In October 2015, the internet congregated around the bonfire to listen to a story that the author deemed “kind of long but full of suspense”. She wasn’t wrong.
In a now-infamous 140-plus tweet thread, A’Ziah “Zola” Wells King recounted her experience of befriending a white woman who lured her into a sinister weekend of lies, violence and sex-trafficking.
King thought Jessica was a stripper like her, but she soon discovered she was a sex worker with a homicidal pimp who had plans for King, too.
She escaped, lived to tweet the tale, and the thread went viral.
“Drama, humour, action, suspense, character development. She can write!” tweeted Ava DuVernay.
It was unanimous: this needed to be a film.
The rights to produce and direct were originally secured by James Franco, but when that project fell through (who wants to see a white man’s interpretation of a Black woman’s story?), Janicza Bravo, 40, got to work securing the rights. At the time, she had only directed one feature film, Lemon, but she knew she was the only person for the job. The executives agreed and she was signed on as writer and director (she co-wrote the script with playwright Jeremy O. Harris).
Experiencing the final product, titled Zola, it’s hard to imagine anyone else even trying. Here, we chat to the director/writer about how she turned the thread into one of 2021’s most anticipated and acclaimed films.
marie claire: The film premiered at Sundance at the beginning of 2020 and then had it’s release delayed for over a year due to the pandemic. It’s finally out – how are you feeling?
Bravo: I feel liberated. Right in this moment, today, I’m having some degree of a post-mortem, which I was surprised hadn’t happened already. But I think I’m also kind of stunted. I think a lot of us have been stunted by the last year – year and a half, year plus months, whatever that time is – where you have some sense of who you had been and how to move through who you were, but there’s an adjustment.
If there is one word, what I feel is free. I feel lighter. I feel a bit buoyant. I believe that when making a film, and maybe television is also like this, but in film, at least for me, there seems to be a kind of lesson that happens at each stage: pre-production, production, post-production, and then release being the final stage. And that lesson isn’t something that is a product of how successful or not successful it is. It’s sort of the “who you are when you look in the mirror” moment. And it isn’t an end. It’s really a beginning. I’m inside of that right now, and maybe in three weeks, if we talked again, the answer would be different.
marie claire: Yeah, totally. You talked about the lessons at each stage, and maybe this is what you’re ruminating on, but what are you learning in doing the post-mortem?
Bravo: Sundance was really special and I didn’t know how special it was while I was in it. I’m not good at celebrating a win or the wins, or what feels like any scale of win, I’m not very good at, and I’m not good at pleasure. I’m not good at patting myself on the back. I’m not good at being proud of myself. And I’m sure that has to do with how I was reared. I’m also an only child and I’m sure it has something to do with having been born and raised in the eighties. So, I’m really working on that. One of the things that I hope to get out of that period of stagnation was getting comfortable with that.
There are so many artists who I’ve been talking to over the last few weeks, who I’ve just said, I’m not good at enjoying it. I’m not good at feeling good. That’s not something that I’m good at, which I think is why my work is the way that it is. I am also most grateful for this aspect of my brain that’s probably thought or rotted because it’s also why I approach the work in the way that I do. But I would like to get better at that. Or, if I’m not going to get better at that, if I have the opportunity to raise my own children, I will make sure that that is a part of how I raised them.
marie claire: You’ve described Zola as a stressful comedy and your work really does deal with the uncomfortable, or making people laugh and then be like, “Wait, should I be laughing? What does it mean that I’m laughing?” Can you talk a little bit about why you think humour and comedy is an effective tool to explore the uncomfortable? Because this is a traumatic story, what she went through was traumatic; why do you think comedy is an effective tool to explore that and how did you approach it in Zola?
Bravo: I don’t really know any other way to do it. Right? I feel – and maybe a lot of us who are on the outside or feel like we are less than, or feel like we’ve been treated like we’re less than, or we’re invisible – that we kind of get good at moving through the world a bit traumatised and how I have worked through that is with my access to my wit. Like the access that I have to my wit is the only reason that I’m still here and that I’m standing and in this exchange with you.
