Janicza Bravo: ‘Zola’

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Director, Janicza Bravo. Photo by Charles Prince King.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes director Janicza Bravo, whose newest film is the feature “Zola” based in part on an infamous twitter thread from 2015. Bravo’s other films include “Lemon” and the short “Man Rots from the Head.” Bravo tells The Treatment one of her inspirations for “Zola” was a centuries old triptych she discovered while living abroad. She says her theater background was an asset in blocking the film and using the camera like the audience of a play. And Bravo says a key scene that pulls much of the film’s themes together was actually unintentionally out of focus.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest, writer, director and sometimes actor Janicza Bravo has done a few terrific short films, but we're here to talk about her feature film "Zola." You have a feel for staging, for proximity and for costume, and it's all there in abundance in "Zola," I think.

Janicza Bravo: I went to theater school, so I think that's part of my rulebook. I went to this program at NYU, where the focus was directing, design, with a dash of acting, and there isn't a version of my work that exists without that. And I am, at the very least, really comfortable with blocking. You know, everything might be falling apart, but I can block the s--t out of a scene.

KCRW: Well, not a lot of directors can, and I can almost feel the proscenium arch in your work sometimes.

Bravo: Oh, absolutely. I love playing in the wide. And I think that's the theater kid in me: really staging and thinking in the wide. 

You use the word proscenium. I feel there are a good deal of shots in "Zola," where you feel that we're sort of on the stage, and the camera is the audience that we're playing to. Being able to use blocking to also indicate where a character is at. Our focus is Zola, and a good deal of the staging and framing is meant to kind of isolate her, so we're consistently reminded that she is not only our narrator, but our protagonist and our core when we look to her. 

KCRW: One of my favorite shots in the movie is when she moved or has been transplanted to Florida, she comes out and she's wiping down a pole and trying to do it sexily. It's kind of like watching somebody come out and sweep the stage of a black box theater before the show starts.

Bravo: Taylour Paige, who plays Zola, is a trained dancer. She studied with Debbie Allen, and one of the things that was really important to her with working on this character and building her Zola was the authenticity of that work. It was something that she had shared with me and a multitude of the dancers that I had gotten to interview, literally just having them walk me through the rudimentary aspects of their work beyond the sexiness of the dance. What is the prep? What's the lead up? Something maybe simple as not putting lotion on my body, because that doesn't work when you're climbing up a pole. And that is a part of the work. I think it's something that we don't notice, or maybe someone wouldn't choose to include because it isn't sexy, but I wanted to treat this aspect of stripping, of dancing, of sex work, which also happens in the film, I wanted to really imbue it with integrity and look at all of the parts of the work.

KCRW: At some point in everything you've done, there's a kind of moment of transcendence for your characters. "Zola" starts with it. In "Pauline," the last scene is about that. And "Man Rots from the Head," there are scenes back and forth of this character looking for transcendence. These characters so often are looking to be transported from the worlds in which they live.

Bravo: I haven't looked at those moments in that way. I think that film allows for an opportunity to play in fantasy. It allows for an opportunity to imagine life as larger than it is or than it gets to be and really leaning into what the medium allows for. And I think that most of the characters that I'm attracted to have these rich fantasy lives or these rich interiors, and I'm allowing them or they're allowing me--we're sort of hand in hand-- to take these big leaps of getting to luxuriate in our fantasy.

KCRW: To me this movie felt like this flowering of all these pieces you've done in the shorts. I was thinking that the first act kind of ends in the scene where they pull up into the parking lot of this sleazy hotel in the Benz Jeep, and the boys dribbling on the second floor is almost this punctuation, this tap that really starts the dance aspect of emotion, in aural terms.

Bravo: Yeah, I could see that as an entry into the second act. There was a painting that I had used that I shared with all of my department heads, which was Hieronymus Bosch’s "Garden of Earthly Delights." It lives at the Prado in Spain. I had studied abroad in my early 20s, and I had this class where every Thursday I got to go to the Prado museum, and I sort of fell in love with this painting and had this love affair where I would meet it every Thursday. I had pulled it for the film because what I love about that piece, it's a triptych. Panel one is heaven; panel two is earth and panel three is hell. And there is something about the world of "Zola," that feels like it transitions in this way home. That first act is Earth: there is something tranquil or placid, the palette is on the softer side. And then once you leave home, and you're headed towards Florida, things get a bit busier, a bit more saturated. And it's crowded, and the bass drops, literally, at least in our film. And then in that third act, where black is really introduced in that panel, there is this sense of we have crossed to the other side. It is something that happens as we get farther and farther away from home, night sets in. And we've introduced something that feels almost demonic or diabolical.

