I remember being surprised by it the first time I saw it. A’Ziah told New York that you worked hard to make sure that she got a production credit and a writing credit on the film. I took him under my wing. We had this two-hour call with her and her mother, and 15 to 20 minutes into the call, she was like, “We’re very similar. And I was like, “Oh, no.” In the last act, the last 20 minutes, she got really quiet, and she was making these sounds. She was like, Here’s the world. She’s physically watching. I know you don’t think we are, and you think you’re not like me.” And I was like, “No, no, no. Even though I read as socially very at ease, I take a lot of breaks. I don’t know if you remember this, but in the ’90s, they’d do these early screenings and film people outside the theater being like, “Holy shit, that was crazy!”

Yes, like man on the street.Yeah, so it was a version of that. And that’s the power of whiteness. She had no cash. If she walks out of that theater not feeling cared for, I fucked up. Not that Brett is mediocre, but —Brett obviously moves through the world very differently. I’m so sorry to hear that. I wasn’t viable. If she doesn’t like the movie, she’s gonna tell people she doesn’t like the movie. But I wanted to inject Taylour’s character. You’re seeing the writer watch to then later retell and present. What was that like for you, that waiting period? A’Ziah is a fucking rocket, right? She introduced it to me with a lot of care but didn’t dumb it down. I was frustrated. And then at the end she started crying. I don’t have the range for it. I remember Jeremy was like, “I don’t get what this is, but you seem to really have a sense of it, so okay.” [Laughs] I love body stuff. And I was really hurt. Is that true? But there are five bidders.”

And I’m not saying I’m a bidder. But I’m glad that the movie is finally coming out. It was constantly veering in directions that I hadn’t expected. I didn’t know how to hold both of those things, to lose people and feel like I was losing my work and myself. Like the scene where the two men are passing the basketball back and forth in a sort of endless quantum loop. I wanted to replicate that for myself. References for character and design and tone and palette and texture. I don’t even know that my name arrived on the list. It was so magical. When I used to direct theater, I was an experimental director, and my work was really absurd and surreal and physical. Every detail, especially the costume design — I used to be a stylist, and my parents are both tailors. Playing music. And Nick Allen at Roger Ebert. When did you first hear the name Zola, when did you read the thread, and what was your initial reaction to it?I read it that first night, in 2015. [Laughs] I was taking a break in the kitchen, and our eyes connected from across the room. I don’t know. But there’s a dedication at the very end of the film for our hair department head. A lot of your energy is spent taking care of others. That’s real. I’m sorry to take it there. It’s a true garbage experience. A lot of the gestures in this world are really theatrical and are a bit larger than life. If I’m going to read all the positive things, I need to read the negative things. I’ve been thinking about it for that long. Her singularly strange debut, Lemon, turns the fumbling-failed-actor (played by Bravo’s ex-husband Brett Gelman) trope sideways, morphing it into an awkward anthropological study of white maleness. You haven’t made a living for yourself. It’s sooo funny. It was like watching DVD commentary. I’m not going to explain it to you, but you’re an intelligent enough person and audience, you’ll be able to deduce by what I’m showing you.” But [the original script] version was breaking down the world or simplifying it in some way. I think they were independent producers and a studio that was bidding, and I’d made, I think, two short films [at that point]. Because at that point it was still relatively early in his career — he didn’t have the public persona and catalogue of work that he has now.Jeremy and I met — I really don’t know the year, he’ll know better than me — at a house party in L.A. But that’s how she wrote it. My partner at the time, Brett Gelman, and I made him part of our family. That’s the one. Related

The Real Zola

Tags: I think A’Ziah, the real Zola, introduced us to a world that was, at least to me, foreign. It’s this subtle visual joke.That’s one of the early ideas I brought to the draft. Brett’s weird. In Interview magazine. It just is. This is not to take away from anyone’s contribution to the movie, but I am really anal-retentive, and there’s not a detail of the film that is not deeply embedded in my own DNA. And another is: How difficult was it to make sure she was credited? I felt that this was a communion I’d had, specifically with a lot of Black women — being silent, not in a space where you felt you could express yourself, but so much of what you were feeling was being expressed through your eyes and your gut. When it was announced at the beginning of 2016, around Sundance, Killer Films was a producer, and James Franco’s company, Rabbit Bandini, was the director. It was a no-cash narrative over here. You don’t know what I’m thinking. Maybe I do, but it’s not a space I’d feel necessarily comfortable in. It just felt bad. I wanted to lean into the enigma. In the world, we engage with whiteness as though it’s invisible. I think my comedy tone — I’d describe my place in that market as “stressful comedy.” I’ll go back to the source material and A’Ziah again: The thing she wrote was a piece of stressful comedy. And from that moment on he’s been my little brother. And so that “fuck you” is more — that’s what I felt was being said to me. Then we had this amazing lunch, and she warmed up to me, and she and her mom were both like, “It was amazing, thank you.”