And so that just comes really naturally to me. When I read her Twitter thread in 2015, one of the things that drew me to it was that it is so clearly funny. It’s so obviously funny, but if the house is the comedy, then the wallpaper is the tragedy, right? I am interested in this trilogy of sorts on race play or race humour; Lemon is my first instalment in that, Zola is my second and we’ll see what my third is. It’s this conversation of how treating white as visible, how whiteness moves through the world and then how whiteness can move through the world in contact with everything else. Right? And while Zola isn’t my brain and child, it really fit under this banner for me.
marie claire: What I liked as well is how, on that point of treating white as visible, I feel as though people talk about whiteness being invisible, but it’s like, whiteness is only invisible to white people. You know what I mean? Like, it’s very visible and it’s very violent. And I think Stefani [played by Riley Keough] is the perfect stereotype of that and if you’re talking about comedy, like the classic comedy, she’s the clown and Zola is the straight person. And I’ve wondered in terms of the characterisation, what kind of conversations did you have with Taylour [Paige, who plays Zola] and Riley about that?
Bravo: Yeah. I mean, you hit it on the head. My approach was, this is a classic comedy, right? And how a classic comedy works is, it’s rare to be able to pull off a classic comedy with two clowns. It’s not to say that there aren’t classic comedies that feature two clowns. There’s some that I really love that I’m happy to cite; Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Dumb and Dumber, The Honeymooners, The Three Stooges. That’s a lot of classic comedies that feature a multitude of clowns. But the classic comedy that I thought this was, or what I thought our rules were, was one in which you have a straight man and you have a buffoon or a menace and where the humour happens is where those two things intersect, right? They’re not in parallel, they’re actually perpendicular.
Taylour has said some version of this before, when we started working, I think she felt a bit like she didn’t have enough to do because Riley was so big, so not human. Coleman was also just so big, and so not human. And there’s this anxiety around calling cut, hearing the crew laugh at what your fellow castmates are doing and you’re so rooted in or so grounded that it felt boring to her. It felt like not enough.
It wasn’t until she saw it with an audience of people we didn’t know at Sundance that she got it. And when I say she got it, what I really mean is that she felt comfortable with it, and she felt embraced and she understood what we were talking about. Because there’s a version of this film made by somebody else where both Zola and Stephanie mirror each other. They are both sort of like chaos incarnate, but if everyone is chaotic, then who do we follow? I think the theatre person in me feels like you always want to be able to have one person or thing you can look at that tells you we’re on the right track, that tells you it’s safe. That just some kind of tethered to reality. And I felt like that was Zola.
How the Twitter feed reads, if you read it on the day, if you read it later, I think the Zola character is embodied and larger than life and really bombastic. But when I read it, there’s a rock there. The Zola character I’m telling is not the Zola character in that story, it’s the woman who’s writing the story. And so the writer, actually, once she puts herself inside of that narrative, she’s sitting or standing right next to it. Right? And so many of the scenes she’s even blocked, even if she’s at the centre, we’re watching through her, we’re next to her watching the action unfold.
marie claire: The tone felt almost psychedelic, but it was always like, this is Zola’s perspective. She’s centered. Because that was another thing about the thread or the discourse around the thread was people being so preoccupied with “How much was true? How much was false?” and “What was exaggerated? What wasn’t exaggerated?” And actually, I’d be interested to know, do people still have that preoccupation with the film? And is that frustrating? Because I feel like that’s kind of beside the point…
Bravo: Yes, unfortunately. It’s not as loud as it was. Leading up to Sundance and at Sundance, and when we thought the film was going to come out last summer, the little bit of press that happened in the lead up to that, people were really focusing on the validity of the story. And I think that that sounds like journalism and journalism is super important, and the film that I made exists somewhere between fiction and nonfiction, but I don’t think you watch that movie and think, “Wow, this is a biography or an autobiography.” I think there are elements of that, sure. But I feel the film is quite surreal. Right? Or it’s experimental. It just isn’t life, life isn’t like that. I wish life was like that. But it’s not.
The film is like Brechtian expressionism. And that’s not to say that it isn’t speaking to a real story that she told, but even the real story that she told was pretty out there, it wasn’t a documentary. Everything was so big. I just kind of took her paintbrush and I don’t want to say I went a little farther because I think she went pretty far too, but I, within the parameters of what my landscape is, I went to the extreme in the same way that she also did.