KCRW: Before we go any further, I should ask you to give the audience a taste of the plot.

Bravo: Yes, "Zola" is a dark comedy about two women who become fast friends. A Black woman is seduced by a white woman to go on a road trip from Detroit to Florida, with an opportunity to make money, and things do not go as planned.

KCRW: For those who may not know, there's a great Rolling Stone piece plus a series of astonishing tweets that basically were like ransom notes and pleas for help. Such mastery of immediacy, in fact, you want to follow them in real time. This also automatically runs through your work; those tweets were about this thirst for contact that people have, this need to connect.

Bravo: The Twitter thread, which this is based on, is so electric, and I was not on Twitter that day. I'm not on Twitter now. I've never been on Twitter so I didn't actively participate in the experience. And when I look back on it or even in that moment, it felt kind of like a live theatre experience. She's on a stage and the audience is literally talking at her, and she is talking back at them, and then she's getting juiced up by them and continuing to tell the tale. 

When it came to adapting it, something that I was worried about was how do we translate that? And the truth is, it's impossible. You can't translate the feeling of what was a live event. And for me, when I read it, I did read it within 24 hours of them having been released, I read a good deal of trauma. I did think it was funny, but I also thought this is a traumatized person. This is a traumatized person who is exorcising and processing their demons. So when it came time to mounting it or staging it, it's like, what point of view are we in? When does this take place? Is this after because the thing that's happening on Twitter is a retelling of an event that has passed? 

It's sort of like a "Goodfellas," like you have a sense that at least someone makes it out alive because there's a voice guiding you. And so, what tense are we telling the story in? In the mounting, I thought we can do a bit of both, right? We can have a sense that she does make it out because her voice will guide us somewhat. But you also want her to bring her back, put her back inside of that moment. Some of the protagonist's silence is actually because she is watching. She is writing. She is both the writer and the woman who lived it at the same time.

KCRW: You found the perfect actor in Taylour, who could offer a bit of distance, but whose emotional temperature we could read through her eyes.

Bravo: Oh gosh, her eyes. They're just so delicious. I mean, to me, those set of eyes speak to so many Black women. There's so many Black women who have made those faces, who are making those faces right now. Somewhere in the world right now, while you and I are talking, there is a Black woman out there making some stank, “no thank you,” "why is this happening to me" face. 

I saw so much of myself in the story. While it wasn't my lived experience, I have been that woman. I am that woman. I am somebody who is not considered; I am somebody who is treated like they're less than; I am somebody who feels invisible in many spaces. And I just feel like the way that Taylor processed that and played that is so beautiful. 

KCRW: I felt like even though sometimes your shorts haven't had Black people in them that they're all in some ways autobiographical, because at some point somebody is excluded. There's that shot where Riley and her boyfriend are trying to say goodbye. And we see Taylour in soft focus in the background. If that's not subtextually, what Black women feel like in that shot by being there but not being seen or being relegated to soft focus. I mean, that's such a beautiful moment.

Bravo: Thank you. It's sort of not intentional, by the way. This is one of these moments that my editor Joy Macmillan and I: we watched it and were crushed because, I kid you not, every take of Taylor was soft, every take, every closeup of her. We found the one piece of footage where she's a little bit in focus, and we do wedge it into that scene, but it feels a little bit, maybe off. 

I think in the end no one knows how the sausage gets made. It's only us that feels the pain. I kept getting a note from people being like it'd be great if there was a closeup. I was like, we don't have it. It doesn't exist. It's all out of focus. But it ends up saying something. It kind of does the thing. And what we were lacking, actually, is in conversation with one of the points the film is trying to make.

KCRW: One of the great parts about this is that great dynamic between Riley Keough and Taylour: to want something that somebody else has that you can actually steal from them and have more agency with than they can.

Bravo: If there's anything one thing I got right beyond the blocking, it was pairing these two. Their chemistry speaks volumes. The story doesn't work if they don't get on and they don't make sense together. And there is this real dance, a kind of choreography about how their performance works, which is: one is the straight man, which is Taylour, and the other is the buffoon, which is Riley. The great thesis of our piece is only made clear by the way that these two women play off of each other.

KCRW: One of the things that's fun about this, too, was between Colman Domingo and Jeremy O. Harris. You've got basically a theater club there. So you guys can talk about subtext and proscenium. In effect "Slave Play" in this way reflects that Bosch painting, too. It is about the three platforms of human existence: earthly, spiritual, and psychological. 

