Janicza Bravo, the director of Zola, spoke with Okayplayer about the aesthetic influences of the film, casting Taylour Paige as the titular character, working with Jeremy O. Harris, and her four favorite comedy films.
Filmmaker Janicza Bravo is making waves with Zola, a stripper yarn that blends elements of comedy, drama and thriller into a beautiful, chaotic cinematic cocktail. With an excellent cast — including Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo and Nicholas Braun — and A24 backing, Zola is poised for success, having received positive critical reception when it first premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, as well with its recent theatrical release. The script, written by Bravo and wunderkind playwright Jeremy O. Harris — best known for Slave Play — was adapted from the viral Twitter thread from 2015 about Zola (whose real name is A’Ziah King) going on an ill-fated trip to Florida with a white girl who isn’t who she says she is. It was a captivating story that we all read on our phones, and after five years it has finally made it to the big screen. Bravo spoke with Okayplayer about the aesthetic influences of Zola, casting Taylour Paige as the titular character, working with Jeremy O. Harris, and more.
So, I was thinking about the look and feel of the film. What are some of your aesthetic influences?
Janicza Bravo: There’s a small list of movies that was the homework assignment for everyone to watch. There was Coffy, Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Natural Born Killers, The Wiz, Showgirls and Paris is Burning. I remember being really attracted to the lighting in Paris is Burning because we were also shooting in 16mm. But most of the work that I use to influence me is mostly photographic. The photo work I pulled from primarily was Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Hustlers, Deana Lawson’s portraiture and this photographer who goes by the name @suffer_rosa on instagram whose name is Maxi Magnano.
How did you cast Taylour?
We saw over 700 girls for Zola. Close to 800 actually. I had written a monologue out of the first 20 or 25 tweets and we cast this really wide net, like everywhere basically. If you came across the post, you could submit. We saw tons and tons of women. Taylour auditioned towards the end of this process and I just knew immediately. Sometimes you just know.
What was it like working with Jeremy O. Harris? Did you know each other beforehand? Had you worked on anything together before?
We met at this party. He was on a very bad date with a director. (One of my peers, who I will not name.) And Jeremy doesn’t know anyone at this party and he just finds me in the kitchen. There’s some look on his face that I know says he needs care, and I’m open. I say “Hey” and I just take him with me like, “I got you. I don’t know what’s going on, but I got you.” And we’ve just been buddies ever since.
And then when I was in the running for Zola, I knew it was between me and another director. We started to have these conversations around who would be the right writer, the right collaborator. Jeremy was on my list but I felt he seemed to be the most unlikely, mainly because he was going to college. The other writers had been in multiple TV rooms or had written scripts and he only had, at this point, a play. And the play was Daddy, his first play. So there’s a list of these award-winning writers and then there’s Jeremy, and I was like, “I don’t know if they’re going to buy it.”
My partner at the time, Brett Gelman, encouraged me to put Jeremy forward, because I really did think he would have made a great collaborator based on how we were in life together. I just really believed in his voice but didn’t think that I could present him as a viable option. And Brett basically said, “Well, why not?” And we, both being Black kids who worked very hard to move very slowly forward, were like, “What do you mean?” And he said, “I don’t know. Just, why not? Just be like, ‘I want him to do it and it’s fine.’” I think a lot of that has to do with the way Brett moves through the world. And I was like, “Great. I’m going to borrow like 15% of that energy and just take it into the room.” And it worked.
The real Zola, A’Ziah King, mentioned that the film was originally being developed with James Franco. How did this project get to you?
So, I had read the story when it came out on Twitter. I had initially gone out for it but did not make the cut. Then a couple of years later — this would be in the spring of 2017 — my first feature [Lemon] had just premiered at Sundance. And my friend, Jodie Turner-Smith, knew that I loved [the Zola story]. We must have talked about it a handful of times in the last couple of years. She happened to be at a party, I think like a month after Lemon came out, and somebody was talking about that Zola story — James Franco had stepped off. She texted me in the middle of the night and was like, “Oh my god! It’s available! You have to go after it!” And that was basically it.
Lemon has always been very fascinating to me, especially the way that it explores whiteness. I was wondering if whiteness was a factor in your attraction to the story?
I guess if I had to kind of deduce my work into a thesis or manifesto of some sorts, I would say that one of my themes is an anthropological relationship to whiteness. That is something that definitely attracted me about this piece. That it was, for me, a further exploration of that theme. Something I am really attracted to in my own work is treating white as visible rather than invisible.
What made you choose Riley for the role of Stefani? Did she come to you?
I approached her and I was worried, actually. I thought, for people who already had a sense of her in American Honey, that they’d just assumed she’d repeat that character here. If anything, her work in American Honey kind of told me that she was going to be able to push in the way that I wanted her to push here. I think there is a portion of the audience that will arrive expecting to see a Riley that they’ve seen before but it’s not that.
So, A’Ziah mentioned that Stefani actually said the n-word a lot during the actual trip, which was my assumption watching it. I was just like, “There’s no way that she doesn’t.” I could just tell how fascinated you were with her and the way that she works.
She had mentioned that to me too, that Stefani’s character had used the n-word on their trip and there is an early version of the script that had that. And I felt stylistically, what became more attractive to me was, “Well, what is the embodiment of that whole thing? What is the embodiment of this reckless lack of consideration for someone on the other side of that word?”
When she said it to me I was reminded — and I think Jeremy was too when we were writing — there was a period of time in our lives where we had had white friends like that. We had a white friend who casually used the n-word but was “a good person,” right? For many of us who had those relationships, we drew a line in the sand and said, “That’s not okay.” But we had been, I guess, fine with it for some period of time. And so it almost felt like — that was so obviously crude and so obviously ugly that the conversation I was more interested in having was one around white embodiment of minstrelsy, white relationship to minstrelsy, and that which is celebrated when in a white body that is demonized in a Black body.
Something that has always bugged me is that most comedy films aren’t directed by Black women, not even really the Black ones. How did it feel to make a comedy film on this scale?
I hope that if there are other women of color out there who want to be making comedy and want to be working in this space, hopefully it tells them that there’s room for them. I know when I set out to carve a lane for myself, I didn’t mean to carve a lane for myself. I kind of wanted to be in one of the ones that existed, and felt very much like I wasn’t invited or welcome. I was treading in space that wasn’t for me and I had to carve out a lane for myself. So, what I am hoping is that perhaps there are other young women out there who not only want to be in the comedy space but other spaces, you know? And if they feel there aren’t spaces for them, it tells them that there’s room to make your own lane.
What are some of your favorite comedy films?
That’s fun. How many do you want?
You can give me five.
Minnie and Moscowitz, Beware the Holy Whore, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!
That’s a great one.
Hollywood Shuffle. Um…I’m just going to say four.
Jourdain Searles is a writer, comedian, and podcaster who hails from Georgia and resides in Queens. She has written for Bitch Media, Thrillist, The Ringer, and MTV News. As a comic, she has performed stand-up in venues all over New York City, including Union Hall, The People Improv’s Theater, UCB East, and The Creek and the Cave. She can be found on Twitter.