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A Film Doula: Janicza Bravo on Making Zola

For director Janicza Bravo, 2020 was supposed to be her year. She first made waves helming the Juneteenth episode of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta.” Her 2017 feature debut, “Lemon,” a bizarre dramedy concerning loneliness and failure, further introduced her idiosyncratic voice. Primed to leap among the premiere indie directors, Bravo arrived at the 2020 iteration of Sundance Film Festival with high hopes that were briefly suspended.  

Without spoiling too much, Bravo’s latest film “Zola,” adapted by the director with playwright Jeremy O. Harris, is taken from Aziah “Zola” King’s real, infamous 148-tweet Twitter thread wherein she explained how a chance encounter with a sex worker, Stefani, led to a trip to Florida that soon turned traumatic. Taylour Paige stars as the title character along with Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, Nicholas Braun, and others, in a provocative adventure and nightmare that utilizes tweet notifications for an inventive soundscape, side-splitting fourth wall-breaking commentary, and copious laughs and terrors to gripping effect.

After a release delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the A24-produced 2020 Sundance dramedy is finally coming to theaters.   

Bravo spoke with about the pandemic, lending authenticity to Zola’s voice, and her decide to shoot "Zola" on 16mm film.   

I’m at Tribeca right now, going to films, and the whole thing feels so surreal. I think the last festival I was at, was in fact, Sundance 2020.

We had our first screening since Sundance last night, and it was a little bit surreal. So many aspects of it, like seeing the bottom of someone's face or being in a community with people, and also lots of strangers hugging and wanting a hug. I didn't know how to set boundaries. [laughs]

I remember first watching "Zola" at Sundance 2020, and thinking, "this is about to take over the internet." And then the pandemic happened. When did the reality of the pandemic become real for you and how did you deal with it?

Maybe two weeks before we went into lockdown, I listened to an episode of “The Daily.” I remember being at Sundance and thinking the idea of COVID felt so far and that it was also like a joke. The further we distanced from Sundance, it was crazy that we even thought that. We also felt fortunate that we got to have that taste [of the film premiering]. It was nice to have something in the present as a reminder of what I would be longing for. So it was probably two weeks before lockdown because I did get some toilet paper early, and I got alcohol and I learned how to make hand sanitizer. 

I loved seeing "Zola" in a theater, especially amongst the Black critics I was sitting with. So many films that played at Sundance ended up going the VOD or streaming route. Was there any temptation to go that route or were you always married to the theatrical model?

We had early conversations where I felt like the movie was a summer movie. So my feeling was we should either premiere next summer or wait. I proposed what I thought was a great idea around using a drive-in, while eventizing it and tying in some digital aspect of it. But A24 wasn’t attracted to the idea of doing a drive-in. So we kept talking with them: If it's not going to come out in the summer, then maybe in the fall? Maybe in the winter? We had these weekly calls that went on for months and months and months. Sometimes they were high, sometimes low.

But I think somewhere for me, if the movie wasn't going to come out in the summer, even though we entertained the idea of it coming out in the fall or the winter, it should just wait till next year. Even through the bottom of the year, there still wasn't a commitment to how it would be released because we were engaging with the pandemic. For me, as a filmmaker, I had this envy because I got to see my friends release their movies. Even if the situation or the circumstance wasn't ideal, they did get to have that release. I was really longing for that.

What was it like not having that release, especially because you’ve carried this project for years?

The years part is fine because I just think it takes years. So that part wasn't surprising. What was the hardest part was while mourning last year, I was in a period of mourning for what could have been. I really thought it was going to be my year. I thought: I've put in my 10,000 hours and now it was a moment to reap the benefits. I know I'm not the only one who had a feeling that the floor was ripped out from underneath us. I wanted to mourn but I didn't necessarily feel comfortable doing it in a year where there was so much global loss.

What was it like helping to make Riley Keough comfortable in what must have been a fun, but touchy role?

Riley is just totally fearless and she's my favorite kind of actor because she says, “yes,” first. A lot of that character is on the page. I wrote the part for her, but also did my due diligence of meeting other performers. She was the only performer that saw that it was on the page. And when we had our first meeting, I told her I have an idea for this part, but it’s a little bit uncomfortable, a little challenging, and a little tricky. She said, “I already know what you're going to ask me.” I'm looking at her side-eyed. But she did know. 

For her, it felt scary. But she also felt really safe in my hands and I felt safe in hers. We got a voice coach, who helped her and we calibrated it together. They would send me the work that they were doing, and I would send notes, reading “I'm getting 65 or 70%. And I'm looking for 85 to 90. Let's go.” Riley just understood the assignment. She needed to be a white nightmare and she was like, game. Got it. 

What I find so intriguing about this movie is the gravity you afford to King’s recounting. This could have easily been a film rife with stereotypes. How important was it to afford her traumatic journey with the seriousness it required?  

That's how she presented it. There's a combination of things happening in my adaptation. There's some aspects of what she wrote where it was biopic in a way. Then there is also a lot of invention around the piece that she wrote. But through and through, this is a woman processing her trauma. The story that she cast, the story she told to us is one in which every person in that world is imbued with a good deal of care and dignity. There's never a judgment of the people. There's a judgment of their actions.

With the Hollywood Reporter you talked about filming on 16mm, which adds a sense of legitimacy to King’s voice. 

[In] our industry, when telling stories like these featuring people who look like Zola, there is something kind of disposable. Those stories aren’t given the value they deserve. There's a perceived gaze to be had on this movie where it came from Twitter, so it deserves less care, less seriousness. It's being made by a black woman, so it deserves less care, less seriousness. It stars a black woman, so it deserves less care, less seriousness. So advocating to shoot on film was a way to elevate. It made it important. 

I also wanted to give that to Aziah, the real Zola. I wanted her to know that the promise I made to her—implicitly and explicitly to protect her and to protect her narrative—was also to give her a tangible film. I was basically her doula in a way. I was gonna doula the f**k of this process and care for her in the way a midwife would. Shooting on film was going to create the best version of that.

I’m also wondering, what were the aesthetic reasons you chose that format? 

The other reason I really wanted to shoot on film, beyond being a film doula, as I've now decided that's who I am [laughs] is how there's something very vulnerable about the performances by the women throughout the world of the film. And how we see their bodies. So film is just generous. There is a softness, and it takes care of skin, and everything has this patina that feels really genteel. I thought so much about the perspective of the movie, how it was being told through the eyes of this young black woman, so I wanted it to have a little bit of light and delicate, but also a candy-like feel. 

"Zola" will be available in theaters on June 30.

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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