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‘Sense8’ Co-Creator J. Michael Straczynski on How Netflix’s Show Changed Him, and Could Change Television

'Sense8' Co-Creator J. Michael Straczynski on How Netflix's Show Changed Him, and Could Change Television

When Indiewire spoke with J. Michael Straczynski, we’d only seen three episodes of the brain-bending sci-fi thriller he’d co-created with Andy and Lana Wachowski for Netflix — not nearly enough to truly understand “Sense8,” but enough to be able to ask informed questions that lead to no shortage of interesting revelations. Such as: How it wasn’t Lana’s idea for the transgender character of Nomi to be transgender, what Straczynski had learned from working with James Cameron, why the show has a five-year plan and how “Sense8” could be a game-changer for science fiction on television.

READ MORE: Watch: Netflix and The Wachowskis’ ‘Sense8’ Reveals 8 New Trailers, Teases Characters and Tells Nothing

So I’ve gotten a little bit of backstory as to when the show came together, but I’m curious about when it first became a thing you wanted to do.

I’ve known Lana and Andy for a number of years, and they actually were fans of “Babylon 5” and my comics work. They invited me to the last “Matrix” premiere, so that’s how I met them for the first time. We worked on “Ninja Assassin” together, then they said, “We want to do television. Why don’t you come up to the house for the weekend and we’ll figure something out?”

So I went up to Lana and Karin’s [Lana’s partner] house for the weekend and we were big on […] notions of connectivity and the fact that we wanted to do this on a global scale. There’s something to be said for the notion that we are stronger together than we are pulled apart. We were heated up early on about the idea of making this real, to the point where after we did the basic structure on it, Lana and I and Andy, spec’d out the first three hours — which no one ever does. Maybe the first episode, but not three. We just couldn’t stop writing.

At that point, we were committed to it. If we were going to write this much, we wanted to make this thing happen. So we went to pitch around town, and our first meeting of the week was with Netflix at 11:00am. 

It was the weirdest pitch. Usually you’re pitching the action stuff or things that are very commercial. We’re talking about gender and identity and secrecy and privacy, and figured, “We probably blew this.” So we went to lunch, and after lunch Netflix called and said, “We’re buying this. We’re taking it off the market. We’re straight-to-series, go. Prep.”

Now you gotta do it.

Now we gotta do it.

But it sounds like you already had a pretty clear sense of what direction the show was going to go from the beginning.


So when you spec’d out those first three hours, how different are they from the three episodes I watched?

Quite a bit. As we began moving forward, we thought that we really needed to do our research. We wanted to make each place in the show its own character, so it’s not just set against the Indian backdrop; it’s about Indian culture and language and history and religion and so on. So during the writing process we’d been going to all of these different places and immersing ourselves in those cultures. That changed the shape of the show over time into something, I think, more colorful. 

As a parenthetical, I’m just curious what you thought of the first three episodes.

I really liked them. What I found myself really responding to was that each story is very much its own little human story. As a viewer, I have very little idea of how this all adds up. But even on an individual basis, taking the stories one at a time, I don’t even know how each might work with the other storylines. But I was compelled by the character and the scenario.

That’s perfect.

I imagine that was a clear intent you had going in.

Oh yeah. We felt that each character should deserve their own series, and each story should be compelling enough to stand on its own. Then we take that, and all of a sudden you have eight characters tracking with each other and gradually interacting with those different stories. It has a cumulative effect, where all of those stories all become more interesting as they go along. 

I worked briefly with Jim Cameron to do a new draft of “Forbidden Planet” for Warner Bros. It’s still sitting on a shelf there. And Jim said a pretty interesting, cool thing. He said, “I used to think that science fiction was about familiar characters, not familiar settings. It took me 10 years to realize I was wrong. It’s familiar relationships, not familiar settings.” 

So “Terminator 2” was a father and son, even though it’s not. “Aliens” was a mother and daughter, even though it’s not. You may not be able to relate to interstellar battles or get into each other’s minds, but a relationship — Nomi and her lover or Capheus and his mom — will draw you in, whereas you may not necessarily get what the whole “Sense8” thing is. We wanted those individual stories to be really strong and compelling.

In terms of the research and development, which of the storylines required the most?

Probably India. We spent a lot of time there and really had to delve into the culture more to learn more about it. The cool thing was that before we began shooting, we had a meeting with the Indian production coordinator who said, “We are so excited that you are coming to do this show because there’s two kinds of things that shoot in India: our own movies, which are about our own culture but don’t have much market outside the country, and Western movies where it’s a Western story against an Indian backdrop. Here, India is the story, from the wedding practices to the dietary things to the religion. So you got it right.” That says we’ve done our homework properly, and it took a fair amount of time.

By living in the culture and talking to people?

Yeah, and learning the smallest things that were delightful. One of the things that comes up over the course of the show: wedding planners. When they do a wedding in India, the baseline is six hours for the ceremony. If you value the priest more, you pay him double and it’s three hours. You pay him double again, it’s an hour-and-a-half. That’s an investor! [laughs] It’s the most wonderful thing we’d ever heard, and that went into the show. Just sitting with them and having the time and just absorbing it all.

I know this is such a collaboration between you and the Wachowskis, but for you personally, are there specific characters that you really connect with?

It’s funny. We, all three of us, have different characters that we connect with a lot. Nomi [Jamie Clayton] and Lana, obviously, have a strong connection because they’re both transgendered. For me, it’s Wolfgang, especially with his father and what he’s going through. So there are certain characters that we relate to more than others. 

The funny thing is that when we were working out who the characters were going to be, we had pretty much all of them locked except Nomi. I was saying, “This is a character who’s a hacker, who is a bridge between different kinds of worlds. It would be kind of cool if she was transgendered.” And Lana shot up out of her chair, dancing around, going, “It wasn’t me this time! It was him! It was his idea!”

