We chat with the director about his new thriller and the geeky surprise of nabbing Dante Spinotti for his cinematographer.
We all love a good scare. Stepping into a dark theater, anticipating the sudden jumps and the resulting nightmares of Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers is one of my favorite American pastimes. Sometimes, however, the horror you just purchased cuts too close to reality. Hannibal Lecter is cartoony enough to enjoy as a cinematic device, but that Buffalo Bill character in The Silence of the Lambs tracks disturbingly true to the Dateline exposes on serial killers you’ve obsessively consumed. You walk into The Strangers and you’ll never leave the door of your home unlocked again.
The “Based On A True Story” thriller is a tricky line to navigate. For director Deon Taylor, he learned of the realities of domestic sex trafficking and felt compelled to devote a film to the subject matter. He wanted to fulfill the needs of a thriller without betraying or exploiting the real-life horrors of these stories. He achieved this by casting Paula Patton in the lead and magically securing renowned cinematographer Dante Spinotti as the eye behind his camera.
I had a long conversation with Deon over the phone. He is tremendously proud of the film and hopes Traffik sheds some light on this particular underworld. We discuss the events that forced him to pick up a pen and write this screenplay, as well as the impossible to escape cinematic influences. Then we take a break to freak out over the director of photography, Dante Spinotti. What is it like when the man who shot Heat and L.A. Confidential says yes to your micro-budgeted movie?
Here is our conversation in full:
Is there a cinematic inspiration to Traffik or a real-life inspiration?
Yeah, it’s funny man, I keep kind of telling this story. It’s really interesting. The more and more I tell it, I’m like, “Man, this is crazy.” I never realized what trafficking meant or was even subject to it, where I’m like, “Oh, yeah, this is a big car I’ve to get behind.”
My daughter was actually the conduit that brought me to this. We received a letter from her school that kids in our area were being trafficked. And that really hit home for me as a dad. Especially as an African American dad, I’m like, “Okay, well, I thought that was something that happens in foreign countries.”
I was just blown away, to find out specifically that these kids are being trafficked out here in my area, and every other area, and every metropolitan city, just as much as they are in Europe. And the numbers were staggering.
As I started doing more and more research and reading headlines, that’s when I really was like, “Man, this is crazy. This is happening at the gas station!” That’s kind of what brought me to it. I tell you, when I started going down the road, like writing the screenplay, normally you say, “I want to make a horror movie.” You can go watch Friday the 13th, you can go watch Get Out, you can go watch all these different things, and there was nothing for this genre. It was like the first time my pen hit the paper, I’m like, “Okay, well let’s see, we need a little bit more energy.”
One of the movies that I really was able to gravitate to, which I thought was fantastic, was ‘The Vanishing.’
A terrifying experience.
Yeah, it was brilliant. It was the first time for me as a young teenager that I watched a movie and it didn’t play by the rules. It was the first time where, as you’re watching the film, you keep going, “Oh man. Okay. Well, he’s got to find her now.” Okay. Well, it’s been 10 years? Okay, he going to find her, but what you got was real. And what you see was real. It was someone who had worked on the craft of kidnapping someone over the course of their life. I just remember the early 80’s and 90’s, I remember John Walsh’s son Adam. That’s what it was. Like people going to a gas station and never coming out. You can walk into a convenience store and never come out. And I said, “Man, here, the articles are about people who have walked into these things, gas stations, in these same rural areas and stumbled upon a girl or seen girls in a van.”
I said, “Man, this is where I want to start my story.” That was the motivation of it and I wanted to be in the vein. I talked to Dante Spinotti about the movie, our cinematographer, I’m like, “We want to create something that is intense, and the tension is at a 10. And at the same time, we want to have the same empty feeling in The Vanishing.” We’re going to break the rules in the film and make people go for the ride.
So, since you were coming from a real place of horror, how do you prevent Traffik from falling into just the basic exploitation tropes?
