[never have i ever questions sexy]‘Zola’: Janicza Bravo on the Pleasure and Terror of Making the Stripper Saga | Vanity Fair

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  Janicza Bravo is sitting in her home in Los Angeles, recounting a recent, lightly surreal Uber ride. When she hopped in the car, the driver turned and asked if she had been vaccinated. “I was like, ‘Yes,’ and then he took his mask off!” she exclaims over Zoom. He told her twice that she could take hers off as well, but she declined, her brain spiraling into a flurry of question marks. “Like, Who are you? What’s happening? Who was in here before me?” she says, comically escalating the moment into an existential frisson. “I’m stressed now with the energy in this box! I don’t need this! Pass!”

  It’s the kind of micro moment the auteur might slot into one of her idiosyncratic films, which often follow vulnerable weirdos hanging on to the fringes of society. The writer-director’s work—films like Lemon, shorts like Man Rots From the Head—is a freaky, funny, dark tableau, lassoed together by clever writing and sumptuous cinematography. Bravo’s latest and most high-profile offering is her sophomore feature, Zola, based on the epic Twitter thread written by A’Ziah “Zola” King. The real Zola kicked off her 2015 thread with an indelible opening line—“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out”—retracing a trip to a Florida strip club that went violently awry.?

  The then 19-year-old was an impactful storyteller, painting a funny, shocking narrative about being dragged to a series of hotels and motels by a new (fake!) friend and her cruel pimp. As the thread went viral, Bravo was ensnared, immediately envisioning a cinematic version of Zola’s tale—dubbed the “thotyssey” by Twitter.?

  Bravo, who cowrote the film’s script with Tony-nominated writer and close friend Jeremy O. Harris, fought hard for a chance to direct the movie, finally getting tapped by A24 to bring Zola’s story to the screen after a previous version helmed by James Franco fell apart. Nearly six years (and one pandemic) later, Zola has finally arrived in theaters, starring Taylour Paige in the titular role. In Bravo’s hands, Zola is a brilliant fantasia of sex, crime, and comedy—an artful foray that, above all else, honors the storyteller who bore witness to all this madness in the first place.?

  Vanity Fair: Zola is here, it’s happening. How do you feel?

  Janicza Bravo: I am trying really hard to embrace it and enjoy it. When we were at Sundance last year, I really regret that I didn’t take pleasure in the moment.

  What was holding you back?

  I think most directors will tell you it’s work having the same conversation over and over again. It feels like I’m in an old folks’ home and being asked to revisit my memories to make sure I remember them in the right order. Also, I don’t think I’m in the minority here—but when 2020 started, I was like, “This is my year.” I was just ready for all this light to shine down on me. I put in my 10,000 hours, I was on my Malcolm Gladwell journey. It was less about the specifics of the work and more that I can feel I’ve put in the time. The blood and the sweat and the tears. And so, at the end of that, some door is going to open, right? Some waterfall of balloons is going to rain down on me.?

  Sundance was the beginning of what I believed to be this longer road of getting to the balloons. You can’t enjoy it too much. If you enjoy it too much, then what is there left to enjoy? As if there is a drought of pleasure! I should go to therapy, and I shouldn’t be using these interviews as me processing that which needs probably, like, ketamine or mushrooms to actually uncover it.

  That was actually how I pitched the interview: “I will help her get through it.”

  [Laughs] “I’ve been listening to this girl and she needs help, you guys.”

  You’re not a therapy person, though?

  I am and I’m not. I made the mistake of breaking up with my therapist in 2019. I found a great therapist to really help me through my divorce. This is going to sound like a sketch on a television show, but she moved offices, and her new office was going to be 35 minutes away. The thought of driving an hour round-trip and having to figure out parking on either end was a downvote.