That’s amazing because I’m sure every single person assumes that’s not the case.

I think she was deliberately holding that back. But Nomi became her constant true north in the storytelling, the way that for me, Wolfgang was my true north in the storytelling.

Can you say who Andy’s was?

Andy probably should say that.

Totally fair. In talking with the other cast, they feel really intensely about this series… I don’t want to say they talk about the making of the show like it was a religious experience, but it seems like it was really transformative.

It was.

Was that consciously something you guys set out to do for the cast?

It just happened. It wasn’t something that we could have anticipated. It came from a number of things: The kinds of stories we were telling, the issues we were confronting, but also in how we shot it. It unified the cast in a very unusual sort of way. We block-shot it, so for instance, we shot all of the San Francisco scenes with Nomi first. And because we’re a subjective camera, we don’t go outside our character’s point-of-view. You’re always in someone’s point-of-view. She, therefore, was in every single scene, every single day for like three weeks. To carry the burden of all that with the other cast supporting her…

Then, like in the Olympics, she hands off the baton to Will [played by Brian J. Smith] in Chicago. Now he’s in every single scene, and now the rest of the cast has to support him. He stands for Chicago. And then we go to Tuppence [Middleton] in London, and she has to stand for England. And it caused them to say, “We need to support each other because my turn in the barrel’s coming. I’m going to need everybody else.” Bringing them to each different location — all the cast traveled to every single location because we needed to have a conversation where one character’s in City A, one character’s in City B — so you’re seeing each other as if they’re in the same room. So you need to have them in both places. We didn’t want to do green screen — we didn’t want to fake. We wanted to do it real. Even if the scene was two seconds long, they all had to go to every location, and they got to see parts of the world that they’d never seen before.

So between all of that and the intimate storytelling we were doing… I’ve worked with a lot of casts before, but I’ve never seen one bond like this one has. It was, for a lot of people — including Lana, Andy and myself — a very transformational experience. 

There’s something about stepping off the road in “Lord of the Rings” and into the wilderness, and seeing the larger world outside it. I think we all fall asleep in our own lives until something happens to wake you up. It could be something great, something terrible — marriage, death, cancer, whatever. And there’s your life before it and your life after it. For a lot of people, myself included, this was it.

It also seems like it’s not just like you guys traveled around the world together making this show. It’s also the fact that it seems like it really speaks to things that people really connected with. Is there specific stuff that you did in the writing, that you feel like is hopefully going to communicate that same message to the audience?

I hope so. My feeling has always been that the more global you want your story to work, the smaller you go. We can’t always write to the big stuff, but the small stuff, you can relate to. I think that’s the point of all this.

In terms of when it rolls out, what kind of reaction are you expecting from people? A lot of eyes are on what the Wachowskis do next, after “Jupiter Ascending.”

I don’t know what the reaction is going to be. I know it’s going to be controversial, particularly as the deeper you go in, the more controversial it gets.

In terms of subject matter?

Oh yeah, subject matter, sexuality, full-frontal nudity. It’s got a lot of moving pieces in it.

Is it going to be a Netflix show with actual penis in it? 

Yes. More than one.

It’s about time.

Close up. Trust me on this. I know folks are going to be confused by the first hour because you only know what the characters know, and they don’t know what the hell is going on with them for the first hour. It’s like, “What the hell is this all about?” So Episode 1 is “What the hell?” and Episode 2 is “Eh?” and Episode 3 is “Okay, I got it.” So there’s going to be some measure of consternation, but my hope is that what this will do ultimately is transform the science fiction genre, in the following way:

There was a time when cop shows were not considered a franchise. They were a niche programming for those who like police procedurals. Two shows changed that: First there was “Dragnet,” the first time a show showed cops who got married, had picnics on dates — they were people suddenly, and that bumped it up here. The show that finished that process was “Hill Street Blues,” which showed cops having affairs, drug problems, drinking problems.

First they had lives, and then they had complicated lives.

Correct. And science fiction has had its “Dragnet” — “Star Trek,” “Battlestar.” But it really hasn’t yet had its “Hill Street Blues” moment. I think this might be it.

One interesting thing is working with an ensemble like this: when people ask you who’s in your show, what do you say to them?

Some of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. What’s great is there’s not a weak link in the bunch. They’re all really dedicated to the shooting. A lot of the shooting was really hard. I mean, there was some seriously hard shooting going on in this thing. Not one of them flinched, not one of them backed off or asked for special treatment or anything else. They may not be necessarily known well outside their own countries, although Tina [Desai] is very well known in India and Max Riemelt in Germany. But as an ensemble, I can’t find a weak link anywhere in there.

Speaking of story, how exciting is it for you to be able to create an entire mythology from scatch?

It’s a lot of fun. Based on “Babylon 5” and a lot of other things that I’ve done, I love that part of the creative process, to create that mythology. That’s just a hoot.

How long would you say the story bible is? Whatever documents you have governing the story?

It’s in our heads.

Really? So if something happens to you guys, Season 2 is a problem?

We’re irreplaceable. We didn’t want to put it down in writing. We wanted to have it in our heads. 

In your head, is there a Season 2?

Before we started this, we knew we wanted to do a prolonged story. I love five-year arcs, so we have a five-year arc worked out for this thing. We know what all of the seasons are going to be. Obviously, Netflix hasn’t said yes or no yet to a second season, but we have 30 pages of notes on the second season and where the structure would be. So we know where the story’s going to go, down the road. 

“Sense8” is now streaming on Netflix. 

READ MORE: Review: Why ‘Sense8’ Season 1 Is Netflix’s Most Baffling Series Yet

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