Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Writer-director-producer Deon Taylor is no stranger to taking audiences on a thought-provoking journey with his films. From SUPREMACY, to MEET THE BLACKS, each film turns a spotlight on a societal issue whilst also delivering an entertaining narrative. In his latest, TRAFFIK, investigative journalist Brea (Paula Patton) is on what should be the perfect weekend getaway with her boyfriend John (Omar Epps) when she stumbles upon an underground syndicate looking to protect their secret operation.
At the film’s recent press day, I spoke with the passionate filmmaker about everything from THE VANISHING’s influence, to working with a crew led by women, to marrying his striking imagery with a Nina Simone song that’s been called “a declaration of war.”
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this is like two movies in one: home invasion and social justice thriller.
That’s right. It’s built that way.
What sparked this idea and did it take long to meld these two stories together?
The spark was my daughter. Not in a million years did I think I would ever do a movie about [human] trafficking. As an African-American man, it’s the furthest thing from my subconscious in terms of what I deal with daily. This came to me because I got an email from my daughter’s school that kids were being trafficked at the local mall. Not kidnapped – not grabbed. I was surprised, after doing some research, not only that it was in my community, but it was happening everywhere. I’m sitting there like, ‘Why don’t I know this?! Why is this not on the news all the time?!’ It haunted me. That allowed me to write the project.
As an indie filmmaker, you don’t get any opportunities to do this…I’ve never been able to do re-shoots. Never been able to have someone stroke a check for me. As we started shooting, I just remember thinking I had to ramp up the thriller. You gotta take them on a ride, because it’s going to be a hard pill to swallow when we get to that. When I show you how you’re trafficked, I gotta make it be a thrill ride for the audience to really go for it. I gotta build a story on top of a story.
And the two movies in one aspect coming together?
Working with Dante Spinotti, the two movie parallel is because of how the movie changes. The mood changes. The energy changes. The light changes. You go down the rabbit hole. These are the same people – you’re just on a ride. That’s a testament to him as a cinematographer. The idea was to open the movie up visually with these big green vistas, big shiny, classic cars, and shots of them arguing in a restaurant – very Kubrick in the restaurant. Give us some beauty. The minute the doorbell rings, and you go out that door, then the entire movie from that point is noir. It’s lit by headlights.
If you’ve ever been in a car accident, or something abruptly happen to you, everything changes. I wanted to try to figure out in film, and I could experiment with it, how this could look. A long time ago, I got carjacked. It was like slow motion. There was a gun and a guy and I remember going, ‘Is it real?’ I laughed. Everything after that was nuts. To this day, I still only remember the drive up to the event and the rest is in pieces. That’s what I took into this movie. Hopefully what this does is spark a conversation for people the next morning. I want it to haunt you. I thought there were really good thrillers like that like THE VANISHING that haunted me, even to this day, because it broke all the rules. They don’t make them like that anymore. Even SEVEN! It broke the rules. Those movies have an incredible energy to stay with you forever. I wanted TRAFFIK to be like that. This is about her journey as a strong independent woman, what she wanted in life. I don’t want to get spiritual, but sometimes God, what he does for you is, he’ll strip everything away from you in order to rebuild you. I feel like Paula’s character’s journey in the film, that’s what was really the spirit of the movie.
Not only is this narrative female-driven, you’ve got a lot of females on your crew.
Pretty much predominantly all women.
You had two female Unit Production Managers, a female editor and six out of the seven producers are women. That’s super smart of you to have those checks and balances.
Resources, yeah! And also to get the right voice. I was raised by my mom single-handedly. I get it, man. My mom was my mom, my coach – she had to play everything. For me, as a black man, I owe everything to her. I even know now what my deficiencies are because I didn’t have a dad growing up. What was interesting was being around strong women. Being able to weather the storm. Guys who have not been raised like me, I feel like they are inferior to women. I actually look across as equal, or more even more so to be honest than me. When we were doing TRAFFIK it was a [snaps] second. My wife, she’s my producing partner. She’s like, ‘I don’t like….What about…’. You can’t beat that. That’s why Paula got the credit. I asked Paula to come on to creatively get the producer credit. ‘Paula, I wanna sit down with you, when we do this scene, how do you feel? What is that?’ She was given the access to me where she could tell me and I’d say, ‘Well. Okay. Do that!’ I can only tell you what I think and feel, but if you’re telling me organically, as a woman, at this moment what you feel, then let’s do that.
You used Nina Simone’s cover of Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit.” That song has got a lot of history behind it tied to the civil rights movement. I was wondering if we can talk about its significance here in the larger, broader social context.
That was a very, very hard choice for me. It was something I felt. Obviously the movie is a true testament of one of the most dynamic feelings and thought-provoking songs to embody slavery – forever. Chills. When I started researching, living with the movie and talking to people that have been trafficked, it was overwhelming. That was the only thing I could think of that this is modern-day slavery. This is happening for real. I was thinking about the statistics of women that are being captured, taken and killed. This is a powerful moment and it needs to have a powerful song. I’ve seen people take Nina Simone, or the cover, but this is where this goes. There’s a line for this. It’s not about being African-American – the song was written for that and we understand it. But the song was about slavery – something that was happening and it captured that. This was that same energy and that’s why I chose to use it.
Yes! I was reading record producer Ahmet Ertegun called it “a declaration of war.”
It sure is.
And when it hits here, it’s the call to arms.
That’s right. It’s the feeling. I chose that moment very precisely. That’s the music to take you into the world of trafficking. This is how you’re supposed to feel right now.
Changing gears, let’s talk about the ‘69 Chevelle. What a beauty! How many shirts you sweat through on the stunt days.
A lot. Omar is not an old-school car kind of guy. That’s my car.
Like really you’re car?
Yeah. I have a couple. Omar was like, ‘Where’s the A/C?’ I was like, ‘There is no A/C!’ [laughs]. Where we place the car in the movie, as a gift, this would show his character a lot. Here’s a guy who works with his hands. It also made him be a man’s man – and Paula’s like a girl’s girl! She’s a rebel. The car played a significant role because it was their bond. The polar opposite, what I was gunning for with the truck was I introduce it the same way. It’s menacing. It’s two pieces of machinery that are characters.
I read you sent your cinematographer, Dante Spinotti, a fan letter. What’d you say in that letter?
I never approached him as my cinematographer. We were getting ready to shoot and trying to figure out who could do this movie. I was at the point where I wanted to ask some questions about light. I knew when I was writing that it was going to be dictated by night shoots. I wrote him the letter just to have a conversation with him. Two weeks later, I’m driving down the street and my phone goes off with an email. I looked like five times! ‘Does this say Dante?!’ He wrote back! I didn’t even know if it was the right email. I pulled over and called him. I went and sat down with him and his wife for lunch and here I am, 40-year-old black dude and a 72-year-old Italian man and his wife. We’re having a great conversation about art and lights and just my life. I got up to leave and he said, ‘Wait. What about your movie?’ I had been there two hours. I said, ‘I didn’t come here for my movie. I couldn’t.’ He said, ‘Tell me.’ We ended up talking and he fell in love it. He ultimately passed on a $100 million dollar movie to do this one. It was a blast. He told me, ‘I don’t remember the last time me and a filmmaker laughed and talked and it wasn’t about the pressure of a studio. It was just about making art.’
TRAFFIK opens on April 20.
Header photo: Omar Epps, Laz Alonso, Roselyn Sanchez, and Paula Patton in TRAFFIK. Courtesy of Codeblack.