Zola, the new movie based on the infamous Twitter thread by Aziah “Zola” Wells King, follows a part-time stripper (Taylour Paige) who joins a new friend (Riley Keough) on a trip to Florida to dance for money—until nothing about the trip turns out to be what it once seemed. On Wednesday’s episode of ICYMI, Slate’s podcast about internet culture, co-hosts Rachelle Hampton and Madison Malone Kircher talked to Tony-nominated playwright and screenwriter Jeremy O. Harris about how he and director Janicza Bravo translated the 148-tweet saga into a feature-length film, the scene that almost made members of the crew quit, and why he considers Zola’s tale to be akin to Homer’s epic poetry. Below we’ve transcribed their conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Madison Malone Kircher: Do you remember the first time you saw the Zola thread, your immediate thought?
Jeremy O. Harris: Yes. I was at my friend Dante’s house in the Hills, and I was reading it tweet by tweet. It was like 30 tweets in. I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever read, and I was like, “What even is this?” And they were like, “If you’re not reading the Zola thread right now, I don’t know what you’re doing.” It blew me away.
It felt like the richest writing I have read in a decade. I am constantly bemoaning the fact that prose has left that sense of liveness and freedom that it had in the early ’90s, when Kathy Acker was writing. Or when multiple other, specifically queer writers, were telling their stories not using the literary conventions that were de rigueur but using the literary conventions of their communities. That’s what hooked me. I remember I tweeted at her about three-quarters of the way through, and she responded to me and then kept tweeting.
Rachelle Hampton: Jeremy, I’m curious. So you described seeing this thread, as we all did at the time, and it was this live communal experience. And I’m curious at what point you were like, “This could be and should be a movie.”
Harris: Whenever I read almost anything that strikes my fancy, I think, “This should exist in a form that I can control in some way.” I think it was from the minute that she said “lost in the sauce.” I was like, “I want to canonize that line. This needs to be a play. This needs to be a movie.”
Hampton: When you were originally reading it, and you had images in your mind of how it could look, how much of that actually ended up in the movie?
Harris: There was one thing that definitely stayed with me from the very beginning and was really, really powerful to me. I was like, “How is it that this woman has tweeted so many amazing details about this story but has ignored the 15-hour drive from Detroit to Tampa?” Because there must’ve been something that happened in that car that wasn’t right. That must’ve been the thing, because I’ve been in a car with white people before, and there’s always some moment—specifically when the song comes on the radio—where you’re like, ‘Y’all ain’t right.’”
So the first thing I wrote for the movie when Janicza hired me was my test scene, and the test scene is basically still in the movie: where she talks about these “dookie-ass drawers.” “I’m not getting giardia on account of no hoe.” That part was one of the first scenes I ever wrote for the movie, and Janicza was like, “This is absolutely the energy. This is absolutely the thing.” For a long time that was the first scene in the movie.
Kircher: Speaking of the drive from Detroit to Tampa that just isn’t in the thread––Rachelle and I have been talking a lot about how Twitter threads and tweets by design can never be truly comprehensive. So how does that impact the writing and adapting process in a story where you know there are chunks that are missing?
Harris: I mean, I think it demands that you and your collaborators think about it in different ways and think about it in canonical ways. So when Janicza and I started talking about what things this was like, we went to our theater history first. We have a shared theatrical history. So we thought about experimental theater, like Hamletmachine, which Janicza directed, and then I started thinking a lot about poetry and epic poetry and the fact that in Greek theater a lot of things are left unsaid. So we were like, “Great. We’re doing a Greek adaptation. We’re doing an adaptation of Homer. Thank you Black Twitter for reminding us of The Odyssey.” We’re also doing an adaptation of these early 20th-century novels wherein, in response to the romance, in response to the Victorians, a lot of novels were like, “Let’s pare it down.”
Hampton: One of the things I really loved about the movie is that so many movies about the internet rely on these weird cliché motifs, like text bubbles onscreen or conspicuous text abbreviations in dialogue. And I’m curious how y’all approached making the movie embody the experience of being online without falling into these tropes?
