Interview: Janicza Bravo on the no-frills freedom of adapting ‘Zola,’ processing trauma, and immortalizing A’Ziah King
Actor. Writer. Producer. Editor. Janicza Bravo may be a jill-of-all-trades, but she works most prolifically as a director, and remains an artist above all else. Her first short, Eat, burst onto the scene in 2011, earning an SXSW Audience Award nomination. Her second short, Gregory Go Boom, won the Short Film Jury Prize for Fiction and was nominated for the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival in 2014. Her first narrative feature, Lemon, was nominated for an Audience Award at Sundance and a Gamechanger Award at SXSW in 2017. Fresh off of Zola‘s, leading seven Film Independent Spirit Award nominations last week, including Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Feature, Bravo’s second narrative feature is taking the film world by storm.
One can see an accoladed trend – a trail of prestige – following the New York born, Panama raised filmmaker, continued by the “Indie film Oscars'” glaring endorsement of her talent. Zola visualizes A’Ziah “Zola” King’s infamous 2015 viral Tweet chronicling her spontaneous, perilous, unpredictable journey to Florida and the eclectic characters she encountered along the way. Wonderfully chaotic, hilarious, and surprisingly somber, Zola vocalizes Bravo’s anxieties about the social media-addicted, illness-riddled, attention-absorbed, celebrity-obsessed, perfection-chasing youth of today.
Following her Spirit Award nominations, I had an opportunity to speak with Bravo about the viral success of Zola and its source Tweet, effectively adapting a Twitter thread, processing trauma, what it means to be a director, immortalizing King, and more.
Alex Arabian for Awards Watch: Outstanding job on your sophomore feature. I really enjoyed it. And congratulations on your recent Spirit Award nominations.
Janicza Bravo: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Alex Arabian: Of course. How did a tweet make its way to the idea board for your second feature directorial effort?
Janicza Bravo: So the story came out in 2015, and it was 140 tweets, -50 tweets, -44 tweets. There are discrepancies as to how many there are, but there are more than 100 and less than 200. And it’s October, it’s 2015, and I’m on a group chat with three girlfriends, and I can’t recall the moment that I stepped into it, but by the time I’m looking at my phone, I’ve missed 150 text messages in just this one chat, and it’s them interacting with the thread. And at the end of that day, I end up sitting with it. I read it because I’m so behind already, but I end up reading it, and halfway through, I’m in love. I’m enthralled. I send it to my agent, my manager, and I said, “I don’t know how Twitter IP works, but I want to make this. I think there’s a movie here.”
So it’s 2021, and this is six years ago. I find that – and it still happens now – as I’m reading a potential new script, be it for film or television, it’s pictures, right? If I start to get a series of images, and those images can be space, or texture, or fabric, wallpaper, I start seeing images that are popping off of the text, and that happened for me with this thread. There were just so many pictures, photos, specifically photographs. There’s this photographer, Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, who had made this book called “Hustlers.” And there’s this other photographer, Todd Hido, who had photographed these spaces in Los Angeles that were empty homes that had been lived in for long periods of time. And those were the images that I was seeing as I was reading.
Alex Arabian: So you were thinking about adapting this even before Lemon, then?
Janicza Bravo: Yes, I was. And the message that I had sent to my agent and manager was, “This is my second film.” And I didn’t have a first film. So I don’t know if that’s just confidence or blind faith. But I was like, “This is going to be my second film.” I just felt it. Because also, I was on a course with Lemon, and at that point, I understood that, at least for me, maybe this is always going to be my path, but the path then was that making a movie was something that was going to take me years. So I thought, “I’m some years into Lemon, which means I’m already closer to it, and this feels likely to be the second film because this is also a road that will take years.”
Alex Arabian: Structurally, how did you go about turning a twisty, turny, stream-of-consciousness Twitter thread into something that resembled three acts and doesn’t seem to break every screenwriting rule?
