Interview with Writer and Director Deon Taylor | Traffik
Traffik follows Brea (Paula Patton), a journalist recently sidelined due to a distinct lack of immersion into her reporting. The timing could not be better when her boyfriend, John (Omar Epps), whisks her away for a lush romantic getaway, tucked in the solace of the wilderness.
Happenstance meets tragedy as Brea and John cross paths with a young woman seemingly pleading for help, and a conspicuous biker gang looking for trouble. After an intense encounter at a local gas station, the couple arrive at the picturesque retreat where a weekend of indulging awaits. An ill-timed visit from mutual friends (Laz Alonso and Roselyn Sanchez) proceeds a horrific development: Brea has found the desperate woman’s phone in her bag. As fate would have it, that same woman has just arrived demanding the phone back. And she is not alone.
Traffik sets the board as any number of thrillers have, finding our heroes trapped in an isolated locale with a group of sadistic outlaws bent on their demise. What sets the film apart are the very intense stakes at play for our characters amid the backdrop of true-life events. As tensions escalate, a tragic everyday occurrence emerges from beneath the fiction, and Traffik takes an enthralling, yet decidedly pointed look at this modern true horror.
Traffik is pulse-pounding entertainment with an underlying message. And to elaborate on that message, as well as the film itself, is writer and director Deon Taylor. Responsible for the hit, Meet the Blacks – as well as its soon-to-be-released sequel – and the upcoming Dennis Quaid thriller, Motivated Seller, Taylor has been a filmmaker on the rise for several years. With Traffik, he veers into a complicated narrative of suspense meets education, as our characters confront a very existential threat in today’s world: sex trafficking.
Enjoy our exclusive interview with writer and director Deon Taylor as he discusses his new film, Traffik, releasing nationwide on April 20, 2018.
The Hollywood Outsider: I caught Supremacy a couple of years back. That was based on a true story? I didn’t realize that at the time.
Deon Taylor: Yeah. Supremacy is my baby. That’s my 16 millimeter baby. I’m happy you’ve seen it. So you know, obviously, handling that movie was a lot different than Traffik because that was me unapologetic and very raw. And very visceral in terms of telling that story because I was connected to that family that went through it. After speaking to the real guy, Sully, in prison and then being with the family for a few months, when I picked the camera up I was really shooting that movie with that attitude. You know what I mean? I was shooting so people could understand what that felt like, you know? An interesting parallel to Traffik based on the fact that that story came to me, I didn’t pick it, it just came to me.
I was telling a guy earlier, we started receiving e-mails from the school about my daughter, they would say, “Hey, don’t drop your kids off at the mall, the local mall, because kids are being trafficked.” Not kidnapped, not taken, he said trafficked. And I said, “What is that?” I said, “They don’t traffic black people, do they?”, and sure enough, as I was looking through this, there’s everything. As a matter of fact, African-Americans and Latinos are amongst the highest trafficked, and it just blew my mind.
And I started doing more and more research, and the story just came to me. I wanted to make a film that was grounded in a real thing, a real place, a real issue and I wanted to set a story on top of it so that people could, you know, instead of you seeing Boogie Night 3 with the boogeyman, Larry, I said no, THIS is the bogeyman. This is real and this is happening right now. It’s so easy for you to stumble into a heist, it’s so easy for you to stumble into a shootout, it’s so easy for you to stumble into a tropical rain. It’s so easy for you to sit down in a car or on the airplane next to someone and she’s not talking and you have no idea that the guy behind her is actually taking her somewhere.
You know what I mean? And I just wanted to put my energy into this movie and we made this film “Traffik”, and I’m beyond excited about it. I’m screaming from the rooftops to people to actually check it out in terms of watching the movie for the message, and for what we were able to do. I think, cinematically, it just takes you on a journey, and I feel like it touches a lot of your nerves, and your system, and your bones. And when you get up and get ready to walk out as you leave this, you’re crying. And you go, “Oh, whoa, this is real and I’m not happy about it”.
I recently saw a documentary on sex trafficking at a film festival, so I think if you watch Traffik and you don’t see how it is in real life, you think it’s kind of impossible. But it is very widespread. What kind of research did you do into the subject itself for the movie?
Just a lot of reading. And then, what I did before I started shooting the movie is I actually got out and I spoke to some trafficking victims. Actually, I spoke to one lady who not only had been trafficked, but also became a trafficker, which was really interesting. She was a girl that was homeless, had been put through the system in terms of being trafficked, became one of the best girls they had, and ultimately they flipped her, as she was actually out trafficking her girls. When I saw that and talked to her, I was – obviously, you have so many feelings in your body. You’re like, “This happened to you and then you started doing it to people?!” And you just see how evil it is.
And just how dark this is as an epidemic and that’s when I knew I was doing the right movie. I said, “Man, this is crazy.” No one has said anything. No one is talking about it. You see little things, blurb across the screen, but you fail to realize that 16-year-old girl that’s at the nail salon might be getting trafficked, or that young mother of four that’s Latino that’s working at the coffee shop that you go to, how does she get here? It’s sad, man. And when you dig more and more, you start really seeing and uncovering this, and you go “Wow”.
So when I made the movie, I wanted these people to be hiding in plain sight. I wanted it to be where you “got it”. And the phone was an issue for me, because as I started learning I said, “Oh, they actually transport cargo like they do anything else, through cell phones, through Apple’s new iPhones.” They were cataloguing girls on phones and forwarding pictures to people and the customers, to people that want to buy the girls in different cities, and it’s a business.
