“Humour is my sharpest tool for studying bad behaviour”: Inside the stressful comedy Janicza Bravo

In conversation with Ellie Brown, January 12, 2023

Motion People

Janicza Bravo aims her phone past the laptop screen through which we’re conversing via Zoom and hits record. She films something in the near distance for ten or so seconds, before turning her phone towards the laptop so that I can see the video. I am not, as you might think, receiving a masterclass in directing a short film from a director whose career began with short films. No: what I can make out, looking at Bravo’s phone on my laptop screen, is a cat sauntering along a wall outside of the director’s window of her Los Angeles home. And this is not a sweet video of a cute little cat; this is video evidence of a pretty rude cat. “There’s a cat that walks by my house every day,” she explains, “and yesterday I went to dinner and my friend ordered a shrimp cocktail and I searched to see if cats eat shrimp. I got this shrimp cocktail to take away and I left it out, and the cat just walked by it, stopped, looked at it, smelled it, and then left it.” Reader, it is true - I see the cat pause and carry on, almost entirely unaffected by Bravo’s gesture of kindness. “What a dick! I mean it’s so rude,” the director laments: “I also got salmon for it!” But though the director and the cat are unlikely to strike up a friendship any time soon, it feels like the kind of interaction that would make its way into one of her films.

Since the release of her first short film Eat! in 2011 Bravo has carved out space in the industry as the creator of very funny, if excruciatingly awkward, absurdist film. Eat! stars Katherine Waterston as a young woman locked out who takes refuge in the apartment of her strange neighbour, played by Brett Gelman (Bravo’s then-husband and a regular collaborator). The film is only 14 minutes long, but they are some of the most unsettling, uncomfortable 14 minutes that you won’t get back. Then there’s Gregory Goes Boom (2013), Bravo’s second short, in which Michael Cera stars as Gregory, a racist, sexist paraplegic who goes on a spate of unsuccessful dates. The film ends, as you might expect, with an unexpected boom. Amongst these early shorts, recognisable faces pop up often. Alison Pill stars, for example, in 2016’s Woman in Deep, whilst Cera, Gelman and Jodie Turner-Smith feature in several of Bravo’s shorts.

Bravo has previously described her genre of comedy as stressful com edy, a term that neatly captures the kind of feeling that her work evokes. A fifteen or so minute short film, then, feels like a palatable length of time to sit with the awkward tension that Bravo drops upon her audience. And then there’s Lemon, the director’s first feature film from 2017. Co-written with Gelman, the film follows Isaac (played by Gelman), a flailing middle-aged Jewish drama teacher who projects his own misgivings onto the people around him.

Isaac’s inability to empathise or understand the people in his life without seeing himself at the centre of his, and their, universe leads his long-suffering blind girlfriend (Judy Greer) to gleefully walk out on him. Isaac is as unlikeable as his contempt for his student (Gillian Jacobs), who can do no right in the presence of her classmate (Michael Cera), whom Isaac idolises. That is, until the student becomes more successful than the master - and then even he becomes the subject of Isaac’s ire. Finding himself alone, Isaac thrusts himself upon Cleo (Nia Long), a makeup artist he meets at a photoshoot for an ill-fated health awareness campaign job he has landed. Cleo gives Isaac a chance by reluctantly, though kindly, inviting him to a family cookout but even that he turns, quite literally, to shit. Lemon is an absurdly laugh out loud film, and a natural progression on from Bravo’s previous shorts.

Prior to entering the world of film Bravo started out in theatre, but she doesn’t feel that the two realms are all that different. “When I wanted to move into the film space, I essentially wanted to film theatre, and I think if you’re watching my work, you can see theatre in it.” The main difference, though, is that theatre relies on a single space, “and that space can evolve into a multitude of things,” Bravo adds. In theatre, “the actors can tell you that it’s a train station or a mountain top - and you believe that.” The benefit of working in film is that you can traverse many spaces. Beyond that, the transition from theatre to film wasn’t especially radical, she says. “I just needed to understand how to use cutaways; theatre’s version of a cutaway is to pull focus by way of movement, or with sound or lighting.” So the move to film involved figuring out what the focus would be in a scene: “What feels necessary? What do we want to learn here? What are we picking up? What are we leaving behind?”

Part of Bravo’s reasoning for moving away from theatre is that she found it to be a difficult environment to find success in - not because of a lack of love. But when it comes to the off-kilter style and brand of humour that she’s cultivated in her films, where did that originate? Bravo says that theatre school “is very serious, unless you’re making funny stuff. And if you’re making funny stuff, sometimes it’s just really goofy. I had seen myself as a very serious theatre director and an experimental theatre director. I wanted to make this move into film because it seemed more possible than theatre.” Bravo began writing scripts that she could potentially direct for film, before asking Gelman for feedback, forcing him to read them in her presence. But the reaction she received wasn’t quite what she’d expected. “I watched him read and he kept laughing. And I was so hurt, I was gutted. I was confused; it felt callous. But he said, ‘it’s funny, you’re funny. Why can’t it be funny?’”