Well, I think it’s a great conversation piece, number one. But then secondly, what I try to do in the film is, when you do take the turn in the film, everything that is in that movie is true to form of what happens. So, from the mag shot, which is the dirty needle, to the girl being put into a truck and gagged and bound, to having them in a weighing area where they are waiting to be transported and constantly drugged. I tried to build it out to where people could get a first-hand look at this. Ultimately, what I wanted to do is at the end of the film, I wanted to educate you on like, “Hey, what you just watched, although you might be covering your eyes and screaming and like, ‘Oh, this is a great movie,’ I wanted to have the crime represented to you, this is really happening.”
So, we put the stats up, where you can see, here is one plus million women yearly that are being abducted. Not prostitutes, right? Not girls that, oh, they got a pimp. No, these are women that are being grabbed and put into situations where they can’t get out or are either killed. The classic story, I can’t think of the girl’s name now, but there was a young lady that was abducted and kept as a sex slave for 13 years one block away from her dad.
This is happening, man. It’s going down, do you know what I mean? I said, “Let’s figure out if this movie could be a really, really dope way for people to see something, respond, then have a conversation about it.” If we could do that, then it would help because here I was with my young daughter not knowing any of that was happening. Or, you just kind be like, “Oh yeah, trafficking, alright, yeah, whatever.” Until you walked into a gas station and your daughter does not come out. So, the whole thing was, if you see something, say something. And I hope the film sparks that.
Another film that popped into my head while watching your film was that Kurt Russell movie. Have you seen Breakdown?
That’s exactly right. I watched that film a thousand times, yeah.
In the past, like in Breakdown, your film would’ve been told from Omar Epps’s point of view, the husband, right?
And you have Paula Patton, who’s amazing in the movie, as the hero of the piece. Why make her character the lead?
Well, it’s interesting, man, because I was just telling somebody, it might have been yesterday. I was just telling people about trafficking. Now, I’m like the trafficking guru, right? I’ve read so much stuff, man, and know so much. I’m like, “Dude, this is insane.”
Paula was an interesting character for me. Obviously, she’s a movie star and she’s absolutely beautiful. But what drew me to Paula, and she knows, I’ll tell her this always, was Deja Vu. That movie, to me, was just so dope in terms of her character. Because we’d never seen Paula like that since then, right?
It’s always been rom-comedies or she’s the beautiful vixen. But we had never seen her that gritty like that, and I wondered why hadn’t she done more stuff like that. And what I also liked about Paula is her face is vulnerable. She wears her character on her face extremely well. And I just thought she would kill this. I thought no one would believe she could do it.
I thought, in that case, when the movie took the turn, that she would be that much more convincing, right?
She kicks ass.
And she did it, man. She did all the stunts. She lived the movie. The entire process, for me, for that film, whether you like it or not, the entire process was just super dope, man. We just broke all the rules.
But she is an unexpected heroine for this usual type of genre movie.
I remember this one guy was like, “Man, well, how come you didn’t use all white people. White people are the ones that get trafficked all the time.” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” This is the first time I ever saw African American and Latino people in this film. It was the first time I’ve ever seen it. And I thought that was very cool. And then when I told them the stats, I said, “Hey man, do you know that 68 percent of women that are trafficked in the US are black?”
And the dude’s like, “Wow.” And I said, “Yeah, look it up.” It’s interesting, black and brown people domestically are. I think Paula represents strong women. And what I wanted to do in the movie, which I thought was kind of cool – you mentioned Breakdown. Breakdown was great. But this is her fight. It’s her struggle. And it’s her journey.
And ultimately at the end of this life, sometimes man, God rips everything away from you, takes everything out of you, pulls your clothes off, takes your house, takes your wife, takes your money, everything. So you could actually look right there and say, “Okay, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.” He rebuilds you. And I thought this movie was interesting that way because here’s a girl that wanted to be a reporter, she wanted to be the best reporter, whatever that might be in the beginning. And then, she meets a guy who wants her. Then, finally, she actually lives the story. And then ultimately, now, that is her mission in life. This is what she’s gonna do. And I thought that was interesting.
