The A24 Podcast is back with a rollicking conversation between close friends and frequent collaborators: Zola filmmaker Janicza Bravo and editor Joi McMillon.
Topics covered include: finding your creative collaborators, strip club breakfast buffets, editing as the final draft of a script, the Sundance party scene, why bad notes are better than no notes, meaningful nudity on screen, getting paid the least for doing the most, and what it’s like making a naughty movie when you’re a prude.
Speaker: Hey, and welcome back to the A24 Podcast. We’re excited to pick things back up with a conversation between two close friends and frequent collaborators, Zola filmmaker Janicza Bravo and editor Joi McMillon, whose name you might recognize from her Oscar-nominated work on Moonlight. It’s great to be back, and we’ve got a full lineup of episodes to get you through the fall. Here’s Janicza and Joi.
Janicza Bravo: Joi, please introduce yourself. Or would you like me to introduce myself while you're laughing?
Joi McMillon: [laughing] This is terrible.
Joi: I can't stop.
Janicza: Okay, I'll introduce myself. Hi, for those listening at home, in cars, on hikes, on walks, in tubs, I'm Janicza Bravo. I am a filmmaker based in Los Angeles, and here, sitting with me is—
Joi: You’re doing so well. Will you say my name?
Janicza: Joi McMillon. Joi with an i, J-O-I. Joi, it's already gone downhill. I mean, you're doing so little to help me.
Joi: I'm so sorry. I am going to get there. I don't know why I just got a fit of the giggles.
Janicza: Introduce yourself, Joi.
Joi: Hello. My name is Joi McMillon.
Janicza: Spell it.
Joi: J-O-I, as in igloo. Last name too? M-C-M-I-L-L-O-N, not an A, O-N.
Janicza: I think it's important just because I've seen your name spelled all kinds of ways.
Joi: So many ways. Well, someone called me Joe the other day.
Janicza: But they were looking at you.
Joi: They were looking at me, like, "Joe." Then saw me and was like, "Joe," again. I'm like, "Well, let's just wrap it up and give me my food."
Janicza: Oh, but it's in a food space. That's okay.
Joi: Yes, it is.
Janicza: That reminds me of that story you told me. The time when you were editing on a film, I won't say what it was, and someone walked into the room and believed you to not be the editor. They thought that your assistant, who was—tell me face and sex.
Joi: I was actually going to do a behind-the-scenes interview for a film. I walked in, and the guy just dismissed me and went to my assistant editor who was white and a female, and was like, "Been waiting to meet you. So excited to do this interview." She's like, "Oh, it's her." He looked at me and was like, "Oh, yes, of course," and tried to recover, and I was like, "No."
Janicza: Guess he hasn't been waiting long enough.
Joi: No, then at the end of the interview, he was like, "You're so well-spoken."
Janicza: No, he didn't.
Joi: Yes, and I was like, "I don't need much from you, but that, I really don't need that from you."
Janicza: That really rubs me too. Well, I'm sure like you, I thought this year was going to go really different. I thought somehow it could be worse. Just kidding. I believed that this would be this period of time where I'd probably hear something like that a lot. I go through these spells, as I'm sure you do, especially when you're out promoting work where people, because of your face, will be so surprised at your access to words because those don't necessarily go together. That face and words. At Sundance, at the beginning of the year, I got it a couple of times, but they were—”articulate,” I think, is the one that bothers me the most.
Janicza: I'd say “well-spoken” is maybe number two.
Joi: It's like when they say like, "Oh, listening to you, you were so intelligent. I just found that so refreshing." I was like, "I wish I could record you and play you back to yourself so you can hear how that sounds to me. Because it's not complimentary."
Janicza: It isn't, but I feel like whenever I've gotten upset about that, I wanted that moment where you could reframe and retell it to someone so that they would understand it. “Well, you wouldn't say this about a guy, most likely, or a white person.” It's a rarity to arrive at that. I don't know that that would all the way land because those kinds of prejudice or racist jabs are small. They're so small that when you try to explain what you feel you deserve, it makes you feel insane, that that would even bother you.
Joi: Definitely. I was just thinking based off of who's listening to this podcast, who's now Googling us and being like, "Wait, are they Black?"
Janicza: I am not. Whatever you find out there, it is inaccurate. And nor is Joi. These are not two Blacks. That's probably not going to help me, having said something like that. Joi, I'm looking at, we have to have a conversation here.
Joi: Yes, we do.
Janicza: Well, we've worked together three times. What are the three times we've worked together?
Joi: The first time we had the… it was, I remember, I go back to this often of us first working together and being like, "I really like her." Then being like, "Oh, I hope she likes me." [laughs]
Janicza: I didn't.
Joi: [laughs] Really?
Janicza: I didn't.
Joi: I was so nervous you didn't like me.
Janicza: I'm just here because they asked me to come.
Janicza: No, I really liked you.
Joi: Yes, it was Man Rots From The Head.
Janicza: Yes, it was a short film and I was trying to find the email where I got introduced to you because up until that point, I had only edited my own work, which I really liked doing. I don't know if sarcasm is landing because a part of this performance involves a facial expression. I really loved editing. Just like, "Get me in there."
