J. Michael Straczynski looks back on a career in television and film and explores new creative boundaries in Netflix’s Sense8
In a recent study, Netflix’s Sense8 ranked among the most binged-watched shows on the streaming service. We’re absolutely sure that has little to do with the graphic nudity and sexual content. Wink. Wink. Seriously, though, created by Lana and Lilly Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski, the show tells the story of eight strangers from different countries who find themselves connected through their thoughts and actions.
I caught up with J. Michael Straczynski to talk about the challenges of working with eight different characters from around the globe and to discover which of his shows from his body of work would he like to see rebooted.
AwardsDaily TV: Are you having fun with Sense8, now in its second season?
J. Michael Straczynski: During season one, the three of us (Lana, Lily and I) were all very much hands-on during writing, prep, production and post. In order to focus on her transition, Lily opted out of season two before the writing period began. There were erroneous stories about Lily leaving during production. This is flatly untrue. She would never leave something mid-stream. We all wanted to give her space for her to get this new phase of her life in gear, so she’s been clear of season two from the beginning. In season one, I brought in the television background to help get that season off the ground, and, once Lana had her TV land-legs, she felt that she should run season two as the filmmaker. So my direct involvement on season two was primarily during the writing stage. It’s now all down to Lana.
ADTV: Let’s go back. How did Sense8 all begin?
JMS: I’ve known the Wachowskis for many years. We met when they invited me to a cast and crew screening of the last Matrix film where I discovered they were fans of my work on Babylon 5 and in the comics world and even read my monthly column on scriptwriting for Writers Digest Magazine for inspiration and pointers when they were still trying to break in as writers. A few years back, when they needed someone to rewrite the entire script for Ninja Assassin in 52 hours in order to hit camera on schedule, I was able to do that for them, and we always wanted to work on something else. Finally, Lana invited me to the house she shares with her wife Karin in San Francisco to try and figure out something to do in the TV space.
We share a belief in the idea that as a species we are better together than we are apart. That we are strengthened, not diminished, by a multitude of voices. At a time when politics are pulling us apart, we wanted to tell a story about people coming together. We also liked the idea of connectivity and how this works in evolution. The glue that allows civilization to exist is empathy: first for one’s family, then one’s tribe, then one’s community, nation and outward from there. So what would it look like, we wondered, if suddenly you had a mental community of seven other people who knew everything about you, your secrets, your dreams, your skills. How would people react? Would the cultural differences still divide them, or would they learn that despite those differences we are still more alike than we are different? And it went off from there.
ADTV: One thing I love about the show is the diversity of characters. How did you decide that this was going to be done on a global scale?
JMS: To properly explore the idea of people from different cultures suddenly being in telepathic or empathic contact with each other, we knew we had to cast a very wide net. We wanted this to be the first story truly told and produced on a global scale. It wouldn’t be just a Western story set against a foreign background, those countries would be as much characters in our story as the eight protagonists themselves. If all the sensates came from the same neighborhood or country, the differences wouldn’t be as profound and there’d be less to overcome once they made contact. One of the things we did in order to play this out properly was to go against the standard TV production model where you do as much as you can on the stage, then pop out for locations (or fake it). We shot the entire show on location in San Francisco, Chicago, Mexico City, London, Iceland, Berlin, Nairobi, Seoul and Mumbai. This gives you a real sense of scale that just can’t be faked.
ADTV: What challenges did that pose for you?
JMS: The challenges of shooting like this were huge. We started shooting in June, and shot all the way through to the end of the year. Because our sensates can see each other as though they’re in the same room despite being in different countries, we would shoot a scene — say, Nomi talking to Wolfgang — in San Francisco, where she lived, then shoot the exact same conversation, same blocking, six months later in Berlin, then intercut the two in order to create the sense of simultaneity. So all of our scripts had to be written before we shot the first frame of film, and once a conversation was filmed in one place, we couldn’t change it later for the other side. We also had to factor in time zones. If Will in Chicago needed access to Sun in Korea, she might well be asleep. So not only did we have cards on boards with every beat, we had clocks for every time zone overhead so we could be sure we always knew where every character was when something was going on. It was very much a game of pieces. Logistically, it was a nightmare, but the result speaks for itself.
ADTV: How about the languages? How did you approach that idea?