  And when the pandemic started…the thought of auditioning a therapist and having to retell some truncated version of where you’re at to find out if you like how someone responds to it—downvote two. I really am curious about doing ketamine therapy. Less so mushroom therapy because I actually like mushrooms in my life, so I don’t want to have that kind of relationship to them. But I’ve never done ketamine and I’ve heard it’s a really profound way of working through some of those layers.

  I didn’t know there was such a thing as ketamine therapy. I thought the allure was you can disassociate and be detached.

  That’s what I thought too and why I never did it. My introduction to ketamine was high school and seeing people at a party in a K-hole was deeply terrifying. Being trapped in your own body? No thanks! But I have one friend who was really high on ketamine therapy. They really liked the thing that it did for them.?

  Now, I’ve been in therapy since I was like 12 or 13, and I have always had white therapists, except for the last woman. I really loved seeing someone who was of color. I didn’t notice, looking back, how I had been racially editing myself because I didn’t want to explain my Blackness. I understood, even when I was very little, that my therapist wasn’t going to get that part. So I am interested in [ketamine therapy], but I would like to find a person of color who administers and does the work, and in my light research, everyone that’s in the game is white. I thought this whole thing should be about drugs, by the way. And drug therapy. I’m hoping that’s what you’re thinking, too.

  I swear I have nothing but questions about Zola. I’ve seen the movie twice now; I know you’ve talked a lot about how you wanted to direct it when you saw the original thread. Was there one moment in particular that jumped out at you?

  This is going to sound like a cop-out, but it’s really from the very beginning. I had this very visual experience of reading it. [I envisioned] mostly empty rooms. I could see the light and I could feel wall-to-wall carpet. Todd Hido, the photographer, took these pictures of empty apartments and their interiors [in the book Todd Hido on Landscapes, Interiors, and the Nude]. You can see, in a rug, the outline of a dresser. Or on a wall, the outline of a frame. The wallpaper is stained. It feels a bit ghost-y. There had been all of this history. And as I read through [Zola’s] thread, I was seeing a lot of these spaces that had a good deal of history that sometimes was really pleasurable, and other times was really unpleasant. It vacillated between great joy and great terror all at once.

  You had David Lynch references and Hieronymus Bosch references in your original pitch. How did the pitch differ from the final product?

  When I pitch, I don’t usually reference filmmakers. I think that David Lynch quote you’re talking about is that our industry really thrives on “It’s this meets this!” and people get, like, hot and horny for that. Even though it kind of disgusts me, I try to find the version of it that makes me feel good. And I had coined that Zola was “Where Blue Velvet meets ‘Bodak Yellow.’” [Bravo pretends to vomit.] It worked. I just knew it did. And in a way it made sense, right? It’s going to be sexy, but it’s also going to really bum you out.

  There were so many other references, but it was mostly photography. Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s book Hustlers. Deana Lawson’s portraiture. There’s this other artist who I became friends with online whose Instagram is @suffer-rosa. He does these really beautiful pictures. They’re shot on film and even though he’s shooting mostly empty, inanimate objects, there’s all this care around these empty spaces. One of the reasons I try to stay away from watching movies is I can be a really good copier. I will digest and consume through some process of osmosis, and so I just stay away. There are certainly films that we, as a cast and crew, had to watch, but I tried to not use those in the references.

  What films were you assigning your cast to watch?

  Coffy, Natural Born Killers, Showgirls, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Paris Is Burning. And The Wiz and The Wizard of Oz were references for me, in a way. Taylour Paige’s main costume in the movie is meant to pay homage to Dorothy. She’s got a gingham set and she goes on this adventure where she meets three people who are never going to be her friends.

  I’d forgotten that Zola was 19 when she tweeted the story. When casting, was it always your plan to age up a bit?

  I’m always going to cast who I think is the best. Age matters, but I’m a director first and want to cast the best version of the film. With Taylour, I felt there was an opportunity to cast an unknown. We saw over 700 people for that part and the range was pretty wide, 18 to late 20s. I think some girls that auditioned were maybe 17 or 16, and it always felt a little scary to me. Like, I don’t really want to put teenagers in this clothing. I don’t really want to put teenagers in this situation. But Taylour was the best person. And since we started with Taylour, then it was building the world around Taylour.