Will you pay attention to the critical response to it generally? One Great Story: A Nightly Newsletter for the Best of New York
The one story you shouldn’t miss today, selected by New York’s editors. It’s gonna be so dark, and we get her onstage, and what if she’s like, ‘Downvote, you guys.’” She’d read the script, but from script to screen, it becomes a whole other animal. And I felt like there wasn’t room for me to mourn that because it was a year filled with so much loss. I lost my stepfather at the beginning of this year. We were all hanging out together. There was an era of my life — I’d send emails between two and four in the morning and then send emails again between seven and nine. Oh, boy. But they called me anti-Semitic, and I was like, Okay! When I finally got the film, people would be like, “What’s the movie?” I’d be like, “Oh, yeah, it’s a dark comedy. I wasn’t No. He’d describe how this happened differently, but that’s how I felt. Where? So yeah, I sent it to them at four in the morning, and I was like, “Twitter IP. I’ll judge myself too harshly. And whether or not the audience is conscious of it, some portion of them will show up naturally rooting for Riley. You’ve seen my work. One of my favorites is early on: We see the two women pee, and Riley’s is bright yellow and Taylour’s is clear; Riley sits right on the toilet and Taylour hovers. Email

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Terms of Service apply. Because Zola writes herself as the straight man; she recasts the story. It’s also a manifestation of the piece, right? Well, I don’t know what the whole context is. I don’t want to hear myself. Brett and I arrived at Sundance thinking, “We’re gonna be the toast of the town!” And thought everyone would get what we were doing. Her short films and TV work — such as Gregory Go Boom, in which a paraplegic Michael Cera blows himself up, and the unsettling, surreal “Juneteenth” episode of Atlanta — all stare directly (and very uncomfortably) into the desperate faces of unilaterally peculiar, tragicomic characters. Photo: Philip Montgomery for New York Magazine

