A trending story from 2015 is one of the hottest titles at this year's festival.
Credit: Anna Kooris/Sundance Institute

"I don't do Twitter," Janicza Bravo says. "It just scares me."

But that doesn't mean it can't also inspire her: The filmmaker, whose feature debut Lemon premiered at Sundance in 2017, is headed back the indie fest with Zola, a big-screen adaptation of a phone-screen tale, this weekend.

It all began on Oct. 27, 2015, when user @_zolarmoon tweeted "Y'all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It's kind of long but full of suspense." Thus began a now-legendary 148-tweet thread chronicling a wild, mostly true story about a road trip to Florida gone horribly wrong. It's full of danger, twists, "hoeism," and, indeed, suspense.

"I, like a good percentage of people who I think will flock to this story, read it [online] five years ago," Bravo tells EW. "I fell in love with it." She asked her reps about how to get the rights to IP from a social media platform — the answer turned out to be life rights and a Rolling Stone article breaking down the saga — but by the time they had figured that out, there were a lot of interested parties. The project initially went to someone else, but that attempt fell apart about a year later, and in early 2017, Bravo got the chance to try for it again. "I just did all of this research and basically auditioned for about three, three and a half months," she recalls. "And then I found out, in May of 2017, myself and [distributor] A24 both got the project."

Bravo collaborated with Slave Play playwright Jeremy O. Harris (who was still in grad school at the time) on a new script based on Zola's (whose real name is Aziah King) epic thread, which Bravo found to be "a very clear map for what would be a rather compelling, wild, fun, upsetting piece of comedy."

Looking at the bare facts of the narrative, the story wouldn't appear to be a comedic one: Zola befriends a fellow dancer, Jessica (called Stefani in the film), who invites her on a spontaneous road trip to Florida to make some money in the strip clubs there. Before the journey is done, Zola has witnessed sex trafficking, murder, and a suicide attempt. Her singular perspective, however, comes through so strongly in the tweets (still limited to 140 characters at the time) that the unpredictable thread is undeniably funny.

"Oh, it's so f—ed," Bravo admits of the history. "And I think, had the humor not been in this piece, it would not be a piece that I think I would be right for." At the same time, if the story weren't also so disturbing, maybe the humor wouldn't have been so significant. "It's a curious way to talk about sex work," she says. "I think that's what excited me. She had us all having a conversation about something that we don't usually talk about because it's pretty easy to look away from."

That's powerful, and while King's storytelling is zany and shocking, Bravo was affected by the power of it. "I think that what that piece is, as a piece of art or a physical object, is a representation of an individual's ability to process and exorcise their trauma [through] a narrative and find humor in what is really hard and awful. And that is a gift," Bravo says. "She wrote from a place of an inner voice. That was all the inner voice expressing itself and saying, 'Even though you tried to rob me of my agency, this is where I get to take it back.'"

It was important to the director to retain the quality of Zola's commentary; "I just basically wanted to go back to what it was that we fell in love with," she says. "We would be doing a disservice if we were not leaning into what the texture of her voice was." So, too, did she want to honor the platform where the story originated. "It's a funny thing for me, because I don't do Twitter," she admits. "But [the film is] a bit of a love letter to people who grew up with phones in their faces. There's a romance about it, for sure."

Despite the low likelihood that you'll ever see Bravo herself share a long, strange story on Twitter, "what was so radical about it, or I guess what spoke to me, was that I heard my own voice in it," she says. She connected with King early in the process, and the pair have been "FaceTime pen pals" for the last two and a half years. "I remember my first phone call with Aziah, and she was like, 'You know, you and I are the same,'" Bravo recalls. "And I felt that. I was like, 'I believe that we are.'"

Zola will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 24 and be released by A24 later this year.

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