a long talk

Zola Is Janicza Bravo’s Comic Horror Show

The director sees the Twitter thread-turned-movie as both a classic comedy and a singular white nightmare.

Photo: Philip Montgomery for New York Magazine
Photo: Philip Montgomery for New York Magazine
Photo: Philip Montgomery for New York Magazine

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Janicza Bravo’s Zola was one of the first movie casualties of the pandemic, premiering at Sundance all the way back in January of 2020 to a stoned and adoring midnight audience before disappearing from A24’s slate for a year and a half. The movie, finally in theaters June 30, is the first of its kind, based on an infamous, ingenious 2015 tweet thread from A’Ziah “Zola” King that details a mostly true, half-funny, half-haunting tale about King’s spontaneous trip to the bowels of the Floridian exotic-dancing scene with a woman named Jessica, who ultimately tried to lure Zola into a messy web of deceit, violence, and sex-trafficking. Bravo, who fought to adapt Zola’s story after James Franco abandoned his initial effort, leans hard into the uncanniness of it all, turning Zola’s zingy narrative into a dreamlike, darkly funny film about friendship, race, class, trauma, bad vibes, and the art of storytelling itself.

Zola feels simultaneously like a natural extension of Bravo’s bent sensibility and a freshly weird direction for her. Her singularly strange debut, Lemon, turns the fumbling-failed-actor (played by Bravo’s ex-husband Brett Gelman) trope sideways, morphing it into an awkward anthropological study of white maleness. Her short films and TV work — such as Gregory Go Boom, in which a paraplegic Michael Cera blows himself up, and the unsettling, surreal “Juneteenth” episode of Atlanta — all stare directly (and very uncomfortably) into the desperate faces of unilaterally peculiar, tragicomic characters. But Zola takes that tendency one step further, making its nonplussed protagonist (played by a perfectly cast Taylour Paige) both a participant in the chaos and an observer; we watch the disturbing machinations unfold through her increasingly horrified eyes, hearing the occasional bird whistle to remind us that Zola is processing and reframing the whole thing in real time and, eventually, will retell it to an ecstatic audience.

Ahead of Zola’s premiere, I hopped on the phone with Bravo to talk about how she landed the job, co-writing the script with Jeremy O. Harris while he was still in college, and stalking Paige at a coffee shop.

I was at the Sundance premiere of Zola, all the way back in our past life, so I’m excited to finally be talking about it. I’ve been thinking about it for a year and a half.
[Laughs] I have, too. I’ve been thinking about it for that long.

When did you first start thinking about it? When did you first hear the name Zola, when did you read the thread, and what was your initial reaction to it?
I read it that first night, in 2015. I sent it to my agent and my manager. I think I sent it to them at four in the morning. I’d like to think I was better about it and did a scheduled send, but I don’t think that scheduled send existed then. There was an era of my life — I’d send emails between two and four in the morning and then send emails again between seven and nine. I sleep in weird shifts; I’m both a night owl and an early riser. It’s a true garbage experience. So yeah, I sent it to them at four in the morning, and I was like, “Twitter IP. How does that work?” I think they said something like, “We’ll get back to you.” And 72 hours later, they said, “There’s an article in Rolling Stone, and there’s life rights, and that seems to be a way in. But there are five bidders.”

And I’m not saying I’m a bidder. I wasn’t viable. She had no cash. It was a no-cash narrative over here. I think they were independent producers and a studio that was bidding, and I’d made, I think, two short films [at that point]. So I wasn’t a contender. I don’t even know that my name arrived on the list. I wasn’t No. 6. When it was announced at the beginning of 2016, around Sundance, Killer Films was a producer, and James Franco’s company, Rabbit Bandini, was the director. I don’t know if the writers were announced then. But I sent an email — at what I’m hoping was a reasonable time — to Christine Vachon and David Hinojosa at Killer Films, who were on my first feature, Lemon, as producers. I understood that projects took a while to get going and that men directors kind of go through projects, so I just said, “If this ever becomes available, know that I’m out here, and I’m interested.” I found out at the top of 2017, after Lemon premiered at Sundance, that the property was available. And I made my shot.