You kind of brought this up before when you talked about whiteness only being invisible to those who are white, and also white being kind of violent. I think that when people are really concentrated on the validity of the story or the truth of the story, there’s a kind of violence there, right? I’ve tried really hard to be really good at how to navigate a question that really rubbed me the wrong way. But I really want to turn it on the person asking, which is, “When you watch this, why is that the thing you’re thinking about?” And I think if it is the thing that you’re thinking about – totally valid, by the way, if that’s the thing that pops up for you or that bubbles to the surface for you, that’s totally valid. But, that is in conversation with what the movie is talking about. That we’re not validating a Black woman’s experience, we’re not buying it. And so we literally have to see her inside of it. And we’re still asking whether or not it happened to her.
marie claire: In the thread, when she was bringing people into this world, it was like, she would almost footnote the story as she went, “this means this” or ” if you don’t know what this means, this is xyz”. She was taking us along and introducing us to this world. I liked the film because you treated sex work without any kind of moral judgement. It was like: this is what it is. How did you go into it wanting to maintain the dignity of the women and also just sex work as a vocation?
Bravo: So much of that is A’Ziah. Her judgment is never about the work or the character exactly. She’s judging why she’s arrived in this situation or why she’s been invited into the situation, that’s where she’s sort of colouring the storytelling with any kind of judgment or judgmental quality. I’ve never seen or read sex work in that way – as not as tragedy, also. And she had said this thing to me, which is, she was raised in the suburbs by her mother and her stepfather, she has six other siblings and she had a really great upbringing. She’s always like, “I’m not a person who’s supposed to end up in sex work. But I found myself there because I wanted it. I was attracted to it. I want it to be in that life. I wanted to strip, I wanted to be at the club. I wanted that for myself.”
And I thought that that was so essential because before I had heard her say that to me, my assumption is that, the women who found themselves in these situations were one of two people. Oftentimes it was either a tragedy, or it was, “I’m here because I need this amount of money to put myself through med school or law school.” Which I think is literally like a trope that maybe was introduced in Law and Order, I don’t know. But she had basically introduced me to a third option. And if there was a third option, it meant that there was a fourth and a fifth, and a sixth and a seventh.
I wanted there to be a kind of comfortability around sex work that I had not been raised to have. I think a lot of us weren’t, a lot of us probably feel a kind of prudishness around that work. Or if it’s not prudishness then it’s some kind of discomfort, or not having the language to be able to speak on that. And I am no expert on that space, I just took what she presented. And what was most important was that we imbue it with as much dignity as possible.
Like Taylor dancing or Taylor and Riley engaging in gentlemen callers, so to speak. How do we treat that elegantly? Or, how do we treat that like empowered or whatever. I mean, there was all these things you kind of talked about it. And basically the Riley of it all, because she is the woman who sees the 20 men, the 18 to 20 men. I thought that the only way to do it was to not see her. But at first, you walk the audience to it, thinking that they know what they’re going to see – which is that they’re going to see her because that’s what we’re used to – but then we’re actually inside of what she sees.
I realised that I couldn’t recall a moment where I’d seen sex in that way. Not even just sex work, that I’d even experienced sex in that way. They’re moments, but not in this way. And there’s something empowered about being a woman, being a young woman who gets to sit in the theatre in a movie like this, or watch it at home and not feel like the vulnerability or the exposure has to look like a naked body.
marie claire: Do you ever go into the process of making a film with something in mind that you want the audience to take away? Or like, “I want them to get this,” or “I want them to walk away considering this”? And if so, what was that for Zola?
Bravo: I feel this is so unsexy of me, but I don’t. It’s impossible to come up with this really sharp, tight two to three sentence take away. Also for me as the filmmaker, I also try to veer away from that because as the filmmaker, what I’m excited about in this interview is hearing what you’re saying. That’s the gift for me. One of the wins is getting to hear how it felt for you as you watched it. That’s the high, that’s the thing that I get off on. And so what I think is kind of irrelevant.
But tangentially, what I was going to say before was that at some point, it hit me while making the film – I think somewhere between shooting a penis montage and the sRiley section of the movie that is like super absurd – that’s an absurd retelling. I realised, one: I couldn’t believe that I was getting away with it, and two, I was thinking, “Gosh, I would love to see this movie at 17 years old.”
I would totally love to be a 17 or 16 year old girl sitting in a theatre and seeing this movie. What might it do for me at that age? I think of the handful of movies that in some ways, rocked me and changed my life. Like, what is this movie at that age? A’Ziah was 19 when she wrote this, and the voice and the power that she has access to is still something I’m working on. I think this movie mirrors some of her juice, and I really can’t help but think about the teenage girls that will get to see this and what I hope it does for them or what I hope it makes them feel when they walk out of that theatre.
Zola is in cinemas November 18.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.