Zola, the new A24 film directed by Janicza Bravo that adapts a legendary Twitter thread by A’Ziah “Zola” King, opens in a hall of mirrors. The title character, played by Taylour Paige, stares directly into the eyes of Riley Keough’s Stefani, the “bitch” that invites her on a stripper road trip to Tampa that goes very wrong.
This scene wasn’t the way Zola was initially supposed to open. Bravo and her co-writer Jeremy O. Harris had planned an in media res start with Stefani ranting in a car, but Bravo wanted to try something different, inspired by the ending of All About Eve, wherein the latest wannabe starlet stares at herself reflected over and over again in a vanity mirror. “I wanted to replicate that in this world,” she says. “What do you see when you look in the mirror? And then, if there are these two women in the mirror, what are they actually looking at? There’s obviously some degree of vanity to it, but it’s, where do you go when you look into your own eyes?”
Zola and Stefani, who has constructed her personality by appropriating the vernacular and identity of Black women like Zola, are warped images of one another. The moment in the mirror is almost romantic-Paige says Bravo compared their meeting to the fish tank encounter between Romeo and Juliet in Baz Luhrmann’s Shakespearean adaptation-but it’s also disturbing.
“The added bonus of watching Stefani doing her baby hairs in the exact same rhythms and motions as Zola tells us something about the story of the ways in which the incongruity of Black-white female friendships inside of a space of both mutual romance and also manipulation is really complicated,” co-writer Jeremy O. Harris says. “It makes us think so much about literature and art about these complex female friendships that are both erotic and toxic at the same time as they are platonic.”
When Zola’s lengthy thread was first published in 2015, it was deemed “epic.” But Bravo and O’Harris saw it not just in the casual way that word is employed on social media, but in a Homerian, quest-like sense. Zola runs only 90 minutes, but its story is dense and every frame is packed with detail. Ahead of the film’s release, I spoke with Bravo, Harris, Paige, and Keough about bringing the saga to life, from adapting the source material, building out the characters, and integrating familiar tech into the movie’s experience.
Reinventing the classics for the Twitter era
As Harris says, Black Twitter deemed Zola’s story the “Thotyssey,” and that gave the writers the inspiration to think of Zola as an epic poem with Greek influences running throughout. “One of the things that was very important in Greek theater was that things were scarier or more heightened if they happened offstage,” Harris says. Similarly, he says, they drew from Chekhovian drama in that the most important character on screen, Zola herself, was often the character that said the least.
“We thought a lot about silent films and we thought a lot about plays wherein action mattered more than words,” he says. “We were like, ‘Oh wow, we actually might get the opportunity to make a Black female lead who is completely interior and does not have to exist as someone who is constantly explicating who they are or how they feel.'”
But when it comes to Stefani, Harris starts invoking the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, the Netherlandish Renaissance artist best known for “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” a massive and detailed three-paneled piece depicting alternately horrific, surreal, and often amusing depiction of lust. “So if we are being wooed into the darker parts of this triptych by a demon, what is the mark of Cain that she carries?” Harris speculates. “And that mark for us had to become her blaccent, her full and unabashed appropriation of Blackness.”
The relationship between Zola and Stefani is also informed by traditional comedy tropes. “Taylor is the straight man; Riley is the clown, the buffoon, the menace,” Bravo explains. “And the way that the humor works is that there’s consent that happens with both of those protagonists, both of those characters and both of those women had that so it allowed for this freedom.”
Bonding between castmates and subjects
According to Harris, he and Bravo each had different tasks when it came to how they would interact with the real-life Zola. While Bravo was in contact with her throughout the writing process, getting her memories of the events, Harris dedicated himself to researching what she said at the time, becoming the authority not just on the tweet thread, but also on interviews she gave immediately following the viral moment.
When she was cast in the film, Paige developed a fast friendship with Zola. Paige, who started as a dancer, had been working odd jobs in Hollywood as she was trying to make it as an actress. She and Zola bonded over how this was finally their moment sending each other texts and DMs. “Just like memes, but not just memes,” she says. “We would just talk about life shit and how we were so tired and no one deserves us more than us, and we’ve had to be so patient. Her car blew up; my car blew up. We considered going to Texas to strip together. We had had it. We had enough. But it was nice to feel again like ‘I see you and you see me.'” Bravo cautioned Paige that they weren’t actually making a biopic, so even while Paige would ask Zola details about her life to filter throughout her performance, she still was aware she wasn’t exactly trying to replicate her exact mannerisms.
