Five years after A’Ziah Wells King posted the Twitter thread known as #thestory — a tale of how a trip from Detroit to Tampa, Fla., to earn money stripping quickly devolved into a wild ride, featuring a kidnapping, a shooting, sex trafficking and a suicide attempt — the real-life “Zola” is celebrating the film adaptation’s debut.
“It’s pretty surreal, but like I keep saying, this experience for me is something I manifested my whole life, so I kind of feel like everyone’s catching up to where I’ve already been in my head,” Wells King said, surrounded by the film’s cast and crew at Variety’s Sundance Studio, presented by AT&T.
Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo and Nicholas Braun star in the film adaptation of the 148-tweet saga, co-written and directed by Janicza Bravo. Of the group, Bravo, Keough and co-writer Jeremy O. Harris recall first catching onto the tweets when they were posted in 2015.
“I read it and I was reading it while it was live and I told A’Ziah this and she doesn’t remember. … I was like, ‘I tweeted at you’ and she responded,” Harris recalled.
Keough (who plays Stefani, a character renamed from Jessica from the tweets) also read the thread at the time. “I just kept thinking, ‘Wow, I’m still reading this.’ I can’t believe it’s gotten my attention. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is a lot of tweets.’”
“I mostly wanted to make sure that the thing that would translate from what A’Ziah had written, was her voice,” Bravo said. “The biggest challenge in writing and directing and putting the whole thing together was to make sure that what I had fallen in love with and what everyone here had fallen in love with, which was the original source material … [that] we would be able to live up to it.”
“When I got the job, it was important that we make some contact,” Bravo said of building a relationship with Wells King. “I FaceTimed with her and her mom, and I basically sort of interviewed her and then I used that as the rules by which we were going to play with the adaptation. I mean there wasn’t a ton for us to add to because already so much of it was already there.”
Bravo boarded the A24 project in 2017, but Harris revealed that his co-writer was actively working out her vision for the film well before she officially got the directing job.
“When she was auditioning for this, she was coming up showing like, ‘Here’s every thread that they were ever in. Here’s all these articles about the thing. Here’s every piece of clothing that every character should be wearing in the movie. She wanted to rewrite the movie and yet she already had designed for the movie as it was written. She had lighting designs, gesture designs,” Harris recalled. “And I was like, ‘Janicza, you’re doing too much work for this movie and you still haven’t gotten it. Move on.’”
Explaining why she just couldn’t shake Zola’s story, Bravo said, “If I wasn’t going to be mine … I didn’t want to ever look back and say that I hadn’t given it everything.”
“And there’s always a bit of fear when you’re sharing your ideas that perhaps you don’t get it and then somebody else, you know, sort of downloads your ideas and takes them,” Bravo continued. “But I felt sort of fearless. I mean, she is fearless, that character’s fearless. She — A’Ziah — is fearless and I approached it with that same degree of tenacity.”
“I also knew that literally no one is better for this,” she continued. “I just knew that I approached it with that confidence and I really thought that no one was going to protect it the way that I would. And so, if they weren’t going to hire me, they were wrong and they would have had a mistake on their hands.”
Paige recognized she’d need a similar tenacity to embody the take-no-prisoners protagonist Zola. And to do so, she required an attitude adjustment.
“I’ve spent a lot of my life saying sorry,” she explained. “’I’m so sorry.’ ‘Sorry to bug you.’ ‘Excuse me, sorry.’ And then I just had to f—ing say f— all that to step into this powerful fearless power. And I knew I needed to get rid of it.”
Paige continued: “I personally just was ready to let go of all my heavy, old stories that no longer serve me in order to be inhibited; I needed to kind of shed that.”
For Keough’s role as Stefani, the actor joked that “maybe I was the only actress in Hollywood that said I would do it” given that the role required her to be pimped out for sex by multiple characters throughout the film. But Bravo clarified that she was actually just their first choice to play the woman who introduces Zola into this whole mess.
“[Janicza] really wanted to go there with Stef,” Keough explained. “We did discuss the way I would talk and what I would look like and how my hair would be and obviously baby hairs. And obviously, you know, appropriation was a huge part of that conversation.”
“I remember the first day of shooting you,” Bravo recalled. “You were wearing this Dior outfit and you’ve got these baby hairs and this tiny bag. And you were like, ‘Is this going to be okay?’”
But Bravo was firm in her vision for the wild sun-drenched soap opera.
“Everything is being played at an extreme, and it is cartoonish,” Bravo explained. “The entirety of the film is a planet just next to ours — down to the way it’s dressed, down to the way it sounds, everything is in extreme because the experience to me of when I read that, was that it was like a rocket, that it was totally nuts.”