In this extra-special Not in Paris FRONTPAGE, we held a slumber party with Gucci and the celebrated writer and raconteur Jeremy O. Harris to screen 'Zola,' the film based on the epic Twitter thread that Harris scripted. Enjoy the opulence.
New York hits different from the Tata Suite, the presidential apartments perched atop The Pierre hotel. Viewed from the 39th floor, Central Park is a solid green rectangle, reverberating atop a gray-beige canvas of buildings like an element on a Rothko painting. I dip my rapid-tested nose out the window to spy things closer. I take stock of The Dakota and The El Dorado, and I think about the hawk who lives in a nest atop an apartment building on Fifth Avenue — a quick Wikipedia search reveals that his name is Pale Male, and that we were both born in 1990.
Inside the master bedroom, Jeremy O. Harris is draped over an armchair, thumbing through his iPhone and getting his hair braided. The playwright and I have never spoken for more than two seconds, but our rapport is buoyed by a dozen or so mutual friends and that funny feeling of familiarity you get from knowing someone’s writing. We chit-chat about T Magazine’s squad photos issue, his New Yorker panel with Amanda Gorman, and who Telfar should bring to the Met Gala. As Harris’ friends Larry Owens, Juliana Canfield, Ayo Edebiri, and Natalie Walker stream in for their own turns at the second glam station, the banter amps up into the most entertaining four-dimensional group chat you’ve ever read. We’ve all gathered here at the Tata for an outlandish yet straightforward set of reasons: to wear Gucci outfits, to take pictures, and to watch A24’s upcoming film Zola the way it was meant to be watched — with friends.
Directed and co-written by Janicza Bravo, Zola is an adaptation of a Twitter thread penned by a stripper named Aziah “Zola” Wells in 2015. (If you are unfamiliar with it, the thread’s contents are too multi-faceted, gripping, and semi-specious to aptly summarize here, so please just Google it.) The viral sensation sparked an oral history in Rolling Stone, which sparked comparisons to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, which sparked a presumably Spring Breakers-esque adaptation slated to be directed by James Franco — that is, until it found its way into the hands of Bravo and Harris.
The story of Jeremy O. Harris and Zola is one that feels as much like a campfire saga as the film itself. Today, it seems totally natural that the author of SLAVE PLAY, the only Broadway play that anyone under 30 has cared about in 30 years, would be tapped to pen Twitter’s answer to the Epic of Gilgamesh. However, when Harris got the call from Bravo to rewrite the film, he was simply a grad student on summer break between his two years at Yale Drama School, still drafting the play that would later earn him 12 Tony nominations.
“I need to be involved in this story,” Harris remembers saying to himself when he first read Zola’s tweets. On break from shooting, sitting in an empty bathtub at the Tata, we talked about bringing a “Thotyssey” to life.
Thom Bettridge: Tell me about how Zola came together, because there’s a lot of layers to the story. There’s obviously the Twitter thread itself, but then also the Rolling Stone article, but then also there was a version of this entire movie that was being helmed by James Franco that never happened…
Jeremy O. Harris: It’s really kind of a classic Hollywood story. There was this sort of bidding war over the rights to Zola’s story, and a production company called Gigi Films bought them. And one of the first actors to come after the rights was James Franco. For a time, he was gonna make the film with two other writers. They wrote a whole draft, they got excited about it, and everyone was like, “This has energy.” But then there was a day where someone, I think, just woke up and was like, “Wait a second. Shouldn’t a woman be directing this? And shouldn’t there be more Black people involved?”
And that famous Rolling Stone article is also written by a white dude, right?
Yes, and I talked to David [Kushner] a bunch. But what was most helpful from David was getting the raw files of all his interviews. I have a Dropbox with every interview he did with every single person in the story, which was really amazing. And he has hours and hours and hours of conversations with Aziah. It was in 2015 when she told her story, and the big onus of the article was to discover how much truth she was telling. So there was a lot of like, “Are you sure you didn’t sell yourself at all?” And she was like, “No, I really didn’t.” And, like a good journalist, he was going in and out of asking her these questions about her story and how consistent it was throughout.
There were also things we learned in the tapes that we ended up putting in the movie in very small ways that really shaped how we told the story. I think when some people read it, there’s this attitude of “Fuck yeah. This is fun! Sex!” You know? I talk a lot about how people projected a lot onto the Zola story that wasn't there, because it’s actually a really cleverly crafted one. She’s crafted a story where she feels like a hero, but narratively she’s an observer of these clowns.
It’s very Nick Carraway.
Very Nick Carraway. But when people think of it, they think of Zola as a superhero. But what was more interesting was thinking about the fact that she’s a 19-year-old girl. And she came back home to her mom and just, like, wept. There’s a little bit of that in the article, but the thing that’s not in the article is the weight of that weeping, the way she articulates that. Then you’re like, “Oh, fuck.” It’s literally a story about human trafficking. And a very amazing writer took that and made it so fucking funny and so emotionally sweeping that it captured the imagination of everyone.
