One of the hardest working filmmakers in the industry, Deon Taylor has been making features for over 10 years. His new thriller Traffik follows a couple (Paula Patton and Omar Epps) enjoying a romantic weekend in the mountains, who are assaulted and terrorized by a biker gang. Like his previous films, the film is a socially relevant examination of racial tensions, standing as a testament to just how hardworking Taylor is.
With the release of Traffik, Deon Taylor spoke to MovieMaker about his journey in the film industry and how he was able to make it to this point in his career.
Ryan Williams, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Talk about your transition from the world of sports to the film industry. What are differences and similarities between these two worlds helped this transition?
Deon Taylor: I’m self-taught as a moviemaker. Thus, it was a little bit tougher for me to learn how to make a movie. I had to learn on my own with very little guidance. One of the things that did carry over from the world of sports to the world of film was the importance of being disciplined, to be able to be told ‘no’ multiple times and keep working. It’s important to have the strength to deal with adversity, to know that things are not going as smoothly as you’d want. The ability to understand the troubled waters that go with this process has remained a constant in my life in helping to get through these things.
In sports, you go through things like “Well, I didn’t make the team,” or “I missed the shot,” or “I didn’t play well today, but I need to play well tomorrow.” You deal with the same setbacks in the film industry, the same personal struggles. Sports have been amazing for my life—I can compare any situation with what I would do if I were playing basketball. If something with my film isn’t going right, I can tell myself, “okay, this is a bad game, how do I reset and get ready to go do it again tomorrow.” Do I push it further or take a step back, recalibrate and do it again?
In the end, it’s really about work ethic. In both worlds, the people that succeed aren’t necessarily the most talented, they’re the hardest workers. Although talent is a very big piece of being creative, it’s also about how hungry you are and how willing you are to work. Are you willing to watch countless movies? Are you willing to educate yourself on past filmmakers? Are you willing to ask yourself why your idea might be better than the thousands of others that are being pitched? It all comes down to how hard you are willing to work.
MM: How and what were you able to learn about moviemaking from something as accessible as DVD special features?
Taylor: As an African-American moviemaker, DVD special features were a feasible first step for me. I was already a film fan of all the cliché favorites, from Predator to The Terminator. Growing up in the inner city, and not having a lot of money, my main source of entertainment was film. When I wasn’t playing basketball, or working, I was watching movies. After college, I moved to East Germany to play basketball, where it was always winter, always snowing, below zero, and I didn’t speak the language. Watching these movies and watching the making-of documentaries, what grabbed me was the process. I would think, “look at all the hands that go into making what I love.” Once I explored even further, I found myself drawn to what the camera does. There would be brief clips behind the scenes showing how a scene was shot and what the finished product looked like. From here, I picked up writing, telling everyone “I’m gonna write my own script and make my own movie!” And, of course, everyone laughed at me for five years.
MM: Talk about your road to success once you moved to Los Angeles and wrote your first screenplay.
Taylor: I like telling this story because I always hope it will inspire another moviemaker. When I first started, I didn’t know anything about or anyone in the film industry. I started hand writing a script in Germany with no formatting. I’d write, “Marcus walks down a hallway. He stops. He looks.” I had no idea that that isn’t how a script is written until I landed back in Sacramento and started showing my friends. Their response was, first, to tell me that I’d lost my damn mind, and then to tell me that I had to get this thing called Final Draft. That’s how I learned.
I never moved to LA. I lived in Sacramento, took my tablet and created a package for my script. Then, for $100, I flew down to LA and hit the streets. I wanted to meet anybody that said they worked in a film industry. I didn’t know that the journey would be that long and that hard for countless years. I met everyone you’re not supposed to meet and my spirit was constantly knocked down. You’ll be giving it your all pitching to someone and it turns out that they’re not someone that can help you. Over the course of five or six years, I met maybe a couple legit people, but it didn’t lead to anything. You empty your tank so many times that you yourself become empty. Finally, what I realized was that, if you want to make a movie, you have to do it yourself.