What was that process like — pitching your version of the movie?
The audition process can be a bit longer with films, but I brought the same thing I would to any of those things: These are my visual references, usually very photographic. References for character and design and tone and palette and texture. I was fully in my process and showing them that. Playing music. We talked a little bit about casting, but not that much. The thing we kind of all landed on on Zola in particular was “Here’s an opportunity to cast an unknown.” We got really excited about this idea of casting a really wide net and doing this continental search for “the real Zola.”

And then you spotted Taylour Paige just walking down the street, right?
Correct. I’d seen her in an ad on TV. I’d seen the end of the ad and tried to describe her to my casting director, and it truly was … I was like, “She’s black, she’s hot, I think she dances?” And she was like, “Great. That’s truly everyone and no one at the same time.” [Laughs] And by the time I saw Taylour in real life, we had, at this point, seen about 700 women. I was in L.A., where I live, at the coffee shop Go Get Em Tiger in the Larchmont neighborhood, and she walked in, and I was like, Holy … And I took a picture of her, and she saw me taking a picture of her. She threw me a real nasty look, and it was like, That’s it. That face she threw, I was like, Yes. That’s the one. I sent my casting director the picture, and she was like, “Oh, Taylour Paige!”

At that point, Taylour had already turned down the original version of the script because she thought it trafficked in racial and misogynistic stereotypes. You told Rolling Stone that you read it, and it was “leading with its dick.” I can only imagine what that initial script was like. What did you want to lead with instead?
[Laughs] It was hypermasculine. It was written by men, and I think that version was maybe speaking to a different audience. I think A’Ziah, the real Zola, introduced us to a world that was, at least to me, foreign. She introduced it to me with a lot of care but didn’t dumb it down. She was like, Here’s the world. Come along for the ride. I’m not going to explain it to you, but you’re an intelligent enough person and audience, you’ll be able to deduce by what I’m showing you.” But [the original script] version was breaking down the world or simplifying it in some way. I wanted to lean into the enigma.

At the Sundance premiere back in 2020, Zola’s co-writer Jeremy O. Harris said, “To see the types of mountains she had to climb to put a pen to paper was truly crazy. It made me realize that as hard as my life is as a Black queer man, I still have a ‘man’ at the end of that, and no matter how many purses I wear, I don’t know what it’s like — Janicza’s too demure to ever talk about it, but it’s been crazy.” Can you talk more about that aspect of it now?
I mean, yeah. Making movies is hard. It just is. It’s really hard. I think it’s hard for everyone, and I think it’s hard even when everything works out. Actually, last night we had our first screening since Sundance, and there were a handful of directors in the audience: Miranda July, Katie Aselton. And we were talking and just saying, “It’s fucking hard.” There are a lot of pieces to put together, and when you invite people to the table to make it with you, there are a lot of voices and energies and emotions. As the director, there really isn’t anyone who takes care of you. A lot of your energy is spent taking care of others. And that is really demanding and exhausting. Sometimes you just want to be held, and there isn’t anyone to hold you.

How did you meet and decide to write the movie with Jeremy? Because at that point it was still relatively early in his career — he didn’t have the public persona and catalogue of work that he has now.
Jeremy and I met — I really don’t know the year, he’ll know better than me — at a house party in L.A. at an actor’s house. He had been on a date with a director whom I will not name, who told him that he was no longer attracted to him on their date. I was in the kitchen doing some version of hiding. Even though I read as socially very at ease, I take a lot of breaks. [Laughs] I was taking a break in the kitchen, and our eyes connected from across the room. I just saw that he needed someone. And from that moment on he’s been my little brother. He’d describe how this happened differently, but that’s how I felt. I took him under my wing. My partner at the time, Brett Gelman, and I made him part of our family. He was our baby. And he’s been my baby ever since. He’s significantly taller than me, but he is my baby.

How he came to be my co-writer — Brett actually is responsible for that in some ways. We were all hanging out together. I didn’t know if I was going to get the movie yet; I was still in the audition process. I had a shortlist of writers that I liked for the process. Brett and Jeremy and I were working on the writers’ list, and I think I went, “Oh, I wish it could be you,” and Jeremy was like, “Oh, I wish it could be me.” And Brett was like, “Why can’t it be?” The pleasure of having a white straight man in your life is that he’s just like, “Why can’t it just be like that?” We were like, “Because he’s going to college. I can’t put, in front of producers who’ve made movies and TV, Jeremy and me, a Black woman who’s made one feature.” Which, I don’t know, were you at Sundance? People were not generous [to Lemon]. I can’t be showing up to my second movie going, “I want my co-writer to be somebody who’s going to college.” And Brett was like, “Well, why not?” And here we are!

