Based on the DC graphic novel, HBO Max debuted DMZ on March 17, bringing to the streamer a story of a woman who enters a demilitarized zone in search of the son she lost nearly a decade ago. The four-episode limited series has an all-star cast with Rosario Dawson as its lead alongside Benjamin Bratt, Hoon Lee, Freddy Miyares, Jordan Preston Carter and Venus Ariel, among others.
The harrowing journey evolves into a story of hope, even despite the bleak imagining of the United States’ impending future. Ahead of the series premiere, writer and creator Roberto Patino dove into the series’ development, how they carved out a more inclusive DMZ world and finding vibrance in a dystopian tale.
How does it feel to finally have DMZ out in the world?
It's been such a long ride. I started the development of this almost three years ago. We finished the pilot literally the day we were all told to go home for 10 months. There was a nice break there that was not nice at all, but that time did give me the chance to recalibrate and assess what the show really needed to be. The network and the studio loved what we did, what Ava DuVernay shot as the director of the first episode. She loved the work that she did in the first episode, and they wanted more. But the time off really gave us the clarity to understand that the show needed to be a limited series— a really propulsive, four-hour movie.
There still is a possibility of it being ongoing. The DMZ is an incredibly big world and there's plenty of amazing and insane characters to sink your hooks into. But for this piece, we really just wanted to distill the story. It's such a huge complicated world. We really just wanted to narrow the aperture of the narrative to a fearless mother, a fearless medic who sneaks into the DMZ to look for her son whom she lost in the evacuation of Manhattan eight years prior.
The show assumes a second American Civil War where our country has been fractured, and lying right between these two warring factions is the island of Manhattan. That is our demilitarized zone, and that is a piece of land that's been declared neutral between two warring parties, so no military can be inside of it. No one can get in and no one can get out. It's essentially a closed off abandoned land. All what I just told you is noise that's out there. The war is this force that exists on the peripheries, but the show is about the DMZ. The focus is on the people of the DMZ.
What about the original comic captured your attention?
History with the comic runs when it first debuted back in 2005. I remember I was in Boston and I got it at Newbury Comics. The concept of the comic back then was terrifying. But it was so other, it was so out there and it felt like a comic book premise. But it was terrifying in a you couldn't help yourself kind of way. You just wanted to keep reading because you wanted to keep exploring this world.
I came back to it near midway through the second season of Westworld, so it would have been 2017 while we were in production. The comic— it had been 12 years— and suddenly this comic took on a whole new meaning. And frankly a much scarier meaning, and one that hit much closer to home on a personal level. So that's where I saw an opportunity. The comic book really is a dystopian sort of story, much like Escape from New York or The Warriors. But what I took in in 2017 was the opportunity to run in the opposite direction, really. I'm not very interested in ideating on any further division, I'm not interested in how we could get to a civil war. If you ask 10 people how that might happen, you're gonna get 10 different answers. None of them are interesting to me. So what I did and what I saw as an opportunity was to assume the war. Assume our worst case scenario, start eight years into it and tell the story of what happens next. And that is the story of disparate people coming together. That is a story of hope. It's the story of people reclaiming their sense of identity and reclaiming their land.
The comic is fundamentally masculine it is. There are very few fully-developed women. My favorite character of the comic is one of those underdeveloped, two-dimensional women. In the comic, her name is “Z.” In my show, I gave her first, middle and last name. Her name is Alma Zarrella Ortega, and she becomes Z. That’s Rosario Dawson's character, and I really wanted to imbue it with a feminine energy.
It's something that my partner on this, Ava DuVernay, really keyed into. It's something that I know firsthand. I grew up in a household full of strong women. I was raised by women. My sister is, continues to be and has been for the last few years, a COVID nurse on the frontlines. This vessel of caretaking and this maternal love felt like a humanistic superpower that we really haven't seen glorified.
What makes Rosario Dawson the ideal actor to embody all of that?