Bravo acknowledges she’s a funny person, and has always been a funny person. “I make people laugh, all the time. But my sense of humour seemed to be reserved for something that was social.” Writing funny scripts was the opposite of creating serious theatre, especially as, she says, there’s much less respect for comedy. “It’s considered lesser, it just is. Not because I think so, but that’s how the industry treats it. And I guess I didn’t want to be the clown; I had meant to be the straight man,” the director says in reference to the comedy dynamic in which the latter performs or behaves in a more composed way to contrast and emphasise the clown’s antics. But perhaps, the director is both; as she says, “every character that I write is a manifestation of some version of myself, whether actualised or not, right? I’m inside of all of those people. They’re my words; it’s my lived experience injected into every character. I’m inhabiting them to some degree.”

So what about film that isn’t told through her own words? In Zola (2020), the director’s second feature film, Bravo retells the story of a 148 long Twitter thread posted by A’Ziah ‘Zola’ King in 2015, which was rewritten as a Rolling Stone article that year. In the thread Zola - a young Black woman - describes her encounter with Jessica - who is white - after she comes into the Hooters restaurant in Detroit where she works. The long and short of the story is that, very quickly after they meet, Jessica invites Zola on a road trip to Tampa, Florida to dance in strip clubs there. The trip quickly unravels when Zola realises that the housemate Jessica has brought along on the trip is actually her pimp - though that is by no means where the story ends.

When Zola dropped this 148 Tweet epic on the unsuspecting internet, there was quickly a lot of noise. Amongst the excitement and hysteria, there was a Reddit rebuttal from Jessica (with clear racist undertones), and accusations from sceptics about the validity of Zola’s claims. The director Ava DuVernay, meanwhile, was quick to call for a film adaptation. Bravo, herself, has previously said that as soon as she read the thread, she knew she wanted to turn it into a film.

sweater, skirt, jacket, socks, shoes and belt: MIU MIU necklace and earrings: Janicza’s own
sweater, skirt, jacket, socks, shoes and belt: MIU MIU necklace and earrings: Janicza’s own
sweater, skirt, jacket, socks, shoes and belt: MIU MIU necklace and earrings: Janicza’s own
sweater, skirt, jacket, socks, shoes and belt: MIU MIU necklace and earrings: Janicza’s own

In 2017, Zola landed in Bravo’s hands (James Franco had been in the process of adapting it, pre-Me Too). So it was the task of Bravo and co-writer, playwright Jeremy O. Harris, to capture the same essence that Zola had unleashed on her original audience. Their mission was to rewrite something that would be as electric as the Twitter thread that had been devoured a few years prior. “But it was never going to be the same, right? The experience of sitting on your toilet and reading this Twitter thread for 10 minutes, or lying in your bed, or being on a subway - we were never going to be able to capture that feeling because the novel and the adaptation, they are never going to meet.” Part of that difference would be because, as Bravo explains, “the experience of the read is such an individual journey that one goes on.”

In their telling of Zola’s story, Bravo and Harris pulled back on some of the salaciousness and outrageousness of the original thread. “It had so much magic in it; it was incandescent. But she was also making fun of really fucked up things; she could make light of something super dark. And once you attach that darkness to an image, it’s not funny anymore. It’s harder to make the joke.” One might expect, in the context of the director’s back catalogue, that making a dark, funny film about fucked up things would be in true Janicza Bravo-style. But while the film, starring Taylour Paige as Zola and Riley Keough as Stefani (the character of Jessica), undoubtedly captures the thrill of the original thread, it is also a more nuanced interpretation of the state of affairs. Zola is as much a wild tale of two young women who forge a friendship thick and fast as it is a movie about exploitation, sex trafficking and racism - and it’s these toxic undertones that Bravo picks out. 

Bravo recalls that when some of her friends who had loved the original thread saw the initial cut of Zola they remarked that it wasn’t fun. To which, the director says, she recommended they go back and re-read Zola’s original thread, “and it’s not going to be fun. The experience is so different on second read, or third read.” (As an aside, the original script attached to the film’s previous director was more of a typical ‘road trip’ movie, full of racist expletives and female nudity - which is deliberately absent from Bravo and Harris’s script.) Bravo’s telling of Zola is thus perhaps an example of the distinction between telling her own stories through her own characters (as loose extensions of different versions of herself), and those of someone else - even if the novel and the adaptation are never the same. Through Bravo and Harris’s telling, Zola is less an all-guns-blazing riotous saga, than a dazzlingly nuanced, raw examination of the tensions underlying Zola’s experience. 

