After years of working in TV production and writing for shows like White Collar, Shades of Blue, The Flash, Code Black, Jack Ryan and Raised by Wolves, Julian Meiojas set his sights on publishing a captivating book series called DNA. A cleverly chosen acronym for the Death Notification Agency, a corporation specialized in informing people they have only 24 hours left to live, this is a thrilling neon-noir story about a low-level process server named Ram who delivers death notices, only to have his life turned upside down when he becomes his own customer. Enriched with the great Mad Dog Jones’ illustrations and published by NeoText, DNA has brought Simon Kinberg’s Genre Films and Amazon Studios to the table and Meiojas now stands before his most exciting challenge so far – the task of adapting his book for the big screen. An accomplished TV writer and experienced producer, as well as a huge cinephile and dedicated fan of the noir genre, Julian graciously finds the time to sit down with me as we explore the winding and inspiring path he started treading the moment he first heard DNA’s protagonist’s voice in his head eight years ago, at the same time touching upon cinema giants from Melville to Mann who shaped both his personal love for cinema and professional aspirations in filmmaking.
Sven Mikulec: It only seems fitting to start with DNA. How did you come up with the story?
Julian Meiojas: DNA was really born out of a single question that kept popping into my head – what would happen if we could predict death? That’s a concept I’ve always gravitated towards, not only because of the immediate stakes for a character – because what higher stakes than death itself? – but I was also fascinated with what you would do with the knowledge of it. When you find out you’re going to die in 24 hours, that’s the story. That’s when I started finding the character. And that’s when Ram Carnes came to life for me. Once he got that death notice, once the world was established and once I had a character who I could follow in the last 24 hours of his life, the question started arising: what would he – what would any of us – do with that last day. Would you spend it, as many people would, seeing loved ones, saying goodbyes? Or would you, like Ram in the story, not believe it? I think the first stage for most people would be denial. This can’t be happening to me. Why is this happening to me? There must be something else going on. And that’s where we find Ram, in that frantic, desperate quest for his own survival. That’s when he really comes to life.
I started the first book around 2013 and it was exploratory, I was finding it as I was writing it. I didn’t really go in with a road map of where the story went. All I knew was that we have a guy who works for this bureaucratic government entity called the DNA, the Death Notification Agency, and he’s a low-level process server. As one would serve subpoenas, this guy just goes around serving death notices then goes about his day, never thinking anything more about it, or the people he’s basically just condemned to death with a bullshit template letter. And I kind of fell in love with this guy. Because he really couldn’t care less when we first meet him, Ram was just trying to make a measly paycheck, go to his favorite tavern at night, see his friends, hang out and just live his life without anybody butting into it. This is a guy who’s coming from regret, who’s coming from mistakes in the past and, lo and behold, this guy gets his own death notice. What that death notice forces him to do is eventually face his past, and that’s the heart of the story. Ram’s got to figure out exactly who’s doing this to him, why, and if he can turn it around. Once I figured all that out in the first book, once I finished what I thought was just a short story, I took a break from it. That was the genesis of DNA. But that voice of Ram’s was in my head for all those years and he was in there telling me to finish the fucking story… that this was just the beginning.
What made you go back to it?
It wasn’t until I started talking to John Schoenfelder about three years ago that I really thought about doing this as a series, and NeoText gave me the opportunity to do so. John had read the short story, what became Volume One: The Reaper, and he was just starting this publishing imprint that would specialize in stories that don’t get a lot of attention anymore, namely pulpy noir and golden-age crime fiction. I immediately jumped at the idea of continuing the DNA story on NeoText’s platform because they have such a passion for these types of stories. I knew that even though DNA is set in the future, its bones are in the neo-noirs of the past.
Considering the fact that NeoText published DNA and John will serve as one of the producers of the film adaptation, it’s safe to say you got along nicely?
We lined up creatively immediately. John and I realized we had a lot of similar interests, whether it was Jean-Pierre Melville films, Frank Miller’s books like Hard Boiled, Dark Knight, or Sin City, or Ed Brubaker’s Criminal series, we just started geeking out about the potential of DNA and what it could be. He encouraged me to think about how many books it would take to finish out the story. And at that point I hadn’t thought about how big the story was, because I hadn’t gone into yet. I didn’t have the road map. All I knew was that Ram found out there was a conspiracy against him starting in this little town of Hollywood, Florida, that his boss was the one who had set him up and he was going to get on the road to saving his own life. From that point, the end of the first book, there was a million places I could’ve gone. When I finally sat down to think about how to finish out this story, I went back to John. “I think it’s six books.” He told me, “Alright, I was expecting maybe three, but six it is.” Coming out of screenwriting, I kind of broke the story as a movie on a large scale, and then I started thinking about where to start and stop each book to really hammer out Ram’s journey in a satisfying way. That early work guided the structure of the books.