Sometimes it really does just take the confidence of a mediocre white man, as the saying goes. Not that Brett is mediocre, but —
Brett obviously moves through the world very differently. He was like, “If that’s what you want, say that.” A lot of my movement in the beginning of my career was very much influenced by him pushing me in a way that I wasn’t necessarily comfortable pushing myself. I really do credit him with that.

A’Ziah told New York that you worked hard to make sure that she got a production credit and a writing credit on the film. I’m curious what that was like from your end. How difficult was it to make that happen?
I think there’s two parts. One is: How difficult was it to include her in the creative process? And another is: How difficult was it to make sure she was credited? When I came onboard, I needed her blessing. Taylour has a very similar story — I co-signed Taylour, but she needed A’Ziah’s blessing. I was co-signed and blessed by A24, but I also needed A’Ziah’s blessing. We had this two-hour call with her and her mother, and 15 to 20 minutes into the call, she was like, “We’re very similar. I know you don’t think we are, and you think you’re not like me.” And I was like, “No, no, no. You don’t know what I’m thinking. I felt we were very similar the day I read those tweets. And that’s why I felt I had to protect it.” I felt and heard myself in her writing, and I wanted to be able to usher it into being and care for it in the way I’d want to be tended to.

And then, regarding her being credited, I did pitch for that and ask for that, and I feel very fortunate that our producers all felt like it was a no-brainer.

I want to talk about the tone of the movie. I remember being surprised by it the first time I saw it. It was constantly veering in directions that I hadn’t expected. It feels like a horror movie in a lot of ways.
I think that it is that. I think my comedy tone — I’d describe my place in that market as “stressful comedy.” I’ll go back to the source material and A’Ziah again: The thing she wrote was a piece of stressful comedy. She wrote a trauma comedy. A tragicomedy, if you will. When I finally got the film, people would be like, “What’s the movie?” I’d be like, “Oh, yeah, it’s a dark comedy. These two girls become fast friends and go on a road trip to Florida, and one finds out she’s going to be sold into sex slavery, and she’s trying to get out of it.” And the person on the other end of that was always like, “That’s supposed to be funny?” And I’d be like, “No, it’s so funny. It’s sooo funny. I know I just said ‘sex slavery,’ but it’s really funny.” The truth is, without the humor, I wouldn’t be the right director for it. I don’t have the range for it. Maybe I do, but it’s not a space I’d feel necessarily comfortable in. The part where it’s funny and stressful and dark and uneasy, and sometimes all of those notes being played at the same time, is me.

Janicza Bravo and Taylour Paige on the set of Zola. Photo: A24

I read a great interview with you in Ssense where you said that a friend had told you that your work “dissects whiteness.” Can you talk a little bit about how you’re dissecting it in this movie?
Beyond the stressful comedy, it’s about anthropological whiteness. In the world, we engage with whiteness as though it’s invisible. I don’t know if it’s just my own experience, but I don’t find whiteness to be invisible. I find it to be incredibly visible. I find it to be sometimes incredibly violent and aggressive and loud, especially when engaging with Blackness or in opposition to Blackness or when in parallel with Blackness. So much of my life is having to be in and out of white spaces that I’m not always invited into. I found myself really fascinated by that because I didn’t see work really engaging with that: What is a Black woman’s experience of being next to whiteness?

Even my first film, Lemon, I think most people felt I was treading on a terrain that wasn’t mine to tread on. I feel like that movie is about a lot of things, but it is also about my own relationship to not only how I saw whiteness, but how I saw whiteness and failure — particularly in a kind of movie that seemed to be celebrating straight, male, white failure.

I think that’s present in this movie in the form of Riley Keough’s Jessica, who is a total horror show of a white person. In terms of coming up with that Bhad Babie–esque accent, the nails, the hair, the horrendous styling — did she help contribute to any of those character tics, or was that always your exact vision for Jessica?
It’s such a horror show, isn’t it? This is not to take away from anyone’s contribution to the movie, but I am really anal-retentive, and there’s not a detail of the film that is not deeply embedded in my own DNA. Every detail, especially the costume design — I used to be a stylist, and my parents are both tailors. Every single thing that every character is wearing has been vetted by me.