When it comes to humour, and as Bravo herself says, her work is never intentionally funny, though there are obvious jokes in all her work, especially and including Zola. “But a lot of it is more about discomfort. It’s more about putting people in circumstances that they don’t have control over that make them feel a little bit funny like that. That's the thing I'm mostly interested in, and so that doesn't necessarily have to produce humour.” That’s a sentiment that comes across in Lemon: while a laugh out loud film, it provokes outwards laughter that comes from awkwardness. Given that, throughout her work, Bravo’s film touches on the politics of identity, of belonging (within society, to a cultural or religious network, in a social group), does the director use humour as a way to subvert accepted norms and to scrutinise the world around her? “I would say maybe less the former, and more the latter; using humour as a way to expose certain behaviours. That’s totally right on. I stand behind that. I think the way I would pose it, or how I've talked about it before, is that I'm using humour as my anthropological research. That is my sharpest tool in studying bad behaviour.” 

In March 2022, Bravo was revealed as the 23rd female director to take part in Women’s Tales, a series of short films commissioned by Miu Miu twice yearly since 2011 (previous directors include Ava DuVernay and the late Agnes Varda). Starring Bravo’s previous collaborator, Katherine Waterston, alongside Natasha Lyonne, Poorna Jagannathan, musician Kelsey Lu and Pedro Pascal, House Comes With A Bird is an eclectic fusion of the director’s razor sharp humour and the playful chicness of Italian fashion house. The film is serene, with its soft hues and modernist interiors soundtracked by Lu on cello, and punctuated with moments of chaos delivered impeccably by Lyonne and Pascal. 

But for Bravo, how was the experience of being given, in effect, free reign by Miu Miu? “It’s not going to be particularly profound or sexy what I’m going to say, because it's going to be so boring: which is to say, I really loved that experience. I have been a fan of Women’s Tales for quite some time.” The prospect of working on Miu Miu’s ongoing series was something that had made it onto the director’s list of projects she’d love to try her hand at. “I love short filmmaking a lot; if I could make a career of making short films, I would. It’s a great space for exploration. I didn't go to film school, so short filmmaking has been a place for me to sharpen my tools. So, getting to work with Miu Miu was totally a dream.” 

Fashion is something I am curious to ask Bravo about for several reasons. Before breaking into film, she worked as a stylist. In 2018, she directed a short film as part of The Performers, a collaborative series between Gucci and GQ, in which Jeremy O. Harris discusses personal style and self-expression through clothing and as performance. And in 2022, Bravo was one of nine directors invited to transform the period rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as part of the Costume Institute’s exhibition, In America: An Anthology of Fashion. That’s not to mention Bravo’s Instagram feed which is littered with photographs of the director in outfits by Thom Browne, Simone Rocha, Schiaparelli... So with that in mind, what does fashion mean to Bravo? “It has always been a way to telegraph where I was at,” Bravo says. In film, it’s a way of adding depth to a character, to again telegraph to an audience where a character is at: “it very much becomes a window into the  soul.” That is something evident throughout Bravo’s oeuvre, but it seems especially pertinent in Zola.

In one of the early scenes in Zola, as the film’s title actor is picked up by Stefani to begin their ill-fated trip to Florida, Zola is seen wearing a pair of box-fresh Nike Cortez. Towards the film’s end (and after everything in between), Zola is shown wearing those same trainers, though this time, she’s treading on the backs of the shoes - as if she’s put them on in a rush. It’s a subtle detail but considering how Bravo emphasises the role of clothing to signal a character’s state of mind and place, it seems a crucial detail, nonetheless. “That movie is a perfect window into my ethos around what style has the power to evoke,” Bravo says. “The Cortez are a great example. What does it say for this woman who's going on a road trip wearing sneakers [in terms of] the practicality of this character?” 

Bravo brings up another little detail in Zola that signals where the characters are, at that point in time. In the scene in which we see Zola and Stefani in separate toilet cubicles from above, it is quite clear from the colour of their urine which of the two characters (straight man and clown) is hydrated: “the woman who wears the sneakers, is the woman who's also hydrated, is the woman who at the end of the movie is like, ‘I don’t have time putting shoes on, I just gotta go!’” It’s details like this that become what Bravo calls “little secrets” within film, and it’s something she herself looks for as a movie viewer. “You see something like that, and it feels like there’s a secret that the filmmaker or the actors have invited you into.” 

With two features, many shorts, and episodes for TV shows like Atlanta and Dear White People under her belt, I wonder where Bravo sees herself now and going forward? At the time of our call, Bravo has been scouting locations for a new BBC show set in the north of England. She also says that over the next few years of her career, she will go through a “big shift tonally” with a few projects that will be “more serious or grounded because I also want to explore that side of myself, or see if there is any pleasure [there].” It’s a shift that will allow Bravo to test the waters and see if she can make the leap. 

In terms of her relationship to her work, the director says she feels solid - and thus ready to venture in more unfamiliar territory. “I’d love to go back to the theatre,” she adds, “I’d love to design a very small collection of clothing. There are many things that I want to do. I maybe want to work in the art space a bit more. But what I am most satisfied by, or where my home is, is directing - whatever that means; directing long and short film, directing theatre.” 

Photographer RYAN PFLUGER 
Creative Direction NIMA HABIBZADEH 


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