When you say you didn’t have a road map for the character right from the start, this in a sense means you as a writer are accompanying your character through his journey. If you don’t know where the story will take you, the writing is even kind of more organic?
Yes, that’s what I found with this one in particular. Sometimes you go into the story fully outlined – this is where I’m going to start, and this is the character’s journey that’s going to lead to the big plot moves, always wanting the character to influence the grander story. With this one, it was so organic. It was really just the character’s voice in my head, this brash, expletive-laden voice that was punching through my head all the time. I really had no control over where he was taking the story. I started feeling his desperation and through that I was able to figure out, okay, I know he’s going to try to save his life. I know that for sure, and I know that to do that, he’s going to have to go to the source… to the person trying to take it from him. So, first goal established was getting Ram to New York, to the DNA headquarters. But along that journey, there was so much more I found out about Ram by just going through it with him.
That’s when it got really exciting, and when new characters really started to present themselves in the story, whether it was Camille, who is a DNA insider who starts helping him for her own reasons revealed later, or this character of Jonesy, whom he meets in a subterranean city made of defunct metrolink cars in New York called Iron Park. And we quickly start to realize they have a past together, and it’s through her that we start carving out Ram a little more… about what he’s really running from, the regrets of his past. That’s how the process was throughout, digging through the dirt with Ram to find a few story gems.
It’s important to see glimpses of his past so we can become closer to him in the present.
We start seeing his damage. I started finding it more once I brought in a character that knew Ram from back in the day. That was really exciting, when I started realizing where he needs to go emotionally. It wasn’t just about him anymore, because as we start seeing in the books, there are these nightmares he keeps having, which are really his greatest fear that he’s always had – losing his family. There’s a few horrifying chapters of his family, the home he had with them, and the possible loss of them. Whether that’s hallucinated dream reality or not, we don’t know, but we find out later in the books. But exploring Ram’s past and what his fears are really helped me define his present storyline. And his drive started shifting in the middle books from this selfish ‘I just want to save my miserable life’ outlook to something bigger… something more meaningful. Finding that transition in his outlook really pushed me forward – you start realizing Ram’s changing. It’s only 24 hours, but it’s enough for somebody to change. Faced with your own death, you start having deeper thoughts and he may not show it, he may not say it, he may not want to talk about it, but through the prose and the book format I was able to explore his inner monologue and give the insight into why he’s doing what he’s doing, why he’s trying desperately to survive.
You said your screenwriting frame of mind helped you break down the story. In what way did your experience as a TV writer and producer shape the way you approached writing this story?
Off the bat, I’d say expediency in storytelling. The story engine always churning forward. In TV, the thing you learn very quickly is to keep people hooked and engaged. I actually started out writing films, and I wrote eight or nine screenplays that, in retrospect, were just helping me find my voice. All the while, I was working odd production jobs, trying to stay afloat, trying to only take jobs that would give me time to write. I took a lot of PA jobs, where I’d work three days, write for four days, and just work on the craft of it. And then through a job I had working for Al Gough and Miles Millar, who did Smallville, I started really seeing the magic of TV. That started pushing me more into the television direction.
To answer your question, the TV writing really enabled me to look at these books like episodes and to always have fun twists and cliffhangers so people would want to read the next volume. With TV, that’s what it’s all about, it’s hooking people and keeping them wanting more. But it can’t just be plot moves, it’s got to be about the character, what new information are we learning about him or her in this episode, or in this chapter, or in this volume that we did not know before. Really, what’s the new news? And whatever you learn, it’s got to engage the viewer – or in this case, the reader – to a point where there’s no turning back. And TV really taught me how to move at a good clip. You’re constantly against the train of production when you’re on a TV show. Especially when I started out working on cable shows, streaming wasn’t as popular as it is now. I think Netflix was just getting started with House of Cards. I was working on a show called White Collar. You know there’s going to be commercial breaks, you’re writing acts within a television episode to make sure people come back. I went through my formative TV learning on that show and before streaming was what it is now, I think it really geared me towards grabbing people in each act, in each chapter, and never letting go. Those are just a few of the lessons from TV I brought to the DNA writing process.
You mentioned you wrote a lot of screenplays for films before, but this is the first time you’re writing for film in this capacity…
This is the first time I’m getting paid to do it. (laughs)
What are your expectations for the project? How’s your writing job going to be different this time?
