'Zola' Director Janicza Bravo On Processing Female Trauma Through Fantasy [Interview]

Zola is a comedy. No, it's a fantasy. No, it's strange, dreamlike thriller meets ode to scumbag Florida. But to Zola director Janicza Bravo, the most important thing is that her new A24 dark comedy is a portrait of female trauma. Which might sound like a weird thing to say about a movie based on a Twitter thread about two strippers who take a wild trip down to Florida that ends in murder, mayhem, and a few jail convictions.

"It does feel like it's drenched in fantasy, because the original retelling is by way of a 19-year-old girl," Bravo told me over a Zoom call ahead of the release of Zola. What does that mean? Well to Bravo, if a teenage girl "had been through something totally terrorizing and then there was a spotlight later where you were able to tell the story... I think the version you want to present is one where you're a little bit better at the math, is one where you're not totally being taken advantage of."

That version was told through 148 tweets in a thread by Aziah "Zola" King, whose "The Story" took the world by storm in 2015, immediately earning the attention of media outlets and, of course, Hollywood. Bravo was one of the many filmmakers eager to bring this Twitter story to the big screen, but it wasn't until a version headed by James Franco (who departed amid sexual harassment allegations) fell through that Bravo got her shot. But to the director, whose first dark-comedy feature Lemon premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017, it wasn't by luck that Zola fell into her lap. It was destiny.

"Before I was done reading [the original tweet thread], it's almost like it was — maybe kismet isn't the right word — but something otherworldly happened where before it was done, I just knew, 'Oh, I have to direct this this is my second feature,'" Bravo said.

Read our full interview with Bravo, as we chat about why she reads Zola as a fantasy, and her hopes of seeing Zola and Stefani Halloween costumes.


On that fateful day in 2015, were you on Twitter watching the Zola thread as it happened, or did you catch it afterwards?

I caught it after, but the same day that it came out. Actually, I caught it at the end of the day. I'm in a group chat with three black girlfriends and I was on a job that day — I used to be a stylist, so I was working I think on a commercial, most likely. And I looked at my phone, and there was something like, 120 unread texts and I thought, "I can't open that now, because what what's happening there? No one's died, I don't think, because I feel other people in the job would be talking about it, so I'm going to have to tend to that at the bottom of the day."

And that night as I was getting into bed, I was like, "Oh right, my phone, and I read...it was amazing. I'm so glad I got it then, because it was before Aziah, the real Zola, had deleted it. And so, what was awesome was that I could see — they sent literally every single tweet, and then their responses to every single tweet. And before I was done reading it, it's almost like it was — maybe kismet isn't the right word — but something otherworldly happened where before it was done, I just knew, "Oh, I have to direct this, this is my second feature." And I don't know why that was, but I was like, "This is mine, I'm supposed to have this."

You got the project after James Franco departed it, and you had described the initial script that you received from Andrew Neel and Mike Roberts as feeling "very masculine." Can you describe what that screenplay was like and why you felt need to go in with your own version that you co-wrote with Jeremy O. Harris?

Absolutely. So I think the main difference between their script and this one is I wanted to rely heavily on the source material. You and I are in this Zoom chat right now because of Black Twitter. Black Twitter made that story the canon, they totally catapulted it, they put it on a pedestal, they shined the light on it, and I just wanted to go back to the source material. And I think the other screenplay was taking more liberties, and if they had a drive about it that I felt was kind of leading with its dick — and that's not a bad thing. I think that version was just a little bit hornier than what I wanted to do. I'm just inherently a little bit prudish and a bit more reserved sexually. Not in my personal life, not that you're asking [Laughs] but in my cinematic expression. So I wanted to go with something that was a bit more corseted.

zola trailerSo why did you feel that kismet to direct a movie about a pair of strippers who head down to Florida, if you're as prudish a filmmaker as you said?

I mean, it doesn't make sense. I am, in a lot of ways, not the right director for it. First and foremost, I believe myself to be a comedy director. I believe myself to be a director of stressful comedy, I believe that to be my brand or lane in comedy. And I think if you watch my first feature Lemon, a think a trained eye or a more cinematic leading eye might see where they overlap and see what my tastes are. How I dabble in a multitude of feelings, mostly uncomfortable ones. And to me, they feel like they're under the same umbrella. I think the culture of the film is dissimilar, different to me. Maybe Lemon feels like my front-of-the-house personality, and I think Zola is more my back-of-the-house personality. But Zola to me is like fantasy. I wish I was that. I wish I had moved through the world with that kind of agency. I wish I moved through the world comfortably taking that much space. I had to get there. I'm 40, it took a while for me to get to a place where I was just like, "I don't give a fuck. I'm going to do what I want, and what I need, and what works for me." But it took me a really long time to get there. And when I read the story, I couldn't believe that it was written by a 19-year-old. Then I thought, damn if I had had an ounce of this when I was 19, who would I be now? Where would I be now?

Speaking of fantasy, there's a dreamlike, almost fairy-tale quality to your film, with the various disassociating visions that Zola has and the twinkly music throughout. Did the outlandish nature of the story lead you to choose this fantastical approach?

