From a marketing perspective, Traffik looks like just another thriller but once you dive down below it’s surface the film is an exploration of the horrors of human trafficking. As it says in the opening credits, the film is inspired by true events. Shakefire sat down with director Deon Taylor and actor Laz Alonso to talk about the film’s heavy subject matter and putting together this small independent film that has big heart.
Deon, why this topic? Why right now? What’s the backstory?
Deon Taylor: I’ve been trying to be as honest as I can with people about this film. Just as an African-American filmmaker, I never in a million years thought I would make a movie about trafficking. Just to be honest. I’m like everybody else. I’m looking at that basketball movie. I’m looking at, you know, the action-heist. I got a letter in the mail, and my daughter’s 12. The letter came in and was like, “Kids locally at the mall are being trafficked.” As an African-American man, the first time I had seen that on paper - which I don’t read nothing, by the way - I read this and I’m like, “well that’s weird.” Because normally you will see gun violence. There’s all kind of dangers that you get letters if you have kids. They’ll send you all kind of stuff. That was the first time that I’ve ever seen that. And when I saw that I was like, “yo this is nuts!” So then the second step to it was, “well that ain’t got nothing to do with us because we black…”
So then later on I go online and look and I was blown away. I was blown away more than I should have been because I was more upset with myself like, why didn’t I know this is this big in my area. And I live in northern California. So as I’m going through Google and reading all this stuff I’m seeing hundreds and hundreds of stories of kids being abducted into trafficking. And it says it. It’s not like they were grabbed and kidnapped. No. It’s girls escaping, girls being lured, girls up into adult women. It just haunted me, the whole thing. I was in the middle of writing something else at the time. I was trying to figure out another thriller. This seemed to just snap right into what I was getting ready to write. So instead of you writing a horror movie where Freddy Krueger is the monster or a shark movie with Jaws, this is it. As I started writing more and more it was really weird because we’re all a victim of it. You start watching CNN or the news and because you are alerted, all of a sudden now every day you see trafficking. It’s everywhere I go. It’s hiding in plain sight. That’s what sparked me to write the script.
Laz Alonso: Plus the fact that you said the majority is African-American, right?
Taylor: Yeah, then I was surprised to find out that 62% of the women that are trafficked are African-American. And here I am thinking that this is a foreign issue; this is another country. We’re not really subject to that. And as I dug deeper and I figured out how many prongs this really has it became to be really scary. It’s not just women. It’s men, it’s boys, it’s kids, it’s babies. That’s when you start getting into the darkness of it where you’re like, “Okay, this is crazy, and why aren’t we doing more to protect our kids.” There’s a much longer conversation about it when you start really researching. You find out this is impoverished areas, these are inner cities, this is Baltimore, Maryland, Atlanta, Chicago, Oakland. It’s scary, man. So that’s why I wrote the film.
Alonso: And how they’re using kids to get other kids and grownups that look like kids. It’s nuts. When I was doing research for the film that’s what blew me away too is how they’re using social media, which is where kids spend pretty much three quarters of their time to attract them. “Oh, let’s go hang out. Let’s go to the mall.” Something that simple. And there are child trafficking rings that then grow up to be adult trafficking rings.
How did you prepare for your character? Most of the time you’re the nice guy, but in this film you’re more of an idiot. At one point it even looks like you might be in on the whole thing.
Alonso: That’s what I loved about when I first read the screenplay. Those same turns that you viewed, as I was reading the screenplay I thought that I was the bad guy until we got to a certain moment in which it evolved. There are times where it misdirects. There are times in which my character is kinda utilized in a way to make you think it might be someone else, and here I am again. And that’s classic thriller and horror film 101 where it takes you one way and then boom, sends you in another direction. That’s what I enjoy as an actor, to play a character that I can stretch, something that you haven’t seen me play before, something that’s going to drive emotion in the viewers. I want the characters that I play to be remembered. I don’t care if they’re loved or hated. I want them to be remembered. When I read this I knew it was something that I could really sink my teeth into. And then working with someone like Deon, I remember the first time I went and proposed changing a line and Deon told me, “Hey man, F the script!” I was like, “Did he say F his own script? Didn’t he write it?” But that was his whole perspective. It was, “I trust you with the character. I hired you because I believe in your talent, I believe in your skills. I believe you can do something.” He’s like a motivational speaker or coach in the huddled, you know. We down, and he wants me to take the inbound shot and hit the game winning shot. That’s how it felt on set. “I believe in you man. Take this man. This is you, brother. You’re Laz Alonzo! You can do this!” I’m sitting up there getting pumped. What I felt was freedom as an actor, because then all of a sudden I knew that he wasn’t going to judge me based on how closely I stuck to his words. He wasn’t guarding his words. He just wanted to believe what he saw. That’s it. He just wanted to watch it and believe it. And at that point I was able to use his words as like a guideline, as a roadmap, but then he just let me add as much color as I wanted to. It was collaborative; it was very collaborative.
