With the number of sources that can seemingly be adapted to film and television these days, it’s absolutely no surprise to hear that a Twitter thread has been adapted into a feature film. What is surprising is when a Twitter thread is adapted into a feature film that’s so critically well received. The latter is the case for “Zola,” the Janicza Bravo-directed feature film adaptation of the 2015 Twitter thread from A’ziah “Zola” King. What became as a 140-plus tweet thread (which you can read here) is now currently getting rave reviews out of the Sundance Film Festival. In his review of the film, IndieWire’s own Eric Kohn called “Zola” a “rambunctious crowdpleaser.”
As shocking as this may sound, to co-writers Bravo (“Lemon”) and Jeremy O. Harris (“Slave Play”), King’s Twitter thread really was an obvious blueprint for such an epic tale. In fact, they both read it as such. “Black Twitter said it was ‘The Thotyssey’,” said Harris, in an interview at the IndieWire Sundance Studio, presented by Dropbox. “And that compared A’ziah to Homer. Like, to our earliest epic poem. And so, I was like, I wanna read it like it’s Homer or Toni Morrison or Stephen King, even, you know?” Bravo concurred, citing several other comparisons, from Anton Chekov to Henrik Ibsen to and William Shakespeare.
Watch the whole interview in the video above.
It was that similar reading of the tweetstorm source material that, to Bravo and Harris, made them the perfect creative forces for the job. Originally, in early 2016, it was reported James Franco had optioned the Rolling Stone story on the tweetstorm and was set to produce, direct, and star in the film, but by the fall of 2018, Bravo and A24 were attached to the film, with Taylour Paige cast as the titular Zola.
According to King, she knew immediately that Paige was the perfect casting to portray her on the big screen, and the two bonded immediately, with Paige contacting King as soon as she had a callback to get to know her. The same couldn’t be said for Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, and Colman Domingo’s roles — as the real-life inspirations were either not on board with the film or in prison. Keough acknowledged the strength of her character “on the page.” In Domingo’s case, he researched sex trafficking and pimp culture, to get into the mind and thought process this character, while Braun lost weight for the role, as he found his character’s relationship with Keough’s to be “eating him alive.” “He was diseased with this relationship,” Braun said.
Going back to the idea of a Twitter thread making a surprising bit of source material for a feature film, Bravo explained just how unsurprising it was in this particular case and how it evolved from that to what it is now. “If you’ve read the Twitter story, it’s incredibly visual and potent and it, to me, seemed to be… I almost felt like we could’ve shot it without a script, in a way. Because it was such a great… The outline is there. There is a very clear beginning, middle, and end. It is a solid three-act structure. So, for me, all I had to do was make sure that her voice would translate and be the loudest piece in the film and not losing that.” Bravo also acknowledged the “fear” and “anxiety” of possibly losing “the magic” of King’s story in doing this adaptation.
Harris added, “I think that something that’s really interesting about what A’ziah tweeted was that, everyone who read that Twitter thread had their own movie that they made in their head. And it could’ve been very easy that I met someone who wanted to make this movie and wanted to have me co-write it with them, who was like, ‘Oh, that’s not the movie, the movie is this.’” As mentioned, he and Bravo saw the same movie from their reading of the thread, the same movie that Black Twitter saw when they called it “The Thotyssey.” And they also wanted to address the fact that the entire thread was a real-time example of “a black woman processing her trauma,” with the high and lows of that complex issue.
As King’s thread became viral, high-profile black artists like Ava DuVernay and Missy Elliott praised King’s storytelling ability. DuVernay tweeted, “Drama, humor, action, suspense, character development. She can write!” According to King, she realized that her story was becoming more than a “fun Twitter feed” in real-time, as she was tweeting it. “As I was tweeting it, it was kind of, the engagement was like something I can’t really even explain,” said King. “Yeah… It was instant.”
“It wasn’t throwaway,” Bravo said of the thread and King’s captivating story within it. “It had deep value to us, and I knew, from the instant I read it, I felt that it had to be me, because I knew that I was the best person to protect the narrative. And to protect her character. And to make sure that at the end of the day, no matter what happens, to Taylour, to A’ziah, that when it’s done, their voice and their character is cared for. And that they were given a fair shot. Because I think there is a version of this movie where that woman is not given a fair shot.”