  Just going through the cast, I wanted to ask about Riley [Keough, who plays Stefani] and the blaccent that she does. Is that something she came to an audition with, or was that something you worked on later?

  Riley got the offer to play the part. She didn’t audition, so I didn’t know if she could actually do it. When we met I was like, “I have this idea for the part that is scary and really stressful, and I believe that you’re going to be up for it.” She is my favorite kind of actor because she says yes first. She only asks questions after, which, for a director, is just delicious because we’re all fascist dictators, right? Not to say that working with an actor that has questions isn’t a dream, but having someone just go, “Okay,” is perfect for me.?

  We got a voice coach, Aris Mendoza. She wasn’t a white woman, and I feel it’s worth noting. She’s a mixed woman, half-Black. They would work on it and ?send me tapes. Halfway through the process I called and said, You’re holding back. The best version of this is one in which you totally let go. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to go well, or that it’ll land, but we have to basically dive off the diving board headfirst. And really the whole film has that quality.

  This is tangential, but there’s one moment I wanted to ask about that shows the dynamic between Zola and Stefani. They’re both in the bathroom and the camera’s overhead and they’re peeing. Zola’s is super light and Stefani’s is super dark. It telegraphs so much, but it’s not part of the original Twitter thread. How did that moment come to you?

  There’s some portion of the audience that will have a very hard time siding with Taylour. The world has brought us here, right? We have a hard time believing women, and we have a really hard time believing Black women. I arrived at this idea of giving Riley a handicap. Her handicap is minstrelsy. Her handicap is playing a stereotype. And yet, their start line is the same. It doesn’t matter how tender or generous or open Zola is. Her Blackness is also a handicap.?

  Obviously that’s not how I see it, but it’s how the world is going to treat a Black woman and a white woman who are standing next to each other, pleading their case. The overhead is having this conversation. It is meant to tell you everything there is to know about both of these women—before they got here, after they leave here, how they engage with hygiene, what is coming out of their body. It tells you that story.?

  It’s one of my favorite moments. I’m curious about what your favorite moment is, and if it’s changed over the years.

  I have a top three, or four, or five favorite moments. [But] the prayer circle [with Ts Madison]—I’m really proud of that. Actually, this morning, I wanted to see Jeremy and I’s first draft of the script. It was written November 2017. The prayer circle wasn’t in there and I got so excited for myself because I was like, oh my God, that was an idea I had when I was doing my director’s pass and I wrote it! And I think it’s one of the best scenes in the movie.?

  I’m realizing I didn’t ask about Jeremy yet. I did want to ask—

  ‘Cause you don’t like him! But that’s okay.

  [Laughs] Look, I know you guys are best friends, but sorry.

  I get it, you don’t like him, I understand.

  I was curious about the collaboration on the screenplay and what it looked like. Did you ever share physical space and write?

  I wish!

  Was it just emailing each other drafts?

  We were like long-distance lovers. He was at Yale in his second year and I was in L.A., trying to direct episodes of television and getting rejected. This is pre-Zoom. We weren’t Skyping. We didn’t FaceTime. We would text each other and send each other emails and communicate on Instagram. That was how we wrote. We would just send each other ideas. Like the piss scene, for instance. I was like, There’s gotta be this piss moment. And I remember him clearly saying to me, I don’t get it, but you seem really excited about it, so, okay.

  And you were like, “Well…I’m the director, so it’s in!”

  Totally. What’s great with everyone I collaborate with is if it’s something I’m really excited about it, I’m like, “It’ll just be there because I’m directing it.” That’s not a fun relationship, but at least I’m aware. And honestly, awareness is a big part of acknowledging your problems.

  Absolutely. And this is how we get back into therapy.

  [Laughs.]

