Director Janicza Bravo’s Path to ‘Zola’ Has Been a Wild Ride

“Zola” director Janicza Bravo would like to pay tribute to her ride-or-die: a Toyota Scion. “She took care of me all the way through,” Bravo says.

In 2006, Bravo was a young New York University graduate on lunch break at her retail job — APC in the West Village — when she answered the call that would change the course of her career. “I kept getting these calls,” she says. “I thought they were calls about things that I wasn’t paying for, so I was ignoring them.” Her coworker, who would go on to star in “Pose,” noticed that the call was from an L.A. area code and urged her to pick up. “I answered and found out that I won this car in the sweepstakes,” Bravo says.

She’d been voting for a cinematographer friend’s short film online in a contest sponsored by Toyota Scion. Unbeknownst to Bravo, each vote was an entry in a sweepstakes to win a car. She didn’t know how to drive and had 30 days to get her driver’s license so that she could claim the car.

“I went to upstate New York, and I got my driver’s license. I should have failed, but I cried to the man who was giving me the test. I was, like, ‘If I don’t get this car, I’m not going to move to Los Angeles; I want to be a director.’ He was just, like, ‘I don’t know what this story is,’ but he bought it,” says Bravo. “That car is solely responsible for why I’m in L.A. I’m a poor kid; I couldn’t afford to move here, I couldn’t afford to get a car. And I won that car in a sweepstakes and it totally changed my life. It brought me to my future.”

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Bravo’s debut feature, “Lemon,” premiered at Sundance in 2017, and she returned to the Park City, Utah, film festival in early 2020 with the buzzy “Zola,” led by Taylour Paige. She directed and cowrote the film, adapted from Aziah “Zola” Wells’ viral 2015 Twitter thread that infamously began: “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this b—h here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” The movie, told from Zola’s perspective, costars Riley Keough as a stripper and — as Zola discovers during an impromptu road trip — a sex worker. Chaos ensues.

“I never had read a voice like [Wells’] before. When I did a little bit of digging, I found out she was 19, and I couldn’t believe that a 19-year-old had survived this — and not only survived it but actually lived to tell it. And then  the way she chose to tell it was by leaning into her sense of humor; processing trauma through writing and humor,” says Bravo, who points to her affinity for making films that can be categorized as “stressful comedy.” “I mean, if I’d had 10 degrees of her agency, of her comfort with her sexuality, at 19 years old, who would I be today?”

“Zola” actor Nicholas Braun and Janicza Bravo in Park City, Utah, during Sundance in 2020. Lexie Moreland/WWD

Initially helmed by James Franco, Bravo campaigned for the film and stepped in as director when production stalled. The script, originally written by two white men, was completely overhauled. (The film’s lead, Paige, passed on the opportunity to audition for the earlier iteration of the project, finding the script racist and sexist.) Bravo brought Jeremy O. Harris onboard as cowriter, who at the time was attending graduate school at Yale (and had yet to stage his break-out play “Slave Play”). The pair wrote around their respective schedules with a process that reflected the story’s off-the-cuff origin. “We never wrote together in a room. We wrote via texting each other ideas, phone calls, long phone calls, long emails,” Bravo says.

She credits “Black Twitter” for championing Zola’s story from the beginning, and the pair kept that community in mind when writing the script. I kept thinking so much about the percentage of our audience that was going to show up because they had been there on that day, advocating for it to be made a film,” says Bravo, noting that while the first version used the Twitter thread as a jumping off point to tell a different story, she and Harris used the thread as the defining blueprint. ‘

“The assignment for us was, we gotta embrace the source material. We are not better than the source material. And we have to mine from there, and if we’re going to leave something out, I want to be really considerate about why we’re leaving it out.”

Bravo also pushed to shoot the movie using film — not only because “it just looks better,” but because of the gravity it added to the project. “There is something that happens on a film set when we’re shooting on film. There’s an energy that goes into making the work, and a quality and how it’s treated,” Bravo says. “Me pushing for us to shoot on film was me saying: this is as important as the great works.”

Actors Taylour Paige and Riley Keough with director Janicza Bravo on the set of “Zola.” Courtesy of Anna Kooris / A24 Fi

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