I think this one’s very different from the previous screenplays I wrote. A lot of those were very early on in my writing career. It was about finding the voice, so some of the narratives weren’t as propulsive as they probably should’ve been. The good thing that came out of that was always coming from character, and not from plot. Eventually I started writing bigger worlds. What I really found in writing those scripts as they evolved was – I love writing these popcorn hell-rides. I realized I want to entertain, but I also want to have the character force us to feel something. That’s the most important thing to me going into DNA. Because, of course, six volumes are going to have to be condensed. I’m going to have to shave off some of the stuff I put into the books because it’s a visual medium. Instead of writing Ram’s inner monologue and getting to know him on that level, it’s going to be a “show, don’t tell”, which is going to be an interesting change from the books. And because there’s a lot of action in the books, and there’s a lot of events and incidents, it’s going to be really making sure that I’m following the character’s instincts through those moments and making sure Ram is guiding the story at all times; making sure his emotional transformation is protected. That’s the most important piece for me, because it’s easy to get lost in the flash of the world, in the neon-noir-soaked atmosphere, the futuristic weaponry… All that’s really cool world-building, but it’s going to be making sure we’re right behind Ram the whole way, never leaving his point of view. To me, that’s going to be the number one thing I’m going to protect when I go into the screenplay.
You are the best person for the job because you know the character so well, but I guess it’s not going to be easy to trim a lot of the material.
No. That is the biggest fear going into screenplay on it. Killing my darlings. (laughs) But it’s a challenge that I’m excited for. I think with editing and trimming, the core of the story is actually able to shine through in a new way. In prose, you get the privilege of meandering through the world, you get to describe things in a different way – you can describe the weather, the texture of leaves… the chipped lacquer on the diner counter, the coffee stains. You’re able to get into all of that. In a movie, you don’t have that luxury. You’re moving through scenes and each one of those has a purpose, whether it’s revealing an important plot point that affects the narrative, setting something up that will pay off later, or learning something important about our character. You’re depriving the viewers of certain information that a book would give you. To me, that’s exciting because I think story deprivation is important, it leaves people questioning, it forces viewers to put the puzzle together, to figure things out on their own. That’s something we’re contending with in a whole new way now in film and TV. The audience is so smart and so savvy to storytelling. It really ups the game of writers as well. That’s something I always keep in mind: how do you subvert the expectations? And in the movie, I’m going to try and do it in every scene.
You have a lot of experience in TV production and writing, and now you’re pursuing another creative vent in fiction writing. Is it something you always wanted to do or was there some kind of a turning point?
This is something I’ve always been passionate about. I knew I loved movies when I was a teenager. I knew I had to do something in this field, it was the only thing I truly had a passion for. And when it came time after high school to pursue an undergrad degree, all the other options were boring. I really didn’t want to go down the business road because I knew where that life would lead. I just said ‘fuck it’, took a risk and applied to USC film school. At that point, I thought directing was what I wanted to do. I knew I saw things visually. But at that point, at that age – 18 – it was almost misguided, because it was only when I started getting into production and directing short films and working with other students to create short films, I started realizing my real passion was in the writing. I always loved literature, I loved the immersive world and the deeply personal journey you take through a book.
At that point I was so steeped in crime fiction, from Jim Thompson to Elmore Leonard, from Chandler to Ellroy. These were the voices I was really digging, these lowdown, scarred worlds and characters I found in authors’ works like Larry Brown, whose book Father and Son was really influential or Don Winslow’s Power of the Dog. It was really then that I started realizing, holy shit, all I want to do is write. I had to just focus on the writing. Put the directing goal aside, and just hone in on what was calling me. And although I knew it was going to be TV and film because that was the other great passion of mine, I knew fiction writing would be in my life. I started writing short stories in my late teens, and even before that, it started with poetry. In high school, I fell in love with Coleridge, Keats and the romanticists, but also had a deep love for punk rock, so I found myself writing these poems which were more like lyrics. I wanted to be a lead singer in my friend’s punk band (laughs), and when he actually needed a new lead singer, I tried out… but my voice sucked! (laughs). But I let him read one of the pieces I wrote to be lyrics, and he thought it was cool. So, I thought, maybe there’s actually something here. That utter failure of a tryout only fueled my love of writing. From that point on, I kept writing a lot of poetry which eventually became short fiction, which then became character and world-building. I guess my love of prose was always there.
What’s the main ingredient a quality story should have to captivate its audience?