She is fearless and she is just so incredible. She carries with her such an innate power. And in truth, when I sat down to initially develop this show, I knew I wanted to focus on Z. And Rosario was the first person I thought of. She was who I pictured when I was breaking each scene, when I was giving her backstory, when I was building up this new incarnation of Z. And I wrote the entire thing for her. I just feel like she is so versatile. And the thing that she keyed into, was she grew up squatting in the Lower East Side. I remember talking to the first time and she was like, “I just showed these comics to my father and we both started laughing because they look like where we grew up.”
I think we haven't seen Rosario Dawson in this light. But beyond that, I think the answer to that question lies in the greater ethos that I wanted to operate and that drives me in any creative pursuit, which is exalting and elevating people of color. And Rosario was our beating heart and center of gravity around which we placed another Latino, Benjamin Bratt, and another Latino, Freddy Miyares. But beyond this Latino-centric cast, it was a very intentional move to cast people of color throughout.
Can you tell us more about having Ava DuVernay as the first episode’s director?
She's a visionary. She's been such an incredible collaborator and partner. We were set up by Warner Brothers; we met on a studio blind date. I brought her this project and I think what she keyed into was my thesis for the whole thing, which is I want to take this comic that is at its core grim and almost reveling in more and flip it inside out. I want to paint something hopeful. And I want to pluck this woefully underdeveloped character— this fearless Latina— from the background and put her front and center and build a story around her.
I think she really connected with that idea and she's an all-around storyteller. She doesn't shy away from any kind of different kinds of stories. And she saw an incredible visual challenge that she completely rose to, and together we ended up developing the style of the show. She really imbued it with color, as opposed to the bleak, slate gray that you might expect from dystopia. This is vibrant. It's super saturated and it underscores the idea that life can find a way and will find a way.
The show’s vibrance seems to capture that special energy New York City is famous for.
You take a 10% cross section of Manhattan and you're gonna get people from every single place in the world from every walk of life, of every creed, of every color. And that's something that we really wanted to represent. And more than that, you have this closed off forgotten land. You're actually free in this very antithetical way.
Just living in that creative space felt good, but it also at times started standing in contrast to our real lives in the land of the free where you have people in power actively working to take away our ability to self identify, our ability to lay claim over our own bodies or our ability to voice our own desires or voting rights. We discovered things like that along the way that just felt like correctly uncomfortable places to spin story on.
What experience do you want audiences to take away from DMZ?
I don't like to speculate how people will receive the show…This show is like a big stew. There's a lot of ideas in here and I think every single person is going to internalize them in a different way. So ultimately, in truth, my hope is that this show can inspire a lot of the difficult conversations that we all need to be having about power, about war. There's a horrible war going on right now plastered on every front page and it keeps me up at night. It's just profoundly sad. And the truth is that there's been war going on somewhere in the world since you and I have both been alive.
The show strays away from politics. It's really about a mother's love for her son and that pursuit really neutralizes those politics and gets to the core of true community building. So if anything, I think the show focuses on what war does to people and communities. And it showcases how those people rise above, leaning on one another ultimately to form a new fabric of society. And while it's set in the midst of a war, the show really is not about war, right? The war is this invisible outside force in our world, but the show focuses on the DMZ and the humanity of the DMZ.
More generally speaking, given that you've worked on Westworld and DMZ, what intrigues you about dystopian television?
It's not really about dystopia. I think this story is important to tell because it really distills who we are on a humanistic level. When everything is taken away from us, we can see beyond each other's differences, beyond our disagreements. When this comic came out in 2005, like I said, it was a crazy idea. And now we're not too far away from that. It's actually an imaginable circumstance where these differences could get the better of us.
But I think beyond that, dystopia or not, I just like world building. I like creating new spaces or characters to interact with, new rules for characters to abide by or break because I think that gives a sense of distance between the viewer and the character. And it allows you a whole latitude to discuss things that might be off putting if you discuss them head on.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photography by: Richard DuCree/HBO MAX; Eli Joshua Adé/HBO MAX