Editing made me feel very alone and like I didn't want to wake up again. It was the last short film I made, and I was expecting this transition from having made that short to a feature and felt like this is the time to work with an editor. I think it was maybe a producer on the film or a friend. I just asked for a handful of people. I was more interested in working with a women—a woman—a women? Not well-spoken.
Janicza: I was interested in working with a woman or person of color. Also, I would also work with a white guy. You know I've worked with many. I love, love white guys. They're great. Big fan. I got a short list of people and there was this woman who you'll probably remember. I have no idea what her name is. I feel like it's Katie, it might not be.
Joi: Oh, Kate Hickey.
Janicza: Okay, so it is. Did she work on Girls?
Joi: Yes, her and I worked on season five of Girls together.
Janicza: That's what it was. I think that Kate was the recommendation. I reached out to maybe three people. Kate was, I think maybe the first or the second person to respond to me and said that she wasn't available, but she wanted to recommend her friend, Joi. I was like, "Great, whoever that is, that sounds great. I'll meet them."
Then I remember my producer at the time being like, "She's Black." I was like, "That doesn't mean anything to me." I'm like, "Does she know how to edit?" It was wild because, obviously, we've now worked together three times and we are very much family. I think that when people see us together and know that we work together, it matters to me that we're not together because of what we look like. That's a bonus, it's a total bonus, but we arrived at each other because we made sense. I think you said this a lot while we were working on Zola. It's not everyone you can spend this amount of time with in a room, and the hours and the days are short, as you know.
Janicza: We made sense, and I wanted to see you every day. I think you get immersed in the work in a very similar way and you like to laugh and you have a great laugh. That matters because of the work that we're making together, which is dark, but also very funny. To me, the editor is the other writer. There's multiple stages of writing with any film, obviously, but once you're in the edit, that becomes the final draft. The editor, I feel, is so instrumental in what that final script is.
Joi: Well, I appreciate you saying that because I think, oftentimes, people—
Janicza: I don't say it when you're not looking right at me.
Janicza: I usually am just like, "Yes, Joi's my hands." “Joi's the hands and I'm the brain.” That's how I would describe you.
Joi: “She's my puppet.”
Janicza: Yes, “She's just a regular puppet woman.”
Joi: I do think that a lot of people, sometimes, will diminish the power of editing because they don't necessarily know how instrumental it is until the final product. Also, I think there's almost a fear of admitting how powerful editing can be, which is odd to me because I think filmmaking, as a whole, is a collaboration. I think if the editing is great, it shines a light on all departments. I've never heard of someone saying, "I walked out because of the set design."
Janicza: I mean, someone out there is doing that. Someone out there.
Joi: [laughing] You think someone is? “I'm getting out of here.”
Janicza: "Look at the couch. Damn this light. Why would they pick that?" I've heard this and I've definitely heard it from you, where I feel the editor isn't credited as much. I think this happens, I feel, with directors and many of their collaborators, right?
Janicza: Where there's a muscling for who did what, who got to the thing. I know I've seen it between directors and DPs, and I guess the director and the writer, and then the director and the editor is probably the last place where you can have that kind of thing.
To me, I feel my work is made so much better by who I invite in, and it would be goofy to not credit. I don't think crediting others diminishes what I have brought to the table. In fact, I'm like, "I did that. I thought of them. Aren't I great? I considered it. I curated, I did the dinner party. I hosted." You know what I mean?
Joi: Exactly, yes.
Janicza: I feel directors of many sexes do this. I know that sometimes there are a handful of women directors that I know have done this, and I don't begrudge that, though, because, unfortunately, I feel it's like, how do you stake your claim in what you did, and the more you give away that power, maybe people think it means you're doing less.
But I also feel that is about reframing what power looks like and defining what power looks like to you. That power isn't just saying, "Well, I did it all." I have no qualms with saying like, "Oh, yes, that's Joi." If someone loves something, I'm like, "Oh, yes, Joi. That's Joi." There's a moment in the movie that everybody always laughs at and I'm like, "That's Joi. Joi did that. She muscled it, and she was like, ‘That has to be there or please, let me have that for this period of time. Let's show it to a handful of people.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, she was right.’”
I'm like, that makes me look better. It makes me look better that I was able to hear a good idea, or I was able to hear the idea and then recognize that it was better than what I had thought.
Joi: That, to me, shows the confidence you have as a filmmaker because your overall goal is to create a space that says, this is Janicza Bravo's space. I remember when I first told Barry, because we were finishing Moonlight—
Janicza: Barry who?
Joi: Barry Jenkins.
Janicza: I've heard of him.
Joi: Up and coming, you know? One day.
Janicza: Also Black?
Joi: Yes, I believe so.
Janicza: Not Black.
Joi: And well-spoken.
Janicza: Yes, he's good at words that one.
Joi: I remember when I was like, "Oh, you know someone reached out to me about possibly working with Janicza Bravo," and he's like, "You have to. You have to work with her." I was like, "Oh, okay." He's like, "She's great." He's like, "I'm telling you—"
Janicza: Not like that producer that told you I was a nightmare?
Janicza: That's a different story? Different timeline?