Character turns. Unexpected twists in the lives of the characters that make them feel real. And I’m not just referring to surprising actions in different scenarios they find themselves in, I’m talking about dragging them through mud, boxing them in, and seeing how they scramble. Because it’s really at that most fucked-up point in their lives when things get really interesting, and the character starts acting on instinct as opposed to rational, calculated thought. That’s what captivates me when I’m watching something – the juicy, messy decisions characters make when they’re out of options. That’s when a character really starts getting inventive, and original.
Other than that, I’d say tone is also extremely important. For me, at least. Usually, when I’m thinking about a new idea, and there’s nothing else yet, not even a character, I’ll start toning it. By tone I mean the overall feeling and the mood that’s coming into my head as I’m thinking about the concept. That usually comes in the form of music, imagery, even clothing, or the sense of the setting, whether it’s sunny, whether it’s a night world, city versus rural setting… All these things contribute to the tone of a piece. It’s the first thing I notice when I’m watching a show or movie. Shows like The Shield, The Wire, Peaky Blinders, you get a sense of tone immediately. Right now, I’m watching Gomorrah, and it just nails down its tone in the first few minutes. You know what kind of a ride this is going to be. In shows like Fargo or Ozark, through cinematography, production design and the performances, it sets a mood and never veers from that. If you can find that tone early on in the writing, it tends to influence the whole piece.
So, when I come up with a new idea, I’ll start listening to a lot of different music that inspires that world I’m trying to create. I wrote a pilot that was set in 1971 Detroit, and it was heavily inspired by the music coming out at that time – Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Bobby Womack, The Supremes. Through embedding myself in all of that, I was able to carve out a world for my character to walk through. For DNA, I was really into synthwave and electronic, groups like Magic Sword, Makeup and Vanity Set, Perturbator. Immersing myself in that music really helped me find the tone. And obviously looking at films that were inspiring DNA, whether it’s Blade Runner or The Terminator, I started getting a feel for the vibe of the world I wanted to create. Every idea has its own vibe and I have to find it before I really dive in.
On the film side, take a movie like Sicario. Denis Villeneuve actually does this in every film: each one is its own unique tonal masterpiece. You look at Prisoners, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049… you start seeing exactly how that director captures tone. I really try to do that on the script level, bring that visual eye and sense of atmosphere from concept onward, because that will influence everything I’m trying to do with my character. Even if I don’t have the full story yet, I know the chord I’m trying to strike –¬ the tone – and that’s going to guide me through the whole piece. It’s a totem, a touchstone, for me.
Since we touched upon the tone of DNA, you worked with the illustrator Mad Dog Jones. His work really enriches the piece and helps set the tone. How did this collaboration happen?
I think I saw one of his early pieces on Instagram, probably 2017. I started following his account because there was something about his work that was pulling me in. At that point, I was probably in Volume Two, and his work connected with what was in my head for DNA. It was fun, vivid and different. It was capturing this neon-noir vibe that I was going for DNA. It was so unique, too – I hadn’t seen somebody do digital artwork like Mad Dog. When I was talking to John about illustrators, the first person that came to mind was this artist that I’d been following. I didn’t know if that was even a reality – I knew he was doing advertisements, work for different ad campaigns, so I didn’t think he was gettable. I talked to John about MDJ, and he said let’s try to get him if he’s the artist you really connect with, so through some behind-the-scenes work on John’s behalf, we were able to get in touch. MDJ read the first book, and I think he felt the similarities I was feeling to his own work and he agreed to do the illustrations, which got me really excited because his illustrations bring it to life in a whole new way. His illustrations brought this neon magic and insane style to what was on the page, organically expanding on what I envisioned.
Did he follow your instructions on what images to create?
When I saw his first illustrations coming in for Volume One, he veered from the text somewhat and that was actually the most exciting part. Sure, we had conversations and I gave him feedback but after seeing that first batch of images, we gave him a lot of latitude because what he was coming up with on his own were things that we didn’t even think of. Then I realized, moving forward, that I want his interpretation of the material, I don’t want my interpretation to influence what he was designing. He brought a whole new flavor to the story. Some of his visual work even influenced the way I’m telling the story in the backend, which is really cool because it’s almost happening in media res. To connect with an artist on that creative level is rare and it’s really been a hell of a ride with MDJ.
You set the story in the neon-noir atmosphere, style and aesthetics. Since it’s also a genre much loved here on NeoText, what would you say makes it so attractive and inspiring?