Janicza Bravo: So I’m terrible at writing outlines, and I recognize that when I work with writing partners who like outlines, how helpful they are. They actually are helpful. I know, right? Totally shocking, but an outline can really help with writing. But I have a romantic idea of being a bit more loose and free form, even though I’m not like that at all in my life, but I like to pretend I am. And so something about writing the outline feels a bit like there’s no room for improvisation. And I don’t know that that’s entirely true, but it’s something that I’ve decided in my brain. And so I tend to be really bad at writing outlines. And so for me, what was so radical is that it read like the kind of outlines I had written before, which were like hardly. And what I mean by that is you have the pieces of the ideas, but they’re threads. You’re like, “This is a good guy. This is the bad guy. Someone’s going to jump off the balcony.” But there isn’t enough meat necessarily on the bones. And so I felt like this is a three-act structure. So I read it in 2015, and it’s not until May of 2017 that it’s finally in my hands.
And at that point, I print out all of the tweets, and I cut them out individually, and I put them up on a wall and basically make an Act I column, an Act II column, and an Act III column. And, to me, Act I is everything that takes place at home. Home in the real story is Detroit. And Act II is basically the bridge from home to Florida, at least that’s the beginning of Act II. And then the third Act is once someone’s vomiting or being handed a gun, and then we’re kind of entering the farthest point away from home. And I mean, yeah, its free-formness or its flow was really symbiotic – I felt this kinship to how it moved in just the way I sort of talk and pitch, which isn’t perhaps within the right structure, but feels a bit more loose and conversational.
Alex Arabian: The story is fundamentally hard to believe. The Rolling Stone piece interviewed some of the people involved in the thread, but how does one even go about fact-checking something like that? Or are the facts less important than the recollection itself of what Zola experienced?
Janicza Bravo: I think the word recollection is really good in that that’s kind of the story I wanted to tell – I was thinking it’s not journalism and it’s not a true biopic. It’s a weekend in this one woman’s life and the people that she comes in contact with. But my job was to tell the story as she told it, which had very much to do with how we process trauma, at least that’s how I saw it. I read the story and I thought, “Wow, this is really fucked up. It’s really scary. It’s super distressing. I’m terrified for young people.” Although it’s before its time, I watched Sam Levinson’s Euphoria. And at the end of every weekend, I’m like, “I am stressed out. I’m really worried for all the young people in my life. Are they okay? What’s happening?.” I feel old. I also feel like I age as I’m watching it.
So I feel I had this similar experience here where I was like, “Wow, I really had a very different growing up, and I’m having this maternal instinct to protect this woman, protect this story.” At the end of this, my arms-length assessment is this is a woman. his is a person who has processed trauma, and this final retelling is their exorcism of it. And so it’s somewhere between fact and fiction, but it’s the thing that they need. They need it to be like this. They need it to exist like this. This is its final form so that they’re okay. And how I related to it is I looked at my own past and my own history, my own way of telling stories, and that when I didn’t necessarily like myself in a story or I feel it didn’t suit me or I wanted to be a stronger, bigger person, I would make my own tweaks. And we all do this, and it’s a part of how we all survive, right? It’s how we wake up the next day. It’s how we move through the stuff that doesn’t necessarily serve us is by taking a grip of the narrative.
Alex Arabian: Totally. I can definitely relate to that. And narratively you narratively cloud reality as you begin the third act because you’re entering the unknown even further, as you began to discuss. Sensory, dialogue, staging-wise, it goes haywire.
Janicza Bravo: Well, it’s not fun anymore, right? The other thing I was hoping to do is that it felt very young. The experience felt very young. And it’s not to say that someone older could not have had the same story, but the way she told it and the way she lived felt like that period in our lives where we just said yes. At a certain point when you’re growing up – for many of us – there’s a moment where we start to say no or we start asking questions. And there is this under-25 that is just always, “Yes.” And when you always say yes or when you lead with yes, you find yourself in this moment where you’re like, “How did I get here?” I was thinking about when I went to college and just the amount of times that I found myself in a not-great situation, if my parents had only known how I was living my life from 18 to 22. And they would be disappointed and also terrified. And it’s because you just say yes. And that is a part of being a young person, or it’s part of being young in a certain environment because mortality isn’t a part of how we move through the world.
Alex Arabian: It’s not all comedy. It gets grim when we encounter some of the dark corners of society and, by transitive property, our own mortality. It’s trauma. It’s processing trauma. That is such a perfect answer to what this thread and its viral nature represent to our culture..