Joi: He was very excited about me working with you. That, to me, was like, "Okay, yes," because I was like, the same as you and I are family, Barry and I are family. When you're creating with someone who you respect and trust, I think the final product is so much better when there's discord. And you don't feel like you're putting your all into something with someone who you distrust. I've been in cutting rooms like that where the feeling is not great, you know? Going into work, you're like, "Oh, here we go again."
Janicza: Here we go.
Janicza: Here go, hell come.
Joi: [laughing] I’m like, "I'm going to go out for lunch." We spend so much time together.
Janicza: Oh my God, we spend so much time together. I was thinking this afternoon, I was like, "How long did we edit this movie for?" Because I feel you worked on it the second longest. Me being the first.
Janicza: I worked on it the fifth longest. Obviously, aside from the producers who'd been there even before I got there, but from the moment I got there, to this moment, I feel you've been there the second longest. You've been there intimately the second longest. I don't have an answer for how long I think we edited the movie. I feel like it's nine months to a year.
Janicza: I don't have a sense of it because there's lots of straggler days in there.
Joi: That's like whenever someone's like—they say like, "How long did you work on the movie?" "Eight months." I'm like, "Was it eight months?" Because I feel like there's always that time you're on the mix stage, you're like, "Oh, I want to make a picture change." There's a day there. I'm like, "How do you come up with that solid time?" Because to me, a film is done after I've done the DVD extras and when there's no coming back, the DVD's coming out.
Janicza: That means it's done.
Joi: And it's over.
Janicza: I thought that you were going to say the opposite, because I remember you and I were on a panel with another editor and a director. Maybe too specific how I'm talking about this. Because we've only ever done that one time.
Joi: Maybe they don't listen—
Janicza: They're not listening. We were on a panel with another director and another editor, you were 20 minutes late to it. Worth setting the stage, we're at a panel that has started on time. I'm on the phone with Joi who's in a taxi being like, "I'm almost there." It's a panel.
Joi: It's so terrible.
Janicza: They started the panel and then she showed up 20 minutes into it with a bag on her shoulder walking through the room.
Joi: It was hot too.
Janicza: It just was like, we were the Blacks and they were the Whites, I was like, "Joi, you're not helping our group."
Joi: It was one of those days where everything went wrong. You know, when the Uber like—I was late.
Janicza: You were also at the edge of the time—everything needed to work out from probably the time you got in the car. It didn't.
Joi: The Uber left me because I was— [laughs]
Janicza: Oh, this was the second Uber.
Joi: I'm terrible with that because I'm like, "They'll wait." Then when they don't, you’ve got to call another one. It was a situation. I'm not proud of it.
Janicza: I remember being on that panel and we were there with our first feature. There was the question of how long we'd worked on the movie. We'd said something like, "It's like three to five months." In the end, "It's probably like five or something because there's days trickled throughout.” They were like, "We were done with our movie in eight weeks.” We were both like, [groans]. Then they were like, "The whole cut had been put together in like four or five weeks. Then by the time we watched it, we were like, ‘There's not a lot of work to do here.’” I was like, "I'd look again."
Joi: Then they were like, "Yes, we screened it and there were no notes.” I was like, "Oh."
Janicza: No notes means no one's rooting.
Joi: It's hard to tell people that when you screen something and there are no notes. It's almost as if that's like the kiss of death when someone has no notes.
Janicza: Oh, absolutely. I know, while it's painful, it's better if the rise that comes out of the work is more negative, because it means something happened. It wasn't like down the middle productions.
Joi: Run of the mill.
Janicza: "I ain't got nothing to say about nothing" show. It either needs to be really hot, or really cold, and temperate is just not worth it. None of us arrived at this moment because we were like, "You know, I just want to make a 5 out of 10." I'm sure you've met this energy before, the competitiveness around getting it done in the least amount of time.
Janicza: There's either the least amount of time crowd or the most amount of time crowd.
Joi: Yes, definitely.
Janicza: I'm like, "It's going to be as long as it needs to be for it to be done and I'm not really interested—" When I told someone that it took us, I was like, "I don't know, nine months, ten months." I was like, "We're still cutting." They were disturbed. I was like, "Yes, when you see it, it's going to be fucking sick." Like, "Whatever, eat my ass, sir." This is the good part of it. This is when it's getting good.
The second time we worked together was on my first feature Lemon, which has 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and 10 stars on IMDb. It's the most stars any movie has.
Joi: I feel like they wanted to give it 11.
Janicza: They did. People in the comments section, people were like, "If only 11." That's how bad they loved it.
Joi: Love Lemon.
Janicza: Big fans of that. I was thinking recently, obviously, this year hasn't gone how we planned. It's gone exactly how we thought it would.
Joi: It started off with a bang.
Janicza: It really did. It started off with a bang. I genuinely believed, I was like, "This is my year. My year is coming for me. I'm ready." I'm talking outfits, I'm talking exercise, I'm talking, "Year, I got you." Then it went to the darkest place.
Joi: It's so dark, it’s so dark. I just remember being at Sundance, I'm like, "This feels good."
Janicza: “It's just the beginning of what is about to be a fire year. This year's gonna be fire.” Then it literally was like, "Psych, you guys. I hope you enjoyed that because that's all you're getting, that's all the juice you've got."