Bravo: It's funny that you brought up "Slave Play." Jeremy [O'Harris] will tell the story better, but I will tell a version of it, which is that when he came on board to be my co-writer, he was starting college, and I had been looking for a co-writer. I'd had a shortlist of co-writers and my now ex-husband Brett Gelman, who I had written my first feature "Lemon" with, both Jeremy and I were like, oh, gosh, I wish it could be you. Or I wish it could be me. And Brett says, Well, why can't it be?  I was like, well, we're not white and walking through the world as white. So I don't know that I can just show up to all these white people being like, I'm trying to hire someone who's going to college to be my co-writer. And he just was like, but why not? I kind of took that and was like, Okay, I'm gonna use that attitude, and then it happened. But the contract that I made with Jeremy was we can't start "Zola" until you finish your homework. And his homework was "Slave Play."

KCRW: You're talking about Brett. I'm glad you brought that up because in a lot of ways he embodies a character who always appears in your work. In this case, it's Riley, the white person, who walks through the world with so much confidence that they have no idea how destructive they are.

Bravo: Oh, they're a menace, right? I think that we are taught to engage with white as invisible. Living in my body, it is impossible to engage with white as invisible because it is incredibly visible and it is so visible sometimes that it is violent. Sometimes whiteness can be kind of a menace. 

You said that there were not Black characters in a lot of my short films, and I was having this kind of anthropological conversation with whiteness, and I still saw myself in that work. I was embodying some aspect of all of these characters, but Riley is very much menace. And Brett in "Lemon" is the menace. And in each short, I can point to who the menace is or what the quality of this menace is.

KCRW: We start to maybe feel some empathy, not just sympathy for Riley's character. Then in the last third, I'm not going to give this away, there's a twist in narration, and there’s so much of this in your worlds as well, it’s about where manipulation fits into the piece.

Bravo: Again, to go back to the source material. A’Ziah King wrote the story on Twitter in 2015. And when I read it, the day that it came out, within 24 hours, I had reached out to my agent, my manager, and I was like, I want this Twitter IP. How does it work? 72 hours later, they come back to me, and they say, there's an article in Rolling Stone and the life rights, but there are five bidders, and I'm like, boy, I have nothing to bid but talent, which can't pay anyone's rent. So I am not a part of that initial group of people that goes after the project. 

Two years later, it comes to me, but when I had gone after it in 2015, I did my homework in those 72 hours and started doing this kind of dramaturgy, and came across a handful of articles, and every article had questioned the validity of her story. Rather than asking: how does this happen to a young woman, and not only how does it happen, but it is happening right now to a multitude of women. And why don't we care about non-white women? Or why don't we care about women at all who are being trafficked? The thing that seemed to be most pressing was the validity of her story. And also: where's this white woman? And how does she feel that the story is being told? That's how little we care about Black women and their voices.

 I felt like there was a portion of this audience that was going to arrive at this story, already questioning the validity of her story, just because of what Taylour looks like, because of what I look like, because of what the real A’Ziah looks like, A’Ziah being the real Zola, and I felt it was important to include this other perspective in the film. Also, because when the story came out on Twitter, the other people who these characters are based on:  Stephanie Riley's real person told her version on Reddit, and Nick Braun's real person told his version on Facebook. And when you looked at all three of those pieces together, they were pretty symbiotic, except that each person had recast themselves. Each of us is the star of our own movie, clearly. And not only that, they would kind of play with when they were the beta, and when they were the alpha, and it was always in service of making themselves look better.

KCRW: To me, this really felt like you've been champing at the bit to make this kind of feature for a long time. "Lemon" was a much smaller scale piece. I don't know about the budget for [“Zola”], but this one feels expansive in the way that you've been trying to get for a while.

Bravo: "Lemon" is smaller, for sure. We made "Lemon" in 16 days, and we made it for under $700,000. And this we shot in 25 days, which I know is not a lot of time, but it is 11 more days than the last time, but there is a musculature about this movie. And I think that's a little bit of what you're speaking to. I was exorcising some muscles that I have. I was wanting to show what I felt were some of my strengths that I've gotten to show fractions of but haven't had the room to. I think I also needed to prove to myself that I had authorship, that I could see something through and I could play at a large scale. And I could play a multitude of keys: it could be funny, and it could be terrifying. And it could be distressing, and it could kind of feel good.

I call my genre "stressful comedy." Oftentimes, when I'm pitching myself to work on something that I am spearheading, this tends to be the space that I kind of want to hang out in. It's a little bit uncomfortable. It's very stressful. It's super absurd, but it's also very funny. And I'm always asked, well, like, Well, how do you do that? And I don't have the answer on how I just do, and I just do because that's a part of how I am pieced together. That's in my weaving; it's in my DNA. And I think that "Zola" really gave me a chance to play at a sport that I felt I could always do. I got to play it at a scale that I was invited into. I feel I landed it, and I hope it feels like I did.



Rebecca Mooney