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(This story contains spoilers for They Cloned Tyrone.)
They Cloned Tyrone filmmaker Juel Taylor is the latest recipient of Guillermo del Toro’s storied generosity.
Whether it’s providing script notes to Charlie Day or putting in a good word for André Øvredal, there are countless tales of del Toro looking out for his filmmaking peers. And Taylor, who previously co-wrote Creed II, now has his own unforgettable anecdote in regard to They Cloned Tyrone, his critically acclaimed directorial debut that Netflix released opposite Barbie and Oppenheimer on July 21.
Towards the end of the film (spoilers ahead), Fontaine (John Boyega) and Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx) devise a plan to infiltrate the underground organization that’s been conducting sinister experiments on their neighborhood, the Glen. And Taylor intended to capture their elaborate scheme through an Ocean’s Eleven-like montage that cleverly revealed the mechanics of their mission. However, Netflix found the initial sequence to be a bit convoluted, prompting the Tyrone team to seek out a fresh pair of eyes to evaluate that situation and more.
So Taylor made a wish list of filmmakers to reach out to, and del Toro was the only person on the list who sprung into action.
“And not only did he respond, but he gave me his number to call him. And then he was like, ‘I’m coming to the (editing) lab.’ And I was like, ‘What!?’” Taylor tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So he spent the whole day with us, literally eight-to-ten hours. And just for the sake of the story, we all ordered Popeyes fried chicken for lunch. So he was so generous with his time, and he’s a genius, obviously.”
Ultimately, del Toro’s perspective helped Taylor, his co-writer Tony Rettenmaier and editor Saira Haider achieve what they wanted on a creative level, while also appeasing Netflix’s original note for their sci-fi mystery/comedy.
“I didn’t agree with the note, and it wasn’t till Guillermo came that we found an obtuse way to address the note that made sense,” Taylor says. “So spending a day with him felt like I was back in film school. And even beyond that, he would always call me and text me to check on things. It’s not like we worked on the cut for a day and that was it.”
Below, during a spoiler conversation with THR, Taylor also addresses his reasoning behind saving the title character of Tyrone for the film’s epilogue.
Well, during opening weekend, there was a pretty cool visual on Rotten Tomatoes. They Cloned Tyrone was positioned next to Oppenheimer, Barbie and Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, and all were sporting certified-fresh badges and 90 percent-plus scores at the time.
Yeah, people texted that to me, so I saw it, but I don’t read any reviews at all. I stay away as best I can, but naturally, I got so many texts about it. But just the fact that we could be a little footnote at the bottom of that (Barbenheimer) day … “Hey, there’s another movie that came out that day.” (Laughs.) For context, I saw Barbie on July 21. I put Tyrone on at the house and let it play in the background, and then we went to see Barbie.
Barry Jenkins also paid you and your film a great compliment. Did people send that your way as well?
Oh, they did. (Laughs.) That’s pretty crazy, because Barry Jenkins has gotta be one of the best on planet Earth. So just the fact that he even saw it, I was like, “Wow.” I know that he’s secretly a (Florida) Gators fan. I probably shouldn’t tell people that, but he’s a Gator fan. I went to Florida, so he’s a kindred spirit just for that alone. (Writer’s Note: The kicker is that Jenkins graduated from Florida State.) But that was definitely a pleasant surprise.
Since we’re on the subject of Oscar winners, is it true that Guillermo del Toro gave you some notes along the way?
It is true. (Laughs.) I call Guillermo “Uncle G” now. I adopted him as my surrogate uncle. But he came by and he’s so cool. He’s got to be one of the nicest people, man. They asked me, “Hey, you want to reach out to people?” And so I gave them a whole list of writers and directors to ask if they would watch the movie and give feedback, if they were so inclined. And Guillermo was the only one who responded.
