A filmmaker’s wild ride from pro basketball to making movies with Hillary Swank

You probably don’t know Deon Taylor, the basketball player. 

That’s OK. Deon Taylor, the movie producer, is making a name for himself anyway. The writer and director has gone from having doors slammed in his face in Hollywood to working on movies with Hillary Swank, Jamie Foxx, and Robert Downey Jr. Not bad for a guy who rolled into Los Angeles in 2003 with zero names in his phone book. 

Taylor’s career in the movie business is linked to his early life as a basketball player. He moved from Gary, Ill., to Sacramento, Calif., for his senior year of high school. In 1993, he played for San Diego State University before a stint playing basketball overseas. 

It was in Germany, where he didn’t speak the language, that Taylor found himself with a lot of spare time on his hands. He’d send requests for movies back to the U.S., he told NPR, then he’d devour boxes and boxes of films in his spare time. And he had plenty of spare time.

“I remember waiting for the following week to get a box of, like, 25 movies, and I would just sit there after basketball practice and just watch movies,” Taylor said.

Taylor became convinced he knew as much as anybody else about making movies. He wrote his first screenplay and showed up in Los Angeles in 2003, to the delight of absolutely nobody.

“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 you can make them in Sacramento, where Taylor lives with his wife, Roxanne Avent. He went to high school in the area; now, they live in a big house near Folsom Lake. 

He started small, releasing low-budget movies with low-rent star power. But in 2016, Taylor directed Mike Epps in “Meet the Blacks.” He worked with Michael Ealy and two-time Golden Globes nominee Dennis Quaid in 2019’s “The Intruder.” The big breakthrough was 2020’s “Fatale,” which starred two-time Oscar winner Swank and Ealy.

It took 15 years to get to that point. Avent, who co-produces the films, is adamant about paying it forward, giving other people who are interested in the movie industry the shot she and Taylor never had.

“Everybody was nobody before they were somebody,” Avent told The Sacramento Bee. “You didn’t just come out the womb as Hillary Swank. Everybody has to get a chance. Unfortunately, in this business, it’s all about who you know and what you’ve done. We had to create our own company by default because we didn’t have the relationships or the experience.”

With no film industry internships or college experience to lean on, Taylor turns to his basketball sensibility. He’s always learning how to make his basketball game more dangerous; he’s always learning how to get better in the film industry.

“When I play basketball even now, I’m watching, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God! What is that move he just did? I gotta go get that!'” Taylor said. “Film is the same exact way. You’re always kinda learning. I’m in school today.”

The education is paying off. Taylor and Avent recently launched Hidden Empire Film Group in Sacramento. Sacramento? That’s a city more known as the filing cabinet of California, racked with state offices and leafy neighborhoods. 

It’s not the stuff of Hollywood. But Sacramento has been an important part of the films that Taylor and Avent make. They have repeatedly filmed in the area, most famously in their 2018 film “Traffik,” which focused on sex trafficking. 

“It is a big deal that you’re shooting a movie like ‘Traffik’ in Sacramento,” Taylor said. “When the movie opens up, they see the new arena, and they see downtown. I just love that. We drove through the city, and we highlighted it.”

Mixing suspense and horror is something Taylor specializes in. His films often have a dark bent, including Swank’s turn as a police officer in “Fatale,” a noir thriller with a twist. 

Now comes the fun stuff. Taylor teamed up with Foxx to film “All-Star Weekend,” which is in post-production. The movie also stars Eva Longoria, Benecio Del Toro, Gerard Butler, and Downey.

Avent isn’t impressed by all those names. Sure, she now considers Swank a friend, but it isn’t about that. It’s about finding people you want to tell stories with.

“It’s unfortunate you’re judged by your Rolodex and IMDB and all that, but I do feel like as filmmakers, you always want to one-up and get better and get to a level where you can be great,” Avent said. “We’ve been able to prove ourselves along the way, not only with production value but at the box office. And that’s what people in Hollywood look at.”

All the while, Taylor doesn’t forget what got him there. He and Avent give back generously to Sacramento; Taylor says he moved there from Indiana to escape gun violence. In Sacramento, the couple has started the nonprofit CLIMB organization, which mentors young people.

Taylor keeps a basketball hoop in his Los Angeles office, naturally. As he told The Undefeated, it’s impossible to separate his basketball and filmmaking careers. They are one and the same.

“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.”