It was interesting too in that there was no man to save her. She really saved herself and the rest of those girls.
Taylor: Yeah, it’s built like that. The movie has so many windows and moments and things that I placed in there. The Paula character, her lifeline is incredible to me, even watching it now. As a filmmaker you take risks. This movie is 100% independent with my own money. I’ve never been able to reshoot in my life. So when I get to make a movie, what he’s talking about is the ability to get what I need and then the ability for me to get what you want to give me at one time because I can’t come back. That’s something a lot of filmmakers don’t understand. There is no tomorrow. Oftentimes these guys will leave, and I’m still there doing pickup shots; hour 18, hour 19. So the thing that I stick to is throughlines in films. Paula’s throughline, which is interesting, it becomes a journey about her, and what happens in the movie is this. Sometimes in life God will take everything away from you and completely break your building down in order for you to build a new foundation to stand on. Here in this movie was a character who was trying to write an article that ain’t really going. She has a guy that’s right there that’s trying to be in love with her and show her another world. She’s so focused on her career, and she’s like not now. Everything that she’s supposed to have is right there but she’s blocking it for her career. Ultimately what happens is I wanted to build it to where a guy says, “Okay, you want a career? Here’s how it goes. You’re not going to have a fictitious career. You’re gonna live the story so that you can become an advocate for this.”
So a long time again, John Walsh who does America’s Most Wanted, people don’t understand that his son was kidnapped, Adam. And what happened was that incident made him become an activist who saved millions of people. That was his journey. That was his story. So what I wanted to do with the Paula character was build something like that. I wanted to her to be strong and resourceful. Not Tomb Raider strong, right? But mentally strong to where she has to fight through and get through on her own. She has to be a woman in charge and fight and flee and fight and flee throughout the film. And then ultimately what I do is when she comes out of the cave this is the moment where she’s reborn. This is why we played the lights and the doors and she comes to this moment where she’s now a new person, and ultimately she has to use her mental ability to complete the final step, which is the last battle. I just thought the movie broke all the rules, and I was happy to do that because me and Laz were talking about just the new renaissance of filmmakers, and I’d like to be one of those people. Barry Jenkins did that with Moonlight. That was the first time you’ve seen a movie that cinematic about that subject where it wasn’t in your face. Anybody could watch it and enjoy it and be like, “That’s me.” Same thing with Get Out; it broke all the rules. No, you can’t guess this one. A Quiet Place is the same exact thing. So Traffik is in the wheelhouse of we don’t have to play that game anymore where it’s like Omar is going to ultimately come and he’s going to save the day and then Laz is going to...like no, this is about her and them and this is how this story’s going to go. And by the way, about 95% of the things that happen in the film are direct from headlines. At the end of the day it’s grounded in reality. It’s very dark and unsettling, but at the same time I think it is the thrill ride of the year.
What kind of challenges did you face on set?
Taylor: Like Laz was saying, it had to be grounded in reality because what I was fearful of with this movie, which could happen very easily, is if you don’t do it right everyone goes, “Aww, what is this?” And you’re playing with something that’s for real. With Paula being on set, it was great because we was happening between the two of us was trying to figure out a medium in terms of what do you allow her to do, where do I direct and pull back. If she goes a little too far this way then it doesn’t work. She has to be fearful of her life but at the same time she has to fight for her life. That’s a very hard medium to find because if you go a little but too far you’re too tough. Now she’s beating up everybody, and that’s a different movie. I wanted to have her be right in the middle where she’s trying to survive.
Was it hard for her to find that balance?
Taylor: Once everybody got together - and this is the spirit of independents - once we got like lathered up we found a beat. It was great because I think if this was a studio movie we might not have gotten it because you would have so many other people saying this or saying that. But for me it was like, “let’s try this, let’s try that,” and then we finally tried one and were like okay, that’s it. And we stuck with that the entire movie. For Laz it was the same type of energy. His character to me, he pops off the screen right when the movie comes on. You got Omar Epps and Omar is very stoic. Omar’s very quiet. He’s not a big, loud guy. So I told Laz that he has to be the beat to Omar. You got the one friend who would say anything, right? That’s gotta be him. I wanted him to have that energy. But everyone just kinda found it.
I think Paula came into this movie fighting for something else. I think Paula came into this movie looking for a way to stretch out. Let’s get rid of makeup, let’s get rid of all this stuff, let’s just be dope. I think she delivered that. We don’t really get to see our women stretch out that way in these particular types of films. There’s always something with relationships or whatever, right? This is one that normally we don’t do. It’s funny because I got that a lot from Hollywood when we were getting ready to make the movie like, “Oh, why don’t you use…” and I was like, “no, we’re going to do her and we’re going to do it this way.”
Traffik is now playing in theaters nationwide.