Writer / director Janicza Bravo’s daring drama, “Zola” – based on A’Ziah King’s tweets – is a hell of a story and a true hell movie. The film is brilliantly shot, going from fantasy to reality to nightmare in less than 90 minutes as Zola (Taylour Paige in a star performance) recounts how she got “angry” with Stefani (Riley Keough) during a weekend in Tampa.
The two women meet at a restaurant where Zola works and bond over the fact that they are both pole dancers. When Stefani invites Zola to join her, her boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun from “Succession”) and X (Colman Domingo) to go make some money, Zola accepts, not knowing what she is getting into. Suffice it to say things are getting tense and intense.
Bravo magnifies all of the messy drama and invites viewers into a wild ride with the main character. The filmmaker told Salon about her new kinetic film and her worst road trip ever.
You took over as director after James Franco left the project. Can you talk about this?
I feel so lucky it’s me. When the story came out in October 2015, I wanted it then. I went there sort of. I sent it to my representatives. They wrote to me that there was an article in “Rolling Stone”, and you approach it that way and can get its rights for life. There were five bidders at the time, and I was not going to compete with the bidders. I can’t say I lost it because I wasn’t really a part of the conversation. When it was announced that James was going to direct it, with the production of Killer Films (Christine Vachon’s company), I wrote Killer, because they produced my first film. I said that if ever this becomes available, please consider me as I am very interested in the project. Two years later, James came out, and I spent three months auditioning for it, and here we are.
What was it like meeting A’Ziah aka Zola and tailoring his tweets’ story?
Once I got the job of director, it was the first order of business, to meet A’Ziah, the real Zola. We were texting and DMing each other a bit, and I wanted her to meet me and know that she had access to me, and I would let her in as much as she wanted, and I was hoping for the same. But I really wanted to be on her page, at her pace, and put her at ease because she was suddenly immersed in a world that was not her own.
We had a Facetime chat, and we talked about where we were from, and why I loved its story so much, and I mentioned the movies I watched and the photographs that inspired me. And then I asked him, at his own pace, to tell me the story of Twitter. We went through the entire story arc and asked if there was anything she didn’t include that she wanted to be in the story. There were a few things. Then I had his blessing to work on it. I spent a few months drafting, writing, with Jeremy [O. Harris]. Then, I did my director’s pass. So, a year or more later, I shared the draft with her, and she read it and gave her second blessing. These are the nuts and bolts of the sexy little steps of the script approach.
Can you describe your visual approach to storytelling, which has elements of fantasy, harsh reality and true nightmare? There is a real texture on the screen. It’s shiny and grainy.
One of the main references – the homework I sent everyone, from Jeremy O. Harris, to Ari Wegner, the cinematographer, to Katie Byron, the production designer to Joi McMillon, the editor – was a copy of “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” This painting is a triptych. Panel 1 is Heaven, Panel 2 is Earth, and Panel 3 is Hell. This is the arc of the film. When we are in Heaven our palette is softer, with less information, and things move at a different, tempered pace, and when we enter Earth – moving from Detroit to Tampa – there is more movement. and color, things get busier, and it’s our own entrance. Panel three, we meet darkness. It’s when the bottom falls, and we’re in Hell.
Can you tell us about your editorial strategy? The film spins past, taking viewers on a wild ride that Zola endures. It also reflects how the society is changing rapidly or as time goes by. You can feel Zola’s anxiety awaiting the very horrible moment of this weekend.
It was the third time that I had worked with Joi, who was showing the film. Your editor is the other writer. A’Ziah was the first writer, Jeremy and I were the second and third writers, and Joi is the fourth and final writer. When we worked on my first feature film, “Lemon”, we took a similar approach to editing, it was very moving. I wanted the editorial landscape to reflect the inside of the protagonist. The frenzy and pressure you feel is a mirror in Zola’s guts.
I’m curious about the decisions you made about filming the sex scenes. Can you tell us about the filming of the women and men in these key scenes?
I’m a bit of a prudish myself, so I think that’s part of my inherent prudishness. When I introduced myself to this text, there were a handful of things I wanted, and one of those things was that I didn’t want to see naked women. I felt there was such a large library of naked female bodies, and I didn’t need to add more. There are going to be more movies to add to this library and I don’t need to be one of them. I also thought, given the nature of the work, which is so vulnerable, if I used their bodies in this way, that it might take away some of the dignity and integrity that I wanted to imbue with the nature of the place where they had ended up.
I wanted things to be consensual. I spoke with Ari who shot the movie and Katie the production designer about what consent looks like. In American films, sometimes the nudity on the screen does not seem consensual. I was thinking of some photographs of Helmut Newton and why they work for me. They are often so naughty and so sexual, but you feel that there is this consent between the photographer and the model, and the model feels in control of the narration even if she is not behind the lens. I wanted to find women to feel taken care of. By exposing the men, it wasn’t a “Ha! I can do this!” or “I am a woman, and this is a woman’s look.” There might have been a bit of politics there, but it was really about being so inside of what the women who were being bought were seeing.
The tone of the film is interesting. I could claim that you are satirizing these characters, but I could also claim that you celebrate them. Can you talk about what you intend to see or what you want viewers to see?
I feel pure celebration. One of the conversations I had with the cast was that I’m not interested in judging. What you feel or see outside of these characters has no place here. We are going to introduce ourselves, totally open and with generosity, and take care of who these people are because they are all someone based. I want to approach them warmly and openly. It was like a drama camp. Someone is paying us to play and explore. I love each of the four central characters so much and inject a little bit of myself into each of them.
This is an uplifting tale. What is the moral?
I’m not going to give the answer you want to hear, but I think it’s a caveat about making friends with white people, actually. And I will stop there. [Laughs]
Not that you’d ever be Zola’s situation, but what would you do if you were him?
What I’m hoping for is access and the ability to process my trauma the way she did, which is to tell it that way. I didn’t find myself in this situation, but I found myself in some crisp tales that I wasn’t sure exactly how I got there or what mistakes I made that got me there. The power of the pen to have that, and to use your voice to act, is so sexy to me. I applaud her for using Twitter as a tool to process and exorcise this witch. It might have left her a bit unraveled.
What’s the worst weekend or road trip you’ve ever taken?
When I was 26, I studied birthright in Israel. After my 10 days I was in Israel for a few weeks and I met an Israeli in a bar and we got along and he invited me to seven days in Sinai. I said yes. I had this very sexy seven day Sinai fantasy, and I had never really traveled to this part of the world. I got on a plane alone, went to Egypt and was wearing the wrong clothes. I couldn’t get out of the airport by taxi as a single woman. I had to be accompanied by a man. I begged the men to let me get into their car. It was a really dark experience. I convinced this family to let me get into a car with them and I drove into the bed of this truck lying with my luggage. I finally arrive at this hotel on the beach, right by the Dead Sea, and it is beautiful. The taxi driver, when he drops me off, asks me when I’m leaving. I walk in and see this guy and think we’re about to have this crazy love affair. And he decides to stop talking to me about 5 or 10 minutes after I land there. He is with a group of friends and no one speaks English. So, I spent seven days in my own head with no one really talking to me, just waiting for the cab to come back.
“Zola” hits theaters Wednesday June 30th.