Joi McMillon is an editor known for Zola, The Underground Railroad, and Moonlight. She previously worked with director Janicza Bravo on two of her short films as well as Bravo’s feature debut Lemon. McMillon and Bravo team up again for Zola, an adaptation out today of the stranger-than-fiction Twitter thread which details a wild road trip to Florida that goes horribly wrong. In this feature McMillon discusses seamlessly integrating the language of social media into the edit — as told to Carlos Aguilar.
Zola director Janicza Bravo doesn’t stop with an OK movie, or a fine movie. She pushes it until the film is the best it can ever possibly be. In the beginning when you start off on the journey of watching Zola, there are a few red flags, but as an audience member, for the most part, the first 15 to 20 minutes are fun, and you’re excited. You’re like, “Oh yeah, let’s go.” And then as you see the situation has changed, you’re like, “Oh, this is not OK?” You are taking in the film and realizing how grave the situation is. Janicza loves to make her audience uncomfortable. So what may be fun and fast-paced in the beginning, towards the end, we linger and sit with situations so you understand the impact of what’s taking place. You understand how scary the situation actually is.
Back in 2017, Janicza and I had just screened Lemon at SXSW. She mentioned Zola to me, but at the time, she was still trying to get on the project — it wasn’t hers yet. Later in 2018 when she was attached to it, she shared the script to get my initial thoughts on the story. I gave a few comments and spoke to both her and Barry Jenkins — who’s another director I work with. Early on, I’m mostly getting a sense of how the director wants to approach the storytelling of the film and giving any ideas I have about transitions or the best way to handle a particular scene. But I’m not too hands-on — for the most part, I start working on the project once production is underway.
Many of the things Janicza initially implemented into the shooting of the film were vital to how the story was to play, as part of a film whose initial story was birthed on Twitter. She understood the necessity to have the social media experience play out on the screen in a way that’s inventive and also inclusive. For instance, she approached text messages by having characters read them out loud instead of seeing them type them out.
A lot of times people are texting more than they’re having actual conversations. Treating text messages as dialogue, you’re seeing how we’re communicating with each other currently, and in some ways, to hear “K” out loud, instead of it being typed, sounds a bit silly. In a little way, it’s humorous to hear someone say, “heart emoji, heart emoji” or “rose emoji, rose emoji.” But that’s actually our form of communication with each other right now — especially right now.
Sometimes when people try to implement social media in film, they think it has to be a ton of emojis on the screen, or it has to be mostly graphic. Some of the things we did are graphic, but we also used the noises that your social devices make when you’re texting or sending a message. Our use of the sound design was helpful in clueing the audience in on what was happening, without spoon-feeding them the information by throwing words up on screen.
There’s also a moment in the film where we actually have the sound fall out. And so you’re experiencing what’s going on, but you don’t hear the dialogue. When you take away a certain element that’s usually available to you while watching a film, it enhances all your other senses. By turning down the volume, we make your imagination kick in as you’re trying to put together what’s going on in the scene. Sometimes your imagination actually can be more exciting or interesting than the actual dialogue of a scene.
One of the sequences that definitely evolved is what we call the “sex montage” — which is a montage of men coming to the hotel. Janicza wanted to present it to the audience so that they understood the language of what was taking place. It is something that if handled by somebody else, could have not been represented correctly. That montage had some elements of how you would do it if you were scrolling through your phone. We shot it in a way where the men weren’t hidden — the men were on display. A lot of times when people talk about sex work, they’re putting the women on display. Janicza and I made a conscious effort to put the men on display. I don’t know if a lot of people noticed this, but one of the things that’s great about Zola is that there’s no female nudity. It was something Janicza was very conscious about. The evolution of the “sex montage” was that we wanted to do it in a way that impacted you, but wasn’t grotesque. We also wanted you to feel the weight of this young girl who is put in the situation. It’s something that’s happening a lot, which is definitely very tragic.
Usually when you’re initially on a project, your director is off shooting. You’re kind of working by yourself until they can jump in and start giving you feedback. The difference between working on your own vs. working with a co-editor is with a co-editor, you can show each other scenes and bounce ideas off of each other. But when you’re working on your own, it’s just you and your assistant (if you have an assistant) plugging along, and once your director comes in, you have a lot of questions. Janicza makes fun of me — she says I ask too many questions. But when you’re working by yourself, and you don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off, you basically have days and days worth of questions and ideas that you want to ask and try out with the director. With a co-editor you can say an idea out loud and they’re immediately like, “That’s not a good idea,” and you’re like, “Yeah, that’s not a good idea.” But if you don’t have that early on, you just have to save it up, and the director gets to experience a lot more of that once they get back into the cutting room. When Janicza and I first worked together on her short film, “Man Rots from the Head,” I was wrapping up on Moonlight and came on towards the end. Within the week of us working together, it felt like we’d known each other for quite some time. We fell in step in understanding the language of a film and the certain risks that she likes to take as someone who definitely likes to stretch out situations that make people uncomfortable. I thought the work that she was doing was very exciting and definitely bold. A lot of people apply the word “innovative” to certain moviemakers, but sometimes they’re really not that innovative or groundbreaking. But the type of moviemaking Janicza makes definitely is — she likes to push it. She likes to see how far we can take a situation, but in the same way, she’s not pushing it just to grab attention. She’s actually pushing it in service of the film. Janicza brings out the best in anyone that she collaborates with. She challenges you to do the best job possible. I don’t think you can say that about all moviemakers working in the industry right now. That sets her apart from a lot of other people, in that she wants to make the best film possible and wants you to be a part of that with her.
Zola, directed by Janicza Bravo and edited by Joi McMillon, opens in theaters today, from A24.