In a futuristic America where a computer algorithm determines who lives and who dies, life seems pretty sweet for the guy delivering death notices. But what happens when the same guy who serves gets served? Mayhem, mayhem, and more mayhem. L.A.-based screenwriter Julian Oliver Meiojas’ DNA Volume One: The Reaper introduces Ramsay “Ram” Carnes, a Hawaiian shirt-wearing, expletive-spewing grim reaper who turns the tables violently on the agency that employs him. Illustrator Mad Dog Jones (aka Michah Dowbak) adds his trademark cyberpunk dystopia sensibilities to the story its vibrancy and otherworldliness.
Meiojas and Mad Dog Jones spoke to The Beat about their shared vision for this multi-part series.
Nancy Powell: The first installment of DNA was a wild ride! Was there a specific movie or book that inspired your story? Minority Report, maybe? Miami Vice?
Julian Oliver Meiojas: Love the comparisons! There wasn’t really one main influence on the work, I’d say it all caught fire for me when Ram’s voice popped in my head. But that’s not to say there aren’t definitely echoes of genre staples like Minority Report rippling through the DNA world, along with other influences that probably carved their way into my psyche when building it out — Terminator, Logan’s Run, Bladerunner, and Escape from New York. And I can definitely see the Miami Vice reference, although it was never a conscious choice. But it definitely makes sense, it was one of my favorite pilot episodes of any tv series — tonally more than anything. I mean, c’mon… Crockett and Tubbs cruising into the night on a dangerous mission from which they don’t know they’ll be returning, Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” playing, Tubbs loading a shorty shotgun, then Crockett pulling over to call his soon-to-be ex just to ask if what they had was real. If that’s not cool, I don’t know what is.
Powell: I love how you completely turned the word DNA upside down from being a life force to something sinister (Death Notification Agency). How many acronyms did you actually have to play around with, or did you always know you wanted to do something with the term “DNA”?
Meiojas: One of the earliest things that came up when the idea was still forming was the idea of death notices, and Ram’s job delivering them. From that, the Death Notification Agency was a natural next step for the organization that specializes in notifying citizens of their impending deaths — and one of the happiest acronym accidents happened.
Powell: You’ve said that you “wanted to explore the paranoid feeling that maybe we don’t have enough time to recalibrate before having to face the consequences of our own progress.” And you chose prose to delve into these ideas. What is it about the prose as opposed to film that makes it such an effective medium to explore these ideas?
Meiojas: Prose is very freeing creatively. I find that I can really let the character flow through me in a different, stream-of-consciousness way than I can with teleplay or screenplay. Also, Ram’s internal thought process was something I wanted to exploit in prose because his voice was a fun filter to sift through some of these deeper, more complex ideas without getting didactic or indulgent in any way. Ram’s voice helped keep the concept grounded and real, and to me, that’s how prose should be — raw and blisteringly authentic to our world and character.
Powell: Did you find writing DNA more challenging than your film or television work?
Meiojas: Actually, no, this one brought a lot more pleasure than pain, which isn’t always the case. I think writing through Ram’s voice brought a certain freedom to the process I wouldn’t have had otherwise — it was fun to imagine him in every scenario on this journey. Even in tough segments, or scenes, when there was a lot of story to unpack, or when it was a particularly emotionally vulnerable moment for Ram, there was always the comfort of knowing the first person prose style would make it fun and carry all the weight with a certain ease. It was just a blast to write, I couldn’t wait to dive into Volume Two.
Powell: Mad Dog, what process did you use to come up with the physical imagery of the story? Was it a collaborative discussion on how the main character Ramsay Jones should look, or did you glean Ramsay’s appearance from reading the script?
Mad Dog Jones: The main idea I wanted to convey with the imagery was that the world had changed. So much of this is done through colour palettes and architecture. I like to focus on environments first and then bring my characters into that space. Ram’s vibe comes mostly from Julian’s mind, I just gave him the treatment that his environment called for. I’m always playing with bold colours so getting to throw the bright lenses and Hawaiian top on Ram made him a natural fit in my environment!
Powell: Since a lot of your digital art revolves around cyberpunk themes, was this project right up your alley?
Mad Dog: The cyberpunk worlds are a natural fit for my style. I’m drawn to these worlds because they allow you to create a light source wherever you want it. I love being able to go crazy with my colours and cyber worlds give me all that freedom. Julian’s script is also otherworldly so it’s an honour to be part of this project!
Powell: Julian, you’re based in L.A. and yet the story takes place in a different Hollywood – Hollywood, FL. Why was it important to use Florida as a launching point versus your home base?
Meiojas: I knew I didn’t want to tell the story in LA because that comes with its own set of expectations. Too many, to be honest. And it just didn’t feel like an LA story. I wanted to humidity, the sweat and the vibe of a town that lives in the shadows of cities like LA, or in this case, Miami — which was great because I got to play with all the genre expectations of that locale — the neon and the nightlife — which Mad Dog really brought to vivid life in his insane visuals.
Powell: Let’s assume DNA comes to the big screen. Who plays Ramsay? And who plays Camille?
Meiojas: It’s funny, I’ve had this conversation numerous times over the past few months, and it’s always a tough one for me because I never had the image of an actor pop into my head for either Ram or Camille — it was just… them. And I could always see their faces in my head, but it was always hard to assign their likeness to actors. What I love about what Mad Dog brought to the process — well, actually I loved everything he brought to the process — but especially his visual interpretation of the world and characters. Working with such a talented artist pulled these characters out of the ether for me in a big way. They became more real the minute we brought MDJ onto the project.
Powell: Can you give us a teaser on what’s coming up next for Ramsay and Camille?
Meiojas: Volume Two is called The Gauntlet and I think we deliver on that title. Ram and Camille will get to know each other further under the most hardcore of circumstances while we expand the world on their journey to the DNA HQ in NYC.