13 Questions About Netflix's New Series Sense8 Answered

Co-Creator J. Michael Straczynski Explains All

by | June 3, 2015 | Comments

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.


What Is the Overarching Philosophical Message of Sense8?


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.”


How Will Sense8 Seem Controversial?


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.


What is writing with the Wachowskis like?


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.


How Does The Story Build Over the Season?


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.


How Do You Whittle Down All the Big Ideas Into a Show Like This?


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.


What’s It Like to Have the Same Writers and Directors All Season?


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.


Do the various locations tie into the overall message of the show?


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.


Is there any significance to the different cities?


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.


Why Use English Sometimes and a Foreign Language Other Times?


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.


Did Sense8 Invent Any Filming Techniques?


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].


How Does the Show Use the Psychedelic Drug DMT?


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.


What Were the Science Fiction Influences for Sense8?


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.


What is the broader vision for what science fiction could be?


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.


Sense8 arrives to Netflix on Friday, Jun 5. See pictures and reviews here.

Tag Cloud

psychological thriller Creative Arts Emmys mockumentary tv talk GoT CW Seed series 2020 Amazon Studios 20th Century Fox Classic Film PaleyFest vampires VICE Country Peacock mutant technology Polls and Games slashers spain Brie Larson Black Mirror TruTV TV renewals Hallmark Christmas movies ghosts justice league Kids & Family stand-up comedy FXX supernatural Song of Ice and Fire Academy Awards Comedy Rom-Com The Walking Dead 2017 VH1 Valentine's Day IFC Films Apple 2015 Winter TV based on movie revenge movies award winner crime thriller TBS Avengers historical drama Acorn TV Superheroe political drama Infographic game show Christmas Adult Swim Masterpiece reboot quibi Turner American Society of Cinematographers APB canceled Family TV Land Election Music game of thrones First Reviews Disney Plus 007 ESPN AMC GIFs A&E ratings sag awards History TCA Lifetime Certified Fresh dragons Columbia Pictures miniseries Comics on TV binge YouTube Premium Crunchyroll television casting Captain marvel USA Network cars Amazon video movie Horror Anna Paquin travel independent joker The Arrangement Musical cinemax 45 SundanceTV breaking bad NYCC MCU Oscars unscripted period drama Lucasfilm Esquire Trophy Talk Paramount biography Mary poppins 24 frames zero dark thirty BBC America X-Men spanish language Mystery Fantasy Nat Geo science fiction jamie lee curtis Stephen King National Geographic BBC Mudbound politics HBO Photos Syfy Spectrum Originals Apple TV+ boxoffice festivals dc Pirates Pixar Food Network Star Trek Netflix San Diego Comic-Con Awards MTV composers Calendar Tubi YA teaser Premiere Dates Shudder DC streaming service spinoff crossover directors ITV Discovery Channel werewolf screen actors guild animated TLC Pride Month Mary Poppins Returns Drama Winners robots Comic Book RT History Spike sports what to watch HBO Max anthology adaptation Rock free movies IFC Film Logo name the review dceu Quiz comic Vudu WarnerMedia WGN Tarantino Thanksgiving TCA 2017 serial killer dramedy talk show Trivia Extras Sony Pictures anime medical drama Walt Disney Pictures Tomatazos Holidays Amazon Prime Video aliens Sneak Peek Mary Tyler Moore Marvel Studios MSNBC Box Office toy story green book Red Carpet Superheroes romantic comedy Endgame crime Podcast Binge Guide CNN renewed TV shows The Witch kids USA Musicals DC Comics The CW Paramount Network cancelled Elton John YouTube Holiday Nominations latino cancelled TV series El Rey Martial Arts E3 docudrama LGBTQ TCM Action Hulu Character Guide richard e. Grant disaster Super Bowl GLAAD Mindy Kaling Writers Guild of America cancelled TV shows CMT Watching Series Freeform PBS 21st Century Fox Netflix Christmas movies First Look CBS Fox News crime drama Disney streaming service Video Games Pet Sematary Hallmark Epix true crime Rocketman strong female leads canceled TV shows SXSW Best and Worst LGBT Emmy Nominations A24 adventure Turner Classic Movies Awards Tour Marvel cooking Teen Warner Bros. New York Comic Con natural history Universal DirecTV 71st Emmy Awards halloween hispanic spy thriller President social media cancelled television Chernobyl cats Lionsgate thriller CBS All Access Summer TV Opinion psycho Cartoon Network romance Film Festival indie The Purge space cults Ovation 2018 ABC Grammys sequel Year in Review zombies Fall TV Sci-Fi hist Dark Horse Comics BET See It Skip It ABC Family Lifetime Christmas movies YouTube Red Disney+ Disney Plus Spring TV Pop diversity elevated horror Western NBC Toys OneApp Star Wars Marathons FOX finale TNT batman Heroines OWN Schedule TCA Winter 2020 Animation Women's History Month Countdown comiccon Tumblr Rocky south america SDCC Emmys doctor who blaxploitation Sundance Reality cartoon Arrowverse Biopics children's TV E! Chilling Adventures of Sabrina theme song harry potter Amazon Prime Bravo sitcom Showtime RT21 Apple TV Plus singing competition golden globes Cosplay streaming Ellie Kemper TIFF Starz 2016 foreign DC Universe war blockbuster comics Cannes nature Britbox Marvel Television christmas movies Reality Competition Shondaland Comedy Central 2019 Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt discovery FX Disney Television Academy Trailer cops DGA facebook Disney Channel transformers Interview Baby Yoda Ghostbusters Nickelodeon book versus spider-man Crackle screenings rotten movies we love zombie documentary witnail Sundance Now Set visit Sundance TV police drama