When approaching the whole film, we talked about how the movie is, in a way, a classic comedy. Taylour is the straight man, and Riley is the clown or the buffoon. She’s a menace. She’s a demon. She’s a white nightmare. In terms of the relationship to whiteness, I was fascinated by how, sometimes, a white woman can wear what is stereotyped as Blackness — Black female in particular — a gesture, an accent, down to a baby hair. These things that were not celebrated in Black women. But when white women took them and put them on and embraced them, they were celebrated. I was really fascinated by that. I wanted to speak to “What is the comfortability of a white woman wearing what we’ve stereotyped as Blackness? And why aren’t we comfortable with it when it’s actually embodied in Blackness?” So we’re minstrelizing her, in a way. She’s in some version of blackface. And whether or not the audience is conscious of it, some portion of them will show up naturally rooting for Riley. And that’s the power of whiteness. When white is invisible, we inherently root for whiteness.

Taylour’s performance is — like you said — much subtler, but it’s also really funny. Just the way she says a single word or gives a single glance to the side. What kind of conversations did you have about that with her, or what directions did you give her in those moments when she’s witnessing these traumatizing things but still bringing so much quiet humor to it?
She’s a silent-film character. I see myself in that character. If we were to spend a day together, you’d see how I’m constantly in a silent state, processing a lot and judging a lot and saying a lot of things with my face. I felt that this was a communion I’d had, specifically with a lot of Black women — being silent, not in a space where you felt you could express yourself, but so much of what you were feeling was being expressed through your eyes and your gut. It’s also a manifestation of the piece, right? The story people read on Twitter is a story being told in the past tense. It’s equally in the past and in the present. I wanted to present that in the movie. Because there’s a narrator, we have a sense that they’ve made it out. But I wanted to inject Taylour’s character. Because Zola writes herself as the straight man; she recasts the story. She’s very much next to the insanity. Is that true? I don’t know. But that’s how she wrote it. So much of Taylour’s character is manifesting in that way. She’s physically watching. You’re seeing the writer watch to then later retell and present. The filmmaking is the writer-making.

There are a few visual moments I’d like to talk about. One of my favorites is early on: We see the two women pee, and Riley’s is bright yellow and Taylour’s is clear; Riley sits right on the toilet and Taylour hovers. It’s this subtle visual joke.
That’s one of the early ideas I brought to the draft. I remember Jeremy was like, “I don’t get what this is, but you seem to really have a sense of it, so okay.” [Laughs] I love body stuff. You’ve seen my work. I’m really into bodies failing, and what the interior body says about where we’re at, or where we’re not at. I thought there was no clearer way to paint a picture of who these two women were than by seeing their urine and what their hygiene was in a bathroom. You see their piss and their relationship to how they use a toilet, and you know everything you need to know.

There are a few other moments that made me realize, Okay, this movie isn’t taking place in our dimension or our reality, exactly. Like the scene where the two men are passing the basketball back and forth in a sort of endless quantum loop. Or the woman dancing to the bongos sort of eerily in the hotel lobby.
I think all of my work takes place on a planet that looks a lot like Earth but is just to the left of it. When I used to direct theater, I was an experimental director, and my work was really absurd and surreal and physical. I think how I’ve arrived at film is through that lens. My approach can be a bit Brechtian. A lot of the gestures in this world are really theatrical and are a bit larger than life. But totally intentional.

What has it been like for you to have this massive gap between premiering the film, then waiting two years to be able to speak about it and have people actually see it?
[Sings] Crazy-making and really sad. I spent last year mourning. [Laughs] I’ve mourned so much.

I’m really sorry.
No, it’s okay. I was frustrated. I really thought it was gonna be my year. I was scared, and I was sad, and I felt like I’d missed the boat. I was jealous that I’d seen all of my peers have this kind of experience with their films, especially those at A24 who had a certain arc to the life of their film. I wanted to replicate that for myself. I felt like I was robbed of it, and it was super-heartbreaking. And I felt like there wasn’t room for me to mourn that because it was a year filled with so much loss. My parents have lost seven friends. We lost our hairstylist on Zola. He was the first person that we as a Zola family lost to COVID. I lost my stepfather at the beginning of this year. So mourning the material felt so hollow and empty. I didn’t know how to hold both of those things, to lose people and feel like I was losing my work and myself. I didn’t know how to make room for all of that. I’m sorry to take it there. But there’s a dedication at the very end of the film for our hair department head.