It really just puts a fun visual spin on neo-noir, and to me, that’s all about one thing: raging against the machine. It’s always one doomed character that has the whole world against him or her, and they’re taking on the bureaucracy in such an elevated way. Whether it’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Leon in Léon: The Professional, I think you’ve got these characters who are swimming against the current. It makes for an isolated, burdened and often paranoid guide into the unknown, which is such a blast to write because even I’m surprised by where the story can go. Although classic noir differs from neo-noir, there’s that same underlying principle of the character vs. everyone, fighting against a system which is constantly rigged against them. I think it’s just something people can relate to, you know? That thematic has always captured me, and nine times out of ten, it’s in the movies that influenced me the most. In noir, the character is not aware of the story they’re in. To me, neo-noir is the self-awareness of the genre. When you’re able to play in that field, you can use all of the audience expectations of the genre, and subvert those expectations as much as possible to create something new. Add some elevated cars, cool music, and futuristic elements to that, and I’m in Heaven.
Which films do you consider your favorites?
I already mentioned Taxi Driver as a huge influence. Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange has to be another one. Anything Kubrick, really. But then you’ve got William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A., French Connection… John Boorman’s Point Blank, which was so ahead of its time in terms of what they were doing with the character and the style of that movie. Michael Mann has always been a big influence, starting with Thief and then watching Manhunter, you saw what a tone can do to a familiar narrative. That was so cool to see, a serial killer story told with such panache and a new perspective. I’d say the thrillers of the 70s and 80s offered some of the most influential films for me. Badlands, The Exorcist, Don’t look Now, The Yakuza, Assault on Precinct 13, The Driver, Alien, Mad Max… the list goes on.
One of my favorite directors, Sidney Lumet, doing movies like Dog Day Afternoon and then going into his trio of corruption with Serpico, Prince of the City and Q&A. There was this verisimilitude that he was able to capture on film that I, to this day, always try to achieve, and even though DNA is set in this heightened world, I want to be on the ground level with him, to feel the heartbeat of the streets, and try to capture the story in a fast-paced verité style. When I’m preparing to do a piece, I’ll go back and watch certain movies that capture the essence of the piece that I’m trying to do. I think the influences are broad, but all of them fall within crime, action, thriller or sci-fi genres. I always find my work having a few of those elements in any one piece. Tony Scott was another massive influence, True Romance was a bible to me. And that goes down to the writing too, I’d be remiss not to mention Quentin Tarantino having a major impact on me, or Shane Black. Then there’s the Coen brothers, who are just in their own league. Talk about subverting genres, they’re at the top of the list. From Blood Simple, through Fargo to No Country for Old Men, they’ve constantly cranked out original work which is hard to do in such saturated genres. We could go even further back to French New Wave crime films, with Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï. When I first saw it, it blew me away. It’s a very methodical film, but the style and the premeditation of Alain Delon’s Jef character was something I always looked at, and it’s something that’s influenced a lot these antihero stories, even the modern Refn films. You look at Drive, it’s a heightened version of that kind of film. You see Le Cercle Rouge or Jules Dassin’s Rafifi coming around again in Michael Mann’s Heat, which is at the top of my favorites list. These all set the groundwork for me in a huge way and I always try to carry that kind of rugged, brass-knuckled spirit through my storytelling.
Where can we expect to find you in a couple of years’ time?
Well, that’s a tough one, because plans change from year to year in this business. (laughs) It’s very hard to predict because opportunities come up that you don’t see ahead of time. So whatever plan I have is obviously going to change, and as a writer, the biggest thing to get used to is this instability in your professional life. Nothing is ever going to be laid out and stick to a plan, it’s always going to have its twists and turns. One thing I learned early on was never to chase zeitgeist, because that way lies madness. In a perfect world, I see myself still writing within the crime, thriller, sci-fi genres, trying to add to the pantheon as much as I can and keep trying to create fun, irresistible characters, giving viewers something new within their favorite genres. I’d love to have a few more movies under my belt at that point, and keep doing what I’ve been doing in terms of working with great filmmakers. Whether it’s David Ayer, David Leitch, Ridley Scott… being able to work and develop projects with people I admire and respect creatively. I’m working with Simon Kinberg on DNA and have a few more projects in development with some exciting filmmakers and producers. I want to keep going down that road and working with people who inspire me, who are taking genre filmmaking to a whole different level. I’d also love to create and run my own series that wraps up all the things that I love in crime and neo-noir storytelling, and always keep trying to tackle these darker worlds with a twisted sense of humor. But again, who knows what’s coming down the pike, I feel lucky to be where I’m at, and every day I get to keep doing it is a good day in my book.