When filmmaker and director Deon Taylor stopped playing professional basketball to pursue film, a lot of doors were slammed in his face.
“I have become who I am today simply because I was told no everywhere I went. I’m the product of no.”
Now he boasts a 15-year independent film career and is releasing his newest film, Traffik, an intense thriller about sex trafficking starring Paula Patton and Omar Epps due to hit theaters on April 20.
Taylor grew up in Indiana and moved to Sacramento, California, where he played high school basketball. He caught the attention of San Diego State in the ’90s, receiving a full scholarship and being named the conference’s Newcomer of the Year. The former Division I basketball player balled professionally in Germany from 1998 to 2003.
“Basketball is life,” Taylor said. “A lot of people say that, but for me, basketball has been a vehicle my entire life. It has taken me all over the world on a professional level.”
He left the game to pursue his film career. Taylor moved to Los Angeles in 2003, pitching a screenplay he’d written on a tablet. The rejection hit hard.
“I was expecting people to love the screenplay …,” Taylor said. “Six years later, after being kicked out of 300 rooms, I eventually said, ‘I guess the only way you can make movies is if you make them yourself.’ And that started my journey for the last 15 years [as an independent filmmaker].”
Inspired to get his films out, the 42-year-old launched Hidden Empire Film Group in Sacramento. His longtime business partner and lead investor in all of his films is Robert F. Smith, the founder of Vista Equity Partners, whom Forbes recently described as “richer than Oprah and the nation’s wealthiest African-American conquering tech and Wall Street.”
“Still, to this day, I’ve never been hired by a studio to make a film, but I’ve had some major success independently and we’re in a place where the films that I’m making are being released in theaters,” Taylor said.
Taylor wrote, directed and produced the thriller Motivated Seller, starring Dennis Quaid, Michael Ealy and Meagan Good. Along with actor and singer Jamie Foxx, he produced the comedy feature All-Star Weekend, starring Foxx, Robert Downey Jr. and Eva Longoria. Taylor is also behind the 2014 drama Supremacy, starring Danny Glover, based on the true story of a white supremacist who kills a black police officer and takes an African-American family hostage, as well as the horror spoof Meet the Blacks, with Mike Epps and George Lopez. The sequel The House Next Door, starring Epps and Katt Williams, comes out later this year.
The Undefeated spoke with Taylor about Traffik, how basketball led him away from the streets and helped him face adversity in filmmaking, why Jesse Owens and Michael Jordan are greatest of all time and why he believes the NCAA should pay college athletes.
How is Traffik different from other thrillers?
I wanted to make a commercial thriller that would have people on the edge of their seats, but also have them learn about something horrific going on in our country: human trafficking. Many people think it’s just an international problem, but it’s happening right here in America too. As a matter of fact, 85 percent of people who are trafficked are inner-city kids, so that’s the Hispanic girl in Oakland or the African-American boy in Chicago; I can keep going. These kids are being taken, and then someone is pimping them out and later another person is taking them, and this tragic cycle continues endlessly. It’s so sad. I think what this movie does extremely well is give you the goose bumps and chills without it being a documentary.
What personal experiences motivated you to create a thriller around human trafficking?
I started getting a bunch of letters about trafficking in our area [Sacramento] and I didn’t really think too much [about] it. But then my daughter, Milan, who is 12, was up late one night playing on her video games. I asked her who she was talking to at 1 a.m. on this game. I pulled up the screen and printed out the conversation [spanning for a couple of days] and saw how this person who she thought was 11 years old had been asking her questions like ‘Where do you live?’ and ‘Do you ever go out late at night?’ To the naked eye, it seemed innocent [like to my daughter], but you could tell this was definitely a predator. It’s crazy because predators are coming from the computer and TV screens now.
How was it working with Paula Patton and Omar Epps on the film?