This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. He was our baby. A tragicomedy, if you will. What was that process like — pitching your version of the movie? You see their piss and their relationship to how they use a toilet, and you know everything you need to know. My parents have lost seven friends. What has it been like for you to have this massive gap between premiering the film, then waiting two years to be able to speak about it and have people actually see it?[Sings] Crazy-making and really sad. The part where it’s funny and stressful and dark and uneasy, and sometimes all of those notes being played at the same time, is me. I think I sent it to them at four in the morning. [Laughs] I’ve mourned so much. So she came out, she saw it, and it was amazing. And I felt like a lot of that criticism was really aggressive. Zola feels simultaneously like a natural extension of Bravo’s bent sensibility and a freshly weird direction for her. That’s where we started. Bravo, who fought to adapt Zola’s story after James Franco abandoned his initial effort, leans hard into the uncanniness of it all, turning Zola’s zingy narrative into a dreamlike, darkly funny film about friendship, race, class, trauma, bad vibes, and the art of storytelling itself. She’s a menace. Because there’s a narrator, we have a sense that they’ve made it out. I was like, “Who’s gonna be my Pauline Kael?” And in a way, I think Mark Olsen did that for Brett and me. I spent last year mourning. I’m actually Jewish. She’s a white nightmare. I know I just said ‘sex slavery,’ but it’s really funny.” The truth is, without the humor, I wouldn’t be the right director for it. How difficult was it to make that happen?I think there’s two parts. Just the way she says a single word or gives a single glance to the side. I didn’t know how to make room for all of that. I said, “You can go fuck yourself!”? I was like, “Should we go to lunch?” And we got up in silence. But I think overall, the response was that we failed. And what was her eventual response?Oh my god. How he came to be my co-writer — Brett actually is responsible for that in some ways. I want to talk about the tone of the movie. So ahead of Sundance — and I was so glad that A24 was onboard for this — I was like, “We need to show her this movie before Sundance. Sometimes you just want to be held, and there isn’t anyone to hold you. He’s significantly taller than me, but he is my baby. I was like, She hates it. But totally intentional. She threw me a real nasty look, and it was like, That’s it. I’m still here!’”Oh my God, I said that?! These two girls become fast friends and go on a road trip to Florida, and one finds out she’s going to be sold into sex slavery, and she’s trying to get out of it.” And the person on the other end of that was always like, “That’s supposed to be funny?” And I’d be like, “No, it’s so funny. Janicza Bravo’s Zola was one of the first movie casualties of the pandemic, premiering at Sundance all the way back in January of 2020 to a stoned and adoring midnight audience before disappearing from A24’s slate for a year and a half. Even my first film, Lemon, I think most people felt I was treading on a terrain that wasn’t mine to tread on. And I’m such a fan of hers, and it really hurt. Like, The movie isn’t even worth me writing about, that’s how fucking garbage it is. And we were talking and just saying, “It’s fucking hard.” There are a lot of pieces to put together, and when you invite people to the table to make it with you, there are a lot of voices and energies and emotions. Pack it up. I can’t be showing up to my second movie going, “I want my co-writer to be somebody who’s going to college.” And Brett was like, “Well, why not?” And here we are! I think that’s present in this movie in the form of Riley Keough’s Jessica, who is a total horror show of a white person. So mourning the material felt so hollow and empty. And that’s why I felt I had to protect it.” I felt and heard myself in her writing, and I wanted to be able to usher it into being and care for it in the way I’d want to be tended to. I found myself really fascinated by that because I didn’t see work really engaging with that: What is a Black woman’s experience of being next to whiteness? I was at the Sundance premiere of Zola, all the way back in our past life, so I’m excited to finally be talking about it. But I’m getting the energy that the movie is being liked more. He was the first person that we as a Zola family lost to COVID. She was talking at the movie the whole time. I really do credit him with that. I find it to be sometimes incredibly violent and aggressive and loud, especially when engaging with Blackness or in opposition to Blackness or when in parallel with Blackness. I felt like I was robbed of it, and it was super-heartbreaking. But Zola takes that tendency one step further, making its nonplussed protagonist (played by a perfectly cast Taylour Paige) both a participant in the chaos and an observer; we watch the disturbing machinations unfold through her increasingly horrified eyes, hearing the occasional bird whistle to remind us that Zola is processing and reframing the whole thing in real time and, eventually, will retell it to an ecstatic audience. The story people read on Twitter is a story being told in the past tense. I was co-signed and blessed by A24, but I also needed A’Ziah’s blessing. I feel like that movie is about a lot of things, but it is also about my own relationship to not only how I saw whiteness, but how I saw whiteness and failure — particularly in a kind of movie that seemed to be celebrating straight, male, white failure. Because I like this quote from you post Lemon, which some critics didn’t really vibe with: “And as I started to make work and realize that the critics really didn’t like me, I was like, ‘Oh, you can go fuck yourself. I’m not sure I’m saying critics can go fuck themselves. And then we got outside, and she looked at me, and she just said, “Thank you.” She told me what parts were really hard. It made me realize that as hard as my life is as a Black queer man, I still have a ‘man’ at the end of that, and no matter how many purses I wear, I don’t know what it’s like — Janicza’s too demure to ever talk about it, but it’s been crazy.” Can you talk more about that aspect of it now?I mean, yeah. I was jealous that I’d seen all of my peers have this kind of experience with their films, especially those at A24 who had a certain arc to the life of their film. But when white women took them and put them on and embraced them, they were celebrated. My approach can be a bit Brechtian. I don’t know if the writers were announced then. So much of my life is having to be in and out of white spaces that I’m not always invited into. Harris while he was still in college, and stalking Paige at a coffee shop. Terms & Privacy Notice
By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Notice and to receive email correspondence from us. But then I have to disengage from it. I find it to be incredibly visible. What kind of conversations did you have about that with her, or what directions did you give her in those moments when she’s witnessing these traumatizing things but still bringing so much quiet humor to it?She’s a silent-film character. And I made my shot. I’ve been thinking about it for a year and a half.[Laughs] I have, too. I was scared, and I was sad, and I felt like I’d missed the boat. I sent my casting director the picture, and she was like, “Oh, Taylour Paige!”

