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DMZ, the HBO Max limited series based on the comics by writer Brian Wood and artist Riccardo Burchielli, premiered on the streamer on March 17. The story takes place in a dystopian world where Manhattan has become the middle of a war zone in a U.S. civil war.
DMZ, however, doesn’t focus on the politics or the machinations of that war — it revolves instead around the 300,000 or so inhabitants of the dilapidated city and the efforts of one woman (Rosario Dawson) trying to find her son after eight years of searching.
The adaptation comes to us from Selma and A Wrinkle In Time’s Ava DuVernay, who directed the first episode, and writer-showrunner Roberto Patino (Westworld). But while the show takes place in a dystopia, it’s not as grim as other stories out there with a similar premise.
For Patino, making such a hopeful story was what drove him to make the adaptation. “The guiding question, for me, was how can we take this story of division at a time when we are more divided than ever, run in the opposite direction, and really spin it into a story that begets hope and looks forward,” he told SYFY WIRE.
SYFY WIRE talked with Patino about other aspects of the four-part television adaptation as well. Read on to learn more about the crafting of DMZ, including how Dawson became part of the project.
This discussion has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
To kick us off, I'd love to hear about what drew you to the story. I imagine you were familiar with the comic, but what made you decide that you wanted to adapt it for the screen?
The comic came out almost 17 years ago, in 2005. And like many other people, I read it and it was a terrifying concept. And I devoured it. And then I circled back to it in I would say 2016, about 10 years later, and was just blown away with how that world took on a whole new meaning.
The premise of the comic is that our military is interred elsewhere and what happens when there's an uprising here. Suddenly in 2016, when our military was being withdrawn from that elsewhere, the hook felt much closer to home and took on a whole new level of terror.
The guiding question for me was how can we take this story of division at a time when we are more divided than ever, run in the opposite direction, and really spin it into a story that begets hope and looks forward. That was the real adjustment to the graphic novel. It assumes a civil war but I wasn't interested in how we got there.
I also wasn't interested in living in the day-to-day of war. What this show really focuses on are the people of the DMZ — people of all colors and creeds from all walks of life coming together and reformulating a new fabric of society. And within all that super complicated multi-layered context, we’re telling the very simple story of the most powerful kind of love I know, which is a mother's love for her son.
It is truly very hopeful and very character-driven. I imagine there could be an adaptation that's very thriller-esque but your adaptation definitely focuses more on the characters.
The comic lives in that wow factor of like, “Oh my God, this is what Central Park looks like. Oh my God, this is what the Empire State Building looks like.” It's about a photojournalist that, by nature, is a passive character, but it works because as the reader you want to explore the world with him. That wouldn’t work for a TV show —I needed someone who wants something, who’s never going to stop at anything to get it, which was a major reason for the reinvention.
The cast is phenomenal in portraying their roles. How did you go about casting Rosario Dawson and Benjamin Bratt?
I wrote this role for Rosario. Every scene, every conceit of her character was with her face and mannerisms in mind. So it was it was an incredibly terrifying moment when I got to finally meet with her and tell her that I wrote this for her and ask her, “Would you join forces with me and Ava?” And she got it. She jumped at the opportunity.
To me it was a mandate, but there was also something so fun about seeing Rosario and Benjamin Bratt, who historically we've seen as the exoticized other — she’s the girlfriend or he’s the boyfriend to the typically white lead — and now bringing them front and center. And Benjamin, he's always such a handsome sort of romantic, charming guy, and here, he got to play the exact opposite, which he does with such grace and magnetism. But he's a very menacing character, and we really live in his humanity as well.
So that was the whole hook — how do we take as personal an angle to this story as possible? It's a big world. We don't shy away from the big scope shots, but for the most part, the camera lives on our characters’ faces.
Each episode also really takes advantage of lighting and color. Can you talk about how you decided to make that such a key part of certain scenes?
I'm really happy you asked about that because that was an intentional decision. We really wanted to shy away from the blue, gray, bleak colors that you would associate with a post-apocalyptic show and we wanted to infuse it with as much color as possible and reframe the trajectory of the story into something that is vibrant. If you look carefully, that blue-gray exists on the outside of the DMZ, we go from that to this kaleidoscope of color. That was all a stylistic decision. It was so important to infuse this broken society and exalt the humanity within them and beget a world where humanity can rise above division.
This is obviously not happening in Manhattan now, but this is happening somewhere in the world right now. You mentioned you came back to the story in 2016 — was that something at that time you really wanted to show to a U.S. audience?
I believe that fundamentally humanity is good and compassionate. I don't think we're going to get to civil war but I do think presenting a world where we are not far away from there. It is an imaginable path that we can get to a circumstance like that, and my approach to it was really just “Okay, let's just assume the worst-case scenario.” And amid that, we can tell a story of the formulation of a new table of power, of a new way via Rosario’s character. I like to think of this story as the story of America's founding mother.
And in truth there's a massive war going on right now that's plastered all over newspaper front pages. War is a very disgusting and ugly part of who we are as a people, and wars have gone on every single day, since every single person on this earth has been alive. My family's from Colombia, there’s a war that's been going on since 1964, pushing 60 years now. And all of that is policy-driven, it's all politics, and I didn't want to focus on policy. I don't care about that. I wanted to really kind of cut through that with Rosario his character, almost neutralize the policymaking and really get to the core of true nation-building. My hope is that the show asks these questions helps us interrogate where we are, who we are, and where we want to be and how we might get there.
All four episodes of DMZ are now available on HBO Max.