Joi: It was so dark. I do feel the turning point was Kobe passing away because Sundance was on such a high. Then it was like, the streets went so quiet and we were like, "What happened?" And they said, and I was just like, "Ugh." I feel like it just all started snowballing after that. It was like, 2020 is not our year.
Janicza: You're right.
Joi: 2020 doesn't like us.
Janicza: That's the ripple. That's like “move one” of the ripple.
Joi: I think a lot of people, during this time, have had moments of reflection, some people are like, "I'm going to get in shape," but I've been working this whole entire time.
Janicza: I know.
Joi: It's like, "Oh."
Janicza: I guess my question to you is, where do you feel the difference? Because I know when this first started to happen, I was at the offices of your new show. We were "finishing Zola." I'm using air quotes for those at home, "finishing Zola." We were in stage 35 of "finishing Zola." I remember us talking about it every day.
I think we worked together for about five or six days in a row in that iteration, and this conversation of like, "Are things closing?” and “What's happening?" Because you could feel it coming, and you saying, "I just can't go home and edit. I can't bring an Avid home. I basically can't work from home and sleep here and do all the things here. I'm going to go crazy."
You really carved out a very solid vibe for yourself, where basically, everyone else went home and you were like, "I'm staying at the office." I guess I'm curious how it has felt for you because, obviously, things are really different. You have a job Monday through Friday. Sometimes you work on the weekends. It's, in a way, no different than the year you and I had last year.
Joi: I know. That's what I was thinking. It was so funny, because when we were working on Zola, it was almost as if we were in quarantine, and we were like, "We're free." Then this happened. [laughs]
Janicza: Describe our working conditions in Zola. These are self-inflicted. We chose this for ourselves, but do tell.
Joi: Well, the environment was nice. I liked that.
Janicza: Do you want to say more? We worked from my home.
Joi: How long were our days?
Janicza: Oh, my gosh, they were so—
Joi: They were long.
Janicza: I would say minimum 12 hours, and oftentimes, 14. Obviously, we're not editing the whole time, but we spent a lot of intimate time together.
Joi: We spent a lot of time together.
Janicza: We did that until June. We did that from February to June, right?
Janicza: Wait, where were we? What is this?
Joi: We're talking about our experience of editing Zola.
Janicza: Oh, my gosh. Oh, no, wait, but the question you still haven't answered is—
Joi: Oh, I still haven't.
Janicza: How does this moment feel to you because you've actually maintained, or been able to hold on to, a degree of normalcy?
Joi: It's interesting because now we've gotten back to a place where there's limited crew, we test every week, so my assistant editors and the other editors are now back in the office.
Janicza: When you say test, do you mean you get COVID tests?
Joi: COVID tests, yes. There were like two and a half, three months where it was just me. This is going to sound odd, but it felt like the characters I was editing had become my friends.
Janicza: That sounds lonely.
Joi: Doesn't it sound lonely?
Janicza: It also sounds like an editor could have that feeling at any moment.
Joi: You just disappear into your work and then you're like, "Oh, my gosh, how did I get here?" I know a lot of people were talking about how depressing this time is, and how hard it is to be stuck in your house and not being able to go to the grocery store. Everyone was talking about how difficult it is.
The project I'm working on, The Underground Railroad, I was looking at these people's lives, and I was like, "Well, why do we have the right to complain?" I'm sure these people would have loved to have a home that they were confined to and not these quarters, you know? I know some people are like, "Well, we could put it in that perspective," but it's true. We were complaining about things that I think a lot of people don't have the opportunity to even complain about.
Joi: I think that was one of the things that shifted my focus and I was like, "Yes, I'm here by myself, but I'm still working. There's a lot of people who are not working."
Janicza: You'll have health insurance this year.
Joi: Exactly, and not only am I working, but I get to work and do something that like, this is what I set out to do. It's what I love to do. It actually forced me to continue to look on the bright side of things, even though it was very uncertain times. What about you?
Janicza: I think you're touching on something that I've found that I wouldn't really complain—I mean, I'll complain, you know I love complaining, but outside of the intimacy of telling you how I feel, I recognize that as much as I was looking forward to having what I thought was going to be maybe a monumental year for me, that it just doesn't matter.
It only matters to me, what it was going to be like only actually matters to me. I have money and I'm still working. I've been able to get jobs as a result of the movie, even though it didn't come out. I've been able to send it to people that I want to work with. It's crazy to feel a sense of stability in a moment that is so unstable, in a moment that is so unsettling. I do think it's important, though, as much as I've tried to stifle some of my feelings of disappointment, I recognize that I can feel both. I'm allowed to feel disappointed and also feel grateful.
Janicza: Sundance was awesome.
Joi: It was great.
Janicza: I wish that I had enjoyed it more.
Joi: Oh, I did.
Janicza: I know you did. You did. Jeremy did. I think the actors did. I feel like Sam did, I feel like Riley did, I feel like Taylour did. The lesson for me, there are many, but one of the lessons is about allowing myself to be present and allowing myself to feel pleasure and not decide that I will be given pleasure later.
If I'd had some sense that that would have been the last taste of it, how much more fun I could have had. I could have just like eaten how I wanted, I could have drunk how I wanted, I could've drugged. I could have just really let go and was waiting to let go. I was just giving myself the tiniest taste of it. Now I'm like, [groans].