Harris: Well, I think part of the reason is that Janicza and I didn’t actively try to make it about feeling like you were online. We intuitively did it, if that makes sense? We knew what tropes we weren’t going to use. So me, Taylour, and Riley have a really funny group thread where we just reminisce together. We conspire together, complain together, and today one of the reminiscences was Taylour saying, “Do y’all remember the line in the script that was like, ‘In this movie, let’s be clear there will be no neon at all. This is not a neon journey.’” And I was like, “I do remember that, because I remember the day me and Janicza put it in the script.” And that was very indicative of the way we started making the rules for how we would write it: We made the rules for what we wouldn’t do. So we said we would not do text bubbles onscreen. We would not do a neon-colored journey.
Kircher: Did you guys always know you wanted to use the Twitter noise to simulate tweeting?
Harris: Not always, but it is in the script after draft two. I’m looking at draft two, and for every tweet, we use the Twitter tweet sound in order to footnote our source material. So I’m academic in that very specific way.
[Read: Zola Is the First Movie of Its Kind]
Kircher: I love the moment in the film where the Reddit scene appears. It kind of captures the way you’ll be reading something on Twitter and then find yourself on six different platforms. You know how the internet doesn’t occur solely on Twitter or solely on Instagram? Can you talk to us about that decision to put that in halfway through?
Harris: Yes. So that was a really important scene to both Janicza and I. It was a scene that Janicza had been like, “I need this scene in the movie,” and then the minute she said it was like, “Oh, I absolutely need this scene in the movie.” Then I was like, “And then if it’s going to be Reddit, it has to feel different.” She’s like, “It absolutely has to feel different.” I was like, “Because the movie we’re adapting is a story that was told on Twitter, but a story that was told on Reddit is told in a very different way. It’s kind of dingy.” A story told on Reddit feels nasty. The interface is gross. You know what I mean? It’s not as rich. So we were like, “This is what it would look like.” So that’s part of the reason why at the end Janicza and Joy, our editor, kept the film reel. You know how it burns out at the end? They kept that because they wanted to have that sort of frayed, unfinished feeling of a Reddit thread. Also, we wanted it to feel like a Reddit thread that you were like, “OK. You know what, let me get back to the story.” Because it’s like someone commented, “But have you read Jessica’s version?” And go to it and you’re like, “You know what, I’m over this. This don’t feel right.” And you go back to the real one.
But for us, that was really important because one of the major things that happened that frustrated both of us in the aftermath of A’Ziah’s story being told was the sense that every white person who was watching it—and not just white people, some Black people as well—felt the need to say, “But what really happened?” So it allowed us to address that audience that’s feeling uncomfortable about the honesty of our narrator at that point in the movie. It’s a chance to be like, “Well, here’s what she actually said.” She literally said on Reddit that A’Ziah, this woman, only made one dollar stripping. In what reality is that possible?
Hampton: Speaking of reality, there were parts of the thread that A’Ziah later revealed were embellished. Like the jump off the balcony and somebody getting shot. Both of those moments are in the movie. I guess I’m curious as to what the discussion was about how close to the thread to stay.
[Read: How Much of Zola Is True to the Epic Twitter Thread That Inspired It?]
Harris: That was a lot of conversation for us. We need to treat this like Toni Morrison. We need to treat this like Homer and not reject the beauty of the fact that the internet fell in love with A’Ziah’s version of the story. So whether it’s real or not, we should lean into it, and if anything, we can heighten those moments or massage those moments around a reality that accentuates one of the things we were most interested in, which is the fact that whether or not some parts were embellished, this was a story about a woman who is very young. This 19-year-old child going through a traumatic event with someone she trusted, and owning that trauma by telling it in her way. That is what we decided to lean into.
There’s a moment in the gunshot scene that leans into something that [A’Ziah] said in an interview that we had the raw tapes to, which isn’t in the Twitter thread, that we were like, “Oh, that’s a part of the trauma.” And she rejected leaning into that in order to make herself the baddest bitch in the game the entire story––as well she should––but we were like, “Let’s let them have a glimpse of that moment before allowing us to go where we’re going to go with the story, which is where she went with the story.”
Hampton: The way y’all included that danger––there’s this undercurrent of anxiety that just keeps building and building and building up. I’m thinking of that scene where she’s in the car, and they see a Black man being arrested. You just see it, and then it’s gone. It was just really striking to me.
