Zola director Janicza Bravo reveals the ‘stressful’ movies that inspired her

Zola, out on Wednesday, is among the most expected and aesthetically distinctive movies to come out in 2021. Starring Taylour Paige (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and Riley Keough (Under The Silver Lake), the brand-new A24 movie changes Aziah “Zola” King’s raucous 2015 Twitter account of a weekend journey removing in Florida gone awfully incorrect (a thread just recently released as a book) into an odyssey worthwhile of Homer. As Matt Patches put in Polygon’s evaluation out of the 2019 Sundance Movie Celebration, “So many filmmakers come to mind when the credits roll on Zola: Joel and Ethan Coen, Paul Thomas Anderson, Andrea Arnold, Martin Scorsese, and even Hollywood Shuffle director Robert Townsend — people known for synthesizing image and script, comedy and thrills, the personal and universal. Zola works at that level, with Bravo’s vision empowering Paige’s observant-but-active lead performance.”

With Zola launching in theaters this Wednesday, Polygon talked with director Janicza Bravo (Lemon, FX’s Atlanta) about what produces an effective “stressful comedy,” the procedure of establishing the movie’s unique visual design and callbacks to 2015-era social networks, and the kind of movies she would set for a movie celebration committed to Zola.

[Ed. note: This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.]

In an interview with Hollywood Press Reporter, you stated the category of “stressful comedy” as the one you feel the most comfy operating in. What are a few of your preferred difficult funnies, and what in your viewpoint identifies those type of motion pictures apart from routine funnies, in your words?

I describe my own work as difficult funny. And I believe that lane suggests it’s work that is uproarious, however likewise extremely uneasy. And in some cases it’s simply not amusing at all — it’s simply uneasy. So I’m like someplace because sweet area. A few of my preferred difficult funnies, I would state Minnie and Moskowitz is most likely my top; [John] Cassavetes’ film starring Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel. It’s simply a gorgeous romance, if you have Requirement Channel it’s on there today. Another one I truly dig would be something more contemporary, Punch Drunk Love. I believe Charlie Kaufman’s work really likewise sort of exists in this sphere, like Being John Malkovich. [And] Adjustment! I seem like those movies all would sort of fit in that area.

While recording the film, existed any other movies you wanted to for motivation that draw comparable motivation from the interactive visual of social networks?

I believe this is gonna sound bad, however I don’t desire it to sound bad. I don’t believe that there is a film that is talking with the web like I remain in this movie. Or is talking to like the aesthetic appeals of the digital world like I am. There are lots of digital gestures in the film that I haven’t seen utilized prior to. I haven’t seen a timestamp in a movie; I haven’t seen a screensaver in a movie; I haven’t seen the lock screen utilized in the manner in which the timestamp is; I haven’t seen texting utilized as monologue and sort of dealt with like a Shakespearean aside. And perhaps they do exist, I simply haven’t seen that film.

Mobile phone are a lot a part of our life, therefore when you’re handling contemporary work, it’s natural for characters to text or talk on their phones. And I simply believed it simply felt so unpleasant seeing somebody look at a phone, right? Or watching some text on a phone and then the text is on screen, or watching someone text on the phone and then you’re showing like a image of their phone. We’ve already seen that, and I think maybe the beginning of seeing that has kind of worn off and so now it starts to feel a little bit exhausting. I thought so much about how to engage these things that are so embedded into our life? How to engage them differently or in a way that I hadn’t seen that still excited me.