I’m so sorry to hear that. But I’m glad that the movie is finally coming out. A’Ziah has said that she had to see the movie twice to determine her reaction to it. What was that like for you, that waiting period? And what was her eventual response?
Oh my god. A’Ziah is a fucking rocket, right? If she doesn’t like the movie, she’s gonna tell people she doesn’t like the movie. That’s real. And if she doesn’t like the movie, I’ve failed. Because I made a promise to her, implicitly and explicitly, that I would take care of her. If she walks out of that theater not feeling cared for, I fucked up. So ahead of Sundance — and I was so glad that A24 was onboard for this — I was like, “We need to show her this movie before Sundance. She can’t see this in Park City in the Eccles. It’s gonna be so dark, and we get her onstage, and what if she’s like, ‘Downvote, you guys.’” She’d read the script, but from script to screen, it becomes a whole other animal. So she came out, she saw it, and it was amazing. I wish we had recorded her watching it. It was like watching DVD commentary. I don’t know if you remember this, but in the ’90s, they’d do these early screenings and film people outside the theater being like, “Holy shit, that was crazy!”

Yes, like man on the street.
Yeah, so it was a version of that. She was talking at the movie the whole time. It was so magical. And then at the end she started crying. And I was like, “Oh, no.” In the last act, the last 20 minutes, she got really quiet, and she was making these sounds. I was like, She hates it. We sat in the theater for a little bit, and she didn’t say anything to me, and I was like, [sings] I’m dying. I was like, “Should we go to lunch?” And we got up in silence. And then we got outside, and she looked at me, and she just said, “Thank you.” She told me what parts were really hard. That’s where we started. Then we had this amazing lunch, and she warmed up to me, and she and her mom were both like, “It was amazing, thank you.”

Will you pay attention to the critical response to it generally? Because I like this quote from you post Lemon, which some critics didn’t really vibe with: “And as I started to make work and realize that the critics really didn’t like me, I was like, ‘Oh, you can go fuck yourself. I’m still here!’”
Oh my God, I said that?! I said, “You can go fuck yourself!”? Where?

In Interview magazine.
Oh, boy. Well, I don’t know what the whole context is. I’m not sure I’m saying critics can go fuck themselves. Lemon was really painful and hard to make. Brett and I arrived at Sundance thinking, “We’re gonna be the toast of the town!” And thought everyone would get what we were doing. There was a very well-known actress sitting in front of me during the screening who was sighing and rolling her eyes and going, literally, “Are you fucking kidding me?” And she got up before the movie was over. And I’m such a fan of hers, and it really hurt. Manohla Dargis was in the theater, too, and just got up and huffed out of there. Like, The movie isn’t even worth me writing about, that’s how fucking garbage it is. People were like, “This movie is weird. You’re weird. Brett’s weird. You guys are weird.” And I think we wanted to be loved and embraced. I understand the power of the critic. I was like, “Who’s gonna be my Pauline Kael?” And in a way, I think Mark Olsen did that for Brett and me. He wrote about our movie three times that year. And Nick Allen at Roger Ebert.

But I think overall, the response was that we failed. I think the New York Times called me anti-Semitic, which is a bummer. I’m actually Jewish. Not to say that I can’t be a self-hating Jew! But they called me anti-Semitic, and I was like, Okay! It just felt bad. And I felt like a lot of that criticism was really aggressive. I felt like they were coming at me in this way — that all of these white men who were writing about the movie were trying to stop me in my tracks. I was trying to make a living for myself, and I think they were saying, No. You haven’t made a living for yourself. Pack it up. I felt like I was gonna make it in and then these doors were being shut in my face. And so that “fuck you” is more — that’s what I felt was being said to me. And I was really hurt.

But I’m grateful for that experience. I don’t read reviews or the interviews that I’ve done. I don’t want to hear myself. I’ll judge myself too harshly. But I’m getting the energy that the movie is being liked more. If I’m going to read all the positive things, I need to read the negative things. But then I have to disengage from it.

Zola Is Janicza Bravo’s Comic Horror Show