Deon Taylor is a filmmaker who has created an interesting niche for himself as a director, having made movies in relative obscurity for ten years.
Things really took off for Taylor in 2014 when he formed the Hidden Empire Film Group production company with partner Roxanne Avent. The company had its biggest hit in 2016 with the horror-comedy Meet the Blacks, starring Mike Epps, which was self-released through Freestyle and grossed $9 million based on a budget of under a million. The company has really stepped up its productions since then.
Taylor is back with Traffik, a tense thriller starring Omar Epps (only his second movie in the past ten years!) and Paula Patton (Mission: Impossible), as a couple who travel to a remote cabin for a romantic getaway, only to get caught up in a feud with a gang that’s been kidnapping women as part of a sex trafficking ring.
The movie is being released by Codeblack Entertainment on Thursday night into 1,000 theaters, and it’s a surprisingly solid thriller that really puts Patton through her paces as an actor, and also stars Luke Evans, Miss Pyle, Laz Alonso and William Fichtner.
I spoke with Taylor on the phone this past weekend, and it was quite refreshing to talk to a filmmaker who I never had an opportunity to talk to before, who has been able to build this independent production company that makes movie with such amazing talent. It’s no surprise that Taylor’s movies are being released theatrically to a wider audience where other similarly-budgeted thrillers are being dumped to VOD.
ED: I’m glad I got a chance to see your movie, because Codeblack doesn’t generally show their movies in advance to critics, so I consider myself lucky.
Deon Taylor: Yeah, and I think this is not the typical Codeblack movie either, so yeah, I’m beyond excited for the movie, and I’m happy to talk to people about it. As an independent filmmaker, you only get a shot every now and again to finance your movie and make it yourself, and I’m actually extremely happy with my decision to make this film.
ED: I wanted to ask you a little bit more about Hidden Empire, but let’s start with “Traffik” first. I haven’t seen your earlier movie “Supremacy” but reading the premise, it sounds like that was also a thriller based on true events. Did that lead the way into this one?
Taylor: I’ve always been a fan of thrillers, number one, but number two, I always love things that are grounded in reality. Being able to watch a movie that has, number one, some substance but, number two, there is something that is speaking to me that is real, I find myself being attracted to it. And Supremacywas that for me, very much so. Supremacy, I built that film, but that was much more of a festival movie. This movie here is a much more broader audience film, but it is a true, gritty reality-based movie. I just think that what we were able to do with the movie and the storyline and to be able to kind of blend this issue into a thriller was really cool to be able to do it with the talent, the cast, Roxanne Avent, who produced it. It just to me was a perfect storm.
ED: Did you have to do a lot of research into trafficking? How do you even begin to do that?
Taylor: I was never gonna write this movie. I’m a black filmmaker. I’m always looking for things that touch me, and it was very weird how this happened. It came to me organically through my 13-year-old daughter, because we were actually getting emails about kids being trafficked in our area. I was just like, “What? What is this?”As a parent, you experience everything. You hear about guns. You hear about shootings. You hear about whatever the normal hype you get on the news, right? And this was one of the things that I had never experienced, especially as a black man. This is like, “Trafficking? What does that mean? What are they saying?” I was blown away when I did the research and realized, “Wow, man, this is not only this city. This is a domestic issue and it’s happening at an alarming rate.” That’s what drew me to the project, man. I just kinda took myself, put myself in the room. I’m gonna figure out how to make a story around these events. I’m gonna try to make a story around these headlines. It’s millions of headlines. And do something where I thought it could actually live in a real place and people would actually want to see it and then at the same time get a message.
ED: You ended up casting what might be one of the sexiest movie couples I’ve seen on screen. Omar and Paula Patton were incredible together.
Taylor: No, you’re right.
ED: If I didn’t know Omar already had a beautiful wife at home I would have thought they were a couple.
