Zola had its UK premiere at Sundance London and Festivals Editor Dallas King was lucky enough to speak with co-writer & director Janicza Bravo about her approach to this incredible true story, the topic of sex trafficking and being one of the pioneers of the social media movie…
Flickfeast: There’s never been a film that’s been drawn from like Twitter before. Say if someone was making a film about journalism, they can look at All The President’s Men, etc. Where do you draw inspiration or does it like this is something just totally brand new, and I’ve got to create a new dictionary.
Janicza Bravo: Most of the references I looked at were actually photographic and the artists whose work I sat with primarily were Philip-Lorca diCorcia has this book called Hustlers. I also had Deana Lawson’s photographs. I generally try not to work off of movies. Possibly because I have this habit or through some process of osmosis, like kind of taking on and so I do my best to sort of separate myself from that, and I tend to think mostly in the photographs anyways. But I did have a small list of movies that I shared with my cast and crew because they really were hungry for that. Movies starring Pam Grier, primarily because she was, to me a sort of emblem or symbol of a black female protagonist who was full of agency but also totally comfortable in person. So the film Coffy was a big reference for us on I looked at this one scene in Natural Born Killers, which I called the drug zone scene because the usage of light and it was super radical. Paris Is Burning because of how well the ballroom scenes were shot. There was Law and Order Special Victims Unit because I find it soothing [laughs]. Showgirls, because it’s well, Showgirls.
Flickfeast: It feels like Zola is at the crest of a wave of a new genre of films where social media drives the narrative e.g. Eighth Grade, Spree, etc. How does it feel to kind of be making like a brand new type of film?
JB: I don’t know that I can answer that fully. Because I, I didn’t approach the work like that. I didn’t think that as I was making it, I fell in love with this story. And I knew that because it was born out of the internet that the internet was also woven into it and that the internet had to be on. Right there had to be digital gestures. I also knew that I didn’t want to see a person texting on the phone. I knew I didn’t want to do inserts of phones because things like that. Just make me want to jump out of that where you go. So like, how I had to sort of figure out like, what are the things that most titillated me like what excited me. The Twitter whistle was something that was written into the script and the idea behind that was that I wanted when we use a piece of dialogue that was in direct reference to the Twitter thread, meaning that it was pulled exactly from the thread. The whistle is meant to homage, its original source and say like, this is, you know, from our great creator. For me the genre is stressful comedy, which is like my genre, right? Or I feel that is the, that is the space I’m trying to inhabit or that’s the lane. I’m, I’m carving out for myself within.
Flickfeast: This was originally going to be directed by James Franco. Reading an interview did with Rolling Stone, you said that the original script was “leading with it’s dick”. What were the main areas that you tackled in adapting the story to be one that you wanted to tell?
JB: So I read the story on Twitter the day it came out, not live as on Twitter. I am a theatre kid through and through, and so when I read the piece, my feeling was if I’m going to adapt this I want to treat it the way I would any other piece of literature. In a way its Chekhov, its Shakespeare. Just because it was on Twitter. I didn’t find that to be a less of a medium for me and I wanted to treat it in the same way. The original script was leading with its dick as was much more naughty than I was looking to make it. That is to say, the first 20 pages if I recall, I think there were four scenes of nudity. I just felt like I don’t know that the audience is ready, and I refer to us as the audience, I don’t know that we are ready to talk about sex work and sex trafficking when we are meeting women. I just don’t know that our brains can handle that straight away. And I wanted us to walk away from the film being able to have these conversations. And also feeling like Taylor and Riley had been offered consent, right that everything that is in the film was because of permission, even from the men who are naked in the movie. And the previous text was, I think, leaning more into the ride and more into the party. And I wanted to engage with the trauma because when I read the text, I just felt there was so much trauma inside, there was a good deal of humour. That was what I felt that was right for it. If it had not had the humour, I don’t know that I would have been the right director to spearhead it. But the behind the curtain of that text is quite traumatising. It is a survivor processing something really horrific.
Flickfeast: Leading on from that, you probably had conversations with A’ziah quite a bit about sex trafficking. Certainly here in Europe the public has this notion that sex trafficking is when women from other countries are forced to go to a location and engage in sex work. But what we see with Zola is that it can be this pyramid scheme of sex trafficking and Zola was 19 years old at the time. So what do you think about how much of that conversation went into film and how you want to portray this environment?
JB: You know, it’s just going back to the text. This is the world as she presented it. While the film is not journalism, that is not documentary. My one assignment was to be true to her voice. And the women that she introduced me to us to, she never looked at them with judgement. What she judged was the situation. She also made it really clear to me early on, because she, as a 19 year old was working in sex work. And she made it clear. “I don’t come from a fucked up background. I haven’t found myself in this because my life was so hard, because I didn’t have opportunity. I wanted to do this because i was turned on by this role. And I had had a certain relationship to my body and to sex I wanted to play in this space”. And I had not met anyone like this, definitely not on screen, who had been inside of sex work and had that amount of agency and comfortability. All right, like how can a woman stand so much and also still have a great rack? That was kind of like the thing that she was playing with in her story? I feel the film is also saying trafficking is something that is happening in the United States. It’s happening right next to us. It’s happening, you know, it’s at the house next door, it’s in the car next to you on the road, basically, like, it’s sort of sad. It doesn’t look like this one specific thing that we’ve decided right or like that.
