“A pimp, a prostitute, and a drug dealer walk into a bar. What if we made them the heroes?” Juel Taylor describes the unofficial pitch for his film They Cloned Tyrone. Starring Jamie Foxx, John Boyega, and Teyonah Parris, the story follows three unlikely sleuths who try to get to the bottom of a covert cloning operation targeting Black people in their neighborhood, the Glen. The comedic sci-fi mystery will have you questioning your reality. From mind-control fried chicken to evil clones and people seemingly from the ‘70s talking about blockchain, it makes you work for the answers.
You wouldn’t be able to tell, but Tyrone is Taylor’s directorial debut. He began his career as a screenwriter, alongside Tyrone co-writer and University of Southern California’s graduate film school classmate Tony Rettenmaier. (The two also share credits for Creed II and Space Jam: A New Legacy.) The arrest of Taylor’s friend, back when they were in college, largely inspired Tyrone. After losing a full football scholarship for simply riding in a car with someone with a gun, his friend sunk into deep depression and paranoid thoughts that everyone was out to get him.
GQ caught up with the first-time director on the overwhelmingly positive reception to his modern Blaxploitation film.
Juel Taylor: I was like, Man, it’d be cool to do a mystery movie, just in general. And then the next step in the thought process is like, Wouldn’t it be cool if the detectives were the last people on earth you thought should be on the case?
That’s when the joke starts to organically spring itself up. We wanted to make a bootleg Scooby Doo movie. Red tape, bureaucracy, and procedure are the usual impediments of a detective film, but here it’s just real-world stuff—people that you crossed before, and things like that.
I saw some of the more prominent blaxploitation films as a kid. I’m sure there’s some subconscious recall happening in this movie in terms of references to Super Fly and The Mack. But honestly, I didn’t codify it into being blaxploitation until later.
It started with music. I was listening to Mary Jane Girls and I imagined a movie that feels like the way Wave FM, the R&B station on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, made me feel. There’s a coolness to it that I always thought would be very interesting in a mystery setting. I listened to Patrice Rushen, The Gap Band, and SOS Band. If “Just Be Good To Me” was a movie, it’d be this movie. I was like how do I even put that in someone else’s brain?
A lot of the blaxploitation came up from when we got into the weeds of plotting it out as a conspiracy thriller. Once we started to lean into and embrace some of the B-movie aspects, the blaxploitation parallels were too many to ignore. The film is already living in the world of funk. It’s this musical world that’s very organic, funky, and bass-driven. It’s a gumbo that slowly starts to pull other things in.
When Tony Rettenmaier and I were going through the script, we weren’t consciously trying to eschew the norms when it comes to Black people in these situations. They were going to get on the elevator no matter what because that’s what the plot calls for. But I do think there was a level of just putting myself in that shoe, “What would make me get on an elevator?” from Fontaine. Obviously, there’s a moth-to-flame quality to it with him. Obviously, his mystery is the central mystery in terms of, “Who am I?” That’s the mystery he’s trying to uncover. He’s not really on the trail of this conspiracy as much as he’s on the trail of just his own identity.
Since something kind of X-Files-y happens to Fontaine, [his curiosity] kind of made sense. But for Yo-Yo (Parris), we were like, What kind of personality would a person have to have that they would be curious? [Which led to her being] into Nancy Drew novels.
And obviously, Jamie [Foxx]’s character, who wants to turn back, is the rest of us. Have you ever been in a haunted house situation, and you don’t want to go in but you don’t want to be alone in a weird situation? The need to not be alone overrides the need to turn around and get out of there. Obviously, I think there’s going to be some winking or nod to how abnormal this is for characters to run toward danger, but it wasn’t at the forefront when we were working on it.
So many. Back when we were working on the marketing, there was a version of the trailer that started with all these conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, we couldn’t clear the footage. The trailer had stuff like Stevie Wonder catching that microphone and Tupac being alive.