JMS: We wanted to have all of our characters speaking their own languages among their own people, which we “hear” as English only when they’re among their own, the way everyone is speaking German in a World War II movie but we hear it as English. When the sensates first make contact with each other, those different languages move to the forefront and we now hear one speaking Spanish and the other speaking Korean and nobody understand the other person. But as the sensates get to know each other, the communication becomes easier, and now they can begin to understand each other’s language.
ADTV: How did season two differ from season one for you?
JMS: Now that the writing is done, season two is really Lana’s show as she takes the bit in her teeth and runs with it. I keep an eye on production long-distance, checking dailies and the like, but primarily I’m now working on other projects, developing several new series for CBS Studios, ITV and others, as well as working on two new feature film assignments.
ADTV:Do any characters speak to you more than others?
JMS: I think to a degree all of the sensates represent parts of the three of us. Certainly there’s a lot of my own family background in Wolfgang’s personal history.
ADTV: Let’s talk about your career, you’ve worked on so many of my favorite shows that I watched growing up as a kid: He-Man, She-Ra, Jake and the Fatman. Is there a difference between working on animation and on a weekly show like Murder She Wrote to Sense8 which launches its entire season?
JMS: The best thing about the launch of a full season at once is that it lets you really invest in and trust the intelligence of the audience in ways that wouldn’t work as well on a standard network show. The first few episodes of Sense8 season one are deliberately confusing because we made a tactical decision to shoot the show from a subjective perspective, meaning we never cut away from the perspective of our eight sensates. Normally you can cut away to other characters to show, say, what the bad guys are doing and why they’re doing it. Once we committed to staying in that POV we couldn’t cut away, so as a result the audience only knows what the eight main characters know, and they have absolutely no idea what the hell’s going on and why it’s happening to them. Gradually, as the characters begin to figure things out, so does the audience. But that means the first episode or two don’t appear to make any kind of goddamned sense.
On a network show, where viewers might have to wait a week, I’m not sure they’d have the patience to come back. But in a streaming situation, the impulse is more like “Okay, let’s see where this goes” and they keep watching as the show begins to make sense. Interestingly enough, according to some of the marketing folks at Netflix, the usual pattern for viewers is to watch a season through, then go back and rewatch one or two episodes they liked in particular, then they’re done. In the case of Sense8, they’re seeing a majority of viewers rewatching the entire show two, three, or four times. In some cases people have rewatched the show as many as six times. I think it comes down to the sense of optimism the show brings, and the idea of community. We’ve definitely struck a nerve in there somewhere.
ADTV: Hollywood loves reboots. Would you like He-Man to get a reboot? Or even Babylon 5?
JMS: He-Man I don’t own, so I can’t comment. I would love to reboot Babylon 5 as a series, but Warner Bros. has made it clear that they don’t want to do anything with the show since it didn’t come about through the WB Television division (it was developed by WB Domestic Distribution during the PTEN network stage), so as far as they’re concerned it simply doesn’t exist. I do retain the film rights, however, and I plan to try and get a Babylon 5 feature in the works soon.
ADTV: How did Netflix get involved in Sense8?
JMS: The three of us wrote the first three episodes of Sense8 on spec, and made an abortive effort a few years earlier to take it around to the town. Nobody could wrap their heads around the concept and we pulled it back. After the TV landscape became more friendly to this kind of concept, more experimental in places, we decided that this was the right time to take the show back out again. We had arranged to pitch the show around town over the course of a week, after everyone had a chance to read the scripts. Our first stop was Netflix. We met with them around 11 a.m., told them about what we wanted to do with the show, went to lunch…and at 1 p.m. they called to take it off the market with a pre-emptive bid for a full first season. Scared the hell out of us.
ADTV: When did you get into writing?
JMS: I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer. I started writing and selling when I was seventeen, first as a reporter for everything from the San Diego Reader to the Los Angeles Times to TIME Inc., then flipped to animation, then to live action TV, then to movies. I’ve always just had this voice in my head telling stories. It’s not like I have a choice, the voice is always there, whispering at me. What’s been gratifying and humbling is that not only is the work still happening, this has been the busiest year of my career. I’m getting to tell some cool stories, work with amazing people…I get up every day and do what I love for a living. How amazing is that?
All seasons of Sense8 are now streaming on Netflix.