You read the tweets, now see the movie: 'Zola' tells Detroiter's tale

It took six years but Aziah Wells' epic 2015 Twitter thread is now a big screen adventure, and its creator is ready for her next tale.

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Aziah "Zola" Wells wrote the Twitter thread of a lifetime, and that's when her story really began. 

Wells was a 20-year-old exotic dancer and waitress living in Roseville and working at the (now closed) Hooters on Gratiot and 14 Mile when she posted the story to Twitter in October 2015. 

Riley Keough and Taylour Paige in "Zola."

"Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this b**** here fell out????????" she wrote. "It's kind of long but full of suspense." That kicked off an epic (and hilariously told) tale of sex, guns, kidnapping and prostitution, gleaned from a recent trip to Florida with a female customer she met at the restaurant. Over the course of 147 subsequent tweets, she enraptured social media and had the Twittersphere hanging on her every twist and turn, and by the final time she hit "send" on her final tweet, her life had changed.

Millions read the tale, which played out like a novel written 140 characters at a time. Media outlets pounced on her story. Hollywood came calling. And the girl who grew up shuffling between the east side of Detroit, Atlanta and Ypsilanti saw her life start to swirl around her.

Six years later — as "Zola," the long-awaited movie adapted from that Twitter thread, is set to hit screens — she's still reeling from it all.

"I knew this would be a long journey, but it's been like a roller  coaster," says Wells, on the phone earlier this month from Los Angeles, where "Zola" held its premiere the night before. The movie hits local screens Wednesday. 

For Wells, seeing her life on screen and making sure it was represented the right way has been a fraught, nerve-wracking experience. And for the filmmakers, preserving Wells' voice and telling her story in a respectful manner was of the upmost importance, their highest priority in bringing this wild and crazy saga to the big screen.

The right storytellers

As talk of a "Zola" movie began to to swirl, Wells got a phone call from James Franco. 

Since her tweets blew up she had grown accustomed to hearing from various famous folks and connecting with her idols, Missy Elliott and Solange among them. But this was different. 

"I was like, 'How did you get my cell phone number, dude? Like, is this a prank call?'" says Wells, 26, who now splits her time between Atlanta and L.A.. "He was like, 'We have to do something with this.' I was like, 'this is nuts, I am a waitress at Hooters, nobody is going to believe this. Can you Facetime me?'" 

Aziah "Zola" Wells was a waitress at Hooters in Roseville when she posted a Twitter thread that changed her life.

They connected, and in early 2016 Franco was attached to direct the film, from a script by screenwriters Andrew Neel (the frat movie "Goat") and Mike Roberts. Franco later fell off the project, as sexual misconduct allegations against the actor came to light. (Franco's brother Dave is a producer on the final project.) 

At the time, Hollywood was going through a revisionary period. More attention was being paid to stories and their storytellers, and Black creatives were given more opportunities to tell Black stories. By mid-2018, Janicza Bravo came on board to "Zola" as director, with a script co-written by Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris, putting a Black woman's story in the hands of a Black director and a Black screenwriter. (Wells' tweets get a "based on" credit, as does David Kushner, who recounted Wells' tale in a 2015 Rolling Stone article.) 

Bravo remembers being on a group chat with friends when Wells' story first began circulating online. "I was on a job — I was styling at the time — and I remember looking at my phone and there were like 100 missed text messages," says Bravo, on the phone from L.A. earlier this month. She was able to catch up with the story later that night, and by the second tweet she says she was already making the movie of it in her head. Before she was finished reading the thread, she had sent it to her agent and manager to ask how the rights to tweets work. 

Harris was engaging with Wells' story in real time, as it was unfolding, and was hooked immediately. "I remember reading it and me and a friend were like, 'This is the best story ever,'" says the playwright and Yale graduate. "Her syntax was so wild to me. I was like, 'What is this thing?' And I just went bananas for it." 

When they both came on board to the project, they knew the richness of the source material, and were dedicating to honoring not only the story but its creator. 

"This is epic poetry, and I knew I needed to protect that, and uplift that, and remind people that the only reason we're here is because of that," Harris says. "That was the responsibility we both felt, and I think that's why we both felt called to the story." 

Bravo says her gratitude to Wells shows on screen. 

"I think it's clear that I feel totally indebted to (Wells) and that protecting her was at the top of my list. And not only her voice, but in viewing her with dignity, and elevating the thing that she made," Bravo says. "Because I feel from the outside there is a version of this that is treating her work like it is commercial trash, or devaluing her, devaluating it, treating it as disposable. And it was so clear to me that it was a piece of art, and for me to get my hands on it only meant getting to take care of it, protecting it and protecting her, and treating it like the jewel that I believed it was."

"Zola" hits theaters June 30.

"Zola" stars Taylour Paige in the title role and Riley Keough as Stefani, whose invitation to go to Florida for the weekend to dance at high-end exotic clubs lights the tale's wick. "Straight Outta Compton's" Jason Mitchell, "Euphoria's" Colman Domingo and "Succession's" Nicholas Braun round out the supporting cast of this randy comic-adventure-drama. 

The film premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January 2020 and was set to roll into theaters a few months later, but then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. 

"We were all so ready to release it into the world and move on, but the world said, 'wait a minute,' and we had to wait another year," says Wells. "So now I feel like we're finally ready to release this and end this journey, and I'm just ready at this point. Really, really anxious and ready."

Finding her voice

Even before she was famous for her salacious Twitter yarn, Wells was always drawn to writing, going back to a creative writing class she took while at Lincoln High School in Ypsilanti. 

"It was my favorite class, it was the only reason I even went to school," says Wells. "It was a way for me to process things, a way for me to express myself, and I just so happened to be good at it. That's where it started for me."

Her creative writing teacher encouraged her and complimented her writing, which Wells said gave her the confidence boost she needed. "She was such an inspiration and such a driving force for me to write, because I had never been told that I was good at writing. She was the first." 

During her senior year, her teacher entered her in a writing contest without Wells' knowing. She had her write a children's book but didn't tell her what it was for, and Wells came up with a story called "Caught Red Handed," the tale of a little girl who is out running errands with her mother when she sees a princess crown in the window of a store. She asks her mom to buy it for her but she's told no, so the girl ends up stealing it. It turns out the crown was only meant for display and is covered in red paint, and when they get home, the girl has to explain to her mother why her hands are all red. 

"It's a lesson on why you shouldn't lie," Wells says. And not only was it entered in the contest, it won. Turns out Wells has always had a way with words.  

Now that "Zola" is ready to roll into theaters, Wells is no longer worried about how she's represented in the film. Her concern is now how accurately her experience speaks for other sex workers. 

"I hope it's spot on," she says. "I feel like my experience in sex work, I know it's not everyone's experience, but at least from where I'm standing it's not all bad, but it's not all good. And I hope I represented appropriately in that way." 

And she's hoping her experience in getting her story made allows other writers to see they can share their story and keep agency over their voices. (She's on board as a producer of the film, credited as A'Ziah King.) "I think I set the bar for what future writers can ask for and what they deserve in terms of compensation and credit," she says. 

As for her next move, Wells says there are times when she's still not really sure what she'd really like to do with her life, but that she'd love to continue writing. 

"I have so many wild stories from that time in my life," she says, saying she'd love to write a book.

And if she wanted to really switch things up, there's always "Caught Red Handed." Is the world ready for Zola, children's author?  

"From a stripper saga to children's books," she says, briefly contemplating the possibility. "I love it."

It might not break the internet, but that story has already been told.