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J. Michael Straczynski says viewers have evolved to be ready for 'Sense8'

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J. Michael Straczynski says viewers have evolved to be ready for 'Sense8'
'Babylon 5' vet created Netflix's new series with The Wachowskis
With its still-mostly-unique binge-centric approach to programming, Netflix is the sort of creative incubator that inspires writers to say that the story they\'re telling could only have been told at Netflix.
It is, however, probably true when it comes to "Sense8," an almost description-proof sci-fi drama from "Babylon 5" creator J. Michael Straczynski and "Matrix" masterminds The Wachowskis.
"You literally drop the audience into the middle of the story and because again we’re staying with subjective point of view, the audience only knows as much as the characters know," Straczynski tells me. "As the characters figure out over the course of the next X number of episodes what’s going on, like a mystery structure, the audience also figures it out. And we knew that that would be really, really difficult to pull off on a regular network."
Nearly every piece of that quote may be an understatement. With a cast of variably familiar international actors shooting in London, Mumbai, Mexico City, Berlin, Nairobi, San Francisco and Reykjavik, "Sense8" does indeed drop both the characters and viewers into intriguing an scenario that involves consciousness-sharing (and much more) and says, "OK. Stick with this until you figure it out."
Straczynski is confident that viewers will, indeed, be able to take this journey, which begins on Netflix at 12:01 a.m. PT on Friday, June 5.
"I think that we are looking at evolution that allows for more complex storytelling, more depth of characterization and more complexity than we’ve had in the past," he says.
In our conversation, we talked about some of the surprising and not-so-surprising challenges of the show\'s global scale -- Time-zones, for example, are a pain -- and just a few pieces of what sounds like a mighty complicated production. 
Straczynski also discusses his conviction that audiences are amenable to this kind of hard sci-fi and hints at the five-season plan he already has in mind.
Hopefully this interview and our podcast and review coverage of "Sense8" are at least conveying its ambition...
HitFix:    On a sort of nuts-and-bolts level could you talk me through the basics of the genesis here? You know who came to who? How did the conversation start? Et cetera.
J. Michael Straczynski:    Sure. The Wachowskis have been friends of mine for many years. They actually were fans of my work. I met them for the first time when they invited me to the cast and crew screening of the last "Matrix" movie I should say. They were fans of "Babylon 5" and my comics work and we became friends at that point. And we did a little bit here and there. We’d work on "Ninja Assassin" together. A few years ago Lana said she really wants to do something in the television space, "I have no idea what that is but why don’t you come up to the weekend to the house and we’ll figure it out. So I went up there for the weekend. We were talking about the things that matter to us and, you know, what sort of struck us – the strongest ones -- we all are big believers in the notion that as a species we are better together than we are apart, that the common core of our shared humanity is stronger than that which seeks to marginalize us and factualize us and turn us against each other. And how we take that concept that we are one whole species rather than being divided along ethnic, national, gender lines and dramatize that. And what this led to was batting back and forth the notion of eight characters around the world who suddenly are in each other’s heads and have access to your information, your secrets, all the things you don’t want people to know about, your skills, your memories. And how would you react to that? You know would you react to that with fear? Would you embrace it, would you be going out of your mind. And you’ll see that person as if they’re in the same room with you. And some of our characters who have a life of hiding certain things and have those secrets are revealed, it would be terrifying. We all believe that our secrets are, to a certain degree, what define us. There’s that which we acknowledge we are and that which we know we are secretly, but you can never admit. So that’s kind of the genesis of the story. We also did want to do a story that was truly written and produced and directed on a planetary scale. Usually in television you fake it, you’ll shoot a few establishing shots here and there and different locations or do a second unit. We wanted to bring the entire cast to every location. There’s no stage work in this thing. It’s all location. And to do both the story on a planetary scale and the production on a planetary scale like no one’s ever even tried to do before. We knew it was impossible, so we figured, "What the hell? Let\'s do it?" 
