From the minds of Lana and Andy Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski comes the 12-episode, mind-bending Netflix series Sense8, about eight people connected all around the world who, after experiencing a violent vision, are able to see, feel, hear and talk to each other, as if they are in the same place. While they are being hunted by an organization that is out to do them harm, these eight individuals from very different backgrounds must quickly adapt to this new ability and to each other, and figure out what all of this means for the future of humanity.
At the press day for this thriller that explores identity, connectivity and humanity, co-creator/writer/executive producer J. Michael Straczynski spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how he came to be collaborating with the Wachowskis, what they were hoping to achieve with this TV series, already having a detailed second season worked out and a five-year plan, why they needed 12 episodes to tell this story, the impossible size and scope, balancing the fantastical with the small human moments, how incredibly supportive Netflix has been, and how he’d love for people to watch all 12 hours straight, when it becomes available on June 5th at 12:01 am PST. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: How did you come to be doing a TV show with the Wachowskis?
MICHAEL STRACZYNSKI: We’ve been friends for a number of years. They were fans of my work, as it turned out. They were fans of my type of writing and Babylon 5. They invited me to one of The Matrix premieres, and we met and became friends. And then, we worked on a few things, over the years. Lana called one day and said, “Why don’t you come up to San Francisco and stay at the house for a few days, and let’s figure something out to do together for television?” So, I went up to San Francisco and stayed at Lana and Karin’s house, and as we were talking about what we wanted to do for television, we knew that we wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before to really make a mark. I have friends in different parts of the world, and they’ll all go online at the same time and all pull up a movie and hit play, at the same moment, and then they’ll comment to each other about it. They’re sharing an experience, even though they’re on different parts of the planet. So, we wanted to figure out how to deal with a planetary story on a scale that hasn’t been done before. Lana is huge into evolution and shared experiences and the importance of humanity. Between the two of us, we locked down what the concept was, and took it from there.
The Wachowskis seem to be doing more collaborative work, in the last few years. How did this development process work, as far as deciding on the specific countries and characters?
STRACZYNSKI: It was more about establishing what the rules were, how this worked and what it was to be sensate. Our theory was that originally we’re all sensate, and we all had this ability. The mutation was those who are born without the ability because they’re more efficient killers. If you can’t feel that person’s pain, it’s easy to wipe that person out. Over time, those individuals outnumbered those who were sensate. We got those rules first, and then we started to ask, what countries do we want to explore? It was about storytelling opportunity, but also about contrast, with Nairobi up against San Francisco, or Seoul up against Chicago, or Mexico City against Berlin. We went through a bunch of different permutations. At one point, we were going to be in Iraq and a couple of other countries. We finally figured out the ones we wanted, and then the characters came from there.
Is there really a five-year plan from the series?
STRACZYNSKI: I’m big on five-year arcs. We have a rough structure for five years. Should Netflix decide to do it, we already have the second season worked out in great detail. And then, we have rough notes for the next three years, beyond that. I need to know where I’m going. I always write toward the ending, so I need to know where it’s going. Before I did Babylon 5, I knew what the last episode was, and the last scene in that episode, years before we ever did that arc.
How did you decide on doing 12 episodes for this series?
STRACZYNSKI: What happened was that the three of us write very dense scripts. We wanted the show to have a very filmic look to it that was very unique unto itself. It’s very feature film, in its look. And to create space for those scenes to run like a movie, it began expanding outwards. Our first cut of Episode 1 was an hour and 45 minutes, which was a tad over. So, we went to Netflix and said, “Can we have 12 episodes and spread this out more evenly?” On any other show, you would have taken that hour and three-quarters and just chop it down. It wouldn’t have been half the show that it is. So Netflix, to their credit, said, “You want two more episodes to spread it out, make it more smooth and make it what you want it to be? Go for it.”
How did your relationship with the Wachowskis work, once the actual shooting started?
STRACZYNSKI: You can only have one voice on set, and that has to be the director. I wasn’t there for all of it, but I was there for a good portion of it. I wasn’t really needed. When they were on set doing their thing, even with other directors, it was their vision for the show, visually. After a certain point, I pulled back and worked more on the post side of things. On set, it’s them. It has to be.
Everything about this show seems impossible because of the size and the scope. Did it feel that way, at any point during the shoot?
STRACZYNSKI: It felt that way all during production, particularly once we made the decision, early on, that we were not going to do stages. Everything we did was going to be on location, in real places. Even if it was just a hospital room, there had to be windows that you could see out, so that you knew you were in Chicago or San Francisco. On most TV shows, you work on a set and do some location. This was all location. There were times where I said, “What the hell are we doing?” We knew it was impossible when we started it, but we just figured we’d do it anyway.
Was there a point that you knew it was working, or were you just trying to get through it and survive it?
STRACZYNSKI: Every day, we thought we were never going to get through it, but every day, we got through it. We had multiple international crews on the show, but people really delivered. Usually on a film, you’re doing two pages a day. There were days that we were doing 10, 12 or 14 pages a day, and we were like, “This can’t be done.” But, we got through it.
