There are different interpretations of the phrase “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” but in the case of Janicza Bravo landing in the director’s chair for the Twitter anthology film Zola which debuts today, both are true.
Like everyone else on October 27, 2015, Bravo was enthralled by Aziah “Zola” King’s fascinating road trip tale. Just 10 or 15 tweets into reading the saga that night, the director tells us, “I forwarded it to both my agent and my manager and I said, ‘I don’t know how this works. I don’t know if there is such a thing as Twitter IP, but I want this.'”
Seventy-two hours later, Bravo’s team got back to her with a game plan on how to use Rolling Stone’s retelling of the story to acquire King’s life rights and make movie magic, but by that time there were multiple bidders gunning for the project, Bravo explains. “I throw my name in the hat, but I’m the least sexy name in the hat at that time, right. I’m not saying I’m a sexy name in a hat right now, but I’m definitely the least seasoned of everyone that’s throwing their names in the hat. There were studios even going after it.”
Bravo, who at the time hadn’t directed a feature film yet, lost out on the project. But a little over a year later–just one month after her first feature, Lemon, debuted at Sundance–a chance conversation overheard by Jodie Turner-Smith put Bravo back in the running.
“[Jodie]’s at some party, I think at the Chateau Marmont, and she hears someone talking about how the movie is now transitioning out of this one director’s hands and they’re looking for a new director,” Bravo explains. “So she’s texting me at 2:45 in the morning like, ‘If you want it it’s available.’ And again I send that email to both my agent and my manager, and I’m like ‘It’s here, it’s out again.'”
Turner-Smith’s text jumpstarted a three-month process in which Bravo auditioned for the role, as she calls it, likening the work she had to do to prove she was the right person to direct Zola to what actors have to do to land a part. After putting together a plan of “what it could sound like, and who we could cast and the people I wanted to bring in and who I wanted to write it with and who I wanted to edit it with,” the project was officially Bravo’s in May of 2017.
“I feel in some way, it’s maybe meant to be that I got that message because at that time I was looking for what my second film was,”Bravo says. “There was a film that was presented to me that I was interested in and I liked the world of it. It was certainly my kind of characters that I had wanted to work on and work with. And so I was on a road to pursuing that and then ‘Zola’ presents itself. And once it presented itself again, I’m like, ‘No, this is for me I want this.’
Bravo dynamically brings King’s tweets to life in the drama which stars Taylour Page in the titular role. Through the use of dream-like sequences and straight-to-camera dialogue, viewers are consistently reminded that no matter how outrageous the detail, they’re watching a true story–with a Hollywood twist of course. When it comes to the cinematography, Bravo says she asked herself, “If I were going to retell one of the most upsetting, but exciting parts of my life, how would I cast my narrative?” She adds, “The lens for me was girlish, it was playful, it was sexy, a little bit naughty and dangerous.”
As significant as telling King’s tale and shedding a light on sex trafficking and the racial undertones therein, Bravo also considers social media and the internet as a whole an honorary subject of the film.
“It’s some kind of love letter to the internet,” she says. “It’s not a sweet love letter to the internet, it’s got some spice. But it’s very much a love letter to the internet. It’s like meme culture, it’s GIF culture, it’s bine, it’s all of these really electric aspects of the internet that were really hot at this time. And when thinking of, if you’re going to meme or GIF the world, what’s the right patina for that? That patina was something to me that was really juicy and playful and dreamy.”
Check out our full interview with Janicza Bravo as she talks more about shaping King’s narrative in Zola in the video above.