  One more thing about Jeremy. I saw in the THR piece that he thought you were a white Polish male auteur after he saw your short Gregory Go Boom.?

  He’s not the first person. When we first met, I had made three or four short films and heard many times from people, “Oh, I thought you were going to be a white guy.” I think I used to be turned on by that. I thought it said something about my filmmaking that was uber-masculine and rock-hard. That’s where I was, mentally. I was brainwashed, you guys. But I thought that was the goal, right? If I had appeared more male or more white, then it would mean there’d be more opportunities afforded to me. And of course, those things didn’t translate because ultimately when I was in the room, I didn’t read white. [Laughs] This is downvote three, as it were.

  You’ve talked a lot about your work as an examination of and an interrogation of whiteness. And I know you said in another interview that someone derisively said you making Zola was like you discovering you were Black.

  It was my coming out.

  Which is pretty outrageous.

  It doesn’t feel good! But from making my first feature Lemon in 2017 to now, I have been interviewed more by nonwhite journalists than I ever have in my life. Truly to the point where I’m like, were you guys there before? Where are you from?

  The people who mostly said that though, or engaged with me in that way, are actually non-white. I don’t think white people are totally comfortable being like, “You direct white movies.” They might be thinking it, but they certainly haven’t said it to me. Mostly the people who say that are of color, and I used to get really sad about it.?

  I think it’s actually more nuanced. When a non-white writer is asking me that, I think what they’re trying to say is there are so few of us—why have your efforts in this space not included us? And I’m 40 now. I’m a little warmer. I’m a little more sensitive and I get what’s happening there, though I don’t think it’s fair or that I deserve it because nobody’s asking Wes Anderson if he’s anti-Black, or not interested in Black people. Nobody’s asking Noah Baumbach that. I’m not trying to attack those guys. There are these white filmmakers who are allowed these entirely white spaces that are devoid of color, and I think they should also be put on the line and asked these questions about why they’re interested in worlds that are not integrated. It’s only fair.

  Yeah, there is a double standard there.

  Right. I don’t know why there was a question of me working in those spaces. Also, if you were to look at all of that work, every white actor I was working with was relatively notable. I had access to those actors because they were my friends and they were saying yes to me for zero dollars. They were willing to give me two, three, four days of their time. I knew that it would afford me some kind of privilege, or I hoped it would. I hoped I would be able to say, “Michael Cera’s in my film, Alison Pill, Katherine Waterston, Brett Gelman, Megan Mullally…” That you would know who those people are and that they said yes to me would perhaps afford me the big yes.

  You mentioned Michael Cera. He starred in two of your shorts and in Lemon. Was he something of a muse for you? Or is that not how you would characterize it?

  The theater kid in me thinks more in terms of company. Brett is very much in my company. Alison Pill, Katherine Waterston, Jodie Turner-Smith. There’s a bunch of actors I’ve left off who would probably get sad because their names won’t be mentioned, but please don’t forget Brett, because he was also my ex-husband. [Laughs]

  But yeah, Michael was one of the first people of merit that said yes to me. I mean, Brett said yes to me, but he was sharing a bed with me. But Michael was saying yes, and we hadn’t had sex, you know? [Laughs.] I ran into him at South by Southwest and Brett was like, You should come see our short film! I was embarrassed. Like, oh my God, this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, why are you doing this? We gave him a ticket and he went inside. Then he wrote Brett and said he really loved it. He was like, If you ever need me to do anything, I would love to be a part of your world. And that was how it started.

  That’s lovely. Bringing it back to Zola, I did want to ask one more question. You shot the film on 16mm. How did you arrive at that aesthetic choice?

  I wanted to see the real Zola on this international stage and wanted her to get flowers at her feet, and I felt like advocating to shoot on film elevated the work. For those who had discredited it before it even existed, that it was shot on 16mm gave it a certain gravitas. It said that it deserved true criticism. It made it a film! It made it a tangible film. It wasn’t disposable.?

  This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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