By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Filmmaker Deon Taylor never imagined he would make a film about human trafficking until the day he received a cautionary email from his adolescent daughter’s school. The note advised parents and guardians not to leave their children at the mall unattended because of this growing threat in their central California community.
“I had to re-read it because I wasn’t aware of trafficking as a problem here,” he recalls. “I’d been more concerned about guns and violence but I’d never read about trafficking, so that blew my mind.”
The warning spurred him to begin researching the subject and what he discovered was shocking and disturbing.
“In my community, there were at least 50 girls that had been abducted over the course of three years,” he says.
Then and there, Taylor knew he had to spread the word about this growing danger through his art form. The former NBA player turned filmmaker watched documentaries on the subject but found little in the genre form that would reach the target demographic that could most benefit from knowing about this crisis. He began writing “Traffik” to inform, but wrapped it within an exciting thriller. Though his previous films were mostly in the horror genre (“Nite Tales,” “Chain Letter”), Taylor hadn’t made a thriller based on real events before.
“I started ripping from the headlines,” Taylor recalls. “The headlines navigated me to write a better script.”
He crafted a script about a fearless investigative journalist, newly fired from her job for wanting to publish hard-hitting news stories. Sulking over her setback, Brea (Paula Patton), nevertheless, goes on a weekend getaway with her mechanic boyfriend, John (Omar Epps), whom she loves but is unsure whether she wants to marry. Their trip to a beautiful remote hideaway in the mountains initially seems to be the perfect romantic setting for John to pop the question. But an odd encounter with racist bikers at a nearby convenience store/gas station and the unexpected arrival of their best friends who get into a lovers’ quarrel, portend trouble ahead.
The tension already is high when they receive an ominous knock on the door following Malia’s (Roselyn Sanchez) frustrated departure. A mysterious and seemingly troubled woman whom Brea briefly met in the convenience store’s bathroom earlier in the day demands the return of a satellite phone she left behind. Brea is reluctant to give it up, sensing there is something deeply sinister going on. Sure enough, their condo is surrounded by individuals who aren’t simply there to retrieve the phone.
The couple’s friend, Darren (Laz Alonso), a headstrong sports agent, ventures outside to talk to the strangers. Shots are fired and it soon becomes a fight for survival for Brea and John.
Taylor says Patton, who’d previously co-starred opposite Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol” and Denzel Washington in “Deja Vu,” was his only choice for the lead character, Brea. Getting her to commit wasn’t easy at first, though.
“I had to beg to get Paula,” he recalls.
“‘Why don’t we see more black actresses stretch out?’ is what I pitched to her,” he says. “I know there are limited roles at times and the industry isn’t designed for us to have black and brown people ‘go there.’ So, I chased her. She was like, ‘I get it.’ I said, ‘Let’s strip it all off—the makeup and the shoes.’ So, every stunt she did on her own, every scream, every moment, is her.”
For Patton, committing to such an intense emotional and physical leading role became compelling.
“I like to get scrappy and run through the forest and slide in the mud,” says Patton, whose hair is styled short and blond at an interview. “To me, it makes my job easier. I have this wish to jump in the deep end and swim.”
Epps, who like Taylor is a father, finds the proliferation of human trafficking—a $32 billion-dollar global business in which women and girls are bought for sex—alarming.
“Before I did this (film), I thought I had some idea of human trafficking,” he says. “Most of us in this country think of it as a distant, international thing. I was blown away to find out that Sacramento (Calif.) is one of top places (in the U.S. where human trafficking occurs). San Diego is another. The fact that it’s right here under our noses … it’s scary and frightening to know that. So, it’s not that we’re just making a film but also we’re on a mission here to bring light to this issue.”
Patton, who also is a producer on “Traffik,” takes issue with the label “human trafficking.”
“It’s slavery,” she insists. “It’s not modern-day slavery, it’s slavery in the modern day. All the lying and the facade and giving it a new name just confuses people. If people call it what it is., then they’re going to get much more involved and understand what a big problem this is.”
The actress says she was particularly moved by a news report of a young mother who was abducted during a morning jog.
“There are these suburbs that look so idyllic, but underneath the floorboards there are dozens of women and children in slavery,” she says. “This woman, this mother and wife, was found months later in the back of a truck—like our (characters) in the film—with many other women, skinny, beaten, and I thought, ‘That could happen to anybody.’ That shows that we’re all vulnerable.”
She was eager to explore the bravery of her character and how she finds the courage to survive and help others over the course of her horrific journey.
“Brea sees the importance of more than one person’s life or even her own life,” she observes. “That’s why she became a journalist, because she wanted to affect change. In that life or death moment, there are some people that take care of themselves and then there are people that take care of others.”
Epps playing against his usual heroic and stoic type, says he welcomed the opportunity to play a man with vulnerabilities as he does as John in “Traffik.”