At that point, Taylour had already turned down the original version of the script because she thought it trafficked in racial and misogynistic stereotypes. I think how I’ve arrived at film is through that lens. Taylour has a very similar story — I co-signed Taylour, but she needed A’Ziah’s blessing. She’s a demon. It’s equally in the past and in the present. He wrote about our movie three times that year. So I wasn’t a contender. How did you meet and decide to write the movie with Jeremy? We sat in the theater for a little bit, and she didn’t say anything to me, and I was like, [sings] I’m dying. Not to say that I can’t be a self-hating Jew! I’m curious what that was like from your end. He was like, “If that’s what you want, say that.” A lot of my movement in the beginning of my career was very much influenced by him pushing me in a way that I wasn’t necessarily comfortable pushing myself. I sleep in weird shifts; I’m both a night owl and an early riser. I felt like I was gonna make it in and then these doors were being shut in my face. I’m really into bodies failing, and what the interior body says about where we’re at, or where we’re not at. People were not generous [to Lemon]. You’re weird. How does that work?” I think they said something like, “We’ll get back to you.” And 72 hours later, they said, “There’s an article in Rolling Stone, and there’s life rights, and that seems to be a way in. I felt we were very similar the day I read those tweets. In terms of the relationship to whiteness, I was fascinated by how, sometimes, a white woman can wear what is stereotyped as Blackness — Black female in particular — a gesture, an accent, down to a baby hair. Because I made a promise to her, implicitly and explicitly, that I would take care of her. She’s very much next to the insanity. That’s truly everyone and no one at the same time.” [Laughs] And by the time I saw Taylour in real life, we had, at this point, seen about 700 women. I sent it to my agent and my manager. I’d like to think I was better about it and did a scheduled send, but I don’t think that scheduled send existed then. We lost our hairstylist on Zola. I was in the kitchen doing some version of hiding. I didn’t know if I was going to get the movie yet; I was still in the audition process. Sign up here to get it nightly. I was in L.A., where I live, at the coffee shop Go Get Em Tiger in the Larchmont neighborhood, and she walked in, and I was like, Holy … And I took a picture of her, and she saw me taking a picture of her. I’d seen the end of the ad and tried to describe her to my casting director, and it truly was … I was like, “She’s black, she’s hot, I think she dances?” And she was like, “Great. If we were to spend a day together, you’d see how I’m constantly in a silent state, processing a lot and judging a lot and saying a lot of things with my face. I think it’s hard for everyone, and I think it’s hard even when everything works out. And why aren’t we comfortable with it when it’s actually embodied in Blackness?” So we’re minstrelizing her, in a way. We talked a little bit about casting, but not that much. And that is really demanding and exhausting. There are a few other moments that made me realize, Okay, this movie isn’t taking place in our dimension or our reality, exactly. I wanted to speak to “What is the comfortability of a white woman wearing what we’ve stereotyped as Blackness? When approaching the whole film, we talked about how the movie is, in a way, a classic comedy. The movie, finally in theaters June 30, is the first of its kind, based on an infamous, ingenious 2015 tweet thread from A’Ziah “Zola” King that details a mostly true, half-funny, half-haunting tale about King’s spontaneous trip to the bowels of the Floridian exotic-dancing scene with a woman named Jessica, who ultimately tried to lure Zola into a messy web of deceit, violence, and sex-trafficking. So much of Taylour’s character is manifesting in that way. Come along for the ride. I see myself in that character. Harris said, “To see the types of mountains she had to climb to put a pen to paper was truly crazy. In terms of coming up with that Bhad Babie–esque accent, the nails, the hair, the horrendous styling — did she help contribute to any of those character tics, or was that always your exact vision for Jessica?It’s such a horror show, isn’t it? There are a few visual moments I’d like to talk about. But I’m grateful for that experience. Taylour’s performance is — like you said — much subtler, but it’s also really funny. But I sent an email — at what I’m hoping was a reasonable time — to Christine Vachon and David Hinojosa at Killer Films, who were on my first feature, Lemon, as producers. When did you first start thinking about it? I thought there was no clearer way to paint a picture of who these two women were than by seeing their urine and what their hygiene was in a bathroom. Sometimes it really does just take the confidence of a mediocre white man, as the saying goes. You told Rolling Stone that you read it, and it was “leading with its dick.” I can only imagine what that initial script was like. I was fully in my process and showing them that. It’s really hard. I was trying to make a living for myself, and I think they were saying, No. What did you want to lead with instead?[Laughs] It was hypermasculine. Actually, last night we had our first screening since Sundance, and there were a handful of directors in the audience: Miranda July, Katie Aselton. It was written by men, and I think that version was maybe speaking to a different audience. I wish we had recorded her watching it. I understand the power of the critic. I had a shortlist of writers that I liked for the process. I really thought it was gonna be my year. Lemon was really painful and hard to make. 6. Manohla Dargis was in the theater, too, and just got up and huffed out of there. She wrote a trauma comedy. Making movies is hard. Brett and Jeremy and I were working on the writers’ list, and I think I went, “Oh, I wish it could be you,” and Jeremy was like, “Oh, I wish it could be me.” And Brett was like, “Why can’t it be?” The pleasure of having a white straight man in your life is that he’s just like, “Why can’t it just be like that?” We were like, “Because he’s going to college. I’m really sorry.No, it’s okay. Or the woman dancing to the bongos sort of eerily in the hotel lobby. I wanted to present that in the movie. Every single thing that every character is wearing has been vetted by me. When I came onboard, I needed her blessing. I can’t put, in front of producers who’ve made movies and TV, Jeremy and me, a Black woman who’s made one feature.” Which, I don’t know, were you at Sundance? A’Ziah has said that she had to see the movie twice to determine her reaction to it. Photo: A24

