Janicza Bravo interview: ‘Zola’ director and writer
“You’re participating along with the film and it’s a reminder of our own Pavlovian relationship” with social media, Janicza Bravo explains about how her second feature film “Zola” bombards the audience with the all-too familiar sounds emanating from our cellphones, as a non-stop flurry of dopamine-inducing tweets, notifications and text messages ring out onscreen, allowing viewers to experience (rather than passively watch) the film. Check out our exclusive video interview with the writer/director above.
Taylour Paige stars as the titular Zola, a Detroit waitress and part-time exotic dancer who is convinced to travel to Tampa, Florida with Stefani (Riley Keough), a woman she has just met, for a weekend of stripping. However, what is meant to be a quick weekend away for some easy money turns into a chaotic, sleepless 48-hour drug and sex-fueled odyssey as Zola ends up in way over her head.
Bravo directed the genre-bending film; part black comedy, part crime thriller, from a screenplay she co-wrote with playwright Jeremy O. Harris, inspired by the viral Twitter thread from 2015 by Aziah “Zola” King and the subsequent Rolling Stone article “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted” by David Kushner. The A24 film premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim, and following its theatrical release mid-last year, “Zola” garnered raves across the board (currently scoring an impressive 88% “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes). Since its release, “Zola” has earned two Gotham Award nominations and a whopping seven Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Bravo was also just included in the BAFTA longlist for Best Director across the pond.
At first blush, adapting a series of tweets into a screenplay seems an almost impossible task, but Bravo says her vision for the film was crystal clear upon devouring King’s 148-tweet thread back in October 2015. The film, in all its fervent, seedy, glittery glory, comes together because Bravo distills King’s outlandish story into three acts; starting in an unassuming Detroit diner, and then building towards the feverish, sensory assault the film becomes as the two women find themselves neck-deep in a world of drugs, violence and prostitution.
“The Twitter thread is epic,” Bravo proclaims. “If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It’s so ferocious, it’s so electric,” she says. “But the film is in a lot of ways independent of what the thread did because it’s one thing to sit on your toilet and read this for 10-15 minutes, or for you to sit at your desk or to sit on your couch or in your bed, whatever place you found yourself reading it. To read it on your own on the phone is a different experience and actually once it is on its feet, it always read like an outline to me when I read it in October, the day it came out. I felt like it was an outline. I felt the prologue, I felt the epilogue, I saw the first act, the second act, the third act,” she explains.
“The first act was basically everything that happens at home. In the thread, that’s Detroit. In our world, home is kind of like a nebulous place. The second act is leaving home and landing in Florida. Everything feels colorful and saturated and rambunctious in that second act and once you are vomiting on a floor are handing someone a gun you enter that third act, because that’s the farthest away from home.”