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How Hollywood Translated The Epic Poetry Of The Viral 'Zola' Thread

The new movie <em data-stringify-type="italic">Zola</em> is based on a viral Twitter thread. Taylour Paige (right) stars as Zola, and Riley Keough (left) plays Stefani, the exotic dancer who invites her on an ill-fated road trip to Florida.
The new movie <em data-stringify-type="italic">Zola</em> is based on a viral Twitter thread. Taylour Paige (right) stars as Zola, and Riley Keough (left) plays Stefani, the exotic dancer who invites her on an ill-fated road trip to Florida.

Updated June 30, 2021 at 2:00 PM ET

"Y'all wanna hear a story about why me and this b**** here fell out? It's kind of long, but it's full of suspense."

On Oct. 27, 2015, in a series of almost 150 funny and often profane tweets, Zola — born A'Ziah King — spun a wild, mostly true tale about how she found herself on a road trip that went dangerously awry — to put it mildly.

That night, King says she was at home, scrolling on her phone.

"I had come across the pictures from that weekend," she says. "[The memory] kind of just, like, got triggered. I was like 'Yeah, I'm going to tell this for real.' "

In a nutshell, the story goes like this: Zola meets a woman while waitressing and the two hit it off when they realize they're both exotic dancers. The woman invites Zola on a dancing trip to Florida, where she promises they'll make a lot of money. They're accompanied by the woman's boyfriend, and her "roommate" who turns out to be the woman's pimp. As the weekend wears on, Zola finds herself in increasingly absurd and dangerous situations.

King says she'd told her followers about the weekend shortly after it had happened, but she didn't go into much detail.

"As soon as I got home, I kind of was just like 'I met this girl at my job and she completely lied,' " King says. She received some sympathetic responses, but not much else. Intense encounters were just part of the job, and her twitter was already full of wild stories about people at work.

"Since I didn't go in depth, they kind of just felt like 'Oh, she had another one of her weekends,' and we moved on."

Twitter didn't move on so quickly the second time she told her story; people wanted every detail she was willing to share. Journalists called, then Hollywood. James Franco signed on to direct and brought on his own writing team.

But the road to Zola the movie — much like the trip itself — would end up being full of twists. As the script took shape, King started to feel like the story was becoming less and less hers.

"They kind of added things in the blank space that I guess they thought would be entertaining in a film, and it started to rub me the wrong way," King says.

In 2017, Franco left the project, and that's when director Janicza Bravo came in. Her feature debut, Lemon, screened at Sundance, and she'd directed episodes of Atlanta and Dear White People. Bravo says she wanted to direct the movie adaptation from the minute she read the Twitter thread.

"I heard my own voice in it," she says. "It was how I dealt and processed with my own trauma, which is: how I'm going to get through that which pains me is to laugh at it; it's to recontextualize it; it's to recast myself."

Director Janicza Bravo (left) on the <em data-stringify-type="italic">Zola</em> set with Taylour Paige (right) and Riley Keough (background).
/ Courtesy A24
Director Janicza Bravo (left) on the <em data-stringify-type="italic">Zola</em> set with Taylour Paige (right) and Riley Keough (background).

Bravo put together a pitch of images and inspiration for her directorial vision: among them, Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights. After a months-long process, Bravo got the job and brought on writer Jeremy O. Harris — who'd yet to complete his MFA at Yale's playwriting program and become famous for the Tony award-winning Slave Play — to help her translate the tweets into a script. Harris says they both entered the process with one uncompromisable goal: doing right by A'Ziah King.

We were never going to disrespect her work as a writer by not keeping her text as the king that ruled over every decision we made.

"We were never going to disrespect her work as a writer by not keeping her text as the king that ruled over every decision we made," Harris says. "Obviously, it's a film adaptation so there are going to be some things that we have to paint out in a way that might not be the same texture [as the original thread], but ... we always looked at her thread as the clearest, most generous outline anyone could have given two screenwriters to write a movie of a story."

To paint out those details and textures, Harris dug into magazine profiles of King and relevant Reddit and Facebook pages, but mostly, he referred to the thread.

"As a fan of epic poetry, if you put a one, a two, a three, a four next to each of these individual tweets, it looks like reading a classic Western text. So we were just like 'We'll treat it like you would treat Homer,' " Harris says.

Janicza Bravo worked more closely with A'Ziah King to translate her original storytelling style.

"The only way she was going to open up to me was if I felt safe and if I was giving her a read that what she thought mattered," Bravo says of the process. "How I did that was that I invited her in."

It worked. King says Bravo really got into her head.

"After several conversations with her," King says, "I really just trusted her and was just like 'She's got this, I don't really have to say much else.' "

Still, Bravo wanted to ensure that King was never forgotten, both throughout the process and while audiences watched the film. Direct quotes from the Twitter thread are peppered throughout the script and are accompanied by a "Twitter whistle" sound effect.

"It was also like a wink for A'Ziah," Bravo says. "When she's watching that movie, I want to remind her that she's why we're here. So it is a nod and a bow to her and to her source material."

For her part, A'Ziah King — the real Zola — is happy to accept the credit she deserves; King is listed as an executive producer of Zola, and her name is on the film's opening credits. But she says people have expressed surprise at her involvement in the movie process.

"I've always been really vocal and I've always owned my voice," she says. "Without me, like, it wouldn't even be a thing."

King hopes Zola sets an example for other people sharing their stories online.

"Now, anyone who comes after me or anyone who wants to write and share anything on the Internet, I think they now know they can have agency over their voice and their work in that way," she says. "I think we've set the bar pretty high."

Thanks to the work of King, Bravo and Harris, the next person who tells a viral story on social media has an example for what they deserve from a film adaptation. And, just for the record, A'Ziah King says she still has lots of juicy stories to tell.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.