Joi: I feel like I did it for the both of us. I had a good time. It was fun.
Janicza: Oh, my God. Yes, you did. You could really go. I was really impressed with you and with Jeremy O'Harris' ability to rise with so little sleep and go, go like it was the last party for so many days in a row. [laughs]
Joi: I feel like I could attribute that to Florida State University.
Janicza: Is that in FSU?
Janicza: What was your favorite part of Zola? I want to talk about the movie, but I also don't because—
Joi: I know, I don't want to ruin any of the good parts.
Janicza: It's weird to talk about something that, obviously, exists to us but doesn't exist outside of us.
Joi: You know, I guess I can say this and it won't give it away, but I love, love, love the costumes. There's so many good ones from head to toe. I think, as an editor, spending so much time with it, every day I would catch something new and be like, "Did you—?" I don't want to say anything that'll get me canceled. [laughs]
Janicza: Do say it. I'd love it. It's very hard for you to get canceled.
Joi: You think so?
Janicza: Yes, I think you'd have to say something really racist, really sexist. I think you'd have to come out pretty—what’s that term, guns blazing? You'd have to go so hard because I find that the barometer of what you can and can't say as a woman, as a person of color, there's a lot we seem to have access to in this moment, but it feels wrong. I'm like, "I can say that? That's a word I got?"
Joi: “You sure? Double-check that again before I go ahead and say that.”
Janicza: I was also born in the '80s, so we're rotted. So let's go back to, what's the thing that's going to cancel you?
Joi: I was going to say, maybe I'll just phrase it in a different way and it won't feel—I think the word—[laughs] I'm so sorry, I don't know what I'm trying to say. I do know what I'm trying to say. I'm trying to say it in a way that's complimentary but not mean to anyone else. To use the word “auteur” is one that I feel like people use a lot.
Janicza: Do you use it for women a lot?
Joi: No, actually, I don't think—
Janicza: I'm actually curious. I have seen that word, the idea of authorship, being so linked to male peers of mine and I can't think, of the handful of female peers that I have, I don't feel that's the case. And then I'm thinking like before, I'm like, "Did anyone call Agnès Varda that or Lina Wertmüller or Lynne Ramsay?" Maybe, but not in the way that there are those handful of directors that it's like that name is that. When you say that name, you mean authorship.
Joi: That's what I was going to say about you, is that I feel like when you sit down and watch your work, people know this is Janicza Bravo. Not only is it unique and original, but it's also, to me, satisfying. I don't think you can say that a lot about a lot of filmmakers right now. To me, I just wanted to say it's an honor to work with you.
Janicza: Oh, my God, Joi.
Joi: I do. I feel like it's an honor, it's a privilege to work with someone who's creating the type of work that you want to be associated with.
Janicza: Are you flirting with me?
Joi: [laughs] I just wanted to take the time to say this because I feel like, what's going on right now, tomorrow's not always promised to us. People say, give people their flowers while they're still alive.
Janicza: Is that a saying?
Joi: It is.
Janicza: I've never heard that. I like it. Give people their flowers—
Joi: I may have said it wrong.
Janicza: It feels like, if it is a saying, it has more flowery language than, "Give people their flowers."
Joi: I will say, one thing that I would like to know is, what made you feel like you were the person to tell the story of Zola?
Janicza: That's great. I've been trying to actually remember this moment clearly because I want to write it, where A24 and A’Ziah and I are working on a book of the tweets, and I might write something for it. I've been trying to carve out almost the steps of how I got to it.
I know you have one of these group text chains. I have one of these group text chains that's like just Black girlfriends. That was where I got it. I forget what I was working on, because it was the kind of thing where I went back and I looked at my phone and it had like 172 missed texts. Then I opened it, but it's just one group chat has 172 and I was like, "Oh, my God."
And it was the day that she had tweeted the story, on that group chat they had shared it, and then there was just writing back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. And I wasn't able to really look at it. At the end of the day, I think I'm in bed. It's like two, three in the morning. Finally, I read through all the texts, and I went, "Loved it." Was so giddy.
At the time, I'm with Brett and he is looking at me because I keep just laughing, and he's like, "What?" Then I would tell him and was like, "But you have to read the eight texts leading up to this moment." I sent it to my reps right away. I was like, "I want this. How do I get this? I don't know how Twitter IP works, but I want to."
I don't know why because it doesn't make sense. You know me. On paper, it doesn't make sense for me at all. It's not the kind of thing I would gravitate towards. If someone were to, independent of the Twitter, say, “It's two girls, they become fast friends, they go to Florida. One of them is maybe being sold into sex slavery, and it's her getting out of it,” I'd be like, "Well, no, thank you."
Joi: [laughs] “I'll pass.”
Janicza: "Call the other guy." I think it was almost witchy. I read it and I knew I was just supposed to. It was just like, "Oh, yes, I have to figure this out." I think what it was, is that almost in my subconscious, I knew that if I didn't get my hands on it, that no one was going to protect it the way that it needed to be protected.
It was the kind of writing that, after consuming it, you're like, "I want to see every iteration of this that's possible. It has to be on the page, it has to be on the screen, hanging in a fucking museum. It needs that, and if I can play even a small part of how to get that there, I must." But really, because I knew that no one would be able to be the engine.
