Zola: Stripper’s Wild Tweets into Zany Absurdist Comedy, Directed by Janicza Bravo

Six years after the dancer Zola posted a zany road-trip tale, director Janicza Bravo and writer Jeremy O. Harris are releasing a screen adaptation that has survived many obstacles besides the pandemic.

In November 2018, Bravo barreled down Tampa freeway with the principal cast of her movie Zola, including stars Taylour Paige and Riley Keough.
Bravo, who is 40, had spent years pursuing and developing the story of A’Ziah “Zola” Wells King, an exotic dancer who embarked on long weekend with a new friend and her pimp, which she then tweeted in a 2015 thread that went viral.

Bravo’s friend and Zola co-writer Jeremy O. Harris, 32, told her, “It is already hard enough to be Black woman making movies in this environment, I don’t want you to be taking more bullets than you need to.” But Bravo saw that as part of her job’ she was willing to tackle any obstacle–and there were many along the way.

Zola is Bravo’s first studio movie and Harris’ first feature, written years before he became one of Hollywood’s popular scribes.

The feature was a hot ticket at the 2020 Sundance Film Fest, but the pandemic has put 19 months between the fest buzz and its upcoming June 30 release; its original summer 2020 debut was pushed.

The movie carries the added burden of being the first post-pandemic theatrical release for A24, the studio behind 2017’s Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight.

As the first feature based on Twitter thread, it also serve as a test of what is viable fodder for onscreen storytelling. Hollywood, always a storytelling machine, is always eager to find new sources.

 

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Janicza Bravo PHOTOGRAPHED BY RYAN PFLUGER

 

In October 2015, King, 19, (played by Paige in the film) authored some 150 individual tweets, recounting how she had traveled from her native Detroit to Tampa to dance at local strip clubs with a fellow dancer she had just met, Jessica (renamed Stefani in the movie and played by Riley Keough). Joining them was Jessica’s boyfriend (Succession‘s Nicholas Braun), and a man who would become Jessica’s pimp (Domingo).

While Zola travels to Florida for a weekend of dancing, she ends up in a hotel room as Jessica services a series of johns, while she stands nearby, trying to figure out how to get back home.

The absurdist thriller has all the ingredients of a potboiler, including a rival pimp, a suicide attempt from distraught lover, a kidnapping, and a threatening murder.

“Drama, humor, action, suspense, character development. She can write!” tweeted Ava DuVernay in response to the contents.

The Internet world labeled it #TheStory, with fans tweeting out their dream casts for the movie version.  Soon, James Franco acquired the rights to direct and produce, with Christine Vachon’s Killer Films and Gigi Films on board.

Bravo, who had learned of King’s tweets via girlfriends, asked her manager and agent to pursue the rights, but she didn’t have the money to do it.

Growing up between the U.S. and Panama, Bravo studied at NYU stage acting and directing, before switching to the L.A. comedy scene she had a job at the Will Ferrell and Adam McKay-founded “Funny or Die.”

Her directing work includes some TV, like Dear White PeopleMrs. America and Atlanta and a feature debut, Lemon, about a socially inept struggling actor.

When she heard that Franco exited directing in 2017, she asked for a chance to replace him. Bravo beat out many directors during numerous meetings with producers, in which she presented a detailed plan with lighting, cast, color palettes, costumes.

She got the job in May 2017, and was informed that A24, fresh off its Moonlight Oscar win, would finance and distribute.

Eight months after she had replaced Franco, in January 2018, the Los Angeles Times published a report in which Franco was accused by several women of sexually inappropriate behavior. Franco is no longer a credited producer, but his brother, Dave, remains, under their Ramona Films banner, which had obtained rights to Zola’s story. “

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Jeremy O. Harris PHOTOGRAPHED BY RYAN PFLUGER

AS for Harris, in the summer of 2017, he was still MFA student in Yale’s playwriting program. But Bravo, who is not on Twitter herself, knew he was suitable as co-writer to capture the singular language that marked King’s story. “Most of my friends were over 40. That is not how they talked,” she says.

Though different in many ways, their understanding of the world is similar, shaped by shared experience of operating in white spaces for most of their professional lives.

Harris had relocated to Los Angeles and was making money writing essays for affluent students at L.A.-area private schools while working as a critic for an upstart website. He came across Bravo’s 2013 short film, Gregory Go Boom, an absurdist comedy that starred Michael Cera and Bravo’s creative collaborator and then-husband, actor Brett Gelman.

They first bonded in a Los Angeles house party while a congregation of “young white Hollywood,” as Harris puts it, was singing along to a rap song by Kendrick Lamar, without skipping the N-word.

The director vouched for the unknown Harris, whose pitch included a five-hour-long road trip playlist with tracks from Run the Jewels, Mykki Blanco and Frank Ocean; he also had a new play Daddy (off-Broadway, starring Alan Cumming).

In the four years since they wrote Zola, Harris’ Slave Play opened on Broadway, braking records for getting the most Tony nominations for a non-musical play.

The co-writers decided that their movie would boast the same brash tone of King’s Twitter thread, though the events that inspired them had darker side. King wrote her thread as suspenseful but hilarious road trip gone wrong, a 19-year-old whose life is threatened, who is being told that she has to physically sell her body.

Before Twitter, King had told the story in Tumblr post, which closely resembles the events in David Kushner’s Rolling Stone article.  The co-writers listened to Kushner’s recordings of his interviews with King, in which she talked about her ultimate return home to Detroit.

The writers saw King’s tweets as a wounded person recasting her own narrative, 140 characters at a time. King’s voice made the tragic story more of a comedy. Says Bravo, “My work is about how you contextualize traumatizing events.”

“People deny the depth and the intellect of all women, but especially Black women” says Harris. He describes King as modern-day Homer penning her version of the “Odyssey,” arguing that our oldest dramatic literature looks more like Twitter.

Bravo wanted the movie shot on 16mm film, knowing the inherent status that now comes with celluloid. Bravo joins Wes Anderson and Spielberg in having a 2021 movie shot on film.

But there always anxiety, like “Maybe turning this into a film is too candid?” It’s one thing to tell your tale on a social media platform when you are 19 and another to have it projected on the big screen. During her first video call with Bravo, King was struck by her assured dedication “to making sure my voice didn’t get lost.”

When Harris and Bravo were handed the original draft, penned by Franco collaborators Andrew Neel and Mike Roberts, what they read was “how Hollywood saw the movie,” says Harris. Within the first pages of the original, Zola is seen fully nude on the pole.  “It totally makes sense showing tits at the very beginning, if you are trying to make a 25-year-old white boy in Nebraska perk up” says Harris.

But in 2015 Hollywood was a very different place than it is now. Things have changed in a positive way: Five years ago, I don’t think that this Zola could have existed.”

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Bravo on the Zola set with Taylour Paige and Riley Keough. ANNA KOORIS / A24 FILMS

Thus, the new film has no female nudity. “It is one of the first films I have ever done where you don’t see my boobs,” says Keough, who credits Bravo for allowing her to play a woman who is dancing and doing sex work but feeling protected in every scene.

 

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Keough (left) and Paige.  A24 FILMS

On location in Florida for the film’s 25-day shoot, the casting director had trouble finding male talent comfortable with full frontal. After many attempts, Bravo wondered if nudists might be the answer. And so, visiting Tampa’s nudist communities, they found a half-dozen participants.

The director detailed to the men how their scene fit into the film and that they, not the women, would be the only nude, with their penises swiped across the screen. The choice was narrative, Bravo says, wanting to remain in the women’s  subjective POV, but it was also ideological, based on the long history of women undressing on screen.