Yeah. So I would say the whole story is very much how a woman has processed her trauma. The Twitter thread is what we are presented with. Her final product is, "I am now a person who has processed this, and this is why I can have this kind of distance to it." And Aziah, the real Zola, this was her third draft. She wrote this story the first time, right after the trip had happened, I think March of 2015. And she wrote it on Tumblr, and she was sort of weeping through having written that and, according to her it was super bleak. And then she did a second pass, a second draft, a few months later, and that version is somewhere between the bleak draft and the more uproarious draft. And then the third draft is the one that I saw, or that you read. Oh my gosh, I totally forgot your question, can you say it again?

No, that's okay. The outlandish nature of the story, did that lend to your fantasy-first approach?

So I was thinking about...inside of the movie, there's a second retelling, we have this "@Stefani," while the movie is "@Zola," and the movie inside the movie is @Stefani. I was thinking, "how would Zola, who is telling us the story, how would she cast it, how would she dress it?" If you had been through something totally terrorizing, and then there was a spotlight later, where you were able to tell the story, what version of it would you present? And I think the version you want to present is one where you're a little bit better at the math, is one where you're not totally being taken advantage of. And so, I wanted to cast and dress the world in a way that would make her look better, and would make everything better. Like they're driving a Benz box, Riley's wearing Dior when you first meet her, she's got a Chanel bag and a Fendi bag like. It's so out of control, it just feels a bit like the volume is turned all the way up.

And so it does feel like it's drenched in fantasy, because the original retelling is by way of a 19-year-old girl. And I thought, "Well what is the fantasy version of this, that a 19-year-old girl would tell?" And I used to be a stylist, like I'd said before, and I was thinking about like what Clueless had meant to me when I was a teenager. And not that I think this is Clueless or is even holding a candle to Clueless, but here was a dynamic between a black woman and a white woman, where I hadn't really seen that much of that onscreen. And I honestly was just like, whenever the movie comes out, Halloween that year, I want to see girls dress like the movie. I want to be at a party and go, "They're dressed like Zola and Stefani," and that means I fucking did it. To me, that's the win. So we're dressing this movie like it's Halloween, like we're making costumes. Head to toe, turning the whole world out. So it's super theatrical. super absurd, and it leans into our play.

So speaking of that central dynamic between a black woman and a white woman, despite being so heightened as it is with Riley Keough's character especially being almost "minstrel-like," as you've said in another interview, is there still some sort of basis in reality in that kind of the tension that can exist between black woman and white women's friendships? And in that kind of racial microaggressions that we see, especially at the beginning of the movie, that are turned into outward aggressions?

So  when the story first came out, when the Twitter thread came out in 2015 , and I was like "I want to direct this!" a part of my homework was just reading about it online. Who was writing about this, where was this being written about? And I think there was a piece, at that time, in the Washington Post, on TMZ, there was the Rolling Stone article, something in Complex, and there are a few others — those are just the ones that are coming to me right now. And every piece questioned the validity of her story.

And so whether or not they were meaning to, while questioning the validity of this black woman's story, they were presenting this white woman as genteel and innocent, and demonizing this black woman that was saying, "This traumatizing thing happened to me and I was seduced by a white woman." And people found themselves wanting to empathize with the white woman, and I think that's just the power of whiteness, right? Like the world has decided, "We have a hard time believing women, and we have an especially hard time believing black women." And so that was going to be inherent in the storytelling, for the audience. Some portion of the audience is going to sit down and just have their arms crossed and squinting at it the whole time, and I just found I was acutely aware of that.

So I know you also spoke to Aziah King in order to better capture her voice on screen. And you express your surprise at first at how different she was in persons versus the persona that she presented in the Twitter thread. There is a scene specifically where Zola and Stefani are preparing to dance at the Tampa strip club, where she asks herself, "Who are you going to be tonight Zola?" and she imagines several versions of herself. Did that come from your conversation with Aziah and how she put on a character while writing that tweet thread, and was a writer herself, essentially?

Yeah, I mean, good eye. Way to go you. Ding ding ding, you got it. What was so remarkable to me about the first time we talked...who she was in our first meeting was who [I imagined] the character was. I'd already imagined that the character was someone more subdued. I think that the film is very much a comedy, a classic comedy, a two hander in which there is a straight man and a clown. And so when I actually met her, it confirmed my instincts, which were Zola is the straight man. She just has to be, right? She is the center, she is the heart, she's the narrator, she is the person right next to the chaos as it unfolds.

In presenting the movie, both as a comedy and as kind of a thriller and the strange outlandish story that it was, how did you walk that tonal balance? Because you are first foremost a comedy filmmaker –

Thank you! I think so too. [Laughs]

But did you have difficulty bringing out some of that darker elements of the story?

No, because I think I'm a comedy director, but I think I am a stressful comedy director. I think that is my lane. I don't need to cite the kinds of comedies that I certainly wouldn't be making, and I think that my offering, what I have been able to write and direct independently, all of that work has treaded this fine line of being very uncomfortable, very funny, and really off. Like the world is a little bit troubled.

And that has so much to do with me, and how I move through the world. I'm moving through the world as a black woman who is expected to ask permission to be in most spaces, I spend most of my time in white spaces. I am equal parts visible and invisible all at the same time. And so my rich interior is how I keep it moving. And so, I just saw so much of myself in the real Zola, and in the character Zola, and so I think my access to how I maneuvered that came so naturally to me because it's so much a part of how I navigate.


Zola opens in theaters June 30, 2021.