Janicza Bravo: Thank you. Thank you. So when I started making the movie – actually making it – I would run into someone and they’d ask what I was working on. And I would say, “It’s this comedy,” and then they’d be like, “Oh, about what?” And I was like, “Two women become fast friends, and then they go on this road trip to Florida and things don’t work out. One of them is being sold into sex slavery. Anyways, it is really funny.” And usually, the person on the receiving end of that was upset for me, or disturbed, or confused by how I could say that that was also funny. And it’s like, well, that’s why it makes sense for me. If it didn’t have the humor, I don’t know that I would be the right person to tell this story, and I feel because so much of my own work is injecting humor where maybe it shouldn’t be, or looking at where those two things bump into each other, which is this deep kind of anxiety, but also a good deal of pleasure. When I read it, I was like, “I have to take care of this woman. I have to take care of this story is why I have to tell it. I don’t know that another filmmaker is going to do the thing that I feel it deserves.” And I don’t mean the final product, like, I made a great movie. That’s not what I’m trying to say. I mean taking care of the real person, the real person behind the story that we got to watch and walk away from.
Alex Arabian: Zola is a nickname. A’Ziah King is the real person behind the story. How involved in the production was she? Did Taylour meet with her and get a sense of her mannerisms and intonation?
Janicza Bravo: Ok, so between February and May of 2017, I had this audition process. And in that window, the producers are also looking for financiers, so looking for partners to finance the film. And A24 is one of the folks recording them, and then they end up working with A24. And within that same 24 to 36 hours, I become the official director. And so once I got the job, my first big ask is I have to meet her. And while I’ve had the blessing of Killer [Films] and A24 and the other producing entities [Gigi Films and Ramona Films], I feel like I need her blessing because it’s her story. And I recognize that this woman who told a story, the currency is the internet. And that’s not my currency. I don’t like traffic in the internet. And what I mean by that is, one of the things that the internet thrives on is how you get it wrong. And there was no version of telling the story that didn’t include her. And she had to legitimately have a seat at the table. And so I met her, and I met her mother, and I invited them to be as much a part of it as they wanted to. While we were casting, I had mentioned who I was seeing, and we both actually ended up liking Taylour independently. We brought Taylour to the table.
And then it had been about a year before she’d read the script. Jeremy O. Harris – my co-writer – and I worked on it for five months together, and then I spent another six, seven months working on it. And then every time we cast someone, I would rewrite– I’d do another pass to write to Taylour’s voice, write to Colman’s [Domingo] voice, write to Nick’s [Braun] voice, write to Riley’s [Keough] voice. And then I sent it to her for her thoughts, and then that was it. And then she got to see a cut again. Much later in the process, I showed her a cut because people say they’re good at watching rough cuts and they’re not. I mean, even people in this industry say they’re good at watching rough cuts, and they’re not. So again, the thought of sending it to someone who has not experienced a rough cut where the sound is trash and the colors are off – it can be really discombobulating to watch a not-finished film and understand that it’s going to get more finished.
Alex Arabian: To that end, was there ever a version where Stefani’s perspective was omitted or more centralized?
Janicza Bravo: No. That was a part of my initial pitch, actually, in terms of how am I going to tell this story. The reason I wanted it to be there was in 2015, when I first went after the story and did not get it, in my brief dramaturgical research had found that nearly every piece written about this story questioned the validity of it. The leading note was to question the validity rather than to ask the question of how do women end up in situations like this and could you know a woman who’s ended up in a situation like this? Is this your neighbor? Is this your cousin? Is this your friend? And so I felt like it always needed to be there because I thought some portion of my audience was going to question Zola’s intention from the jump – that she was basically going to be on the losing end for some portion of the audience. And so I didn’t want anyone to walk away from the movie asking, “Well, what happened to the white girl?” And so also what was wild, too, in my initial research was that Stefani’s version, the real Derrek, Nick Braun’s character – Nick’s character told their story on Facebook, the real Stefani told her story on Reddit, and Zola, which we adapted, was told on Twitter – when you looked at all three of them together, they were almost identical, except that each of them had recast themselves. Each person plays the main character in their version, of course. But when they decide to alpha or beta is always to look the best. Which goes back to that thing about trauma, right? They were also processing their own trauma, or they were trying to rewrite the narrative so that they could look back at that moment and feel better about how they moved through it.
