"This is a story that could take place in Toronto, it could take place in New Orleans. All you have to do is shut the water off for a month and see what happens," says writer Malcolm MacRury about ZOS: Zone of Separation, his new eight-part series from The Movie Network/Movie Central debuting Monday.
The show centres around United Nations military observers trying to protect a ceasefire in the fictional, Sarajevo-like town of Jadac. Set in the present day, ZOS is a fable for modern times.
"This is in the heart of Europe. It's supposed to be civilization. And it broke down into tribal religious violence, same way Belfast did," he continues. "That's why it's important to tell the story now. We simplified it, too: it's Christians and Muslims. Well, open the newspapers. That's the debate all around the world right now."
For this interview, I'm on speakerphone with MacRury and actors Enrico Colantoni, who plays Speedo Boy, the spandex/ammo belt/leather coat-clad head of the Christian paramilitary group, and Rick Roberts, whose Major Gavin Hart is commander of the Canadian troops in Jadac. They're part of an ensemble that includes Michelle Nolden as Captain Sean Kovacs, the leader of the unarmed military observers who is approaching burnout, Colm Meaney as George Titac, the brutal but charming force behind the Islamic paramilitary, and Lolita Davidovich as Mila Michailov, his Christian counterpart.
"I describe it as a mix of Deadwood, M*A*S*H and Monty Python," says the writer. "That kind of black humour is crucial to it. It's the only way you can try to tell something close to the reality of the situation."
MacRury's credits include Deadwood, which is why he was approached by ZOS executive producer Paul Gross. "It was a show about a community, not just about one character, but how a community evolves towards something," MacRury says of the David Milch Western. "That's what we were trying to get at with our town Jadic."
Roberts adds that thinking in terms of a Western helped him wrap his head around the show and his character. "You can almost pick out the archetypes," agrees MacRury. "The gunslinger up in the hills is Speedo Boy. The new sheriff coming to town is Rick's character. Michelle Nolden plays the Jimmy Stewart character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
So what else attracted the actors to the script? "I never read the script," Colantoni answers. "I only read the description of Speedo Boy. That's all I needed to do."
I assume he's joking, but MacRury interjects: "It's sad but true."
"There are eight parts! I'm not going to read all eight parts," Colantoni exclaims as the rest of us laugh. "So it's about Speedo Boy, right?" More seriously, he calls his character "a spice throughout the eight episodes. You're reminded of the absurdity of it. Here's a character that embraces the irony of it all."
MacRury chooses to find it flattering that the busy actor (Colantoni also stars in Flashpoint) was instantly drawn to the role and the series, even without reading the script. "He signed up just on the basis of the one-liner, because it sounded like something different."
Roberts, on the other hand, was attracted to the cohesive story full of characters each with their own fascinating arcs. "I read all eight parts — it's just a different approach," he deadpans. He compares ZOS to Rome: "It's a modern version of that kind of amoral chaos, and how violence comes to play in that world."
Expecting unrelenting bleakness, I was surprised by the humour of the series, though found my squeamish self fast forwarding through scenes of torture and brutal violence. "I think if you don't go there you're not telling the story," MacRury defends the dark corners of the pay cable show. "You're not being honest with what you were going to do. You were going to tell a story about the absurdity and the complications of trying to do this job in a war zone — how do you tell that without being violent, without having disturbing sex, without having black comedy?"
Roberts, thinking one scene of a market square explosion had been heightened for television, was set straight by a photojournalist. "All the terrible things that happen on the show don't even measure up to the actual thing," he says.
That seems to be true of some of the stranger things, too. "When he saw Rico in costume overlooking the real town, Tuzla, he said 'Oh, I like him, he's real,'" MacRury recalls of that same photojournalist. "When he was in Sierra Leone, he was stopped at a checkpoint by paramilitary thugs, and a guy stepped out of the jungle high as a kite wearing a white wedding dress. So he would be Wedding Dress Guy."
Speedo Boy, while equally unexpected, perhaps requires more costume-related bravery for an actor. "What saved me is the wig. I don't think I could wear a Speedo like that without the wig," Colantoni says of the long blonde hair he sports for the role. "Thank God I could hide behind whatever little clothing I had, though the leather jacket in 105 degree weather wasn't a lot of fun."
But he also found that his character represented a particular kind of truth. "When we were in Bosnia, there was a different feeling I got walking around like that than in Canada. It was amazing how something that ironic struck a chord with the people there. Here it was just like, are you hot in that thing? There it was like, we know that guy. We understand that guy."
"Speedo Boy seemed to be a guy who found a calling in war. When war happened, he identified with a higher purpose," explains Colantoni, whose character is also a musician. "But the story takes place during a ceasefire, which was the most interesting part of that character — his inability to fulfill that higher calling. What do you do when you're actually waiting for war to break out again? It was thrilling, thrilling, thrilling to be able to deal with that frustration."
"Major Hart is a guy who comes into the situation with a set of preconceived notions and rules, and has that challenged every step of the way," is how Roberts describes his role. "He's the guy in the absurdist surroundings who tries to be as normal as possible. He spends a good part of the show trying to figure out how to maintain his sense of what's right and what order means in the context of a place where that's totally meaningless."
The shifting morality of the characters is one of the most satisfying aspects of the writing, which refuses to paint people as black or white. "You find yourself accidentally wearing the black hat, thinking, how'd I get this black hat on?" marvels Roberts. "And vice versa, you find they've actually redeemed somebody."
MacRury and his team of writers purposely didn't come up with a lot of personal backstory, preferring the characters to be revealed by their actions. The actors found that approach appropriate for the context.
"The UN characters are really out of time and out of place," says Roberts, whose Major Hart deals with a distant wife and disabled daughter in Canada via webcam. "You can't imagine them — they couldn't even imagine themselves — back at home."
"There is a feeling of the UN people being beamed down from another planet," Colantoni concurs, quipping: "It's like a Star Trek episode."
"I describe it as a job designed to drive you crazy," MacRury adds of the UN observers. "Who are these people who want to do the job over and over again, who want to stand between guys with guns, without having a gun themselves? All they have is their wits. Who are these people who want to do this?"
"I can't wait to see it," Colantoni returns to the joke-that's-not-entirely-a-joke as we wrapped up the interview. Shrugging off the suggestion that he could now read it or watch the DVD screeners, he replies: "Why? It's going to be on TV!"
ZOS: Zone of Separation will be on TV starting Monday, January 19 on The Movie Network/Movie Central.Powered by Sidelines