In Sense8, Netflix’s new series from Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix, Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas), eight people from all over the world discover that they have a shared consciousness. Starring Daryl Hannah (Kill Bill) and Naveen Andrews (Lost) — along with an international cast that includes Brian J. Smith, Tuppence Middleton, Aml Ameen, Bae Doona, Miguel Ángel Silvestre, Tina Desai, Max Riemelt, and Jamie Clayton — Sense8 raises a lifetime of questions about gender, politics, sexuality, brutality, and what it means to be human.
Rotten Tomatoes recently attended a roundtable with Sense8 co-creator J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) to discuss the process of working with “The Ws,” how they achieved filming a story all over the world, and how it fits (or doesn’t fit) into the canon of science fiction.
Straczynski: We didn’t want to do just an action story. If you look at how governments maintain control, it’s by pitting us against each other. In this country particularly, we have been marginalized and factionalized and tribalized within an inch of our lives… We wanted to do a story that said that we are better together than we are apart. That we, as a species — if we’re going to get to the future — have to start working together. There’s a lot in the show to deal with — gender and sexuality and politics — that, particularly in the latter half of the season, is going to be pretty controversial. We felt, “Here’s our chance to make a statement; let’s take it.”
Straczynski: Science fiction TV has tended to be written by and for people who are afraid of girls. When you have to deal with questions of gender or sexuality, it’s always the alien culture — “They have this strange thing that they do with each other.” We’re addressing issues of gender, of sexuality, and identity really head on in this show in ways that have never been done before in science fiction television… [Sense8] will be controversial given our issues right now with violence against minorities, sexuality. How one deals with transgenderism, and how one deals with sexual issues. Gay closeted characters. Things that are very relevant with what’s going on right now. There are those who will find some things that we are doing very controversial in that respect.
Straczynski: It was me and Lana for a good portion of it. The cool thing about the Ws is that they have these 12-story brains. They keep you on your toes. After a while, we kind develop our own twin-speak along the way, so that we are very much on the same frequency for most of the writing process. The way we actually handle the physicality of it was that they wrote [episodes] one, two and three. I wrote four, five and six. They wrote seven and eight. I wrote nine and ten. Then I rewrote their scripts. They rewrote mine. Out of all that came a synthesis. The hard part was the six months before that, of sitting there in Chicago and San Francisco and London and elsewhere, working out the story because once the writing process starts, we have to figure out where we’re going to go. We spent just months hammering out every single small detail; particularly the time zone differences we had to deal with… We had clocks set up to see where everyone was. It was a major pain in the ass.
Straczynski: Every episode gets more intense than the one before it. Our structure for this was episode one is, “What the hell just happened?” Episode two is, “I kinda see where you’re going with this.” Three is, “I think I got it.” The further you go into it, the more everything is explained, and it all makes sense. We figure the characters aren’t going to know what’s going on, so let’s put the audience in their position. Which is why we shot the show in subjective camera, meaning that we never cut outside of our characters’ point’s of view. When we were in San Francisco, for instance, we only see Nomi’s point of view; we don’t cut away from her. In Chicago, the same thing. Every single scene, we don’t want to go outside; we want to stay with their point of view. Let them figure out without cutting someone else away — let’s find out what’s going on.
Straczynski: It’s a process. Michelangelo said that the way you sculpt a horse is you cut off a large block of marble and you chip away whatever isn’t the horse. We start off with a block of marble, which are all the ideas of where it could go, and I’m a structure nut. I think things have to go, if you have something over here, it has to make sense down the road. My part was keeping everything honed and on point. You want someone who has a wide palate of colors to choose from, so you can then, down the road, hone that in on what you want to do. Everything in this show has to make sense. It has to add up somehow. In the end, it does; which is great… We are all our world-builders and you have to ask every single logical question to create a mythology, the history of it. Our feeling was that we actually all started off as sensates originally and that [not being a sensate] is like a mutation.
Straczynski: I enjoy this model. The kind of consistency and vision and voice makes the show feel very, very coherent. Obviously there are benefits and drawbacks to both sides. When you’re doing an episodic series, you can have an episode that sounds or feels different than the other ones, and there are times when that’s good, and times when it’s not so good. In this case, from first frame to last frame, the show feels seamless because of that continuity. It feels like a 12-hour movie, with the first four being Act One, the next four Act Two, the next four Act Three. I really haven’t experienced that before.
