Turning a 148-tweet thread from Twitter into a feature film is a heck of a way to make your first go at writing a screenplay for the big screen, and Jeremy O. Harris has never been one to play it safe. The award-winning playwright behind Slave Play was more than up to tackling the story of Aziah “Zola” King, whose epic 2015 social media story went viral like few things we had ever seen before.
It was inevitable that King’s story would eventually head to the cinema, and A24 seems like a fitting home for this tale of a waitress (played by Taylour Paige) who goes on a wild, dangerous, twisting and turning adventure when she meets a sex worker named Stefani (Riley Keough) who wants to take her on a trip to make some money. As you would imagine, things quickly escalate.
While the film was initially set to be directed by James Franco, with other writers on board, eventually that version of the story was binned and Lemon director Janicza Bravo took charge of the ship to bring this story to life. Bravo co-wrote the screenplay with Harris, and I had the chance to sit down with Harris to discuss their approach to translating King’s story to the screen, the magnificent tool of Twitter as an amplification device, and how Black and brown women’s stories and voices are the ones most worthy of boosting, and most in need of protecting. Joey’s review of Zola hits this week, too, so stay tuned for that!
Read my interview with Jeremy O. Harris below:
Mitchell Beaupre: What did you think the first time that you read Aziah’s story on Twitter? Could you imagine right away that this was something perfect for a movie?
Jeremy O. Harris: Absolutely. I was on Twitter as it was being tweeted and I was wrapped in by a single line that was free tweeted at me, or at least it felt like it was right at me, like it was made straight for me. I started avidly refreshing and going all the way to the bottom and scrolling back up. I was blown away by her relationship to prose and to comedy. Immediately, I felt like this was something that was visual. It felt like a story that I wanted to tell. When people started talking about it being a movie, it just made sense.
Janicza really took a chance on me at the time because I hadn’t been published, I hadn’t written a screenplay, I didn’t have a graduate degree yet, but she wanted me to write this with her. I felt a similarity with Aziah as well, like we were both speaking to this empty room at one point, and yet somehow that first tweet Aziah put out there got her to this moment where she’s about to have a film adapted of her story, a story that no one was supposed to hear. It was supposed to go the way of every other tweet.
MB: As someone who is a storyteller from the stage, is there something fascinating for you about Twitter as this modern form of storytelling where literally anybody, no matter their background, can use this tool to express their voice and get their stories out there?
JOH: Twitter is the great amplifier, and this new iteration of the epic poem. That’s how I see this, it’s more like Gilgamesh or The Odyssey than it is The Hunger Games. Something like that is sort of the new form of storytelling, whereas Twitter is the epic poem, the 140-character story. I think that’s something that has been missed in the sort of Twitter-ness of it as just texts. When you put one tweet next to the second and then the third, it ends up looking like the actual Odyssey, which is why it was so smart that Black Twitter called it that.
I think if anything what this might enable us to do is allow that amplification tool to not go to waste, because I think we’ve allowed it to go to waste for the decade or more that Twitter’s been around. It’s wild to me that people who have had things adapted from Twitter have mainly been white people. We’ve had things done like Shit My Dad Says, which became a full television series when that was not a real story. Yet people have brought more scrutiny to the Aziah story being given a movie deal than they ever did to that.
I find that indicative of a lot of the issues with that amplifier because the people who generally have told the best stories on that platform have been Black or brown women and the people who have gotten the most from it have been white men, who have then been able to go into comedy writing, etc. with very little scrutiny. What I’m hoping this film can do is change the way we look at that amplifier, and allow these mainly Black and brown women to get the amplification they deserve.
MB: You and Janicza have both mentioned those reference points of The Odyssey or Shakespeare or Chekhov. When the two of you first linked up to talk about this story, did it feel like you were on the same wavelength right away?
JOH: Yeah, you know, I’m leaning into being the new Lady Gaga now where I keep saying there could have been a hundred people in a room who read the Zola Twitter thread and they would have each had their own movie in their mind. Somehow Janicza and I met in that same room and had almost the exact same movie playing in our head.
There was a screenplay that existed before this, and I had been very critical of that screenplay in a lot of ways, even though it wasn’t necessarily a bad screenplay. It was just that the movie they wanted to make was so at odds with the movie that Janicza and I were going to make. It was a very different movie for a very different audience. The greatest gift of this collaboration was that no fight we ever had about the screenplay was because we were seeing a different movie. If anything, any fight was just about how I didn’t understand what our movie’s budget was. I would be like, “Well, why can’t there be 4,000 extras in one scene?”, and Janicza responds, “Because our movie has the budget it has.” (laughing)
MB: Throughout the entire creation of this project and even through the press tour and marketing campaign, A24 has centered Aziah and never lost sight of the fact that this is her story. How important was that for you and Janicza to ensure that as you were translating this to the screen you were maintaining Aziah’s voice?
JOH: That was the goal from the minute we knew that we were going to be telling this story. Even before I was on board, that was Janicza’s goal. When she found out that this story was available she pushed so hard to get it, she went on this three month journey to get the rights.
Around month two, in March of 2017, I was at home on spring break in L.A., and Janicza and I were taking a walk with her dog. I’ll never forget this. She was up for Zola and another movie, which I will not name but it was like a big Oscar movie that she had already gotten the offer for. And I told her that I had seen her correspondence pushing for Zola. I had seen her tell them everything about why she was right to do this movie, and they still hadn’t given it to her yet. So, I told her not to do it. I said that she should do this other movie that she would cakewalk to an Oscar for. Then she said to me, “Jeremy, I’m not doing this thing because I want Oscars. I’m doing it to tell the right stories. And also because I want to protect this woman. I really deeply want to protect this woman.”
The minute she said that, all of my defenses dropped because I also wanted to protect Aziah, but also I was trying to protect Janicza. I will say this without any complication: Janicza is the reason that Aziah is taken care of the way she is. Janicza has made that the number one priority as the director. I feel so lucky that we have people who are also on this journey with us, but Janicza is the reason, she is the steward of that ship, and the captain that said that Aziah is on this journey with us.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]