You know working with Barry, you know working with other directors, it's not chill. It's not chill and the road is long, and there's only really a handful of filmmakers that have this kind of access where they say, "A", and everyone goes, "B through Z, sir."
Even if you have a support system, it's difficult. We are in the business of making art and the people who we're working with, as much as they love us, adore us, give us room for our vision, they are in the business of making money. We're in art and they're in commerce. There is obviously an overlap. I think we have found partners where there is overlap, but fueling or funding money into the thing, you're making a promise to them that you're going to make sure they get that back, that you're not at a loss, right?
Janicza: It was almost like independent of me, and it was really hard, but I just knew that I had to because I felt she deserved that. I didn't trust that somebody else was going to be able to do that for her. There was a brief period where I maybe wasn't going to get the movie, it was between me and another director. And I really like this other director a lot and my feeling was that if it wasn't going to go to me, whatever way it was that I had built it in my head, that wasn't how it was supposed to exist. I'd done everything I needed to do to get it, and that if it was meant to be mine, it would be.
When A24 came on board, I think they were instrumental in how it came to me, actually, because I believe the yes to the project happened almost simultaneously. I think within like 24 or 48 hours of each other really. I was in my own kind of race to get the project as a director, and they came along somewhere in there, they were one of the handful of people who wanted to finance it. I believe their yes was for me to make it. I think they were the final seal or the final thing that got me over—what is it?—hurdle, line, whatever, who fucking cares. You understand what I mean.
Janicza: I think that they were the most curious or excited by what my version of that was going to be because Lemon and Zola are not necessarily from the same universe, but they are. They're made from the same spirit. Even if their attitudes or their rules are a little bit different, but the spirit is the same. I think that they were ultimately more turned on by the idea of the spirit of the person who made Lemon, how they were going to make this dirty movie, this dirty, naughty, sexy movie. I guess I'm curious because both you and I, we can be filthy, but we're not naughty the way the movie is.
Joi: I feel like you do it just to get a reaction out of me.
Janicza: I really love it. The movie is much more naughty than you and I both are. There are things I saw that I had never seen before.
Joi: I'm scarred for life.
Janicza: I'd never been to a strip club. Have you been to a strip club?
Joi: No, because this is like—
Janicza: That feels like a Florida rite of passage. How did you never go to a strip club?
Joi: Well, it wasn't really a strip club, it was called the Sugar Shack.
Janicza: That's a cute name.
Joi: Mark's from Live Oak, and so that was the one place that was a gas station that was turned into a strip club.
Janicza: That sounds so Florida.
Joi: It's so Florida.
Janicza: Did people get naked?
Joi: No, they weren't. I think they just could go down to their—
Janicza: Pasties and panties, bitch.
Joi: I feel like that place got shut down.
Janicza: Well, it was also a gas station.
Joi: Yeah, I think someone was supposed to come have a concert, and then it got shut down. I can't remember.
Janicza: It feels like too many businesses in one.
Joi: It's so Florida.
Janicza: The gas station and the bar and the strip club? Yeah.
Joi: But Live Oak is a place unto itself, it's just beautiful.
Janicza: Oh, is it?
Joi: I’m just going to leave it at that. [laughter]
Janicza: Yes, I had never been to a strip club, and I hadn't really considered it. When the movie was actually happening, I was like, "Oh, I've never been to a strip club. I should probably go. We have a couple of locations." And I ended up going to 22.
Joi: What's that?
Janicza: 22, as in 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12—
Joi: You went to 22 strip clubs?
Janicza: I went to 22 strip clubs. I went from 0 to 22.
Joi: That's like overload.
Janicza: Yes, and I saw stuff. I'll tell you my highlights. I went to 22 strip clubs and the highlights, I would say, were the ones that had buffets. Food at a strip club is not unusual, that happens.
Joi: Yes, I just never thought about it.
Janicza: But this one was an open-air buffet that was under blacklight. It was like a brunch buffet. Like a wet scrambled egg.
Joi: That's disgusting.
Janicza: You know when the egg is made and it's like a loaf?
Joi: Oh, gosh.
Janicza: You know what I mean, it’s like that loafy—
Joi: Like the powdered eggs.
Janicza: Yes, exactly. It's like egg loaf. There was some kind of iceberg salad that I can still see the drip of it because I remember thinking as I was looking at it, somebody was scooping it up, they were using a spoon to scoop the salad. I was very confused. There were just certain things that are burned into my head like seeing a man scoop wet salad while a woman is dancing to metal music, it just is different. It's just really different.
There was a full nude place where I'd walked in with—we were location scouting, so it's myself, production designer, two of our producers, two of our location scouts. So there aren't a ton of strip clubs that are full nude in Florida, but there were two of them, and we went to one of them.
I remember walking in, two o'clock in the afternoon. It's bright daylight outside, you go in and it's like a black hole. There was a woman who was pulling down her panties at that time. We're in a line of people, like, "Oh, I guess we could shoot in this direction." I see a man, like a bald man, there's the circle of his head, there's the width of his shoulders, and then this woman's legs are just sticking out behind him, like spread eagle, doing some kind of dance where her legs are moving towards him because her bottom—I didn't want it. It wasn't for me, but this was the kind of research I had to do for the project.