“I wanted John to be an Everyman and be relatable,” he says. “What was fun about exploring John and Brea’s relationship was that he was the vulnerable one. He’s certain about wanting to marry her and she’s unsure. It was fun to explore that because their love was genuine but they had no idea what was coming. In that moment where they have to do the right thing, it turns out that both of them share the same moral compass. They realize they have to do something that takes them down a rabbit hole. What it comes down to is there’s strength in vulnerability and there’s strength in conviction of your beliefs.”
“There’s nothing cooler than not trying to be cool,” he adds, with a chuckle. “As we grow and mature and unmask and learn, any man, but particularly a black man loving his woman, the cool part is being unabashed about it and showing what you really feel. You can’t speak it. You’ve got to show it through action, and John got a chance to do that.”
“Their love and sexuality is in opposition with this slavery that is going on,” notes Patton. “There are good people and bad people. When you’re born in this world and men are given more rights and free reign, some of them are going to do some (bad) things. But then there are good men like Omar’s character and that’s meant to be in opposition to those other (bad) men. So, it’s not a gender thing. It’s a human thing. You’re either kind or you’re not.”
For writer/director Taylor, he is hopeful that audiences, particularly minorities, will gain a better sense of the scope and scale of the trafficking epidemic.
“As a black man, you’re used to speaking to your kids about (avoiding dangerous situations); this was like another layer,” he says. “I didn’t think this was a black issue when I started this, and then I found out that 65 percent of the women and girls abducted domestically are black. I figured it was time to educate my daughters and nieces and friends. Girls are being taken. That girl on the street with a pimp in Oakland is probably not a prostitute. She is probably trafficked from Texas or Baltimore and brought there by traffickers. There are these sex hotels where they (drug) the victims and use them for sex. That was so disturbing to me. It haunted me.”
Taylor drew from real life crusaders who have fought to protect and fight for victims. For example, John Walsh, the well-known advocate for missing children, inspired his Brea character.
“He lost his son to a kidnapper but then he went on to save hundreds of lives (of other missing children),” the filmmaker says. “In our film, Brea loses her job, which was important to her, but then through what happens she is rebuilt and reborn into an advocate for trafficked women.”
George Sluizer’s 1993 “The Vanishing” and David Fincher’s 1995 “Seven,” which broke conventions from previous thrillers, served as creative influences.
For Alonso, “Traffik” presented an opportunity to work again with Patton, with whom he co-starred in the romantic comedy “Jump the Broom.”
The fast-schedule and the dark subject matter of the modestly budgeted film didn’t give them a lot of time to kick back and get reacquainted.
“I don’t feel like I really got to see Paula again until after we wrapped because when we were filming, we were ‘Darren’ and ‘Brea,’” he recalls. “That dynamic existed, especially when we were shooting at night. That tension that our characters have never left the room, and you can see it on screen. We had some tense nights.”
Comments Sanchez, who plays Darren’s put-upon girlfriend, “I remember the night where Alonso and I show up at the cabin and it got testy. We were exhausted.”
“The breakup scene is my favorite because it was so empowering,” the Puerto Rican actress continues. “As women, we have that one relationship where we just lose ourselves. You get clarity once you’re out. To represent on film a girl who is content with her (lavish) lifestyle, putting up with disrespect, because she doesn’t want to let go of that lifestyle. But then she realizes she sick of it and not happy anymore. And, unfortunately, when she walks away something more horrific happens.”
She and Alonso, who is Cuban-American, got to speak some of their dialogue in Spanish, which she welcomed.
“We were lucky to have a director (Taylor) who wasn’t afraid to let us do that,” she says. “In fact, he encouraged us. I have an accent so I can’t deny where I’m from. I’m sure people will understand that when I’m very upset, or very emotional, I think in Spanish. It’s organic to me to speak in Spanish so in (the heat of the moment of the breakup scene), I couldn’t do it any other way.”
Sanchez had to cope with her claustrophobia in a scene where she and other women are locked up in confined quarters.
“Deon (Taylor, the director) assured me that I could get out if I needed to,” she recalls, “but it really helped me create the emotion for my character. I have jeans and shoes and top that’s ripped but the other girls in the scene are basically naked, and it’s freezing and miserable. When they said ‘cut,’ someone would come running and give me a blanket. But the women who actually are trafficked don’t have that luxury.”
Making “Traffik” has made Alonso more aware of his surroundings wherever he goes.
“When you go off hiking by yourself, anybody could be in those bushes,” he says. “It’s made me look at things differently.”
“You don’t think about human trafficking happening here,” adds Sanchez, a mother of two. “Then I started reading about it. Were we representing these women as drugged and abused real? It was spot on. It’s a small part with a wonderful arc. I had to click and disconnect because I had to go home to my kids.”