would have this story about trafficking.
Traffik has a very ’70s grindhouse aesthetic, I think of something like Race with the Devil, where characters visit a small town and get pulled into something bigger than them. Were there specific films or homages you were going for?
I love that movie [Race With the Devil] by the way. The Vanishing was one of the movies where I really paid attention based on the fact that they don’t make those movies anymore. It’s a thriller, but at the same time there’s a deep-seated message at the bottom of it. Making Traffik was that type of filmmaking. It was old-school, take you on a ride, but you don’t really know where you’re gonna go. Also, not playing by the rules. It’s funny because I was telling another gentleman the other day – it was a really good conversation – and we were chatting about the fact that he was like, “Oh my God, all the rules are broken.” I said, “Well that’s how it needs to be when you’re making a really good movie.” What was great about The Vanishing was she never came back home. That’s what happens.
It’s a realistic yet nihilistic ending.
Right, and he figures it out but the results are horrifying. I said, “Man, people are scared to make that film.” The Vanishing’s 20 years old and we’re still talking about it. You just referenced a movie that’s 30 years old. It’s cool. Also in the film, with Brea (Paula Patton) in this film, I wanted to strip away everything in her life because normally that’s what happens to you, that’s what God does to you when he has you on a journey. You have to lose it all in order to be reborn and understand your course. For this young lady, as a journalist, she’s taken love for granted, she’s not all the way there in her job, she’s pissed off that someone took a beat story from her. Ultimately He says, “You want to know what life is about? Here it is. Bam! Let me take this and, oh, by the way, your next story you’re gonna live it.” It was an interesting parallel for me to create that world for Paula to be in and also knock your socks off where you can’t really guess what’s gonna happen. I’m excited about the movie for a lot of reasons.
And you break some rules by having actual adults in these roles, not beautiful 20somethings. What was it like working with this cast and not just casting people the audience wants to see bad things happen to?
I think that’s the weight of the movie. With using established actors, what they allow you to do is right when you meet Paula in the newsroom, and when you sit down with them for the dinner on her birthday, they automatically set the tone that they’re real people. They have weight in the film. You’re so right in terms of identifying that it’s not “Oh my God. What is that?” Everyone has a past and everyone at that table, in that house is flawed, and that was why I really wanted to go with real actors and people who could actually give you a performance. The acting side of it was just as intense as the directing side.
When you’re making a movie like this with Paula Patton and Omar [Epps] and Laz [Alonso] the tension is so tight on-set because you’re really dealing with the true entity, which is trafficking. There were moments where putting Rosalyn [Sanchez] or Paula in the back of a semi-truck, tied up and closing the door with a camera was claustrophobic. There were moments where Rosalyn, we had to pull her out of there and wait an hour because, as actors, they get to a certain place and you get to a hyper-reality world and now you’re actually in the environment on top of acting and it becomes too intense, it’s scary. There were moments like that where we said, “Man, we all need to step back and go at it.” Even for Luke Goss who plays the trafficker. He’s English and he was like “I can’t, man. I need a moment.” That’s when you know you’re making something that’s intense, is gonna photograph well, and is gonna move an audience.
This is not a critic movie. This is a movie for humans. This is a movie for you to go sit down; I don’t need you to critique the story. I need you to sit down and watch what happens to this young lady because this is happening millions of times a year in America. If I give you the ride and get you to the story, then I want you to see the story.
Without getting into spoilers, I have to ask about having things boil down to two women? Because we don’t often explore female power in trafficking.
I’ll really blow your mind now. As I started researching I actually didn’t just read about trafficking, I sat down and spoke to a few women who had been trafficked. One young lady named Tanya, who I met with over and over again, even after the movie. This is gonna scare the hell out of you, she was trafficked at a young age. She’s actually someone who has been a consultant on the film. She was trafficked for almost four years, at a young age, and she was a foster kid, inter-city, tough upbringing. She became friends with the traffickers. Ultimately, she started trafficking kids and women. When I heard that, every emotion in me peaked and spun up. I was pissed; “What do you mean? What are you saying?” She explained to me that what happens is they turn a lot of the women to learn the trafficking ring because they understand how to speak to other women. They understand how to manipulate kids. They’re much easier collectors than a man because they come in a different light.
They’re perceived as less of a threat.
That’s right. I said, “That’s the most evilest shit I’ve heard in my life.” When I started the script I just knew at that point, “Man, this is great.” So for the Missi Pyle character, it was great because…Missi, look at how she plays the character. She actually has a reason for why she’s doing it. She feels like she’s just doing a job. “What I’m doing is no different than anybody else.” I said, “Man, this is exactly how they think and how they feel. Let’s try it.” I felt like personally, just as a filmmaker, that came off extremely well. That’s one of the things I’m happy about is you see the twist is a female.
I think most audiences will be surprised because they don’t portray women as unrepentant.
And I thought it was cool at the end. One of the things people were struggling with was “you gotta make them have a big fight at the end.” I said, “No.” She beats her with her mind. I like that she beats her with the phone call; she outwits her instead of some big, outrageous liquor store fight. The Missi character explains where she’s coming from, where her mind is at, why she does what she does, and then Paula ultimately outsmarts her. I thought it was a cool ending, so thank you for telling me that. It means a lot to me to hear that from you!