Straczynski: I think it does. The three of us wanted to explore those cultures and we could have done it small, all U.S., but we wanted to make each culture a character in the story. The Indian culture is not just something that is a backdrop; it’s part of our story. Nairobi, the culture and the background isn’t just separate; it’s part of our story. If you’re going to do a planetary story, don’t just do a western story against different backdrops. We could have done it easier, but you don’t get points for doing what’s easy.
Straczynski: It’s mainly for the contrast. We wanted to show First World, Second World, Third World, and to show the contrast culturally and personally so that we’re looking at going from the slums of Liberia and slums in Nairobi to really expensive houses in San Francisco or Chicago — and to show the contrast of that. We played with different options. At one point we were going to use Iraq. We felt that’s too loaded contextually right now for us to deal with. Really it was just picking a place on the planet that had the most contrast.
Straczynski: They’re speaking their languages wherever they happen to be, we’re just hearing it as English. But we then expose that conceit. For instance, the first time Sun (Bae Doona) and Capheus (Aml Ameen) meet in person, he’s speaking his language and she’s speaking hers, and they don’t quite understand, then suddenly they begin to understand each other. We don’t see that they’re all speaking English. They’re speaking their own language. When we’re among them, we hear it as English, but it is in reality their own language. We do play with the fact that they are speaking different languages…. There’s a scene where Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) and Kala (Tina Desai) meet for the first time, not in person obviously, but he’s in the restroom and she’s in her room, and he’s doing his business and he burps and she, in Indian, starts speaking to him, and he responds in German. It had subtitles.
Straczynski: When Sun helps Capheus in a fight scene, we had to figure out how do you choreograph it that so that a fight shot months apart, in two different locations, feels like one fight. She starts a punch in Seoul and delivers it in Nairobi. How do you choreograph that and make it not seem like two separate things? We had a lot of research and design into how we were going to pull that off. It’s more subtle than like bullet time [in The Matrix].
Straczynski: That’s one of our devices those first couple of episodes where we want to show how the sensates began to come in touch with each other. There were various ways of doing that. One is sensory input, so one hears music somewhere else, and then all of a sudden, we cut to Riley (Tuppence Middleton) in London and she hears who’s playing that music. There’s taste, there’s sound, there’s smell, there’s sexuality. DMT activates parts of her brain that allow her to be more in contact with Will (Brian J. Smith), for a moment and occupy his body. It’s not a feature that goes through the whole show. It’s early on. It helps to jump-start her to make that contact with Will.
Straczynski: In terms of science fiction influences, we didn’t [lean on any]. We really lean more toward popular culture, ethnic culture, sexuality. Once we had the basic premise developed of people with shared consciousness, from then on, all our research was into the cultures, into the genders who wanted to feel good, more the personal stuff. The actual premise, even though it looks confusing the first couple of episodes, once you actually get into it, is very straightforward. You and I are sharing a mind. Who the hell are you? What are you doing in here? And now, what do you know about me that’s unnerving? I have this theory that there are five kinds of truth. The truth we tell the casual strangers and people you know. The truth you tell to your friends and your family. The truth you tell to only a few people in your life. The truth you tell yourself. The truth you won’t even admit to yourself. We wanted to do a show about truth number five. That is less about researching the scientific literature, which we know anyway, as asking ourselves nervous questions.
Straczynski: I’ll use a parallel. There was time when cop shows were not considered to be a franchise. They were considered of interest to those who liked police procedurals. So there wasn’t a large audience for it. Two shows changed that. The first was Dragnet, believe it or not, which for the first time showed cops getting married, cops having lunch with each other, going out on dates. They made them look human. The show that finished that transition was Hill Street Blues. They were constant drug problems and divorce, affairs. Suddenly they became real people. When that happened, cop shows became much more of a franchise and much more relatable to the average person. Science fiction has been kind of in the same situation. It’s been of interest to those who are science fiction fans. It’s considered niche programming. Shows like Star Trek and Babylon 5 and others were like Dragnet; they opened it up a little bit. But, it hasn’t had its Hill Street Blues moment yet.