Man, I had read so many articles about people that have been victimized, not only in trafficking, even falsely accused and going to prison for 25 years. Can you imagine? And now, what they’ve done is they’ve come out and become advocates for that.
Because they went through it. And I thought this was interesting for this character to have that type of arc at the very end of the film where now, you are a journalist, but now you’ve also lived this experience to where you can tell and help and teach others. And that’s why, at the very end, I wanted to have her look at the capital and you can hear all the rumblings of all the other people being trafficked and stop and think, “Now, what’s your mission in life?”
So, that was kind of cool for me.
Sure. There could be a whole other film after this film.
Yeah. I left it there, just because, I was like, “Man, if this ever works, it would be really cool to kind of revisit it a different type of way.” Or maybe bring her back in another way where she’s not solving stuff. That’s what I loved about the movie. It’s grounded in something real. It’s not some type of pit monster with four eyes that jumps out the ground and grabs you. This is what’s really going on. And she has to fight people, bad guys, and get away.
You mentioned it before, but what a gift it is to have Dante Spinotti on your movie. The man who shot LA Confidential, Last of the Mohicans. He’s shot all these amazing movies and here he is shaping the vision of the film. What was that conversation? You talk about getting the grit and the reality of the picture. But what was your conversation with Dante in shaping the look of the movie?
First of all, I was a huge fan of Dante.
Sure, of course.
And I met Dante by writing a letter to him. I wrote him a letter and told him I was a filmmaker, independent, young, black filmmaker, and I was a fan of all his films. I never met Dante for him to be my cinematographer. I was just asking him if I could sit down with him to talk about lenses and the camera.
I went and sat down with him in LA with his wife, and he’s a 74-year-old Italian man, and here I am 40-year-old black guy. And we ended up hitting it off. And before I knew it, I’m getting up to leave his house, and he’s like, “Wait, Deon, come back.” And I’m like, “Yeah, D, what’s going on, man?” And he’s like, “You never told me about your movie.” ‘Cause I was going to tell him about my movie, this movie. And I said, “I’ve been listening to you tell me the behind-the-scenes stories of Heat and how you lit the table with Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro.”
‘Cause that was the first thing I went to was like, “How’d ya’ll light that?” And I said, “There’s no way on earth I’m sitting to pitch you a three million dollar movie.” I was just like, “Let’s just leave it here.” And he said, “No, sit your ass down and tell me about your movie.”
And I sat down and started telling him about my movie. And you don’t know me like that, but I’m like jumping on the fucking chair.
I would be losing my mind.
And I’m like, “Then, the dude comes and the truck comes. And the room. And then the girl shoots.” And he’s like “Woo!” And he’s getting excited. And I just remember he was getting ready to do a really, really big movie, like a hundred plus million dollar movie.
He’s doing Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Well, he just did Ant-Man. But this was before that. So, he was getting ready to do a gigantic film. And I remember the next day, he called me. He said, “Deon, are you gonna really make that movie right now?” And I was like, “Yes, I am.” And he was like, “I’m gonna do your movie.” And he passed on a big-time studio film and came and did this movie. And that’s the heart of it, that’s why you do movies.
You don’t make the movie for the critic. You don’t make the movie for fans. You make movies because they move you and they’re dope and it’s your art.
And seeing this guy come off a 300 plus million-dollar movie and now, he’s making your movie. I said, “Dante, what you get paid is the budget of our whole film.” He’s laughing and when I tell you he was there, alert, ready to rock. Even if you hate the movie, if you turn off the sound and just watch it, you’d say, “Oh my God, this is beautiful.”
He did an amazing job, man, and what a blessing he was to even do the film. We’re actually getting ready to shoot a new movie together now, man. So, he just wrapped Ant-Man, and we’re getting ready to do an LA crime drama. So, it was a blessing.
Another LA crime drama with Dante Spinotti shooting it? That’s geek heaven. That’s amazing.
That’s right. That’s right. Yep.
So, looking at your career, how is the experience of shooting Traffik different than shooting Meet the Blacks or Supremacy?
