One day in November 2018, director Janicza Bravo found herself crammed next to a sound technician in the trunk of a Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen, barreling down a Tampa freeway carrying the principal cast of her movie Zola, including stars Taylour Paige and Riley Keough, each of their cellphones blaring with the same emergency message: Seek Immediate Shelter. The police escort that was with them minutes earlier for the mid-afternoon shoot had disappeared, leaving the car’s driver, actor Colman Domingo, to navigate them back to the day’s production offices as a wall of black clouds rapidly closed in off the coast.
By this time, Bravo, 40, had spent years pursuing and developing the story of A’Ziah “Zola” Wells King, an exotic dancer who unwittingly embarked on a long weekend with a newfound friend and her homicidal pimp — and then lived to tweet the tale in a 2015 thread that quickly went viral. Bravo’s friend and Zola co-writer Jeremy O. Harris, 32, privy to the lengths she’d gone to direct the film, once told her, “It is already hard enough to be a 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: For Zola, she was willing to take whatever bullets came her way, even in the form of an aggressive Gulf storm system (as long as she could protect her cast and crew, who all made it back safely).
Zola is Bravo’s first studio movie and Harris’ first feature, written years before he became one of Hollywood’s most sought-after young scribes. And while it was the hottest ticket at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, the pandemic has put 19 long months between the glowing buzz it received in Park City and its June 30 release (its original summer 2020 debut was pushed amid the pandemic). It also means the film, which cost less than $5 million, carries the added burden of being the first post-pandemic theatrical release for A24, the studio behind 2017’s best picture winner Moonlight. And as the first feature based on a Twitter thread, it will likewise serve as a test of what, in today’s IP-ravenous Hollywood, is viable fodder for onscreen storytelling.
“I’ve heard people say with a tone that I find diminishing, ‘Isn’t that that Twitter story?’ ” says Harris.
It was October 2015 when a then 19-year-old King (played by Paige in the film) authored 140-plus individual tweets, recounting the time seven months earlier she traveled from her native Detroit to Tampa to dance at local strip clubs with a fellow dancer she had just met named Jessica (renamed Stefani in the movie and played by Keough). Joining them was Jessica’s boyfriend (Succession‘s Nicholas Braun), and a man who would turn out to be Jessica’s pimp (Domingo). While Zola travels to Florida under the pretense of a weekend of lucrative dancing, she soon ends up in a hotel room as Jessica services a series of johns, while Zola stands nearby, trying to figure out how to get back home. What follows is an absurdist thriller that includes a rival pimp, a suicide attempt from a distraught lover, a kidnapping, a possible murder and, eventually, a plane ticket home.
“By tweet 15, I was there,” says Harris, who threw himself into King’s mentions on the platform. “I said something like, ‘A’Ziah is the greatest writer of our time!’ ” Harris was not alone in his assessment. “Drama, humor, action, suspense, character development. She can write!” tweeted Ava DuVernay. The internet christened it #TheStory, with fans tweeting out their dream casts for a feature film. Producers rapidly descended and, by the time the dust settled, James Franco had acquired the rights to direct and produce, with Christine Vachon’s Killer Films and Gigi Films also on board.
While tweets can be copyrighted, in the mid-2010s the medium was untested as source material for Hollywood productions. Risk-averse studios and production outfits, notes Jesse Saivar, the chair of intellectual property and technology at Greenberg Glusker, will take “the path of least resistance and acquire rights where they are available.” In order to ensure they controlled the narrative, the producers also acquired a subsequent Rolling Stone article about the saga. King would consult and retain an executive producer credit.
Bravo, who had learned of King’s tweets via a group chat with girlfriends, had tried to get in on the scrum herself, asking her manager and agent to pursue the rights. But she didn’t have the money to compete. “I was offering craft,” Bravo says with a laugh. “You can’t buy shit with craft.” And she admits that even her résumé didn’t make her an obvious fit.
Growing up between the U.S. and Panama, Bravo studied at NYU, initially for stage acting and then directing; she eventually swapped the New York indie theater scene for the L.A. comedy scene, with an early job at the Will Ferrell- and Adam McKay-founded Funny or Die. Her directing work includes a long list of prestige television — Dear White People, Mrs. America and Atlanta — as well as her feature debut, Lemon, about a socially inept struggling actor, which THR‘s 2017 Sundance review admiringly called “a comedy of embarrassment.”
“None of my work was bringing a party,” says Bravo, which is what the director thought Hollywood would want to see from Zola, something akin to Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. “I believe what I brought was a lot of anxiety.”
Still, when she heard that Franco exited the directing post in 2017 because of an overpacked schedule, she asked for a shot at an interview, putting a call in to Killer Films, which helped secure financing for Lemon. “She is so highbrow and so well read and has a real love of craft, but there is a whole side of her that loves pop culture and trashy TV,” says Zola producer David Hinojosa, who was then with Killer Films. “And she can marry those two worlds.”