For some people they’re like, “Oh my, God, I couldn’t believe I’ve seen this and you really did that.” I said, “Yeah, go read about it.” “All you have to do is just needle them?” “Oh yeah, this dirty needle, yeah, they shoot them up.” Sometimes girls don’t wake up for a week, and they’ve had 100 guys on top of them, you know what I mean? Or they don’t ever wake up. I just thought the movie was really, really dope and taking you down the rabbit hole with this lady who’s a journalist and for her to be able to go down there and find her journey through this film. You know what I mean? Find herself at the end as a reporter through this journey, which was pretty cool too.
Well one thing I liked about it is it’s a serious topic, but you’re still making a thriller and it comes across as both. So was it difficult for you to decide where the line was between education and entertainment?
Very, and I think that’s what a lot of people are getting now. They’re going, “Man, what happened?” And I said, “Well, it would not have been true-to-form if I would have made it popcorny and phony after when the trafficking happens.”
I think what we were doing is a real subject matter, and I wanted to make you feel it. Like I said, instead of it being a ghost or a goblin, or some monster, I said, “No, this is the monster.” The monster is trafficking. The monster is what you guys are doing to women. This is what the cover up is, right? And when we got on-set, myself and Dante (cinematographer Dante Spinotti), we wanted to really turn the temperature up. We wanted to play with the lights, we wanted to make it noir, we wanted to make it moody. We wanted to make you feel like you were in it, and what happens is when you watch the movie now, you go on this ride and then all of a sudden – BAM! – you fall down the rabbit hole and that’s what it looks like. I just thought it was a really cool way to tell a really dark story, and I think it does a good job of it. I think people are abruptly surprised. Like whoa, what just happened, and I used the beat of Nina Simone in the truck to let you know what world you’re in now.
It completely pulls you out of the movie and says, “Okay, here’s where we’re at now. This is what we’re dealing with.” It’s an interesting parallel from our lives because I couldn’t tell people – if you’ve ever been involved in anything violent; a car accident, someone pulls a gun on you – what happens is you go from a natural regular day, and then go to hyper-reality basically when it happens, right? You’re like, “Oh my, God, what just happened” or “What am I in?” And that’s what I wanted to do in the movie. I wanted you to go, “Okay, what just happened” and yeah, you’re in it.
It’s totally cool.
One thing I really love about Paula Patton’s performance is – and it stood out to me – is that typically in a movie where a woman fights back against her aggressors, there’s that Hollywood moment where she no longer seems afraid, throws a quip out, and then she becomes the terminator.
But Paula, she fights the whole way. I mean the tag line is “Refuse to be a victim”, and she really does. Her character fights the entire time, but she never stops being terrified. She seems to use that fear to drive her, so it feels more of a realistic fight than suddenly she’s Rambo.
Yes, man, yes. Yeah, it’s not like all of a sudden she’s tough, right?
She was tough the whole movie and I thought that was kind of cool about her. And yeah, she’s scared out of her wits, but she’s fighting. It’s the old motto “Fight or Flee.” I feel like she’s fighting and she understands as a journalist in the movie how important the story is to get out, even if it jeopardizes them, you know what I mean? And I thought that was actually really cool. And I don’t want to draw a line, but I’m just saying it’s journalists that go to Fallujah and South Africa, and go to these war ridden places to tell a story. And often times, they have been victimized or shot or killed trying to report, and I just thought she was a high level reporter and she actually didn’t want to fall in love, didn’t want to be in love because she was so caught up in her life as a journalist.
So when the tide turned and the drama happened, not only is she still trying to get the story, but she’s also trying to live, you know what I mean, and that was the interesting — that’s really, really interesting what you said because she found, Paula as an actress, found a very, very interesting rhythm to be in where she wasn’t too far right and wasn’t too far left. She actually was able to stay right in that pocket, you know what I mean, where she’s terrified, but she’s still trying to fight.
I really appreciated that because it felt like a real character to the end, where often times in these movies, she suddenly is just a super weapon.
That, I just want to expand on that. God rips everything away from you so you can understand what path you’re supposed to be on, and I felt like that was her spiritual journey when she gets into this movie. You’re going to be a stronger person, you’re going to be a stronger writer, and you’re now going to be able to tell a story that’s going to help others, you know what I mean? And that was just interesting with her character because we were fighting for that the whole movie. After all this goes down, how does she hold herself, what is her character doing, where does she live in her headspace?
And let me ask you, you have a lot of actors that people know: Omar Epps, I mean I’ve loved him since Juice, Rosalyn Sanchez, Laz Alonso, Missi Pyle, William Fichtner. When you’re making a movie that’s a thriller, and you know there are a lot of clichés with thrillers, but usually you feel like, if I know the actor, the character is probably safe. Where here, nobody is really safe throughout the entire movie. Was that difficult to pull off?
Yeah, because you’ve got to go against the traditional Hollywood system and the traditional PR and marketing of films. To me, this movie was about film and art, the art of cinema, and what I loved about what you just said is no one’s safe. I’m an independent filmmaker, man. I’ve been doing these movies on my own for a long time, so I really shoot an art. This is my art form. I go by what I feel like, what my heart feels like, when I shoot a picture. Omar and Laz to me, they were great, but they were conduits for these women to actually be stronger people in this situation.
When audiences walk out of Traffik, what do you hope they take away from it?
I hope they have a good time and enjoy every moment of the film. But more importantly, I hope they walk away and the movie stays with them and it sparks a conversation about this issue.
I think it’s a great conversation starter, absolutely. I’ve got to let you go. Best of luck on this film, as well as – I know you’re working on some other ones. You’ve got the Meet the Blacks sequel and you’re working on Motivated Seller with Dennis Quaid, and I love Dennis Quaid. So I can’t wait to see that as well.
Yeah. Wait until you see that one, man. You’re going to love it. You will love that one. So I’m excited. Thank you so much, brother. I really appreciate it, man, and I really appreciate you just taking the time to speak to me and tell our story and help support our film. Thank you.
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