Taylor: Right. They look great together, man. Paula was my first choice for the film. I just thought she was amazing, and I was a huge fan of what she had did in Déjà vu. When I started getting ready to do this film, I just remember saying to myself, like I told her. I said, “Man, I’m not sure if iyou wanna do stuff like this or not but I said it just would be incredible for us to strip you down in terms of make-up and hair and just have you stretch out as an actress because I know you’re amazing.” You know? Because this is a woman who went from being a really, really incredible actress to Deja Vu, to Mission Impossible, whatever it is, to comedy. You have to have a gauge to be able to do that. You know? So this movie to her was like, she said, “D, you’re exactly right. I wanna do this,” and she’s prolific in this film. No one can tell me anything I know Paula did and I’m blown away by it.
ED: The movie really puts her through her paces. She really goes through a lot in this movie as it goes along.
Taylor: Yeah. It doesn’t stop. The movie is relentless and I think that’s kinda what we wanted to go after, because there is no cool way to get trafficked. You know what I mean? I said that if we’re gonna do it, I wanted to do the movie where it was respectful for people that’ve been trafficked to be like, “Yeah, that’s hell,” not try to figure out some cool, elegant way to be like,
“Now, you’re trafficked.” No, man. This is hard. This is what happens. You know what I mean? They are literally killing women, they are bondaging women. They are beating women. They are traveling women across the country in the back of trucks.I just thought this was a really, really dope thriller to be able to build for people to see and then obviously [at the end of the] movie, you get the stats and then you quickly understand, “Oh, man, this is real.” You know what I mean? And I thought that was a very interesting take for today’s audience.
ED: Also, you brought Omar Epps back into theaters. It’s crazy, but he really hasn’t done many movies in recent years as he’s transitioned over to TV. I think he’s done maybe one movie in the last ten years or so?
Taylor: Yeah, it’s crazy. What’s great about him is he’s a movie star. And it’s a difference between an actor and a movie star. A movie star is someone where you can recall numerous films where you’re like, “Oh, man, I loved that. Oh, that was Omar.” That’s a movie star who stays with you, and [I was] obviously a fan of him from Juiceto Love & Basketball. You go on and on, but being able to take him and put him back into this medium was incredible, and he didn’t miss a beat. I felt like in the movie when you watch it, that’s Omar Epps. You know what I mean? He’s so good. There’s moments with Omar where… what’s so beautiful about him is there’s moments where he’s one of those actors that don’t have to use dialogue to communicate on strength. Omar is able to give you a feeling just off of a look, and I thought that was what was so dynamic about him and Paula in this one.
ED: Despite the subject of this thriller, it actually feels like a great date movie, because it does have a little of everything including romance, action…
Taylor: Man, me too! Love, drama, and you’re right. It’s one of those movies where as it gets intense, you hold hands, and it’s a good ride, and it’s also a good movie in terms of, like I said before, I think when it’s over, it’s a talking point. Unlike most movies you walk right out of the theater and 10 minutes you forgot it. This one, I think, you go to bed, you wake up, and like “What? Do you remember that one part?” I think that’s what’s cool about it.
ED: I’m not sure if you’ve heard of this movie from the ‘70s called Race with the Devil, but it seemed like a twist on that.
Taylor: You’re the second person that brought that up. I know that film extremely well. That’s a great movie and one of the movies that I referenced was The Vanishing. I was a huge fan of that movie because it broke every rule to me. It was the first movie when I was younger that I watched. I said, “Okay, yeah. He’s just trying to find his wife. He’s gonna find his girl, and then it’s just like, no, he’s actually not gonna find her. And, oh, by the way, not only is he not gonna find her but what you thought happened, it did happen.” I just remember that movie breaking the rules and staying with me, and I remember just at the time how prevalent gas stations and kids and people getting abducted was. That was during the time when people started being kidnapped.
ED: Speaking of rides, I gotta ask. Where’d you find that amazing car Omar was driving?
Taylor: It’s a ‘70s Chevelle Supersport. When we were making the movie, what I wanted to do was … A lot of the locations and the equipment in the film, I wanted them to be used as characters, so what was interesting was the Chevelle represented Omar. He was classic. He was timeless. It was something that he built with his hands for his girl versus spending a bunch of money. He was more of a man’s man, and that was just a very cool car to be able to use, opening the movie, feel it, see it. It’s sexy, it’s beautiful, it’s strong. And ultimately, to use it in a chase sequence was really cool as well, and then the other thing that I was able to use that I really wrote as another piece of equipment was the big-rig truck. It is introduced the same exact way. It comes into a big shed. It’s ginormous. It’s lit. It’s strong. It’s like a monster, and I just thought both of those automobiles, the truck and the car, were dynamic in the film as characters.
