'Zola' Director Janicza Bravo Discusses Making "Stressful Comedy" at Sundance

Zola Premiere Sundance - Getty - H 2020
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The filmmaker and cast of the festival hit share their journey in making the surreal stripper saga.

"My space that I feel the most comfortable in is stressful comedy," writer-director Janicza Bravo said with a laugh at the Sundance Film Festival premiere of her film Zola on Friday.

And things don't get more stressful or comedic than the epic stripper saga that all started with a tweet — or 144 tweets — that Twitter user @ZolarMoon (real name Aziah King) sent out in October 2015. 

A24's Zola, starring Taylour Paige as the titular heroine and Riley Keough as Stefani, brings to life King's tweets, which went viral and earned legions of fans obsessed with the details of the surreal, too-good-to-be-true story of how Zola was encouraged to go to Florida with Stefani to make good money dancing in clubs, only to get pulled into a hellish weekend of unprecedented events. ?

"I was immediately obsessed," Bravo said. "[King's] voice was so thrilling and compelling to me; the agency and the confidence that you could set this environment of the film [in] and make it funny and upsetting and stressful."

?Bravo was joined by her co-writer, Jeremy O'Harris, and cast including Paige, Keough, Nicholas Braun and Colman Domingo, as well as King herself, who took to the stage wearing a leopard-print dress, a stylish fascinator over her pink locks and long black gloves with pearls. She received the loudest cheers. 

King said that watching the film was "re-living it, so it was a surreal moment, I was kind of frozen, I was not like, 'Wow,' I was more like, 'OK, yeah, that happened.' To see it again and re-live it and see it on film was a surreal moment."

Keough, who plays Stefani, the stripper from hell, spoke to her character's appropriation of black culture and mannerisms. "A lot of the character was on the page already, the words she was using, the way she was speaking was on the page, and the next step was talking to Janicza about exactly what she wanted from this character. She seemed to want to take it there."

Bravo added, "I wanted [her] to feel stressful the way those kinds of people feel stressful to me. She’s in blackface, and I think, it’s a black woman and a white woman and a story about their relationship."

The director continued, "I remember when the Twitter thread came out, there was this idea that the story’s from the ghetto, and Aziah was like, 'Actually I'm from the suburbs.' There’s a version of this movie directed by somebody else in which Taylour and Riley are swapped, and it was very important to me to make sure that Taylour was what I needed her to be, which was a subversion of herself, while Riley was a version of a nightmare."

Bravo later said that the film was a time capsule of 2015, when the story took place, and that she weaves in cell phone screens and tweet sounds within the story. "The movie is a love letter to the internet and cell phones and screens," she concluded.