Catching Up With Deon Taylor, Director Of Supremacy

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Deon Taylor’s new film Supremacy is a stylishly shot, crisply edited, white-knuckle thriller, to be sure. But it’s a lot more than that, too. It’s a sobering look not only at racism and violence, but at hidden family dynamics as well. What’s especially amazing is that it’s based on the true story of a white supremacist— newly-released from prison—who invaded a black family’s house and took them hostage. Taylor joined us recently to talk about working with cinematographer Rodney Taylor (who shot, among other films, Paste favorite That Evening Sun), the challenges of being a black director with an inflammatory story to tell, his own incredible brush with violence, and the joy of working with legendary actor Danny Glover.

Paste: So, you very well know what beautiful pictures Rodney Taylor [cinematographer of Holbrook:Twain] captures.
Taylor: Yeah, he’s a badass dude, man. He’s really cool. I hired Rodney when I first met him. I’m a huge basketball fan. I’ve played basketball my whole life, and I was doing an interview with him where he was telling me about all these movies he’s worked on. He showed me all these beautiful pictures. And I was like, “Damn, dude. This guy is really cool.” He told me he also worked on the Michael Jordan to the Max documentary, so I was like, “Damn, dude! You’re hired. You worked with Michael Jordan on your last movie? You’re hired, buddy! That’s all you had to say! You got the job today!”

Paste: Yeah, he’s done Oscar-nominated movies, but Michael Jordan to the Max beats them all. I love that.
Taylor: He’s a great guy. He did an exceptional job. He and I are opposites, and I think that’s what really made it work. Working on Supremacy was really cool.

Paste: Tell me about how the opposite sides of you complement each-other. What, specifically, is opposite about you?
Taylor: Well, we were opposites in a lot of ways, because I am a self-taught filmmaker. I learned on my own, and I learned by watching movies. I’m a die-hard fan of all movies, and I’ll watch anything. But, because I’m independent (which he is as well), I started with very little money. My thing has always been: low cost, yet high quality productions. So, usually when I shoot movies, people say, “Wow! That looks great!” Then I say, “Yeah, I made that for like $1000, dude!” (Both laugh). I’ve always been that guy, you know what I mean? Part of that is because I study shots. A lot of people don’t realize that about me. I’m really into where to put the camera to make it look the best. I’ll storyboard out a scene and say, “Okay, we only have two or three setups. We’re gonna do this then that, and it’s going to look great.” I move very quickly.

Rodney, on the other hand, is a documentary guy. He’s used to setting the stage up, then saying, “What’s the story? Let’s talk about this. Let’s figure everything out before we shoot.” And I’m like, “Dude, we’ve got to go!” It was a great balance because Supremacy really required me, as a filmmaker, to sit down. I watched. I listened. I had to speak to my talent and be able to get those performances out of them.

Paste: In what other ways was the Supremacy experience different for you?
Taylor: It’s a special movie. It’s not one that you can play around with. I like to call it a scary movie because, if you do it wrong, you may never work again. Being a young, black filmmaker, whenever you start dealing with race-related issues or race-related films, you have to be cautious. You don’t want to come off as the militant dude. That’s not why I did this movie. I did this movie because I thought the story was compelling—here’s a guy whose character has been trained to believe what he believes. I think ignorance is trained. I think racism is trained. No one is born hating someone.

And what’s even more interesting than that is this: here he is, a 100% racist, skinhead supremacist. And then you turn around, and you have this old black man in the house who, although he is not militant, feels the same way about white people. It’s just a little bit closeted. He’s a racist too. But, what happens when these types of guys really smack each other in the head and get together in this house under these circumstances? It’s a real story about a real family, and when I heard about how it happened, and how Mr. Walker spoke to this guy, and the guy spoke back to him, and how they ended up creating a small type of bond, I thought it was incredible.

I was watching the news with the family a few days ago, and I was telling them, “This story is a movie now, and people are talking about it.” People ask me which parts are true, but I’m like, “Naw, man. It’s a true story.” The story could have played out a completely different way. You see these people who shoot up campuses and do all of these different things. These stories are not something to laugh about. It is an absolute blessing that that man walked out of that house. Because, in reality, everyone in that house could be dead today.

Paste: Probably so. Considering the odds, that could easily have happened.
Taylor: Yeah. That’s why I feel like he has nothing to lose. That’s a caged animal. It’s always funny to me because I’m an Aquarius, so I tend to think about things a little differently than most people. I was carjacked once. I was pulled out of my car, and I was shot. And these people left me for dead. But I wasn’t dead. I crawled three blocks away from where I was shot. I remember knocking on these peoples’ doors at like one o’clock in the morning, and two people shooed me away. They were like, “Get out of here!” I was on the ground! So I went and knocked on a few other peoples’ doors, and they told me to leave.

Finally, there was this lady who turned on her porch light for me. She didn’t come out, but she called the police for me. I just laid there until an ambulance came and helped me. I’ve often thought about why that happened and what that did to me. You think about a lot of different things. From that incident as a young boy, it really made me focus on life. It really made me understand that life is precious, and you have to live everyday to its fullest. There are no promises that you will be here tomorrow. So, when I stepped behind a camera to shoot this movie, I thought about that family. I really understood them. Someone put a gun to their baby’s head, and that’s not something to sneeze at. And the fact that he didn’t pull the trigger on anybody in that house—he walked out, and it brought that family closer. The fact of the matter is, the son was a police officer in that town, and he had not talked with his dad for two and a half years.

Paste: Wow.
Taylor: Right? So, all of the sudden, Mr. Walker and the the Lela Rochon character, they were separated. They weren’t going to be together anymore! It makes you think, “Wow, man. What was this really about?” What is it really about when someone does that to a family? People need to respect life, to respect the fact that we have these chances and opportunities. To me, that what the movie is really about. It’s about how racism is really just silly when it comes down to it.