I was going to say, I feel not very naughty. When we were watching the movie at Sundance, I was thinking that both you and I are a little bit prudish.
Joi: We are.
Janicza: It's funny, the movie still does dip into its naughty, sexy place, but it is made by two people who are kind of prudish. Ultimately, right? We're laughing at the thought of penises and buttocks and nipples. There had been a moment of nudity in one of my short films, and there was a good deal of consideration of how to get to it because I personally don't love nudity that much, unless it feels absolutely necessary. Like it's moving the story along or it says something about one of the characters, why they need to show themselves in this way.
This is something I talked a lot about with Ari, who shot the movie, that nudity in American movies, oftentimes, felt bad. It felt like you were doing something wrong, it felt voyeuristic. It felt like you hadn't been invited. Whereas you could take the same scene and put it in a European film and it suddenly felt free.
Joi: It felt intentional. It wasn't like an afterthought, or, "Let's do this because we can get the crowd that wants to see the nudity," but it felt very classy.
Janicza: It doesn't necessarily always feel like it's about power, and like within American gaze, somehow it feels like there's some power dynamic in showing the woman and not showing the man. And I don’t know, it's something that it's imbued with, right?
Joi: Some situations where the woman is completely undressed and then the man gets a sheet or something and it's like, "Well, why—"
Janicza: He's like even still having sex with a shirt on, like a long sleeve shirt, full socks. He has jeans on, basically. She's like, "I'd love to show you my pum-pum and my tantans." You're like, "Oh, why is she fully like this?" At the same time, though, when I see sex scenes with a bra, sometimes I'm like, I now can feel the conversation.
Joi: Yes, a conversation was had.
Janicza: I can feel the contract, where it's like, "This actress doesn't have sex without a bra on." Then in that same movie, another actress does have sex with their bra on. I'm like, "I can literally feel people's contracts as I'm watching this."
Joi: One of the things that you will comment on is taking care of your actors. I think when you do decide to step in as a director, that's one of the things that you always should consider, the actors. They're basically stepping on set and saying, "I will do what you want me to do, but also, take into consideration that when I walk off the set, I still am a human being. I still have a life beyond this. So, handle with care."
Janicza: Absolutely. You're actually reminding me that when we were talking about nudity, there's an actress that I'm friends with that I won't name because I'm sure they don't want this, but I remember they had done some nudity in a film. When you search their name, I don't think it's like this anymore, but when you search their name, like the second or third image was of them naked.
I don't know how those algorithms work, but I'm sure it had something to do with its popularity. I didn't want to contribute to that. I basically was like, once I had figured out that that was something that existed with the actors that I worked with, I didn't want to contribute to that for those actresses. I was like, I don't want, when you look up Riley Keough or Taylour Paige, that the second image is a piece of their titty or a piece of their butt.
Also, the thing that's so sexy about both of those girls, and they're so beautiful, is how they look in clothes was what was hot to me. It's like the things you want to see that you can't see, like that somehow feels hotter. There's a scene where they're both in bras where you're like, "Are those staying on your body? How does that stay there?" Or something where you're like, "So your whole buttocks is out?" Just so much of your bottom is out, but it's so much hotter to not see all of the things. It's like you're edging, you're almost there. That feels so much more erotic than actually seeing all the things, at least for me. I think that's pretty right on, about how do you contribute to what the images are already out there, especially for actors, actresses that can be in such vulnerable places already with the work that they're doing.
We got to see our film at Sundance at the beginning of the year, with an audience. I guess the final question is, do you feel the movie we made pre-this moment, do you think this moment affects how people receive our film? If it does come out this year, if it comes out a year from now or next summer, do you think this moment will have an effect on how people receive it?
Joi: I do believe this moment will affect the way people receive this film.
Janicza: Positive or negative?
Joi: I think it's going to be positive because I think during the pandemic, we also had, as some people would call a "come to Jesus moment” about racism in America.
Janicza: What's that?
Joi: [laughs] It's new, it just happened in 2020.
Janicza: Define it in five words or less. Five words or less, you're welcome to use colors and numbers.
Joi: [laughs] Because of someone's difference in their skin color, I'm told, sometimes they'll be treated differently. Not all the time, because a lot of people will proclaim that they are not racist, and they don't see color.
Janicza: This sounds foreign. American.
Joi: Sometimes, though, someone may think that you'll steal when you come into a store, so they'll follow you. That tends to happen.
Janicza: You think that because more of the world knows about racism, that the film could be received positively as a result?
Joi: I do. I think one of the things that I really, really enjoyed about seeing Black females enjoy Zola, there's so many layers in the comedy. I think there's a lot of gems in there for us because the dynamics between Black women and white women, they've existed for a very long time, but I think sometimes people don't talk about it because when you bring something to light, they'll be like, "Oh, I think—" One of the things, I tell people this all the time, if you have a friend and I tell you, "Well, I know they're your friend, but when they met me, they treated me a little differently." And then you proceed to tell me, "Well they've always been nice to me," that's not the response.
Janicza: Actually, you're reminding me of something, which I think I felt the need to explain it to you a few years ago. We had been at South By with Lemon. Every time I introduced you, I would say one of two things. "Joi worked on Moonlight." I would just slip that in there, or I would say, "First female, Black, nominated for Oscar for editing."
