As a professional basketball player in Germany, Deon Taylor dreamed of taking a shot with everything on the line — not a three-pointer as the buzzer sounded but as a movie director.
The American-born Taylor played point guard overseas from 1999 to 2002 and participated in the NBA’s celebrity-laden entertainment league, passing to the likes of Ice Cube and Justin Timberlake. He studied biology at San Diego State and knew nothing about filmmaking. But Taylor loved movies and would study the bonus scenes on DVDs in his apartment in Europe, trying to figure out how directors did their jobs and scribbling out screenplays longhand on a legal pad.
“I was more interested in business and pursuing film” than basketball, says Taylor, 35. “Everything I know about the film business, I learned from DVD extras.”
It took him several years, but Taylor eventually scraped together enough money to finance the thriller “Dead Tone,” which he directed with actor Brian Hooks. Shot in 2005, the movie about prank calls gone bad starred aging Dutch action hero Rutger Hauer and several professional athletes, including NFL veteran Kyle Turley as the killer. “I thought it was the greatest movie ever,” Taylor says. A few Web critics shared some of Taylor’s “Dead Tone” enthusiasm, but distributors weren’t inclined to release it theatrically. “Dead Tone” didn’t get a video release until well after the film was completed.
Taylor made two subsequent pictures — the to-be-released comedy “The Hustle” and the television movie “Nite Tales: The Movie” — but with his fourth, Friday’s “Chain Letter,” Taylor is finally going to have his first legitimate film premiere. A grisly $3-million horror story, “Chain Letter” will debut in about 500 theaters. The movie is being distributed by New Films International, which specializes in low-budget genre titles such as “The Killing Jar,” “Dark Moon Rising” and “The Alphabet Killer.”
“Chain Letter,” which suggests that there can be gruesome consequences for young people who don’t forward certain text messages as instructed, has little chance of competing with the wide releases “Let Me In,” “The Social Network” and the long-delayed “Case 39.” But Taylor’s film, which stars Nikki Reed ( “Twilight”) and Keith David (“Crash”), represents an unusual story of perseverance, and the athlete-turned-filmmaker’s early work has attracted the backing of actor Jamie Foxx and private equity investor Robert Smith.
“I don’t want to be a horror director, but this is the best route, strategically, to get your foot in the door. It’s what James Cameron and Steven Spielberg did to get their careers started,” Taylor says of the directors whose careers were launched, respectively, with “Piranha Part Two: The Spawning” and “Duel.”
Taylor, who lives in Sacramento, is developing two additional genre movies that he hopes to shoot in coming months. In his “Terminated,” two people flying from Los Angeles to New York find when they land that they are the last people on Earth. “Free Agents” is about professional football players who become robbers during road games — “It’s ‘Bad Boys’ meets ‘Point Break,’” Taylor says.
He also is turning his horror anthology movie “Nite Tales” into a series with several dozen 30-minute episodes planned. In August, Foxx announced that he was joining Taylor to launch No Brainer Films, aimed at making movies with budgets of less than $10 million.
“Chain Letter” clearly aims to compete with Lionsgate’s “Saw” series for gross-out violence, showcasing a fair amount of modern-day drawing and quartering. But Taylor also hopes the movie has something to say about privacy in the Internet era.
Betsy Russell, who plays a detective in “Chain Letter” and has acted in five of the “Saw” movies (including Oct. 29’s " Saw 3D: The Final Chapter”), says Taylor’s lack of formal film training didn’t show.
“What I look for is a director who makes me feel safe, is trusting and is sure of what he wants me to get across in my scenes. And he did seem very confident in what he was doing,” Russell says. “You never know how the movie is going to turn out until you see it, but I thought it turned out great. I’ve seen a lot of inexpensive movies that look terrible, but this looks fantastic. It looks like a ‘Saw’ movie.”
Smith, who says his San Francisco-based Vista Equity Partners has about $3 billion in investments primarily in software companies, was invited to meet Taylor on the Northern California set of “Dead Tone.” He says he immediately decided to invest several million dollars of his own money in Taylor’s projects.
Smith approached the filmmaker’s slate as if it were a possible buyout: by studying the underlying fundamentals and assessing the man in charge. “You can tell when there is a person who can get the best out of people,” Smith says. “And he brings a unique energy and comedic sense to what would otherwise be a dark subject.”
Smith and Taylor say they will try to make low-budget movies with high production values and retain the copyrights to their films rather than selling the completed movies outright to distributors. “I’m in the investing business. Not the movie business,” Smith says. “But if you run it well, [the movie business] can be highly profitable. You have the ability to make significant returns over a long period of time.”
But Smith knows the risks too. “You know how you make a small fortune in the movie business?” he asks rhetorically. “Start with a large one.”
Taylor says he’s hardly sleeping, given how much he wants to accomplish and how many other movies he’s trying to make. “I have no days off,” he says.
“I’ve been a long shot all my life,” Taylor says. “This is not easy for me. But it’s my passion.”