Debuting this weekend on Netflix, J. Michael Straczynski and the Wachowskis’ Sense8 is an original science-fiction thriller concerning eight people (or “Sensates”) scattered around the globe who suddenly find they share a psychic and empathic connection to one another, and soon learn their abilities have made them targets for a shadowy organization. Starring a handful of veteran genre stars, including Naveen Andrews, Daryl Hannah, Freema Agyeman, and Brian Smith, as well as a group of new international stars, the series promises to deliver the same kind of consciousness-expanding social, cultural, and gender satire as the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas. The twelve episodes of Sense 8‘s first season utilize not only the Wachowskis’ directing skills, but also those of Cloud Atlas‘ co-director Tom Tykwer and the siblings’ V for Vendetta helmer James McTeigue. We caught up with Straczynski recently and he gave us the lowdown on how the series came to be, as well as updates on his other TV, film, and comic book projects, including the Babylon 5 movie…
Nerdist: Sense8 is, on one level, a personal statement from both you and the Wachowskis. It’s a very auteur-driven science-fiction series.
J. Michael Stracyznski: Yeah, as we were going into the construction of the story, a lot of our personal backgrounds went into the creation of the characters. With a lot of my background in Wolfgang, and certainly a lot of Lana in Nomi. What was funny about that though is… When we were in Chicago, I met with them to talk about the first draft and the characters and where they were gonna go and what they were gonna be, and Nomi was among the last we returned to to decide what she could be. I said, “Given that she is kind of the bridge between the cyber world and the real world and our characters and hacking and all the rest of it, wouldn’t be good if she was transgender?” Lana shot up out of her chair, danced around the room, went up to Andy, and said, “It wasn’t me this time. It was him! It was him! It was him! It was his idea this time. Not mine.” [Laughs.] But once Nomi was in, that became I think for Lana a real constant compass pointing towards true north.
N: Did Netflix allow for an especially fruitful collaboration between you and the Wachowskis?
JMS: They were terrific. They always trusted us. It’s not like they never had notes or things to say, but their notes were primarily along the lines of keeping us focused on what we first started to do. Halfway through any major project, everyone kind of forgets what they were doing in the first place. So they were useful in keeping us on track. But whenever there was an important creative matter, they just deferred to our judgment. As far as the three of us, it’s a very long process. They in particular like to spend a lot of time sitting down, working out the rules, working out the world, the textures, the character backgrounds. In the development of process of this, even going into the script, we were meeting in Chicago and London and Berlin and elsewhere, just sort of hammering out the details. It was a very long winding process. Not only just what their individual stories were, but how one individual’s story would comment upon another character’s story. How, for instance, Kala, deciding whether or not to get married when she doesn’t want to get married, reflects on and comments on Sun’s story, deciding whether or not to take the blame for what her brother did. Both of them facing a prison of sorts.
The problem was because we had multiple time zones to consider. And since this is a planetary story, all taking place at the same time, if you’ve got Nomi in San Francisco who has got a problem and needs Capheus’ help, he’s asleep. So we had to look at the time zones as well.
N: This is the first series produced under the banner of your own studio. What sparked the project? Did it begin before you decided to create that studio?
JMS: We’d been working on the idea for quite some time even before I started the studio. We kind of folded that into it. As far as where it comes from, all three of us are very much drawn to the idea that we are, as a species, better together than we are apart. And that politics and the public discourse at the moment is about dividing us up — theologically, by class, by income. If this country was as divided geographically as it is politically right now, you’d be hearing gunfire in the distance. So we needed to tell a story about the fact that we are more alike than we think we are, and that the common core of our shared humanity is stronger than that which divides us.
N: You cast is comprised of several actors who are familiar to genre fans. How were they brought on?
JMS: Yeah, we really cast a very wide net in terms of our casting. We primarily were looking to get people who were authentically from those areas or those backgrounds. We didn’t just want to hire Americans and have them play different parts. We wanted to find an actress in India who was a well-known actress there, look for a German actor who was from Germany. So the international casting on this thing was huge. What’s kind of funny is the way it played out in the actual production of the show. Because we shot each city one at a time. So we started in San Francisco, shot all of Nomi’s scenes. She was in every scene, every day. Then we went to Chicago and shot all of Will’s scenes. Every single day, he’s in every single scene. After a while, it became kind of like an Olympics. As each actor hands off a baton to somebody else, and each actor kind of represents that country. So when the next turn was for Riley, Tuppence [Middleton] had to carry the baton for England. And Max [Riemelt] had to carry the baton for Germany. So by virtue of casting out of those actual areas, it gave it that sense of camaraderie but also competition.
N: On a separate note, I have to ask about Night Gallery… Having worked on the ‘80s Twilight Zone, it seems like you’re the perfect person to carry on Rod Serling’s legacy by continuing his final series. Of course, since Night Gallery isn’t as well-known as Twilight Zone it would seem there’s even more ground for you to make it your own.
JMS: To a degree. We also want to honor what Rod did with the original. I did a pilot script for Universal and for Syfy, and they’re making a decision now whether or not to proceed with it. They’re also talking about a separate anthology show, which would be more of a hard-edged kind of a project. I can’t say that much about it, because it’s still in process.
N: Can you say anything about the adaptation of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars series that you’re working on for Spike? How faithful will it be to the original books?
JMS: It’s a huge story that covers well over a hundred years, and television right now is kind of the place to go for sagas. In terms of the adaptation itself, we’re trying to stay pretty faithful. There are a couple of characters being added. We’re looking at how to do more of a non-linear structure to the story, because there’s such a long period of time that’s covered it makes sense to be able to see in one episode how they got together and then the trip to Mars, and also be able to see Underhill and so on. Patching all that together requires a lot of detail work. It’s very much a game of pieces. The script went in about two weeks ago. They’re very excited. They’re going to fast track this thing if at all possible. I’m getting my first batch of notes from them next week. They’re very excited about it. I think that Kim will feel that the series will do a proper job of adapting his book.