So I had read the tweets like everyone else did, and I was like, “I need to be involved in the story. I want to do this so badly.” And I was super sad to find out that James Franco had gotten it. It was the end of the road. At this time, no one knows I’m a screenwriter. This is before I got into grad school, and I had only written one play. A year passes, I’m in grad school, and my friend Janicza [Bravo] calls me. She’s like, “Hey, Jeremy. Let’s go for a walk.” We go for a walk, and she’s like, “So, I’m up for two really big movies right now. One that’s based on a very big play from one of the most decorated American writers. There’s no muss, no fuss. It’s just me.” And I was like, “Whoa. That’s amazing. That’s an Oscar movie. Do that!”
And then she says, “Well, the other thing I’m up for, it’s a little more complicated. It already had a director, it already has a script, but they’re looking for a new director of the Zola story. It’s really hard, there’s a lot of competition.” And I was like, “You know, Janicza, this is so much emotional labor. I feel like maybe you should do the easy thing.”
But she was like, “I know. I hear that, but I would never feel good about myself if I didn’t protect this girl. I really feel like I could tell the story the way she wants to tell it. And I wanted to take this walk with you because I think that you might be an interesting person to help me tell it.”
And I was like, “Wait, what? Okay, you’re an idiot.”
So another month goes by of her pitching this movie, and it doesn’t get any easier, but she gets it, right? And after she gets it, she’s like, “Jeremy, here’s the deal. We need a new writer, because we’re trying to do this new draft of the script. You’re obviously too busy to do it. I don’t know that it’s actually going to be possible for you to do this, given your commitments.” I had to finish my first-year play, which I was going to direct in my second year at grad school, so that’s when I finished SLAVE PLAY. Like, I literally finished SLAVE PLAY in order to write Zola.
I can’t even imagine what that period of time must have been like.
I actually have an email from then that’s one of my favorite emails. Let me find it.
[Reads from phone] "Okay, my goals for this next half are super simple in the macro, because I have some more micro notes:
1. Continue tracking the Twitter beats in a familiar way so that no one forgets. I love that part of it.
2. Speaking of Twitter, I feel like there could be another moment of framework of Twitter disruption in the narrative of the Rashomon-moment, where it can be done in a form that's more inline with how Jessica actually disseminated her story, which is on Reddit and Facebook.
3. I feel strongly about the sex montage in the end, because I recognize how it could be put into a framework, so they understand more, but my goal with that was for it to telegraph to the audience that Zola did exaggerate part of the story in order to, in a way, punish Jessica for treating her like this in the first place. The sex montage could be a moment of surreal comedy, so that our last moment post-Rashomon could be deeply disturbing and real in a frightening way that makes the audience feels like they are safe.
4. I'm going to make Derrek more normal and pitiable, but in a way that'll communicate mainly to Black people and the woke white that he’s still trash. Sort of like how I shaped the character Jim in SLAVE PLAY.
These are my macro things I want to tackle this week."
Was the amount of time you had to write this story the hardest part?
First of all, Janicza had to teach me how to write a screenplay. Because I’m a playwright, right? And it was hard, because in one of the drafts of Zola, they walk into a hotel lobby where there’s 100 Black people at a convention doing “Step in the Name of Love” together. And Janicza had to be like, “Okay, Jeremy, we’re making this movie on this budget. This scene is amazing, but we can’t afford to do it.”
A question that a lot of us had was to figure out why Aziah stayed, or why she went. Because I was very interested in the fact that she was a 19-year-old about to enter a domestic life, with a partner that she did get married to and had a child with. But at 19, you’re seeing that looming large in front of you, and you’re like, “What’s an escape? Oh, let me go dance in Florida. I love dancing.” So we think about loving dancing, to be a dancer. That to me feels like motivation enough for Aziah.
Something that Janicza and I talked a lot about, too, is how, when you’re young, you do the math on situations constantly. Like, if it's drinking and coke mixed with driving, depending on the amount of drinking and coke, you can basically say, “I can risk that.” But drinking, plus coke, plus ketamine, plus meth, is like, “I’m not doing that.” The math didn’t work out for that. But sometimes there’s a random integer you weren’t expecting. You’re like, “Wait, someone here has a gun? I didn’t know there were guns here.” That fucks everything up. And that’s kind of what happened to Aziah. She was doing the raw math of it, going from right to wrong.
Something I really loved about the movie is how it canonizes Internet discourse, and the kind of stories that captivate so many people so deeply on Twitter threads or vlogs. Those stories usually come and go, like an oral history, and they never really become part of “history.” But when you think about it, so many more people read the Zola thread than any of the bestsellers that normally get turned into movies.
There is a community of people who feel this deep relationship to it. Because it is an epic poem, right? The Internet called it “The Thotyssey” for a reason. They related to her as Homer in the very first iteration of what this was. And that, I think, points to epic storytelling as something we needed and wanted again.
This film was written and directed before so many things about the world changed — before Covid, obviously, but also before the reckonings that have taken place about race in America. Do you look back over that void of time thinking, “Oh my God, so much has changed since we made this, and now it’s just coming out”.
I was so frustrated and pissed off that our movie didn’t come out last year, because there have been so many conversations about Black womanhood and the way we don’t believe Black women. But ultimately, this is the time for Zola. This is how we talk about what Janicza Bravo did, what Aziah did, how we need to center Black womanhood and Black authorship. So I think that it ended up being a really good thing that the film gets to come out now, with some semblance of normalcy. I just hope it gets seen with a community, because the inability to watch this in communion with other people would be a shame.
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