I’ve heard everything like, fluoride in toothpaste. There are different types of conspiracies about what fluoride actually does. And then you’ve got your David Icke variety of conspiracies where you’ve got lizard people in the White House. You had your OG way back, Alex Jones, conspiracies. I heard a lot of local stuff in Tuskegee. I wouldn’t call those conspiracies, but just in terms of businesses getting shut down and gerrymandering. As we would later come to find out, it’s like they were really redrawing these district lines to steal votes. Those are more just like, they don’t have physical hard evidence, but it’s obvious what’s happening type stuff. We tried to put all different levels of it in the movie, from obviously the super big crazy conspiracies to just your low-level on-the-ground stuff.
I’ve got sports-related conspiracies that I believe are true. I believe in some outlandish college football-related conspiracies. I might actually get in trouble if I say a couple of them, but I think there’s some funny business happening in college football.
We wrote the script in 2018. This was well before the Popeyes chicken craze. Had we cast it quicker and beat COVID, the move would’ve come out around the time of the craze. I was mad at the time because I was like, “Damn, this would be a perfect time to drop.” Little did I know, conspiracies are evergreen, so there were more conspiracies very shortly after that of a much bigger variety. But yeah, I would’ve loved to do a brand tie-in with Popeye’s or something.
We had that idea before we had a script. The second we decided that we were going to keep the They Cloned Tyrone title, because that wasn’t the original title, that was the joke title, we pitched it.
It was going to be called Reagan Era. And my team was like, “Nah, dog, you’ve got to call it They Cloned Tyrone.” I thought people wouldn’t take it seriously. And then I was like, “But yeah, you probably shouldn’t take it seriously.” And then the very next thought was, “clearly Erykah Badu has to do something with this movie.”
When we reached out to her during pre-production, she was so cool. Honestly, I didn’t really have to pitch it, I barely got into talking about it, she’s like, “I love it, that sounds fire. What do you need from me?” I’m like, “It’d be great if you could remake ‘Tyrone.’” And then I started to explain it, but once again, I really didn’t have to because she was like, “Oh, you just want me to Berenstain Bears this song?” I could barely get it out, and she knew exactly what I wanted.
In a perfect world, we’ll be able to make more original stuff. The ultimate goal is to make something that somebody has a themed wedding for and for people to wear Halloween costumes of the characters. That’s how I know Tyrone was a success.
If we make a sequel, it’s going to be completely random. It’s going to be the three of them doing something like opening a pizza shop. Maybe they go into business opening a bakery, or they try their hands at horse racing. It’s got to have nothing at all to do with the conspiracy. Or maybe it becomes like that movie Buried. Three of them would get trapped in a coal mine and it’s just an hour and a half of them bickering trying to get back to sunlight. Then it becomes like the Ernest movies, where The Gang does X, Y, Z, in every movie. The Gang Are Pilots Now like Airplane, but with John, Jamie, and Teyonah. And you just never mention what happened in the other movies except for one throwaway reference of like, “Man, it’s crazy what happened at the Glen that one time, and then you just continue with the movie.
Oh, yeah, that would be amazing. And then there’s also the version where it’s only Tyrone’s movie. It’s like August: Osage County. Maybe at this point they’ve rooted out all the other facilities, so there’s no crime fighting for them to do, but he still has to figure out who he wants to be. So he gets into art and sculpting and pottery. And he goes to Japan to learn from a classic denim maker, and he starts making jeans in Japan. It’s just this ex-gangbanger in Japan, washing denim in the river and making artisanal denim. I would do something like that before I make a sequel.
Oh, man, that would be interesting. Or Tyrone just appears in a whole different movie. It’s like a shared cinema universe like Vincent Vega where his brother is in [Reservoir Dogs] and, he’s in Pulp Fiction. And it’s just like John Boyega makes a cameo, and he’s the waiter.
Just know if it happens, you’ll have been the impetus for it happening because I would one million percent do that. So just know if they let me keep making movies, and you see John Boyega pop up unannounced, unexplained, you know he’s Tyrone, you’ll recall this moment and go, “Damn, he really did that.”