And not only did he respond, but he gave me his number to call him. And then he was like, “I’m coming to the lab.” And I was like, “What!?” So he came to the lab, and he spent the whole day with us, literally eight-to-ten hours. It’s really one of the craziest memories, and just for the sake of the story, we all ordered Popeyes fried chicken for lunch at the editing lab. He was like, “I can’t not order fried chicken,” so we all ordered Popeyes just because it would be something stupid to tell people someday in the future. (Writer’s Note: Fried chicken is also a big part of the film.) So he was so generous with his time, and he’s a genius, obviously.
We’d always gotten studio feedback on a specific part that they had wanted us to change, and while I understood what they wanted, I was like, “How do we get that from this material?” It just wasn’t making sense to me. So I didn’t agree with the note, and it wasn’t till Guillermo came that we found an obtuse way to address the note that made sense to me and (co-writer) Tony (Rettenmaier) and (editor) Saira (Haider). So we never would’ve found it were it not for the way Guillermo thought, and once we went through it with him, we found a third way of reapproaching a certain beat in the movie. Guillermo has such a good eye, and he really is a master. So spending a day with him felt like I was back in film school.
And even beyond that, he would always call me and text me to check on things. It’s not like we worked on the cut for a day and that was it. So he would call and ask, “Hey, how’s it going? What are you running into now?” And he did all of that while Pinocchio was about to come out. He was in post on Pinocchio. He was mixing, and he had a lot going on. So the fact that he even called or texted was way more than I ever would’ve expected. And on top of that, he was like, “I must come to the lab.” So it was super crazy.
What was the challenging beat that he helped solve?
It was the montage. It’s when they do the Ocean’s Eleven bit. You see how they snuck underground, and Fontaine (John Boyega) fakes his death. It was way more heady and abstract, because Slick Charles’ (Jamie Foxx) original monologue was all doublespeak. He was breaking down the virtues of the pimp game, and each virtue was applicable to a step in the process. On paper, everything was a double entendre. So we cut a couple of things out of it, and it jumps forward and backwards. You got a little bit more detail about what Fontaine was doing in present day, in terms of going through the bins and finding the tag markers where his gun was.
And it wasn’t until we went through each beat of it with Guillermo and got his point of view that we thought of a different way to write it. So everything Jamie says was totally rewritten through ADR. It was rewritten to be more one-to-one with what’s happening, so it really just got simplified a lot. Netflix basically thought it was too complicated, and they wanted to do the sequence in chronological order. But there’s more to the sequence than just a montage, and so I didn’t think that made sense.
And when we sat with Guillermo, we were able to find a way to keep the overall sequence the same, while changing the montage in a way that made it a lot easier to digest. So, by the end, Netflix got what they wanted in terms of the studio note, and Tony, Saira and I got what we wanted, creatively. You hold on to what you perceive as very witty, like all the double entendres and slick pimp dialogue that you wrote. But at the end of the day, Guillermo had another idea. We didn’t have the footage to do it, but in breaking down the idea that he had, it led us to what ultimately ended up in the movie.
On opening day, Jamie Foxx released a video that thanked everyone for their support during his health battle these last few months. As much as you were anticipating your film’s release, did your concern for your collaborator’s health overtake it all?
Of course. It’s incomparable when you think about Jamie’s health in relation to just some movie coming out. It’s not even close. The checkmarks in this process were so slippery in terms of how they bled into each other. It was such a long process. It took a couple years to cast and then Covid happened. We set it up in 2018, and from then to now, it’s basically been five years. So we’ve had a long time to digest it and internalize it and get over the movie. And so by the time the movie comes out, we’ve mentally gone through all the stages already. And so when Jamie was hospitalized, that was some real-life stuff, and everybody was just praying that everything was alright.
Tyrone reminded me a lot of The Wire on a thematic level, as powerful forces go to great lengths to engineer and prolong the cycle within Black communities. Obviously, Tyrone has another demented goal on top of that by way of assimilation, but do you consider the thematic comparison to be valid?