Bravo beat out multiple directors during three months’ worth of meetings with producers (including Franco at the time), during which she presented a master plan complete with lighting schemes, cast, color palettes, prospective costumes and visual references, everything from David Lynch to Hieronymus Bosch. Bravo was told she got the job in May 2017, and on the same call was informed that A24, fresh off its Moonlight win, would finance and distribute.
She asked for a hiring announcement, but, she says, “Everyone was like, ‘Hey, we’re just more cool and chill than that.’ And I totally get it.” The notoriously press-averse A24 keeps its film projects under wraps for as long as possible and rarely issues statements, the party line being that the work speaks for the company. (Most recently, the New York-based studio did not comment when Scott Rudin stepped away from five of its projects after former employees came forward to accuse the producer of workplace harassment.)
Eight months after she had replaced Franco as the director, in January 2018, the Los Angeles Times published a report in which the actor-director was accused by five women — the majority students at his Studio 4 film school — of sexually inappropriate behavior. But it wasn’t until the next June that news finally leaked that Bravo would be directing Zola. At that point an easy (but untrue) narrative emerged, she explains: “The better story to tell was that he was accused and then a cleanup crew comes in. Like, ‘You know how we fix it? We throw in a director. And, you know, if she’s Black? Points.’ “
(Franco is no longer a credited producer on Zola but his brother, Dave, remains one under their Ramona Films banner, which obtained the rights to Zola’s story.)
“I actively worked to get this,” notes Bravo. “So I don’t love any perception that it was handed to me to fix the problem.”
“No one knew or gave a f— about Jeremy O. Harris at this point,” says Harris, who back in the summer of 2017 was still an MFA candidate in Yale’s playwriting program. But Bravo, who is not on Twitter herself, knew she needed a co-writer who could capture the singular language that suffused King’s story: “Now I’m skeptical like DAMN bitch we just met and we already taking hoe trips together????.”
“Most of my friends were over 40. That is not how they talked,” she says. “No one was like, ‘What’s the tea?’ “
So despite the fact that he had never made it past page 30 on a screenplay he’d written, Bravo pushed Harris — who she describes as “deeply on Twitter” — to come on board as co-writer.
The duo could be a case study in opposites: Bravo, a keen observer, constantly assessing the comfort of those around her, and Harris, a bombastic personality who relishes his status as an artistic agitator. But while their delivery differs, their fundamental understanding of the world aligns, shaped by a shared experience of navigating predominantly white spaces for the majority of their professional lives.
After being cut from the acting program at DePaul following his first year, 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 focused on international and indie films. It was in that capacity that he came across Bravo’s 2013 short film, Gregory Go Boom, an eerie absurdist comedy that starred Michael Cera and Bravo’s longtime creative collaborator and then-husband, the actor Brett Gelman (the two divorced in 2019).
“I was convinced that Janicza Bravo was a white Polish auteur,” says Harris.
They first bonded in the kitchen of a Los Angeles house party while a congregation of “young white Hollywood,” as Harris puts it, was loudly singing along to a rap song — without skipping the N-word. Together, they uncomfortably laughed at the “utter ridiculousness and outrageously terrifying feeling of hearing hundreds of white people rapping along to — what I think was — Kendrick Lamar.”
“The two of them will make each other laugh harder than anyone else,” says manager Kevin Rowe, who has worked with both of them since early in their respective careers. “Janicza is the only person that can put Jeremy in his place.”
The director vouched for the still-largely unknown Harris. And between his pitch, which included a five-hour-long road trip playlist with tracks from Run the Jewels, Mykki Blanco and Frank Ocean, and his recently completed play Daddy (it would open off-Broadway, starring Alan Cumming, in 2019), he got the job. Bravo then pushed to expedite Harris’ deal, not wanting Zola to interfere with his graduate work. “I was, like, ‘We really want to start our draft before he goes to school.’ She laughs. “I can’t imagine [producers] receiving messages like that from me, as an adult woman trying to make a second movie.”
In the four years since they wrote Zola, Harris’ Slave Play not only opened on Broadway but broke the record for the most Tony nominations for a non-musical play. He’s also consulted for HBO’s breakout Euphoria and signed a lucrative two-year overall deal with the network.
The co-writers decided that their movie would hew closely to the brash tone of King’s Twitter thread, even as they were fully aware that the events that inspired them had a darker side. While King wrote her thread as a suspenseful but hilarious road trip gone wrong, the reality, Bravo distills, is “a 19-year-old whose life is threatened, who is being told, not asked, that she has to physically sell her body to make it home. That’s fucked.” Before she took to Twitter, King had told the story in a sobering Tumblr post, which more closely resembles the events detailed in David Kushner’s Rolling Stone article. (King has been open about exaggerating some aspects of the story and omitting others for dramatic and comedic effect.) The co-writers listened to recordings made by Kushner of his interviews with King, in which she talked about returning home to Detroit and falling into her mom’s arms, sobbing.