HitFix:    When you sort of knew you wanted to have as you say the planetary scale, what was your approach to the globalism and the specific locations? What steered what in terms of where you wanted to put these stories?
J. Michael Straczynski:    We were looking for the places that would kind of contrast visually with each other and that would give us the widest range of different kinds of people. We knew one of the characters was transgender so we thought San Francisco made sense for that. Chicago – they’re from Chicago – that also kind of lined up. As we went out we thought, "Okay, we want to do some Third World countries." We wanted to see some contrast there so we thought, you know, Nairobi. We cut from an exterior of a Nairobi slum to a pretty house in San Francisco, but they’re both dealing with the same problems, suddenly it illuminates the fact that it doesn’t matter if you’re from another country that looks very different from our own, we all want the same things for ourselves. You know we wanted a character, we debated Korea, China, Japan what do we want to do? We worked with Doona Bae before on a couple of projects and she’s Korean. We thought that would be a perfect choice to set it there. Ultimately it came down to looking at the most contrast, the most counterpoint and that led us eventually to pick out the places we picked.
HitFix:    And what impact did that have on casting? Did that make for major casting headaches or not?
J. Michael Straczynski:    It took a long time to cast the show because we didn’t want to just cast Americans to go out and play those roles. We cast out of every single country that we shot in. We had extensive casting calls in Nairobi and Iceland, in London, in India. And what’s kind of fun is that once we did our cast, Max [Riemelt] is from Berlin, he\'s one of the better known actors there. Tina [Desai] is from Mumbai and Doona is from Korea. As we shot the show, it kind of became like the Olympics in the following sense. We shot out each location one at a time. Because the show as done in subjective point of view -- not point of view camera but point of view thematically -- we never leave the point of view of our characters. Consequently when they’re in San Francisco to start off with, Jamie Clayton is in every single shot in every single scene. And we shot her nonstop for like two or three weeks. Then we’d button up San Francisco and go to Chicago. And Brian [J. Smith] is in every single shot every single day and everyone has to be supportive of him. Then we’d go to London and now its Tuppence\'s [Middleton] turn. And after a while it becomes like the Olympics where you hand off the baton to the next one. And there\'s a level of competition of saying, "I represent my country and by gosh I’m going to do a great job," but also knowing that we have to support each other because that person\'s turn in the barrel is next. And that nationalism really brought a flavor to the production and to the cast dynamics that I’ve never seen before.
HitFix:    Well okay correct me if I’m wrong. This sounds like it has the potential for so many production nightmares and narrative nightmares as you’re trying to actually put this together either on the fly or after the fact. I mean was it as much of a nightmare as it sounds like it could have been?
J. Michael Straczynski:    Certainly any time you do something that is truly unique and hasn’t been done before you’ve got the potential for huge headaches simply because the story\'s not just happening simultaneously. And you have to know if Character A is over here doing this and they look at Character B, where is that character? What was that person’s story. Usually you have characters in a room talking and they’re both in that room at that time. But, you know we can have Sun out in a park somewhere and Nomi in her apartment. So if Sun\'s in a park, what\'s she doing there? Nomi\'s at home, what’s she doing there? And in the middle of this whole massive logistical process I looked at the boards when we were in Chicago laying out all the story, we had the characters going vertically and events going horizontally on these huge boards we brought in. And we’re like, "Oh crap." Then I looked up and went, "Time zones." We also had to compensate for time zones. So Nomi in San Francisco could be in a bad position and need help from Capheus, but it’s two in the morning in Nairobi. He’s asleep! So we then had to lay out all the time zones and all the characters were at different times of day and night. So again what\'s cool is that then you will see Sun in daytime having a conversation with Capheus and it’s nighttime. It\'s the same conversation but you’re cutting back from day to night rather than at the same time. So it became this spreadsheet of complications. But that was part of the fun of it. It wasn’t a nightmare, it was the fun of it because you don’t get points for doing what’s easy. 
HitFix:    Was the idea of doing this all in native languages, was that just a bridge too far? Was that a difficulty you guys couldn’t get past?
