Writer-director Janicza Bravo is a officially Sundance veteran. “Zola” is her second feature to premiere and her fourth time showing work at the festival. And as a such, she’s taking all of the buzz around her film — based on the 148-Tweet stripper saga that went viral in 2015 — in stride.
“I can’t wait to show the work, and — maybe this is graphic — but I can’t wait to amputate it,” Bravo said. “It’s been like this appendage that’s been attached to my body for close to three years, and I’m ready to cut it off.”
It’s been a long road from Twitter to the big screen for the unconventional tale. “Zola” tells the wild and dramatic — and mostly true — tale of a woman named A’Ziah “Zola” Wells King, who follows a new friend from Detroit to Tampa, Fla. to earn some money stripping. Before long, the trip is marred by kidnapping, a shooting, trafficking and a suicide attempt.
And it was an equally arduous journey for Bravo to join the project, after first learning of the viral thread, hashtagged #TheStory, shortly after it was posted. Bravo recalls having it sent to her in a group text chain she’s on with her Los Angeles girlfriends, where they send each other all the “ratchet, dark stories” the internet loves to comment on.
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“You’re like, this is not funny on paper. Like it’s not funny. But [A’Ziah] managed to extrapolate all of this humor and tension and stress and anxiety and it just like got me. … It was electric,” she explained. “I could feel the blood coursing through my veins and I wanted it and I thought that like only a black girl could’ve experienced that and processed it and exorcised it. In that way, only a person who is innately adept at engaging with their trauma, is able to take a step away from it, retell the story, and take a hold of their narrative.”
“From the moment it entered into my hands, I was like, ‘Must make it now.’ And I tried, I tried to get the story, and it didn’t happen,” Bravo said. The film — adapted from David Kushner’s Rolling Stone profile “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted” — was initially set to be directed by James Franco, who ultimately dropped out of the project.
In May 2017, Bravo finally landed the job, boarding “Zola” alongside distributor A24.
“[A24 is] integral to why I got the job,” Bravo said. “I wasn’t the only director being considered. … I think a part of what they sort of pitched and what they were most enticed by was what my version of the movie was going to look like.”
In addition to helming the movie, Bravo co-wrote the script with Jeremy O. Harris (“Slave Play”). Taylour Paige (“Hit the Floor”) stars as Zola, Riley Keough (“The Lodge”) portrays Jessica, Nicholas Braun (“Succession”) as Jessica’s boyfriend, and Colman Domingo (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) plays Z, the pimp.
Ahead of the film’s premiere screening on Friday afternoon, Bravo is trying not getting too in her head about the audience reaction. She admits that she hasn’t really played out how the film will be received. “I think the moment I’ll drop in is right when I arrive at Eccles [Theatre] on Friday,” she speculated.
Bravo likened the experience of debuting a film at Sundance to planning a wedding. The guests are there, the food is great, but you’re not even drinking and having fun because “one person gave you a weird look” that stressed you out, she said.
“I’ve been to the festival before — I was there with my first feature [her 2017 debut “Lemon”], and I went in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and had tons of expectation. And it didn’t go — all of those markers weren’t checked off… and I think that’s why I’m approaching it a little differently now.” Bravo said.
Instead, Bravo is focusing on the one person’s approval that mattered to her most.
“I am proud of the film. I feel good about the film. I said mostly what I wanted to say, and that’s all I can ask for,” she said. “The real Zola got to see it, and she gave me a thumbs up. Honestly, to me, that’s what I needed.”