Alex Arabian: That makes a ton of sense. It used to be that every great director needed to work in film to stay prominent or prolific. Yet you and many directors are working consistently in TV, and you’ve done so in between Lemon and Zola. Aside from the format, quality-wise, is working in TV today any different than working in film?
Janicza Bravo: Yes and no. You’re literally speaking to this question that I’m asking myself right now of, “Is this what I should be doing?” And I mean working in television. “Am I now in a place where I get to just be a filmmaker?” Because I didn’t go to film school. So it’s been a great way for me to get better at what the fuck are all these things called and to just get more comfortable and also get to play with tools I don’t have access to. Lemon was under $1 million. Zola was under $3 million. We didn’t get to have a Steadicam operator every day. And sometimes you’re on these TV shows and their budgets are more than the budget of every single thing I have ever made altogether, and then some. And so there’s this certain access. “Oh, we’d love a drone,” or, “Why don’t we do a crane?” It’s getting to play with tools that maybe someday will be at my fingertips.
I was afraid sometime last year that I was going to atrophy. I was like, “Holy shit, the only job I know how to do doesn’t exist, and everything is going to get rusty.” And so there’s something really great about being able to dip a toe in TV that reminds you of what the toolkit is. And I just love playing with actors as well, and I actually really like working in other people’s writing. But II’ve been asking this question of prime TV or premium television – there is less of it. There is artist-driven television, but there is not that much. And so I am asking myself, “Should I be expending my energy elsewhere? Is it good to be trying to ride both of these lanes when it’s feeling like TV is very inundated right now?” Because when I look at some of my heroes, they don’t do TV. And I’m like, “So why am I doing TV?”
Alex Arabian: It seems like Kindred, your upcoming series, will be one of the dwindling artist-driven stories on TV.
Janicza Bravo: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who is the showrunner and the writer, is a really special creator. And so to be in his company was just such a gift.
Alex Arabian: Zola’s thread is now a hardcover book for sale on the A24 website. It speaks to A24’s masterful marketing scheme and ability to interact with and retain their fans. How did this come about?
Janicza Bravo: Somewhere maybe halfway through shooting it, I pitched this idea to them: “I think we should make it a book because, one, they were a little hard to find.” She had tweeted them that day in October, and then she took them down I think 36 or 48 hours later. And they were immortalized by– actually, during one of our screenings when we premiered in New York, I had gotten a DM on Instagram from these two young white boys in their early 20s who were like, “We were the ones who immortalized it.” They took screengrabs of it, and they had posted it on this site. And I invited them and met them, and I was like, “Oh my god, you’re celebrities.” But I had felt like there was this notion that because it was based on a Twitter thread, it was less than because of its root. And I went to theater school. I didn’t go to film school, like I said, and I wanted to treat the text like I would were I adapting Chekhov, or Strindberg, or Ibsen. And so that you could take it off of the shelf, it elevated it to the level of importance that I felt it deserved.
Alex Arabian: That’s a great way to put it. It transforms the story from digital to analog.
Janicza Bravo: Yeah. You want to hold in your hands, you know?
Alex Arabian: Exactly. Susan Sontag once said, “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s – or thing’s – mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” It’s not unlike capturing this experience and de-digitalizing it. Immortalizing it.
Janicza Bravo: It still gets to exist. And my feeling about it wasn’t dissimilar to wanting to shoot on film, was that I felt it deserved to be tangible, and it was to tell that woman, to tell Zola – the real Zola – that her story was worthwhile.
Alex Arabian: Do you see yourself also releasing the screenplay through A24 or eventually?
Janicza Bravo: We haven’t talked about that, but we might. I think we might. I know that they’ve done that for other works, and I would like to do that at some point, for sure.
Alex Arabian: I appreciate your time, Janicza. When we first met, we bonded over misleading names. Mine is Arabian, but I’m actually Armenian. Yours is Polish, if I recall correctly?
Janicza Bravo: Yes, exactly! It’s Slovak. Yes.
Alex Arabian: Anyways, great catching up again!
Janicza Bravo: Good to reconnect! And have a good holiday, if we’re calling it that, right?
Zola is available to stream on all major streaming platforms.