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The Zola Twitter saga went viral. The 'Zola' movie is being filmed in Tampa Bay.

The story of prostitution, stripping and crime is becoming a movie called Zola. The production has been filming in the Tampa Bay area since Oct. 29, confirmed St.Petersburg-Clearwater film commissioner Tony Armer. Aziah “Zola” Wells shared the news on her Instagram.
Published Nov. 16, 2018

Okay listen up. This story is long.

It was the first of nearly 150 tweets over a 48-hour period in October 2015, leading to a Twitter saga read by millions. A 19-year-old woman named Aziah "Zola" Wells told the story of her March 2015 weekend trip to Tampa. It involved stripping, forced prostitution, gun play and an attempted suicide.

Now the Twitter saga is becoming a movie called Zola. The production has been filming in the Tampa Bay area since Oct. 29, film commissioners from both sides of the bridge confirmed.

"We've wanted to keep it quiet out of respect for the production company," St.Petersburg-Clearwater film commissioner Tony Armer. "They will be here through early December."

Neither Armer nor Hillsborough County film commissioner Tyler Martinolich would say where the production is filming. So far, only private property has been used.

"All over the Tampa Bay area," Armer said. "They are spreading the love."

A24, which was behind the Academy Award-winning movie Moonlight, is producing the movie, according to IMDB.com. Janicza Bravo, whose breakout hit was the indie darling Lemon, directs. Taylour Paige stars as Zola.

Costar Riley Keough posted an Instagram story called "Trampa" that showed the movie's stars dancing inside a ballroom. Costar Coleman Domingo shared a photo of himself lounging at a hotel at a place he labeled Clearwater Beach. Derica Cole and Nicole Suerez, listed on IMDB as costume designer and assistant costume designer, posted shots from Tampa's Oxford Exchange.

The story told by Wells was based on real people and a real trip. The most salacious parts were made up.

It began in the Michigan Hooters where Wells worked when customer Jessica Swiatkowski invited her on a road trip to Tampa for a weekend of dancing in the city's famous strip clubs. Going with them would be Swiatkowski's boyfriend Jarrett Scott and friend Akporode "Rudy" Uwedjojevwe.

That much appears to be true.

Through the tweets, Wells then wrote that Swiatkowski was forced into prostitution by Uwedjojevwe, who also shot a rival pimp in the face, and that Jarrett attempted suicide by jumping from a hotel balcony.

Wells has admitted that the shooting and suicide attempt were made up. Swiatkowski has since denied she prostituted. Uwedjojevwe was later arrested for sexual assault and trafficking in an unrelated incident in Reno.

The tale took off on the internet as #TheStory. Ava DuVernay, Missy Elliot, Keke Palmer, Solange Knowles and other stars shared it. Movie studios vied for the rights to the story.

"Zola presents a great opportunity to start a dialogue about the dangers of sex work," Martinolich said, "while at the same time proving once again Florida is not lacking in unique and often colorful stories ripe for filmmakers to explore."

This marks the second time A24 has filmed in the Tampa Bay area. The company also produced Spring Breakers, filmed in St. Petersburg in 2012.

Locals are part of the Zola cast and crew, the film commissioners said, but unless the production company applies for their county's film incentives and turns in books, they cannot estimate numbers. Both counties give 10 percent back on what productions spend in-county and both have a $500,000 annual cap on what can be dolled out.

Unlike neighboring Georgia, Florida does not offer a state tax incentive to productions. That has caused movies like Live By Night, which takes place in Ybor City, and Gifted, set in St. Petersburg, to recreate those locales in Georgia.

But A24 made Moonlight in Miami without a state incentive and is doing the same with Zola here.

"A24 is a filmmaker-friendly company," Armer said. "They will always do what is best for the film and the filmmaker."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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