This show has such an interesting balance of the fantastical with these small human moments. Were you always striving for that balance?
STRACZYNSKI: Yeah, you have to have that balance. Science fiction shows are traditionally about the gimmick or the gadget and tend to be emotionally cool to the touch. We thought, “We’re going to have these big, huge action moments, so, we need to have the quieter, more human moments to say what this is all about.” You can’t always relate to the big action things, but you can relate to small moments. I worked with James Cameron, a few years ago, on a remake of Forbidden Planet, which is still sitting at Warner Bros., and he said one of the smartest things I’ve ever heard about science fiction. He said, “I thought science fiction was about familiar characters in unfamiliar settings. It took me ten years to realize that was wrong. It’s about relationships and not settings.” Terminator 2 was a father-son relationship, even though it’s not. Aliens was a mother-daughter relationship, even though it’s not. You don’t buy into huge car chases or sensates or interstellar warfare, but you can buy into a loving relationship or a father-son relationship, and you can buy into the small humor. If you want to make your fiction universal, go small. That’s the best way to do it.
What should people who sit down to watch this and don’t know what to expect from it know, going into it?
STRACZYNSKI: I think the less they know, going into it, the better off they’re going to be. Just buy the ticket and take the ride. You don’t have to know anything. Just open your mind and let everything in.
Will we learn about who Jonas and Mr. Whispers are and the missions that they’re on?
STRACZYNSKI: People in a cluster are bound to each other automatically, and can see each other automatically. If you’re outside of the cluster, but you’re a sensate, you have to make direct eye contact. I could see inside your head and you could see inside me, but I couldn’t see inside every group. Whispers can see Angelica and hear her, but he can’t hear Jonas because he hasn’t bonded with Jonas. Jonas can hear and talk to Angelica, but he can’t hear what Whispers is saying because they haven’t had contact yet. We explain those rules, down the road, and that becomes very important toward the latter part of the show, as one of our characters is captured.
Was it important to really make a statement with your cold open and throw people right into what this world will be?
STRACZYNSKI: We wanted to throw the audience right into the middle of the action and not slow down. We all believe that the audience is pretty smart. A lot of television tends to assume that audiences don’t have the attention span or the IQ to follow a lot of stuff. Our theory is that they’re smart and hip and ready to jump in. You’re better served by just plunging them in and letting them figure out what’s going on, rather than spoon-feeding them with information. The deeper you go into it, the more it rewards you with information.
What was it like to put this cast of actors together?
STRACZYNSKI: We wanted the cast, as much as possible, to be out of the countries that we were shooting in, so that we could have that authenticity. It’s a great cast. It’s a really good bunch, and there’s a great chemistry between them, too. Because we shot each location out, each actor had to carry their scenes on their own back. We shot it subjectively, meaning that in San Francisco, Nomi was in every single scene that we shot there. And then, they’d hand it off to somebody else, and the rest of the cast had to support that person.
For someone like you, who is responsible for many hours of television, what’s it like to work with Netflix?
STRACZYNSKI: It’s been great. I’ve worked on high visibility shows that weren’t always the best, and low visibility shows that I love but that didn’t have the PR behind them. Netflix gave us a great budget for this show, they gave us good support, publicity wise, and they gave us massive support, creatively. They let us do things on this show that any other network would have said, “You’re out of your minds,” and never would have let us do. This show couldn’t have been done without them, and could only have been done with them. It’s not that they didn’t give notes. They did. They had questions and suggestions. It was all more to the point of keeping us on target. Half-way through any big project, everyone forgets what they’re doing. Once you hit the ground on a show like this – we started shooting in April of last year and didn’t stop until December – it’s easy to lose your place, but they always kept us on target and on point, which was great. They’re really good partners.
How would you ideally want people to watch this show? Is this a show that’s better for binge-viewing, or is it easier to digest in chunks at a time?
STRACZYNSKI: I went to wreck homes. I want people to watch all 12 hours, straight through. If you have enough time on your hands to watch all 12 hours, straight through, that’s the best case scenario. That being said, once we restructured for 12 episodes, we realized that it’s almost a three-act structure. It’s four-episode arc is like an act. So, you could do four and four and four. That’s one way to watch it because there are good break points in there. But, my hope is that they’ll watch it straight through. From our point of view, it’s really written as a 12-hour movie. Ultimately, that’s what it is. When you walk into a movie theater, you don’t walk out half-way through, and then come back the next day to watch the rest of it.
Do you feel like you learned from this experience, in a way that will make another season easier?
STRACZYNSKI: It’s going to be a huge challenge, no matter what we do. We’ve talked about, should Netflix commission another season, what it should look like, and it’s going to be impossible. But what we did was impossible, so it’s all right. This season, the deeper you go, the more intense it gets.
Sense8 is available on Netflix on Friday, June 5th.