It was insane for a lot of great reasons. I approached it like basketball. Everyone has a part in order for us to win and be successful. Paula and Omar are our star players, and they gave 100 percent, which further drove the cast and crew. Paula also performed every single one of her stunts. When you see her being yanked from the car, it’s pretty violent. She did that herself. She wasn’t screaming, ‘Cut!’ or yelling, ‘I can’t do this.’ That kind of commitment from an actor is such a blessing.
How did you learn about filmmaking and further want to pursue it?
I never set out to be the next Tyler Perry or Ron Howard in owning my own stuff. I simply was that guy who played basketball. Growing up poor, I loved watching movies because that was my getaway. While I was playing basketball professionally in Germany, I didn’t speak the language, so I would ask my friends back in the U.S. to send me as many movies as possible. This was before Netflix and Hulu. On a lot of those DVDs, there were ‘the making of xyz’ or ‘behind the scenes’ of those films where directors, writers and filmmakers like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg would show and explain what and how they did their jobs. Watching those scenes taught me filmmaking, and I soon realized that I wanted to become a filmmaker.
How did your basketball background help you face that adversity in the film industry?
I’ve built my filmmaking career by learning, losing and bumping my head a couple of times. There were a lot of sleepless and hurtful nights, but I feel like basketball really helped me get through those times. I tell people all of the time to have their kids play sports. The adversity you go through in sports is the closest thing to real life. It’s the only place where you can be the best player on the team and the coach won’t play you. It’s all these different things that you go through in sports that prepares you for what you’ll experience and see in life. I’ve had those moments, and I apply it to life journeys and filmmaking. It’s easy to ask yourself, ‘Why does this director get hired for a big-budget movie and not me when my stats are far greater?’ But that’s where you have to be grounded in who you are and not stay looking over the fence. You have to trust God.
Did basketball keep you from falling into stereotypes?
Playing in college, it took me out of the projects and into tournaments in different cities and seeing my name in the paper and on the news as a basketball player … not for shooting or robbing someone. That could have been my fate if I fell into streets, but I didn’t because I had that love for the [basketball] game where I would spend countless hours after school practicing on the playground, shooting, dunking and even trying the latest Michael Jordan move. And even now, the game is still teaching me.
As a former Division I, full-scholarship basketball player, do you feel the NCAA should pay college athletes?
When I was playing basketball at San Diego State, I didn’t really have an opinion because I was just thankful to have my school fully paid for and be able to eat while doing something I love. But as I got older and I now look at the business of college basketball and see how much money is generating from March Madness, these players should be getting paid. I’m not saying an 18-year-old kid should be getting $100K a year. Hell, no. But they are doing a service for the university. And think about the parents who are traveling for all of the games and taking off from work to be able to support their kids at the games. It would be nice for the athletes to get paid so they can also help their families with those expenses too.
Who is the greatest athlete of all time?
Jesse Owens and Michael Jordan. Jesse was running in a time when there were no diet supplements, dietitians, sneakers or advanced sports science to enhance your athleticism. He was just a guy who was naturally an athlete. There was nothing to enhance what he was doing at that time, but he was still running that fast and at that level based on just his natural body and the makeup of his DNA. With Michael, it was his will to win. It wasn’t just his ability; it was his stamina in the fourth quarter of games. He wasn’t a freak of nature as far as body physique like LeBron [James] or Shaq [O’Neal], but his brilliance and psychology on the court was something I admired and looked up to growing up. Kobe [Bryant] possessed a lot of that, but he’s no MJ.
What conversations do you have with your daughter to best prepare her in navigating the real world as an African-American woman?
It’s an everyday conversation that’s not just about teaching but creating a lifestyle. I try to educate my daughter, Milan, on each and every thing I see without holding my tongue. I’m teaching her three core things: trust your intuition, everyone will not be happy for you and danger is around you at all times. I didn’t understand a lot of what my mother told me when I was younger, but now as a parent, danger has tripled and it’s not just about getting home before the streetlights come on now. There are predators coming from everywhere, even in the police at times. Take, for instance, the unarmed young black man, Stephon Clark, who was shot 20 times by the cops right here in Sacramento. It’s a lot to take in and continues to evolve the conversations I have with my daughter.