Oh, of course. There are two characters who aren’t named after The Wire, but they have very similar names to The Wire. One of them is based on someone that I grew up with in Tuskegee, so it was a complete coincidence. But there’s Slim Charles on The Wire, and there’s Slick Charles in Tyrone. I also had a friend whose daddy was named Hot Charles. So it didn’t dawn on me that Slim Charles was a character on The Wire till we were well into the casting process. Tyrone also has a homeless character named Frog, and The Wire has a character named Frog. But there was a homeless man named Frog from Tuskegee that everybody knew, and he inspired our character. So there were a lot of Wire-like parallels that seem serendipitous in terms of the odds of having characters with similar names.
But thematically, I definitely think it’s valid. Each season of The Wire was about a different vertical slice that affects life in Baltimore and how these different systems interact and influence the community in a lot of negative ways. So I definitely think that there’s a thematic comparison. They rhyme.
The title is based on Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone,” and she even re-recorded it to feature new lyrics that fit your film. So, to ask what is probably an annoying question by now, why did you opt not to center the film around Tyrone?
(Laughs.) No one’s ever asked that question. Tyrone is just semantics at a certain point. When we were conceiving the story, we pitched it without a script. So we sold the movie before we wrote the script, and we had a lot of different iterations before we wrote it. And originally, Frog was gonna be Tyrone. He would’ve had old-man makeup and he’d be dressed in a certain way that you don’t quite recognize that it’s the same actor. And then at a certain point in the movie, you’d realize, “Oh, the reason this dude knows all this stuff is because he’s literally you (Tyrone) …”
But we did always know that the main character’s name would not be Tyrone. We just thought it was funny. The movie was going to be called Reagan Era, and They Cloned Tyrone was just a joke title. But enough people said, “You clearly have to call it They Cloned Tyrone.” And I was like, “That’s kind of goofy, though.” And so I just felt that the title should feel completely random and that the main character’s name can’t be Tyrone. Why was that the case? I think it’s because the first thing that a contrarian would do is name the character something else. So, to follow someone not named Tyrone was just baked into the identity of the movie from the beginning. And then the question became, “Well, who is Tyrone?” and the answer to that question ties it all together by the time you get to the end.
Yes, the epilogue does introduce us to Fontaine’s counterpart, Tyrone, in Los Angeles. This wasn’t you trying to set up some greater cinematic universe, right? It was just about leaving something for the audience’s imagination?
Yeah. The only way the story continues is if it has nothing to do with the first one. We always joked that Fontaine, Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris) and Slick Charles are gonna start a bakery, so we’re just gonna make Mystic Pizza next time and not even reference anything that happened in the first movie. It’s gonna be the three of them going into the restaurant business. So, if we ever did another one, it would have absolutely nothing to do with the first movie. It’s an open-ended story, but it’s a closed loop in terms of character. They’ve done what they needed to do in terms of finding out who they are and what they want out of their lives.
You and Steven Caple Jr. worked together previously on Creed II, and I also noticed that you were credited for “additional literary material” on Transformers: Rise of the Beasts.
(Taylor whispers.) Oh no … (Laughs.)
And after watching Tyrone, the manner in which Beasts revealed G.I. Joe seems like it would’ve been in your wheelhouse. Did you actually have a hand in that reveal?
(Laughs.) That’s Steve, man. That’s all Steve in terms of wanting to introduce the G.I. Joes. That’s something that he wanted to do, and I know that he had to fight for that. Let’s just put it like that. He had to fight to get that thumbs-up, but he definitely wanted that crossover for at least as long as I knew he was working on it. So Tony and I were fortunate to have a small role in it. Obviously, we weren’t the main writers on it by any means, but Steve and I have a lot of similar impulses. (Laughs.) So it’s not surprising that there’s something that, again, rhymes between our two movies in terms of a reveal at the end.
To close on Tyrone, who gets the credit for the following line: “Ain’t no snow, but I can still ski in it”?
Jamie Foxx! I don’t even remember what line was in the script at that point. “Ain’t no snow, but I can still ski in it” is just baked into my subconscious now. There was something quippy in the script, but Jamie came up with something way better as he often does.
They Cloned Tyrone is now streaming on Netflix. This interview was edited for length and clarity.