Zola director Janicza Bravo reveals the ‘stressful’ movies that inspired her
Zola, released Wednesday, is one of the most anticipated and visually idiosyncratic films to be released in 2021. Starring Taylour Paige (Ma Rainey’s black stockings) and Riley Keough (Under the silver lake), the new A24 movie turns Aziah “Zola” King’s boisterous Twitter account in 2015 from a strip weekend in Florida that went horribly wrong (a thread recently published in book form) into an odyssey worthy of Homer. As Matt Patches wrote in Polygon’s review of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, “So many filmmakers spring to mind when the credits roll. Zola: Joel and Ethan Coen, Paul Thomas Anderson, Andrea Arnold, Martin Scorsese, and even Hollywood mix director Robert Townsend – people known to synthesize image and script, comedy and thrill, the personal and the universal. Zola works at that level, with Bravo’s vision reinforcing Paige’s observant but active lead performance.
With Zola Released in theaters this Wednesday, Polygon spoke with director Janicza Bravo (Lemon, FX Atlanta) on what makes a ‘stressful comedy’ so successful, the process of developing the film’s distinctive visual style and social media callbacks from the 2015 era, and the type of films she would schedule for a festival of the film dedicated to Zola.
[Ed. note: This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.]
In an interview with hollywood reporter, you said that the genre of “stressful comedy” is the one you feel most comfortable working in. What are some of your favorite stressful comedies, and what do you think sets these types of movies apart from classic comedies, in your words?
I call my own work a stressful comedy. And I think this route means it’s a very funny job, but also a very uncomfortable one. And sometimes it’s just not funny at all – it’s just uncomfortable. So I’m like somewhere in this sweet spot. Some of my favorite stressful comedies I’d say Minnie and Moskowitz is probably my number one; [John] Cassavetes film starring Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel. It’s just a beautiful love story, if you have Criterion Channel it’s over there right now. Another one that I really like would be something more modern, Drunk love punch. I think Charlie Kaufman’s work sort of exists in this area as well, like Being John Malkovich. [And] Adaptation! I feel like these films would all fit into this space.
During the filming of the film, did you look for other films that similarly draw on the interactive aesthetic of social media?
I think it’s going to sound bad, but I don’t want it to sound bad. I don’t think there is a movie that speaks to the internet like I am in this movie. Or talk about loving the aesthetics of the digital world the way I am. There are a lot of digital gestures in the movie that I’ve never seen used before. I haven’t seen a timestamp in a movie; I haven’t seen a screen saver in a movie; I didn’t see the lock screen used in the same way as the timestamp; I haven’t seen any text messages used as a monologue and somehow treated as a Shakespearean aside. And maybe they exist, I just haven’t seen this movie.
Cell phones are so much a part of our life, and so when doing modern work, it is only natural for the characters to text or talk on their phones. And I just thought it was so miserable to watch someone look at a phone, right? Or watch text on a phone and then the text shows on the screen, or watch someone send a text to the phone and then show you as a picture of their phone. We’ve seen this before, and I think maybe the start of it has kind of dissipated and now it’s starting to be a bit exhausting. Have I thought so much about how to engage these things that are so ingrained in our lives? How to engage them differently or in a way I hadn’t seen that always turned me on.
I was trying to treat 2015 as if it were a period. Like, for me, we made a period movie. 2015 is a time capsule. It smells like the archive. I mean that then, wasn’t it so long ago? [laughs] There are some things that have been presented to us through our cell phones that are now an integral part of our life, so I was also trying to draw attention to our relationship with certain visual things. Like the way they are now integrated. We have a sort of Pavlovian relationship even with the beeps of social media. There is a volume knob later in the movie, there was a bigger one that was more period specific, but the volume knob in the movie looks more like what it had in 2016 or 2017. The one that we were initially using was taken from the 2015 image, which looked a bit like a triangle. I ended up getting rid of it because on one of the first screenings, when it got to the screen, a lot of people in the audience went to their phones. And I think our brains are just fucked up. Our relationship with our phones is ruined. The other thing that also happens is there’s a twitter whistle throughout the movie, and sometimes I’ve noticed people are going to mute their phones whenever they hear that. Which for me I think is great. I like this. I think it’s fantastic.
How did you conceptualize the film’s social media potential? Were there any types of direct reference material that you pulled from, like videos that you or the cast shot? How did you go about visualizing and implementing this in the film?
A lot of these things are scripted. I’m trying to think of it as what specifically, I mean, so many things were like the post as well. Like, the parchment is something that happened in post. We had a visual effects specialist who came in and built it for us. So this is not something that happened at the time. Even that onscreen screenshot of them driving down the road, much of that magic happened later. There’s a scene where Riley takes a picture of her and Taylour and you see the moment the flash goes, or the camera turns off because there are these blackouts inside; like what happens when you take a picture on the phone. This is what is happening and we are reproducing it. So a lot of these things were in office, but they were written in dialogue. There’s a line that says it’s going to happen, but we kind of had to imagine that it would happen, because in the scene we just live and it became part of our magic later on. It was our sauce that came later.
You’ve already explained how you know you’re the best person to tell Zola’s story and, essentially, to protect her character. Have you been afraid that if you didn’t, that there might have been a version of this movie where Zola didn’t get a free kick. Tell me more about it.
I think we both live in the same world. And in the world we live in, black women are not entitled to dignity or often instead. There is a version of this movie that treats this character as if it were disposable; treats his world as if it were disposable; treats his agency like it’s trivial. I felt I was the right person because I was going to protect him; I was going to protect it from start to finish and I was sort of down for the long haul. I am forever in community and in union with the true Zola. I think when ordinary people – and the word “regular” sounds a little weird – but I think when we hire people outside of this business, real people, and invite them into this business, I think ‘there is a responsibility to take charge of them, to guide them and to make sure that they will be treated well. Because this company, like a multitude of creative companies, profits from the backs of many without crediting them. And when faced with that fact, many turn around and say okay, they signed on the dotted line! So I didn’t want us to do this. I wanted us to be able to be an example of how to do things right. I don’t know if we did everything right, but I do know that we did some things right.
Imagine for a moment that there is a whole film festival dedicated to Zola. “Janicza Bravo presents: The Zola Festival. »What are some of your favorite movies that you would like to see play alongside Zola, or those whose themes, tone and appearance complement those of your own film?
I think if we were to say, a night or a day of a festival that draws inspiration from Zola, I would like to play a series of Pam Grier films: Coffee, Cleopatra Jones, Foxy Brown, Jackie Brown. I feel like when I started working on the film and started working on this character, I asked myself and my co-writer Jeremy O. Harris: ” Can you name a black protagonist you’ve seen in a leading role? Who looks almost like a superhero; Who is totally fearless, but is also quite feminine and comfortable with her sexuality? “And we met up again? both gravitating towards Pam Grier and it’s kind of like the first and last time we really saw him so clearly. So I would definitely schedule a series of Pam Grier movies around. Zola.
Zola hits theaters on July 30.