All I know is how to make my project myself. I am a product of the word “No.” I was told “No” so many times that I eventually reached the point where I had to tell myself “Yes.” Once I said “Yes” I realized that I needed to figure out, “How do I get the movie distributed? How do I become a better director? How do I get better performances from my actors?” To this day, I have never been hired by a studio to do anything. Now I’m getting offers from major companies but I am still trying to keep the same attitude I always have: If it interests me, I want to do it. If it’s relevant, if it’s something that I can put my heart and soul into, I want to do it.
MM: Can you tell me how you came to operate your own company?
Deon Taylor: Like with anything, you have to have a company name to operate under. I had a long conversation with my partner Roxanne, where we basically asked, “What is our horse with the wings?” The name Hidden Empire came to me based on the fact that we’ve been here for a long time and people don’t even realize. We’re building a company that has no ego, with a goal to speak directly to people, as opposed to conveyor-belting out movies. This name signified that hidden energy within everyone who wants to achieve something. What happens later in life is that you wake up and realize that you didn’t put forth the effort earlier in life, and it’s too late to make a difference. The idea of never trying will kill you. That’s what the greatest people in our world have done. Someone tried to build a pyramid and they did. Someone tried to create an app and they did.
What’s interesting about African-American business people is that we come from inner cities and don’t have the ability to access the resources that bigger neighborhoods have. Often times, we only get one opportunity to be creative or open a business. You put your money into your friend, who is a rapper, or your other friend, who has a clothing line. If that fails and you don’t have the capital to do it again, we tend to think ‘that’s a bad experience, I’m done with that.” It’s the ones that push through and fail again, and fail again, and fail again, who are the ones who ultimately get it right. But, you know, failing is a hard thing. And it hurts. Ultimately, it can break you. It is a very, very tough thing to understand that, mentally, you always have to be prepared to fail.
MM: Do you think starting out in horror and thrillers helped prepare you for comedy?
Taylor: I love all genres. Though I’m a fan of horror, I actually started in this genre because as a business decision. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to get a big actor to be in one of my movies. Then I started looking at horror movies and realized that in many of the most successful horror movies, I didn’t know any of the main leads. It’s all about the masked killer, the monster—the only thing that transcends the language barrier. If a man kicks a door in and swings a door in, you scream. It’s universal.
I love the fact that horror is generated through camera movement and music. My approach was that, if I learn the most complicated movements first, then I can learn the simple stuff afterwards. Making a horror film makes you think about your shots, about how you want to move your camera, about what your actor has to say and do. Obviously, this translates to drama and then to comedy. Something like Meet the Blacks is super, duper fun but it has its moments where it becomes a horror movie. Then, you get a little more energy around you and want to make something that speaks more to the current culture. That ended up being Traffik. With Traffik, I used every element that I know as a filmmaker, from the writing to lighting to how you perceive the music and the songs, how Nina Simone is placed in the movie. And then it becomes a work of art.
Also read: Hollywood Told Me No, So I Told Myself Yes — By Deon Taylor
MM: Is the best film school experience to make a horror film?
Taylor: Personally, I would say it is. I can’t speak for anyone else—someone else may make an incredible drama where the camera never moves. With each day, I learned how to hone in my directorial choices to fit the genre. You need to know the temperature of your scene and when to make a decision as well as when not to. It’s like cooking—you take a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I love it. And, when you get down to it, that’s what is most important. One person could see Traffik, but what matters is that I know I made the movie I wanted to make. People have forgotten about the art of doing what you’re passionate about. The reality is that I didn’t make Meet the Blacks to be a financial success. It was a project for my friends and I. We had a good time and made something that we, as buddies, can sit back, relax and watch. I pray that I don’t get into that space where you make movies for a manufactured purpose. As long as you are making something you want to watch, people will go. MM
Traffik, directed by Deon Taylor, opens in theaters on April 20, 2018, courtesy of Lionsgate’s Codeblack Films. All images courtesy of Codeblack Films.