Well, Supremacy was a very hard film for me. I shot that movie 16 mm, it was a true story, true on every level. I had sat with the guy in prison, sat with the family that was invaded. I did that movie more so for festival. I wanted to tell a really gritty story. I wanted to show how racism is learned; you’re not born racist. And ultimately at the end, I wanted to see the evilest, white supremacist become friends with a black man.
Meet the Blacks, to me, had a lot of windowed messages in it. But Meet the Blacks was one of those movies where, I had finished Supremacy, and I was so upset with Hollywood, man. Because just independently, I had never been able to find distribution. I’m backpack on, flying to LA every week, meeting everybody I can, screaming from the rooftops.
And when I didn’t get the correct release for Supremacy, I was very upset. And I just wanted to take a break. And Mike Epps, who’s a really good friend of mine, was like, “Man, we should just go do some funny shit.” And I was like, “Alright.”
And I remember calling Charlie Murphy, and Charlie was like, “Come on, let’s go do some shit, Deon, and get your mind off this shit.” And I was like, “Alright.” And we went and did that movie, man. We shot that movie in 14 days, or 15 days. Roxanne [Avent] produced it. We made it for no money. And we actually released the movie ourselves as well, independently, like no studio.
So, that was completely different. That movie rebooted me, ’cause I had fun, I laughed. I was with friends. We didn’t care. I’m a director. I’m a writer. But I’m like, “We out here freelancing.” So that was a fun experience for me to just be like, I don’t care what anyone writes, I don’t care what anyone says. This is for us. And we did it that way, and the results were overwhelmingly surprising. Not only did the movie open up before the country, but the movie has become like a cult classic among urban youth. It’s in rap songs. It’s in rap videos. It’s like they’re waiting for the next one. So now, with Traffik, it just allows me to go back to my roots, to what it is I like to do.
And how are you feeling right now about the financial climate in Hollywood? You’re out here hustling this movie right now and you’re getting ready to gear up on another one. Are you feeling pretty positive working out here?
Well, I think they all are different stories. What we’re trying to do here at Hidden Empire, is like the Blumhouse model. We had that model before it was the Blumhouse model, which is low budget, high-quality films. And Traffik is no different. So the idea is to just make sure that, as a filmmaker, I am skilled enough to make a movie and not go over budget, whatever that is, under five million dollars.
I think what happens is, when you’re able to do that, you kind of save yourself because you know you can get that money back through whatever the outlets are. But I think the climate is changing now just for African American filmmakers. I think with the emergence of Moonlight, Black Panther, Get Out, the Kevin Harts, the Tyler Perrys, the Will Packers, the Girls Trips. I think people want to see that. They want to hear these voices. And they want to see these different movies put together. They want to see a Traffik.
That’s been very, very cool. I’m just happy that we’re now in a wave of that, versus a year or two ago, when you were really getting one black film a year. But two years before that, you were getting one every two years. So now it’s a situation where it’s not about black cinema. It’s just about the fact that black filmmakers or writers are actually getting their product out. So, it’s just pretty cool, man, to see that.
And you’re doing another crime film. Is this your passion? Is this the genre that you want to work in?
Yeah, I like the thriller drama world a lot. I just gravitate toward it. I think I like the realness of things. It’s really hard for me to write in suspended reality, where an ape is 50,000 feet tall and he’s chasing after you. Those are tough for me. I like watching them, but that’s not my wheelhouse. I just like all the buckets. I like horror movies that are dope, that are grounded in reality. I like these types of thrillers where they have a real story connected to them or something real is happening and your humanity is tested.
So, this one that we’re getting ready to do is gonna be on the other side of the law, which is with all the stuff going on, with the police and the world. I just thought it would be really dope to examine a film where everyone’s mad at the police and people are rioting and Black Lives Matter and all that. Like, what does it feel like if you were a black cop? And that’s the story that we’re gonna tell out of south central LA.
I just was like, “Man, this could be ill.” To see that. To see everything peeled away. You’re on the other side, you’re on the blue line. So that’s what we’re working on next. It’s called 38.
Traffik is now playing in theaters nationwide.