Paige also instantly bonded with Keough. “We really hit it off and had this really spiritual, amazing connection,” Keough says. It was not unlike the Stefani-Zola connection, minus the toxicity. Keough and Paige started planning adventures and spending time together. “I introduced her to my grandma,” Keough says. “It’s that sort of really quick connection where we were sleeping in each other’s beds and ordering hot wings and watching movies.”
Meanwhile, as Keough was developing Stefani’s voice, Bravo kept encouraging Keough to make the character “more upsetting.” Faced with this offensive creation on set, Paige was amused. “It was hard not to laugh, if I’m being honest,” Paige says. “But it was like, yeah, these people exist and we’re lying in service of the truth. This type of offensive exists. We live in LA and Riley and I have a really beautiful, high-minded group of friends, but I’ve been in some situations-high school, out there, the mall-[where] people be crazy. But it felt good because it was something to react to and it made it feel all the more truthful.”
Capturing technology on their own terms
Bravo hates watching people text on screen. “Truly, watching someone text is absolutely violent for me,” she says. “I’m a theater director. I can’t stand phones, but I also knew this was literally a movie also about phones.”
She determined that they had to embed the aesthetics of social media and technology into the film in an almost “Pavlovian way.” When Stefani invites Zola on the fateful road trip, they speak the texts in a stilted almost robotic way, speaking the emojis and the “LOLs.” Then, throughout the film, the whistle sound of a tweet or the click of a lock screen are embedded into the mix in a way that interacts organically with Mica Levi’s score.
“These cues have become so much of a part of our life,” Bravo says. “We didn’t choose them. They chose us, or they kind of sprung up around us. I wanted to embrace what that was sonically and also treat it like it was character.” Zola, Stefani, and X, the pimp played by Colman Domingo, all had phone rings that were extensions of their characters. There was one cut of the film where the whistle sounded every time Paige spoke a line of dialogue directly taken from the original thread, but there were moments when Bravo and editor Joi McMillon felt it overwhelmed a scene. Still, the whistles are a crucial part of the design of the film.
“That’s more of a nod to A’Ziah,” Bravo says. “It’s a nod to the real Zola. I want her to know that she is always with us.”
Embracing their most extreme ideas
In another early distorted mirror image scene, Zola and Stefani pee at a rest stop bathroom on their way to Florida. Zola hovers over the toilet, careful not to sit on it. Stefani plops right down. When they get up, Zola’s pee is clear. She’s hydrated. Stefani’s is bright yellow. She doesn’t even wash her hands upon exiting the bathroom.
When Bravo was auditioning to direct the movie, it was one of her initial pitches. “I have a really clear sense of the producers all looking at me, like, ‘You keep talking about piss and I don’t exactly know what’s happening,'” she says. But when Harris came on as co-writer, he was on board. They would always say yes to trying out each other’s boldest concepts and figure out if they could work on screen. “She had such a casual humor that it was very rare that a pitch would feel insane to me,” Harris says.
The pee sequence was born out of a personal place for Bravo. “I’m reminded of my first time away from home, away from having lived with my parents, and making friends independently at NYU, mostly making white friends, mostly making white girlfriends,” she says. “I had this string of memories of being drunk off of Long Island iced teas at some bar in the East Village with a terrible fake ID and going to a bathroom with a girlfriend where I hovered over the toilet, as I was taught to by my mother, you know, rely on your knees and your thighs, and then my white girlfriend just sitting on the toilet, and it truly being deeply anthropological to me and disturbing because I had been told that that’s just not how this behavior works. And here we are telling a story that is very much about race, a story about how a Black [woman] and white woman interact and I was like, ‘Oh, there’s this piece from my life that I want to put in here.'”
It was an observation that rang true for Paige as well, a small moment that silently spoke volumes. “If you were to distill one scene from the film,” Bravo continues, “‘What’s the one scene that tells the story of who these women are, where they are going, where they are coming from?’ That one is totally hydrated and the other clearly is deeply dehydrated tells you so much.”Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.
Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.