N: You’ve had a lot taking place on the comics front. One of those projects is close to moving to the screen…
JMS: Yeah, Ten Grand has been optioned by CBS Studios. We’ll see where that’s gonna go. There are a couple of other companies that are nosing around the rights to Rising Stars. It might be animation, oddly enough. There’s also Dream Police. There’s a lot that’s cooking right now. None of it necessarily has come to fruition yet. But these things take the time they take. The new Superman: Earth One graphic novel just came out a few months ago, and it’s done very well for DC. I’m working on another project for them right now in the Earth One universe. I can’t talk about it until it’s time that they announce it. But coming back to that universe is just a lot of fun.
N: Going back to Sense8… How much have you planned out? Do you have a loose multi-year plan? The characters don’t really meet each other in person this season, so there’s already the expectation we’ll see a second season in which they’ll meet.
JMS: Yeah, the first season is kind of like the origin story, for lack of a better word. As we were working out the first season in detail we all kept going back to “Where does this lead in year 2?” and gradually put together a document that is pretty extensive about what would happen in year 2. Obviously Netflix has not made that determination yet. But when and if they do, we have everything ready to go to start writing those scripts for the next season; and we have a loose structure for years 3, 4, and 5. And we know the last episode we’d end on. So, coming from Babylon 5, I need to know where I’m going, I need to know the last scene before I can write the first scene. We definitely have that in place for Sense8.
N: The show was apparently borne in part out of your conversations about the role of technology in people’s lives. Was that something that both you and the Wachowskis wanted Sense8 to deal with?
JMS: That was definitely on our minds at the time, particularly because technology allows for greater and greater collections of people to emerge. There’s a thing about empathy… Cultures and societies are built upon empathy. Meaning, way back in history your group was your tribe. It was a bunch of people. The enemy was those on the other side of the hill. You didn’t have to have empathy for them. They were the enemy, they were strange, they were foreign to you. Then gradually as technology got better, your tribe was the folks in this particular region and the bad guys were over there. Technology allows that bubble of empathy to get larger and larger and larger. War isn’t just something that happens to some strange tribe across the planet, now we see it on the news. We understand what the costs or the consequences of that is. You see the earthquake in Nepal, you understand what happened there. Even on a more personal, private level… I have some friends who, when they are traveling around the world, will all go online at the same time and they will queue up a movie on DVD — in the US, in Germany — they’ll all hit play at the same time and they’ll share the experience of watching that movie in real time and comment on it as they watch it. We are hardwired for community. If we can’t find it somewhere else, we’ll find it in another place. Even being online, whether it’s on Facebook or elsewhere, gives you a sense of community. That technology will keep helping us move along over the next ten or fifteen years.
N: As someone who’s played such a large role in genre television for the past several decades, what are your thoughts on its current state? TV has taken the place of film for many people. It must be an incredibly rewarding time for you, since you’ve fought in the trenches for many years and helped push things to where they are now.
JMS: Thank you. Yeah, Babylon 5 was the first show to have a proper five-year arc to it and it set the stage for Lost and other shows that followed it… It’s a great time to be in television right now, because what’s happened to a large degree is that as films have gotten more popcorny and more built around events… One studio guy told me that they’re looking for movies that can eventually get condensed down to the side of a lunchbox. A lot of folks have left the theatrical side and come to the television side. Between those visionaries and the folks who grew up working in television, there’s a synthesis now that’s leading to some pretty amazing television. I would go almost as far as to say we’re in a golden age of television, where the storytelling is intense and personal and challenging and provocative. I just can’t wait to see where it goes.
N: Does Netflix help in that it provides a format different from most networks?
JMS: Yeah. Looking at Sense8 as an example, we could never do this on network television. The first episode is written in a way that you could never do a pilot. With pilots you have to set up all the rules and explain everything to hook people in. Whereas knowing that episodes 2, 3, and 4 are lined up right behind episode 1, we have the freedom to just jump right into the story, and not worry about establishing all the rules that you would in the pilot. Basically writing a twelve-hour movie. Which is a thing that only Netflix do. In doing an international story, it helps to have a network or a place like Netflix that gives itself a very international orientation. It’s not so much that we couldn’t do the show without Netflix, rather than we could only do this show with them.
N: Has the perception of TV audiences also changed to the point where you can now do a show like this that you couldn’t have done ten years ago?
JMS: I do think that the vocabulary of television has changed and that the audience’s expectations are higher than they were ten or fifteen years ago. If you look back… Before Babylon 5, virtually all episodic television was very episodic. You had one story that was self-contained. At the end of the episode you’d push the reset button and start all over again. Now that has become the rarity, the exception. We want more complexity in our storytelling, and the audience demands more complexity in the storytelling. Particularly because DVDs and Netflix has allowed people to go sit down and watch a whole season of a show. So the fact that the audience wants that has prepared the battleground for what people like us are doing on television now.
N: One last question… What can you tell us about the current status of Babylon 5? Will we see more?
JMS: I still maintain the film rights to Babylon 5, although Warners owns the television rights. I would love to do a feature film in the Babylon 5 universe and kind of reboot that for a larger audience, with a proper budget that we never had on the series. So I’m hoping this year to write a B5 screenplay, and then get it financed at a proper level and then do it in 2016 and reboot the franchise. It couldn’t be a continuation because we’ve lost several actors and not enough folks saw the original. It would be a reboot.
N: Thank you for your time, sir.
JMS: Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate it.
Sense8 is now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.