Janicza Bravo directing Taylour Paige with Riley Keough in the background during the filming of Zola

Janicza Bravo speaks to Taylour Paige on the set of Zola
Photo: A24

I was trying to treat 2015 a little bit like it was a period. Like, to me, we’ve made a period film. 2015 is a time capsule. It feels archival. I mean gosh, wasn’t that simply so long ago? [laughs] There are these certain things that were introduced to us by way of our cell phones that are now simply very much a part of our life, and so I was also trying to call attention to what our relationship were to a certain visual things. Like how they’ve now become embedded. We have sort of a Pavlovian relationship even to the sound cues of social media. There’s a volume button later in the film, there used to be a larger one that was more period specific, but the volume button in the movie resembles more how it looked in 2016 or 2017. The one we were using initially was taken from the 2015 image, which was kind of like a like a triangle of sorts. I ended up getting rid of it because at one of the first screenings, when it came on screen, a lot of people in the audience went to their phones. And I believe that our brains are just fucked. Our relationship to our phones is fucked. The other thing that happens too is that there’s a Twitter whistle throughout the movie, and sometimes I’ve noticed people go to silence their phones whenever they hear that. Which to me, I think that’s awesome. I love that. I think that’s fantastic.

How did you conceptualize the social media affordances of the film? Were there any sort of direct reference materials you were pulling from, like videos that you or the cast shot? How did you go about visualizing and implementing that in the film?

A lot of those things are scripted. I’m trying to think like what specifically, I mean, so many things were also like post. Like, the scroll is something that happened in post. We had a visual effects specialist who came in and built that for us. So that’s not something that happened in the moment. Even that in-screen screenshot of them driving down the road, a lot of that magic happened later. There’s a scene when Riley’s taking a photo of both her and Taylour and you see the moment where the flash goes, or where the camera shutters because there are those blackouts inside of it; like that’s what happens when you take a picture on the phone. That’s what happens and so we’re replicating that. So a lot of that stuff was in post, but it was written into the dialog. There’s a line that says that’s going to happen, but we kind of had to imagine that it would, because like, in the scene, we’re just living and that kind of became a part of our magic later. That was our sauce that came later.

Janicza Bravo sits on a bed beside Taylour Paige and Riley Keough during the filming of Zola.

Janicza Bravo with Taylour Paige and Riley Keough while filming Zola
Photo: A24

You’ve spoken before about how you knew you were the best person to tell Zola’s story and, in essence, to protect her character. That you are afraid that if you weren’t to do it, that there might have been a version of this movie where Zola would not have been given a fair shot. Tell me more about that.

I think we’re both living in the same world. And in the world that we’re living in, Black women are not afforded dignity or often room. There is a version of this movie that treats that character like she is disposable; treats her world like it is disposable; treats her agency like it’s insignificant. I felt I was the right person for it because I was going to protect it; I was going to protect it through and through and was sort of down for the long haul. I am forever in community and in union with the real Zola. I think when regular people — and the word “regular” sounds kind of odd — but I think when we engage people outside of this business, real people, and we invite them into this business, I do think there is responsibility to take care of them, and to guide them and to make sure that they’re going to be treated right. Because this business, like a multitude of creative businesses, profits off of the backs of many without crediting them. And when confronted with that fact many will just turn around and say well, they signed on the dotted line! So I just didn’t want us to do that. I wanted us to be able to be an example of perhaps how to do it right. I don’t know that we did everything right, but I know we did some things right.

Let’s imagine for a sec that there’s an entire movie festival dedicated to Zola. “Janicza Bravo presents: The Zola Festival.” What are some of your favorite movies that you would love to see play alongside Zola, or ones whose themes, tone, and look you feel compliment those of your own movie?

I think that if we were going to do say, a night or a day of a festival that was inspired by Zola, I would want to play a series of Pam Grier films: Coffy, Cleopatra Jones, Foxy Brown, Jackie Brown. I feel like that when I started to work on the film and I started to work on that character, I asked myself and my co-writer Jeremy O. Harris, “Can you name a black female protagonist who you’ve seen in a lead? Who seems almost like a superhero; Who’s totally fearless, but is also quite feminine and comfortable in her sexuality?” And we both found ourselves gravitating towards Pam Grier and that being sort of like, the very first and the last time we had really seen that so clearly. So I would definitely program a series of Pam Grier movies around Zola.

Zola will be launched in theaters on July 30.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.