From creator Roberto Patino, DMZ comes to the small screen and is an adaptation of the DC Comics book. The series focuses on Alma, played by Rosario Dawson, a medic who became separated from her son during an evacuation of New York City at the height of the Second American Civil War. Nearly 20 years later, there are 300,000 people still in what is now considered a completely isolated demilitarized zone (DMZ) between two nations.
The series captures so much of today’s political climate, especially in relation to immigrant groups. In DMZ, everyone who could leave New York City left – white and rich people – making this series an exploration of which citizens the United States is willing to leave behind.
BGN had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion at Warner Bros. studios in Burbank, California with Robert Patino, directors Ava Duvernay and Ernest Dickerson, and the star of the series Rosario Dawson. They spoke about how the pandemic changed the trajectory of the show, the timeliness of the story, and what it actually took to get the series off the ground.
Patino spoke of how the pandemic changed a lot for the show. The first episode was shot just before everything shut down. He recalls being on the phone with Ava Duvernay when the news of George Floyd’s murder happened. Patino said: “That precipitated a whole new layer to certain lines in the show, and a certain responsibility that we were taking on for the show. It was scary. It was affirming, and we all really committed fully. Ten months later, we got to see each other, and it was very strange because we couldn’t outright give each other hugs. It was very emotional for me to bring the story back and wrap it up.”
Were there any changes to the script due to the shutdown or any other events in 2020?
Patino: We reframed the story to be a four-episode limited series. Yes there were significant changes to the story that I had planned. It all forced me to distill what was going on in the show down to the very simple guiding light: a mother’s love for her son. That core vector, at least for me, seemed to parse out and make sense of what mattered as we were stuck in our homes and going outside slowly.
The DMZ mini-series differs quite a bit from the comic book. What inspired you to make those changes, and how is DMZ a reflection of the current climate in the United States of America?
Patino: The DMZ graphic novel is one of my favorites but is also very male – very testosterone-driven. I felt that it could use updating. You have to go to bat for the sense of accountability to the subject matter and to the audience. As an artist putting work out there, I was mindful of every line being something I could fully defend and stand behind proudly.
Your portrayal of Alma, a mother desperate to reunite with her son, really pulls at the heartstrings. How did you prepare for your role?
Rosario Dawson: I am a mom. The lineage of women in my family is important. I think it’s what also made the idea of introducing femininity in this retelling of DMZ that much more palpable and poignant. I play full-on mama bear but on steroids. You know, people say “unconditional love” but I don’t think they really mean unconditional. That is the guiding star for Alma, and it was heartbreaking and challenging to live that truth. The circumstances, the situations, the realities she encounters about the dynamics that she’s in, and the power tripping – it all tests that resolve of what it means to be a mama bear.
Do you see yourself in Alma?
Dawson: Yes, Alma is a New Yorker. She is a woman of service. I recognize no matter what you think you have or don’t have, there’s always something you can give. There’s always some type of collaboration that can be done. That spirit is very much in Alma.
So often, she really has nothing but her wits and her heart to guide her. But she’s strong, not because she’s aggressive and fighting. She’s strong because she’s resilient and tenacious. Those are the types of people I grew up around, and that’s what I wanted to embody in this story. I wanted to show people a different kind of strength and a different way forward.
Ava, you first signed on as a producer through your production company ARRAY. You directed the pilot, and then tapped legendary Ernest Dickerson for the following three episodes. Why was he the perfect director?
Ava Duvernay: Tapped? More like begged! The thing about Ernest Dickerson is he is a legend in our industry. He used to be a cinematographer and then became a director. He has directed or shot some of your favorite films. We needed someone who could take big ideas and make them beautiful.
Ernest Dickerson: It was great because I was already doing a world-building show, Raised by Wolves. So, all of a sudden, here comes this other show to extend and expand on what was already started.
The set designer did an outstanding job creating a dystopian New York City in Atlanta. How did you all collaborate with the set designer to make your vision of DMZ come to life?
Did the look of the dystopian bring in the fashion for the show, or did the fashion come first?
Duvernay: When you make a movie, you have to think about what the characters would wear. As we did this, we thought about it being New York City, 20 years from now and there’s been a war. What would the fashion be like? Nothing new, the colors can’t pop too much, and everything’s a little bit muted. It was a challenge to put those things together. When you’re watching a movie, you’re just popping it on. But sometimes it takes us years to make what you’ve watched. Someone had to write it, executives get involved, and sometimes we have to fight for what we write. Then we have to fight to get the money, get a location, get the actors, then we have to rehearse, and bring in the cameras. There’s so much to make one scene that you watch in two minutes. So, that’s why when we get a chance to present it and talk to an audience about it, it’s a real thrill because we do it all for you. Thank you.
DMZ is currently streaming on HBO Max.
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Archuleta is an author, poet, blogger, and host of the FearlessINK podcast. Archuleta's work centers Black women, mental health and wellness, and inspiring people to live their fullest potential.