Harris: Oh, that means a lot. That moment was very personal to [Janicza], and I’m sure she’ll talk more about it. But she had a cousin who, while we were writing the script, was murdered by the police. She was, I think, thinking about the casualness that stories like that have, how often those traumas and those violences are talked about, and how little the traumas and violences towards Black women are talked about. It meant that she was like, “How about we bring both of those in?” So we started thinking about those dangers and started thinking about those violences as concurrent in the ways in which we see Black bodies and Black humanity as disposable.
What’s funny is that scene itself caused a lot of drama on set because we shot on location in Tampa, and one of our crew members sent an email to everyone about that scene existing and said they refused to work on the movie if this scene was there. Which was wild, because that’s the environment this movie was coming in. So it means a lot to hear you say that, because I want to uplift the fact that Janicza authored that scene, authored it beautifully, and also, had to fight against her own crew to maintain it.
Hampton: That is wild. I was thinking about the way you’re scrolling on Twitter and you see somebody’s name that’s a hashtag, and you’re like, “There’s another one to add to this ever-growing list.” It is casual in a way that is deeply dehumanizing, where you just can’t keep up. But it still hurts. So I—
Harris: Wait. Oh my god, you’re making me think of something right now, and I need to see if I can find it really quickly because if I do, it’ll make this even richer. So the first version of our screenplay started out with this––It’s going to be a Slate exclusive––but a question people kept asking was, “How can you add more energy to the script?” So there was one draft of the script where we had a bunch of interruptions from actual Twitter that day that we read the thread in order to engage it.
So it starts with, “On October 27th, 2015, over 500 million tweets were published and read on Twitter.” Then we see every tweet that we found from that day that struck us. So the first one was a Britney Spears tweet saying, “@Adele, I’ll trade you 2 tickets to my show for 2 tickets to YOURS! Stop by #PieceOfMe and say #Hello anytime.” A tweet from Hillary Clinton where she reposted an Onion article, which said, “‘I Am Fun,’ by Hillary Clinton.” Then she just tweeted, “Humorous.” Then another tweet from the actor Matt McGorry that said, “When an officer assaults a sitting high school girl like she’s about to detonate a fucking bomb #BlackLivesMatter #assaultinspringvalleyhigh.” Yet I remembered none of those tweets from that day, and I’ve never forgotten the Zola tweets.
You just articulated something that’s very present about the ways in which we have these collective memories from Twitter. I know we all remember #thedress, but we don’t remember anything else that happened that day. I’m sure there was some hashtag about some Black person that was killed that day as well. So thank you for uplifting that because that means a lot.
Hampton: Of course. Our last question: At the film’s premiere, Taylour Paige described Riley Keough’s character as being in blackface the whole movie. Obviously this kind of performance was around before the internet, but in many ways the internet has kind of allowed white people access to Black culture in a way that they previously didn’t have because white people don’t have Black friends. I’m just kind of curious as to how you approached including that kind of dynamic in writing Keough’s dialogue.
Harris: Well, I think that for me, that performance is so mundane and so a part of the everyday now that it wasn’t hard. It felt second nature. It felt like me just leaning into something that I had to see when Lil Debbie was a trending rapper, when Kreayshawn was a trending rapper, when Iggy Azalea was a trending rapper. And how these women––who were using affect and performance very similar to women that were actually born Black, but also cartoonishly so––were a part of how I understood the world.
One moment that felt very much like the Iggy Azalea, Azealia Banks, T.I. moment for me was that moment the day after, they’re in bed together, and Colman [Domingo]’s character, X, walks in . And he’s like, “Uh, how much did y’all make last night?” Then Riley’s character, Stefani, gives him the stack of money. She’s like, “We did all this.” He’s like, “Oh, you did?” And he throws all this money at A’Ziah like she’s disposable but then kisses Riley on the head after Zola had made it possible for Stefani to make this money. It was so crazy. It felt like to me like that same dynamic that happens often inside of spaces of appropriation where white women are kissed on the head by some Black men, and Black women are disposed at the side and have money just thrown at them sort of willy-nilly.