Paste: The most surprising parts about the film, to me, were exactly those interpersonal relationships within the family. But it turned out that those relationships were what the movie was really about. It wasn’t just about the racism and the violence.
Taylor: Right! And that’s what’s crazy. I’ve had a lot of people screen the film, and a lot of people have the same comments for me. They’re like, “Yo, man… this is real. This is not your normal movie.” I wanted it to be real in terms of what some black families have to go through. The fact that the mom didn’t get to have the life that she wanted to have, and her daughter is in her early twenties, but she has two kids—that’s real. The fact that all of these people live in this house, and yet it’s damn near condemned… these are real people. That family really exists!

This lady interviewed me the other day, and she was like, “It was a great movie. I really liked it a lot.” So, I said, “Thanks. I really appreciate you.” But then she didn’t understand why he let her out of the house, the Lela Rochon character, I mean. So I said, “Look… if I could have written that where he didn’t let her out, I would have. But, the fact of the matter is, he did. She was like, “But, I still don’t understand why he did that.” I said, “Because he’s not a trained hostage person. That dude was just in the house, and he was crazy. So, at that point, it was clear that he was broken, and he didn’t know what he was doing anymore. He knows that he doesn’t want to kill these people. He knows that he has messed up. He knows that he’s shot people, and that he’s killed a cop.” At that point, the lady was like, “Fuck you. I’m leaving here.”

But, to me, that was the most pivotal moment in the movie. It made you understand that he was vulnerable, and that he was completely broken. What’s crazier than that is that the lady, Doreen, who is played by Dawn Olivieri, her character is actually worse than Joe. She is the button-pusher. She is actually the one who antagonizes everything. She kept pushing, and she kept pushing. That’s why, at the very end, she comes out like, “I’m a hostage!” But, she was conniving, man. I was like, “Wow!” It’s crazy when I think about all the things that went into the film.

Paste: I’m sure you’re getting this question a lot because of Mr. Danny Glover, the legend, but tell me about how Danny came onboard.
Taylor: I do this charity event every year where we feed a bunch of kids and single mothers, and I’ve been doing it for seven years. Every year, we feed between a thousand to two thousand families, and Danny had actually come out…

Paste: What the name of the charity?
Taylor: It’s called “Dinners for 500 Families.” Danny had come out as a guest volunteer for me twice. It was great. And here I am, a super-duper independent filmmaker, and I’m like, “This is Danny Glover! I’d never ask him to do anything!” But when I got this script I was like, “Damn, man. This is meant for him.” And I had his number. I called him up and said, “Danny, I’ve never in my life asked for anything like this but…” He was like, “What’s going on, brother? What do you need!? What do you need!?” So I’m like, “Look , dude… I’ve got this movie.” He was interested in what type of movie it was, so I told him about it. Strangely enough, he remembered the story! He lived in Berkeley, so he remembered when it happened. He was like, “Yeah, man! That guy killed a cop! I remember that, man!”

Paste: Wow!
Taylor: I told him about everything that was going on, and he asked me to send him the script. Five days passed, and he never responded, so I got worried. But on the sixth day, he was like, “I’m gonna do this movie.”

I was blown away, and I was ecstatic for a lot of reasons. I put Danny on a different pedestal, and I feel that a lot of other people should do the same. He’s got a huge body of work. People like Danny Glover and Sidney Poitier, these guys have laid the path so that there could be a Will Smith, so that there could be a Jaime Foxx, so that there could be a Denzel Washington. You don’t get those people without Danny. You’ve got to think, Danny was the first black actor to do a billion dollar franchise like Lethal Weapon. He was the first person to take the reigns and do a global film like Predator that worked internationally as a black lead. The Color Purple was timeless. When you look at him, you go, “Man. That is the legend.” So, I really wanted to use my time with him wisely. I wanted to shoot him right.

Paste: And do justice to who he is, right?
Taylor: Exactly. I didn’t want to do a fly-by-night movie with Danny Glover. I didn’t want to do the silly shit. I wanted to take him back to the roles that he used to do, like The Color Purple. I wanted to put him back into that world, a world where he could actually perform. In Supremacy, a lot of what Danny does is not dialogue-driven. He works through his eyes and his physical movements. I thought that was brilliant.

And that speech he delivers at the end of the film—that was not in the script. I actually stopped production and wrote that the day that we shot it. As we started getting into the film, and I started feeling the emotions and energies around the movie, I couldn’t help but feel that the ending we had was not going to work. The words were not right. Danny was up for anything. He was like, “We’ll do what we’ve got to do.” So we sat down—myself, Danny, and Joe. We sat there for hours, man. We just hammered out the script right there, the last three pages. We shot it, and that’s what we got.

Paste: Wow. That’s incredible, and I completely agree with you. Considering what he [Danny] did with his career, as well as with the civil rights movement.
Taylor: These guys, you have to use them while they’re here. The thing is, Hollywood forgets so quickly. It sad, because they are a great foundation. Danny Glover is in your DNA, dude. Everyone in the world knows who Danny Glover is. When you’re a filmmaker or a producer, it’s always awesome when you can use these people.

It’s kinda like the NBA… the NBA does an incredible job shining lights on past legends. They don’t let them die, because they’re important. Dr. J. is important. Dominique Wilkins is important. Oscar Robertson is important. You can’t just keep watching these games without mentioning these wonderful people. For Danny, there are a lot of things that are puzzling to me about his career. One of the things that bugs me is that Danny has never been nominated. He should have won an Academy Award for what he did in The Color Purple. He’s never even been considered! It’s ridiculous. He is worthy of all those things. I’m hoping that this movie affects people. I’m hoping that people get to see the Danny that we know in a raw, uncut way.