Flickfeast: This film features two of my favourite performances I’ve seen this year in Colman Domingo and Riley Keough and I just want to get your thoughts on the sort of casting and how you direct them. Keough in particular delivers a fearless, committed performance as Stefani. What kind of conversations did you have with her about the use of the “blaccent” in creating potentially a very polarising performance.
JB: So for Riley, she is essentially a minstrel. She is wearing a ‘blaccent’. She is putting on a manner and mannerisms that we have associated with black people, black women, that have not been appreciated when in those bodies. But when they’ve been taken on by white people, white women, there has been a good deal of pleasure. In fact, there are artists who have made money off of minstrelsy that black artists have not been able to benefit off, right. I don’t know who the real character is, that Riley plays. So in building all four of those characters, particularly the three that I didn’t have the life rights of, we, my co writer Jeremy O’Harris and myself, we kind of use little bits of things that we can find in the Twitter print, because the Twitter thread doesn’t introduce you to those characters before it tells you who they are, it tells you who they are for those 72 hours. And so we use colours from that to kind of define, and this idea that I’ve had about Stefani’s character because Zola is 19 when she writes the story, Taylor is not 19 when she plays the part, but I have a sense that some portion of the audience will arrive with the story struggling to get on board and struggling to believe her because we have a hard time believing women, really have a hard time believing black women. So I felt that Riley’s character needed, to use sports terms, a handicap. Cause even with a handicap we are meeting both women at the same time. So that’s how we arrived at her taking on this accent.There’s something very violent about her embodiment, but it is also kind of fun. And it’s dangerous. When we met, she had a sense that that’s what I wanted, because some of that writing is on the page. And she said that she was worried she was gonna get cancelled. And I was like, and I am too. And my feeling was, we couldn’t apologise to run at it headfirst, you know, we’ve kind of had to be like, on the precipice, without a net, and we got a coach to help her with her accent and I think she did this beautiful job, but I do feel she is embodying something that is a bit hard to pin, because if you’re taking too much pleasure in her performance, you’re asking yourself, Is there something wrong with me? And I think that both of those things can happen. I think she can do a great job. And we can also ask ourselves, am I okay? And then Colman, it was that was it was in the text. It’s one line, the Twitter thread where there are two things that she said, were super funny to me, which were, it was 24 hours before she heard his name. And I was like, first of all, we’ve all had that thing where we’ve been next to someone, like I learned all these things, but you’re like, I have no idea what this person is called. And that just seems so funny to me to add to the story, and then within the 24 hours of not knowing his name, he then suddenly also got an accent, angry, and she was like, literally WTF? And I just got to put that in there. And he also worked with an accent coach. And so that wasn’t so much invention as much as it was already in there. And it was about crafting, where we could allow for these moments of magic.
Flickfeast: Finally, you premiered at Sundance in 2020 and now in the UK in Sundance 2021. How has that wait been for you as a filmmaker and how important was it to wait to screen in cinemas?
JB: I mean I can only really speak about my experience. My film was supposed to come out about a year ago. And it did not. That was really painful. And I spent a good deal of the last 16-17 months mourning. And I didn’t know how to do it, wondering if there was room for me to feel bad about a movie, when there was so much tragedy, especially on a scale that felt really insurmountable. The film has now been out for a month now in North America. And the amount of people who’ve said to me, it’s their first time back in movies. And not only is it their first time back, but it feels worth it, it feels like this movie was worth it. It makes those 15,16,17 months feel a little less lonely and bad. Right. And as much as I wanted to release the film, you know, have it leave my body, I just haven’t had that opportunity to do that yet. So there are three or four stages that you sort of divorce yourself from. There is the writing to the craft to the production to the post to then release. And so I needed to be able to separate the film from my body, it being some sort of umbilical cord and I felt like I had been dragging, dragging this movie. And it was quite heavy and fit through all the doors, and it kept bumping into walls and like, I wasn’t able to take my next step. And it’s not about a chapter close, or an end, as much as it is some kind of beginning for myself. And I feel like I’m in it now because it’s still coming out, you know, coming out in stages, and I can feel this kind of release. And what I hope the film gets to be a part of, a signifier of, is that people still do wanna go to the movies, right? I mean, we spent a year watching, streaming, watched so much more than I think I’ve ever watched in my life for this last year. But nothing beats sitting in a theatre, you know, I got to see the Sparks Brothers film here last night and was like ‘Nothing beats this’. Nothing is like this communal experience.
Zola is out in UK cinemas from August 6th