I recognize that that's gauche. I wouldn't generally think to introduce someone by way of their resume, but I know what that's like. I have been that person next—I've been the plus-one, that plus-one who has been next to a person who's treated special. I have been dismissed because someone didn't have a sense of my resume.
While it's tacky, one of my writing partners, Brett, who I used to be with, would do that all the time. I wanted to hurt myself when he would be like, "Janicza's working on… " Then he would say like nine things that I was working on. It really caused me a lot of anxiety, but I understood why he was doing it because he wanted me to be treated and met the way that he was. I just wasn't always respected.
Joi: It's one of those things, it's funny. I always tell people this situation with IMDb. For six and a half years, I worked on Tyler Perry movies. I did nine as an assistant editor. And, I was working on Togetherness. This is the show that the Duplass brothers did with HBO. I went to put it on my IMDb page and I was rejected. And I was like, "Oh—"
Janicza: Did you really work on it?
Joi: IMDb is like, "How did you go from Tyler Perry to the Duplass brothers?"
Janicza: “Walk me through every step of how this happened. Who are you sleeping with?"
Joi: [laughs] “How does that work?”
Janicza: “Please tell me.”
Joi: I do have a very interesting resume, though, I'd say.
Janicza: You do. Wait, I'm going to say two things before we're done. Last night, I saw a rough cut of this director's movie. When it was done, my partner was like, "Why didn't they add any grain to this?" I was like, "It's a rough cut." He's like, "Why does it look like this?" He had like 10 problems with how it looked. He's like, "Well, Joi would have done it." I said, "Yes, she would have, but Joi is different."
He was like, "Why would she have done it and why wouldn't somebody else?" I said, "I think it's a combination of things. I feel Joi has a lot of years under her belt as an assistant editor, that she's totally comfortable with, that don't make her feel like she's less than. When we're working together, I think she has a sense that we have less chances to show the best version of ourselves.
If it were the first cut of Zola, she would do a sound pass, she would do a light color on it, she would do all of those things to make it be the best that it could be because she recognizes that whatever we show is going to be a reflection of our merit, of how we got there, what we deserve, and so she's going to go the extra mile."
I was like, "This filmmaker doesn't really need to do that because they've already proven themselves." So we can meet the work at whatever level, shitty sound, no color, and it's fine. Because we're like, "Oh, well, he's great. We know that part's going to be great because he's great, he's always been great.” Oscar nomination or not, it's like, "Well, I’ve got to see, does she know how to do it?"
Joi: Well, I think, in a lot of ways, people thought, “Oscar nomination is going to open so many doors for you.” I think one of the things is, being Black and being a female, it's like, "Well, you got here, now prove that you should be here." It's not like, "Oh, you're here, we're so thankful." It's just an uphill battle of constantly walking through the door and proving that I deserve to be here.
Janicza: It's a reset.
Janicza: It's a reset. I experience that a lot in TV directing, where I think there comes this moment where you finally are invited, you have a seat at the table, and you're like, "Well, the people to the left and right must know that if I'm—like, wow, do you know how much it took for me to get to this moment?" And you're there, and you're still proving that you're supposed to be there, which is just so exhausting.
I was saying before, even if everything works out, even if you have a strong support system, it is so hard to make work that is competent. To not have all of that and to add needing to prove that I'm supposed to be here to that list is just like some other shit that ain't nobody got time for. It's just like, "Sis, I'm tired, I'm tired, I'm tired. The days are long, I'm just so tired."
Joi: The days are long.
Janicza: Oh, my God.
Joi: It's also because, I think, the way we carry ourselves is an expectation of being given the same things that a white man is given. When people are like, "Oh, you expect more than what we're giving you?" I was like, "Yes, I'm done with being grateful for the opportunity. I've proven myself.” I no longer need to be like, "It's just an honor to be here." No. Give me all the things. I deserve all the things.
Janicza: It's not an honor to be here. It's an honor to get that full plate, sir.
Joi: [laughs] It's so true. It's like, "Come on, guys." That's the thing, when you know what to ask for, they're always like, "Who told her that? How does she know she's supposed to get that?"
Janicza: I think that's actually transparency more around what people make. I went from thinking that that was bad manners because of how I was raised to being like, "How much are you making on that?"
Janicza: Then being like, "Oh, word. Yes. So anyways, I found out that he made that, so let's figure that out." I just am like, "I don't care. I'm not—" It's not about me measuring myself to you. It's just knowing, "Oh, so if that—" Then I believe I have this worth too, and so I should get this. Because when I look back, there are jobs where I'm like, I was paid the least.
Joi: I know.
Janicza: I was paid the least and I did the most. I was paid the least and I did the most, that felt so bad.
Joi: I really feel like I should put that on a shirt.
Janicza: "I was paid the least, but did the most."
Janicza: A24, please print this shirt. The last thing I was going to say is, maybe it's somewhat tangential, but I was going to say this. Whatever the world is that the movie is going to come out in, I think that there is a percentage of our audience that the movie will play the same for. And that there is a percentage of our audience that perhaps, in this moment, will be able to receive the movie maybe more openly. But I don't know. I'm not entirely sure of that because I only really know how to watch it as myself.