I read a great interview with you in Ssense where you said that a friend had told you that your work “dissects whiteness.” Can you talk a little bit about how you’re dissecting it in this movie?Beyond the stressful comedy, it’s about anthropological whiteness. The audition process can be a bit longer with films, but I brought the same thing I would to any of those things: These are my visual references, usually very photographic. As the director, there really isn’t anyone who takes care of you. I just saw that he needed someone. I don’t read reviews or the interviews that I’ve done. These things that were not celebrated in Black women. at an actor’s house. And then, regarding her being credited, I did pitch for that and ask for that, and I feel very fortunate that our producers all felt like it was a no-brainer. She’s in some version of blackface. You guys are weird.” And I think we wanted to be loved and embraced. Taylour is the straight man, and Riley is the clown or the buffoon. I think all of my work takes place on a planet that looks a lot like Earth but is just to the left of it. One is: How difficult was it to include her in the creative process? Janicza Bravo and Taylour Paige on the set of Zola. And he’s been my baby ever since. Ahead of Zola’s premiere, I hopped on the phone with Bravo to talk about how she landed the job, co-writing the script with Jeremy O. And if she doesn’t like the movie, I’ve failed. I’d seen her in an ad on TV. I understood that projects took a while to get going and that men directors kind of go through projects, so I just said, “If this ever becomes available, know that I’m out here, and I’m interested.” I found out at the top of 2017, after Lemon premiered at Sundance, that the property was available. I was really fascinated by that. She can’t see this in Park City in the Eccles. The filmmaking is the writer-making. At the Sundance premiere back in 2020, Zola’s co-writer Jeremy O. He had been on a date with a director whom I will not name, who told him that he was no longer attracted to him on their date. I don’t know if it’s just my own experience, but I don’t find whiteness to be invisible. That face she threw, I was like, Yes. The thing we kind of all landed on on Zola in particular was “Here’s an opportunity to cast an unknown.” We got really excited about this idea of casting a really wide net and doing this continental search for “the real Zola.”

And then you spotted Taylour Paige just walking down the street, right?Correct. I felt like they were coming at me in this way — that all of these white men who were writing about the movie were trying to stop me in my tracks. There was a very well-known actress sitting in front of me during the screening who was sighing and rolling her eyes and going, literally, “Are you fucking kidding me?” And she got up before the movie was over. When white is invisible, we inherently root for whiteness. I think the New York Times called me anti-Semitic, which is a bummer. People were like, “This movie is weird. It feels like a horror movie in a lot of ways.I think that it is that.