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How Janicza Bravo and 'Zola' Are Changing the Narrative

Script contributor Thuc Nguyen speaks one-on-one with 'Zola' director/co-writer Janicza Bravo about casting, landing on visual creative choices, and her advice for women to stay in their power.
(L-R) Riley Keough, Taylour Paige Photo By: Anna Kooris, A24

(L-R) Riley Keough, Taylour Paige Photo By: Anna Kooris, A24

It’s not every day you have a film producer running towards you yelling “that email has dicks in it”, but this happened to Janicza Bravo. She’s a New Yorker turned Angeleno who gets away with taking photos of people on the sly… “95% of the time”. Call it street photography. Being a stealth shutterbug is one of the parts of the director and co-writer of the highly anticipated film Zola starring newcomer Taylour Paige in the titular role and Riley Keough who plays “Stefani” (with Colman Domingo as “X” aka “the roommate”, Nicholas Braun as “Derek” aka the boyfriend, along with Ts Madison in a kick-ass cameo playing “Hollywood”).

Bravo wrote the screenplay with Jeremy O. Harris, based on source material from A'Ziah King (148 tweets written in 2015 called #TheStory with a first line that became its own meme). The story is about two women who meet, hit it off and go on a “ho trip” to Tampa, Florida together (with two guys from Stefani’s life in tow). Zola thinks they’re going to dance in strip clubs, except Stefani has other plans.

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You have to watch out for Bravo, not just because she’s a hotshot director who’s inundated for the next couple of years, but because she might take your picture without you knowing it, or she might be sitting next to you in a Los Angeles movie theater seeing what you think of her work. She’s also a friend to nudists in Florida (more on that in a bit). Bravo is looking, snapping and watching. She’s been upping her game from a handful of short films, some work directing television, to now her second feature. This film made a huge splash at the Sundance Film Festival and is out from A24. Bravo credits being able to have the chance to “explore comfortably and to be able to ask questions and not always have all the answers” to how she pulled off her latest project.

In Zola, the two main characters talk about being up on each other’s social media. Bravo’s not on Twitter, but she is on Instagram. This is one of the ways she found Taylour Paige and knew in her gut this was the right woman to play Zola, out of the almost 800 actresses the team looked at. Bravo “went deep into her [Paige’s] Instagram” and found a video of her dancing in a room of mirrors. This informed the casting decision. Bravo also randomly saw Taylour in person in Los Angeles. Here’s how Bravo’s story goes. “I was at a coffee shop and in walks Taylour. I took a picture of her (without asking). She rolls her eyes at me. She’s not having it. We had her in for an audition. She and I didn’t talk about that day at the coffee shop for a year after. She says she was not rolling her eyes, just probably having a bad day. That’s her version of it.” Wink.

Janicza Bravo. Photo by Clifford Prince King

Janicza Bravo. Photo by Clifford Prince King

Let’s move on from the eyes, those “windows to the soul”. Let’s talk about “snout cam”. This is what Bravo calls an angle where a lot of actors are shot “up the nose”, when they’re playing on a cell phone in a scene. She wanted to avoid this, so in Zola, we have the characters speaking things out loud that they’re texting to one another. It’s a great device to avoid snout cam and for dramatic effect. It really is. This is one of the “parameters” Bravo decided on when making the film. She says it comes from her being a “theater kid” who didn’t go to film school. Bravo spent from junior high until college in New York City. She left the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg in 2008 for the cross-country trek to Los Angeles.

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Have the words “ho trip” come out of your mouth? Have you heard them more so lately in real life? Bravo has. As for the parameters to gauge the success of Zola? Bravo tells me about a fantasy of hers. It goes like this- “I’ll know I’ve made it when both of my lead actresses have lines from the movie shouted at them on the street.” If “ho trip” becomes part of the popular vernacular, you know your work got to people.

Let’s move lower now and to why Bravo is a friend to nudists. She casted a handful of them for the movie, hence an email full of dick pics. Get ready for some full-frontal (when maybe you were expecting this film to be all about T n’ A?). You get your “female gaze” head on.

Let’s get on with a woman’s “worth” and some other parts … of the story. I ask Bravo about her advice for women to stay in their power. She reminds me of a line in the film: “pussy is worth thousands”. So, don’t forget that- no matter who you are. Bravo also lets me in on what she wishes she had been told growing up- “Spend a lot less time comparing yourself to others. It’s useful to a degree, but it’s no use if it holds you up.”

Enough about head to crotch parts. Let’s talk about what’s inside. Bravo is Panamanian-American and her first language was not English. It was Spanish. I ask her about her identity as an Afro-LatinX-Jew. People are comparing her style to the early work of people like Harmony Korine and Larry Clark because of the sexually provocative nature. Bravo calls them “radical”. She says she’s glad to “plant her flag in the sand”. It’s now her turf. We both agreed that instead of a flick like Kids, we wish we had a movie like Zola instead as teenagers. I also wanted to know how Bravo feels about the colorism of In the Heights. She says “Unfortunately they weren’t prepared to answer that question about it- the people on the inside, and that it’s a tragedy for the community and the diaspora, even for white-passing LatinX. It took a while for people to consider me LatinX”.

What people should consider her and know that she is- is an expressive person who knows what she’s doing as a storyteller, as well as all the other things she is- stealth photographer and amazing film director-- and you know- friend to nudists.

Check out Zola in theaters on June 30. It is indeed the perfect summer film, full of the freedom of being on the open road, getting that “hot girl” feeling that Megan Thee Stallion talks about (no matter who you are), interesting challenges and a few other surprises that will make you partial to this new school of radical filmmaking a la Janicza Bravo.

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