The writers saw King’s tweets as a wounded person recasting her own narrative, 140 characters at a time. The story is a tragedy; King’s voice made it a comedy. Says Bravo, “My work is so much about how you contextualize that which is traumatizing.”
They vowed to give King the gravity and respect they knew that some in Hollywood and a lot of audiences would not afford her. “People deny the depth and the intellect of women, and especially Black women and especially women who are at all involved in any sort of presentation of self,” says Harris. “We reject them as Mary Magdalenes, devoid of intellect.” He describes King as a modern-day Homer penning the “Odyssey,” arguing that our oldest dramatic literature looks more like Twitter than the latest New York Times best-seller. Each tweet became a potential scene with them making notes like, “This is a five-page tweet.” As a part of their campaign, Bravo petitioned to have the movie shot on 16mm film, knowing the inherent status that now comes with celluloid. “I wanted [King] to know that the director that was hired for this movie was going to fight for it to have a legitimacy,” says Bravo, who joins Wes Anderson and Steven Spielberg in having a 2021 movie shot on film.
After King initially agreed to turn over her story, a low-grade anxiety set in. “Maybe [turning this into a film] is a bit too candid?” she recalls thinking. It’s one thing to tell your tale on a nascent social media platform when you are 19 and another to have it projected 40 feet tall. During her first video call with Bravo, however, King was struck by her assuredness and dedication “to making sure my voice didn’t get lost.” She is aware of what the feature could have looked like in different hands, “It could have gone so many different ways.”
And it nearly did. When Harris and Bravo were handed the original draft of the script, penned by Andrew Neel and Mike Roberts, what they read was “how a lot of Hollywood saw the movie in their head,” says Harris. Within the first pages of the original screenplay, Zola is seen fully nude while on the pole. (One of King’s tweets reads, “Ima full nude typa bitch,” in reference to her usual attire while dancing.) “It totally makes sense if you are trying to make a 25-year-old white boy in Nebraska perk up to watch this movie,” says Harris. “Showing tits at the very beginning.”
While it now seems misguided to have three white men charged with telling Zola’s story, 2015 Hollywood was a very different place. Concludes Hinojosa, “Things have changed in a really good way.” Five years ago, Harris estimates, “I don’t think that this Zola could have existed.”
The finished 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 crafting a story that allowed her to play “a woman who is dancing and doing sex work and feeling protected in every scene.”
This was an early decision made by Bravo and Harris, the latter of whom in their first meeting for the project proclaimed: “I want to see dicks in this movie.”
Easier said than done. On location in Florida for the film’s 25-day shoot, the local casting director was having trouble finding male talent comfortable with full frontal. After many failed attempts, Bravo wondered aloud if nudists might be the answer. Descending on Tampa-area nudist communities (there are several), the production quickly found a half-dozen willing participants.
Gathered in a hotel room, the director stood in front of the men and detailed King’s story, how their scene fit into the film and that theirs would be Zola‘s only nudity. In the sequence, penises are swiped across the screen as if it were an Instagram feed. The choice was narrative, Bravo says — she wanted to remain in the women’s POV. But it was also an ideological one. The director reckoned with the long cinematic history of women in various states of undress, all of which are an easy Google Images search away. “Do I really need to add to the catalog?” she questioned.
“The nudists were all pumped,” Bravo says. “Everyone said, ‘What’s most scary to me is acting.’ “
Bravo is now some 2,500 miles and three and a half years removed from the Zola film shoot.
“I feel like I’m very much in an ellipsis,” says the director of her current limbo. In the past year, Bravo directed several episodes of HBO’s In Treatment and prepped her next project — a TV series based on the New Yorker article about the writer Dan Mallory (aka A.J. Finn), with Jake Gyllenhaal playing the Woman in the Window author. Otherwise, she has spent a good chunk of the pandemic with her dog, a terrier named Janet, in her Mid-City home, waiting … for theaters to open, for Zola to be released, to mentally move on. “I feel like I’ve been edging. There was no climax.”
Harris has stayed busy with a series adaptation of Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half and onscreen appearances in the second season of Netflix’s Emily in Paris and the Gossip Girl reboot. (Appropriately, he tweeted about his love for each series prior to being cast.) As a co-writer, Harris is protective of Zola but does not feel full ownership of the title in the way he did about Slave Play. He is the backup to Bravo’s offensive: “I want to be able to fight for everything, but I also know that is not my place.”
Over the past year, they watched their Park City peers release films, including fellow A24 title Minari and The Forty-Year-Old Version. And while Bravo is grateful that Zola will get the full theatrical treatment, she likens herself to a long-gestating elephant, carrying something for an inhuman amount of time.
“For every project you say yes to, I think you have to ask, ‘Do I want to talk about this in three or four years?’ “
Luckily, nearly six years on, she’s still happy to talk about Zola. To be fair, there’s a lot to discuss.
This story first appeared in the June 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.