ED: You made this movie independently, but was there any kind of mandate to make it PG-13 or was that a personal decision?
Taylor:Well, I don’t think we … No. I think it is rated R.
ED: Oh, it is?.
Taylor: It is. Yeah, but we made it independently, man, and for me, like I said, I just couldn’t find a way to make a PG-13 movie about trafficking, not that could resonate and hit home. The movie doesn’t have sex in it and all that stuff, but what the movie does have is it deals with a subject matter that is very, very dark and very scary, and for that, I think you’re gonna get rated R.
ED: I guess so, but I’m kind of surprised, because I feel teens should know about the fact this is happening, and it doesn’t seem too dark for them to learn from it.
Taylor: I definitely think it’s one of those movies that you could sneak in and a kid could get it and understand it and not be appalled, if that makes sense. I do think it has a really good lineup. I think the Rated R tag on it is simply based on the subject matter, versus what we’re doing in it.
ED: I want to ask you about Hidden Empire, because I didn’t really know about the company until I was doing research for this interview. You have a pretty amazing bio, actually. You even were a basketball player! How did Hidden Empire get started? Is it fairly self-contained?
Taylor: Thank you so much. Yeah, it’s just myself and Roxanne, my producer and partner, my partner in life, and we have our other partner, Robert Smith, and that’s it, man. When people ask about us making our films independently, I am the definition of independent, right? (chuckles) You don’t get no more independent than us, right? I mean, we’re literally at home writing scripts, raising our money, casting out of our house, asking for favors and ultimately shooting a movie and then hand-delivering it and trying to figure how to get it out. I mean, we’ve been doing that now for 10 years and we chose “Hidden Empire” because we’ve always realized that we are building something that’s needed in the culture, needed for minorities in terms of being able to make movies that speak to multiple genres and multiple people. But at the same time, no one’s ever known about us. What’s been great is now people are starting to see our work, and that is basically becoming the light for people that shines on us and people to understand our story, which I think is beautiful.
ED: Is it true you have three movies in post right now? Does that mean you have made three more movies since finishing “Traffik”?
Taylor: Yeah. So last year I shot all year, so I have another movie coming in. It’s called The Motivated Sellerwith Michael Ealy and Dennis Quaid and Meagan Good. We have another film, 38, which we’re doing with Dante Spinotti, and then I did a comedy called The House Next Door. Yeah. All of them are scheduled to start dropping.
ED: That’s amazing. That’s still all with Hidden Empire?
Taylor: Yeah, all 100%, man. No studios. No management. No agents. Just us. So yeah. I mean, hopefully now what’s beginning to happen is we’re starting to get some incredible people around us to help us in terms of the journey that we’re on and to learn where we’re going and help us navigate, but yeah, this is solely, 100% independently-done.
ED: The talent you’re getting for your movies is amazing, even going back to “Meet the Blacks” with Mike Epps. Do you just have a lot of friends in the business?
Taylor: Yeah. You know? I think what happens is, I always tell people, “Light attracts light.” I try to really pride myself on integrity and energy and being a real person. And I think what ultimately happens is when you do that, you attract other people that are looking for the same thing and I’ve been really blessed over the last years to meet a lot of people and then to have the ability to ask them to work with me and Mike Epps is one of those people. The same with Paula Patton. And it’s just been proven that it works and I think as long as we’re staying true to the art and we’re not blinded by some false agenda, I think we continue doing this for a long time and making really, really dope movies.
ED: Whatever you’re doing is working right now and I’m really hoping that this movie gets you out even more.
Taylor: Man. Me, too.
ED: This is going into 1,000 theaters, and it’s a great weekend. I think you don’t have a lot of competition., so get out there while you can.
Taylor: Yeah. I mean hopefully someone will go see it, right?
Traffik opens nationwide on Friday, April 20.