J. Michael Straczynski:    What you don’t see in the first three, which we do see coming later on, we didn’t want them to all speak English all the time. But we took sort of the approach you see in like World War II movies where you got between let’s say the Americans and the Germans and the Germans speaking German, but we hear it as English. And we extended that, but we then acknowledge it, so for instance we cut in the first three episodes to Capheus, he’s speaking Swahili, but he hears it as English, but he speaks Swahili, same way with Kala in India. And the first time they meet each other, they’re speaking their actual language. So for instance the scene where Capheus meets Sun for the first time, he’s speaking to her in Swahili and we subtitle it in English. And she’s speaking to him in Korean and we subtitle it in English. And what made sense, you know, "Do you speak Swahili?" "No, do you speak Korean?" He says, "No." "Well how are we understanding each other?" So over the course of the show we do it now as if they are speaking their own language, it’s not English.
HitFix:    Okay. That is a good answer and I would not have known that based on the three episodes I saw so thank you for clarifying that. When did Netflix become part of the conversation and did it immediately seem like the obvious match for this idea and the binge-friendly version of Netflix’s distribution.
J. Michael Straczynski:    What happened was the three of us wrote the first three scripts and made a bunch of appointments in town. Our ideal would have been Netflix because what we did with the writing of this was the structure was such that we wouldn’t do a traditional pilot where you explain all the rules and everything else. You literally drop the audience into the middle of the story and because again we’re staying with subjective point of view, the audience only knows as much as the characters know. As the characters figure out over the course of the next X number of episodes what’s going on, like a mystery structure, the audience also figures it out. And we knew that that would be really, really difficult to pull off on a regular network. They would come back at us with notes and say, "Give us all the rules, establish the mythology" and particularly in the science fiction genre, because what you tend to see a lot is in science fiction shows, they want all that stuff explained in the first episode so everything is clear in episode one what the story is about. It’s about the gimmick, the gadget, the mission. Mainstream shows tend to be about the journey. No one ever said of "House of Cards" Episode 3, what’s the plot? Where’s this going? It’s all about the journey. We wanted to do a science fiction story that was about the journey and knew that would be easier with Netflix than anybody else. And we had our very first pitch meeting about the show with Netflix. Like 10 o’clock in the morning on a Tuesday. And they had already read the scripts and we walked them through the process where we wanted to go with it. We went to lunch and then they called after lunch to say, "We\'re taking this show off the market, we’re buying it. Full season commissioned. Go." And that was like the best case scenario for us.
HitFix:    I’m wondering if there’s an in between ground though between spelling absolutely everything out and spelling nothing out and how you guys came to the conclusion that you really did just trust that the audience was going to be willing to go with you on this journey without certain breadcrumbs or signposts?
J. Michael Straczynski:    The breadcrumbs are there, particularly the more you look. Like any good mystery, you put all your clues in plain sight. The audience doesn\'t know that they’re a clue, but they’re there. And in the first three episodes, there’s a lot of information about how this works that gradually will begin to decode over the course of the show. As you watch more it’s, "Oh crap, now I understand what that meant." It’s all there. And our intention was if we stay just from our characters point of view there’s no one to explain to them what’s going on except for Jonas. And if we cheat that, we can cut to somebody else outside, but if we lose a point of view of being with characters figuring it out. And the question came down to what do we think the audience can handle? And I think we were thinking the audience will sit down and go through a bunch of episodes at a time in playing with the Netflix structure. We figured invariably the networks assume that the audience is not terribly bright. We believe the other way around. We think that the audience is hip enough and smart enough and trusting enough. If they know this is going somewhere and if they know, which is true, that by the end of the season, by the end of the story, everything is resolved in terms of how this all works they’ll stay with us. Bear in mind, we\'re doing a 12-hour structure, which is basically a 12-hour movie. If you walk into a mystery film at a local cinema and four hours of a 12-hour movie is the first act. If you walked in and after the first, say, 15 minutes of seeing all the setup, walked out of the theater of a mystery, you wouldn’t know what was going on. But you know that if you stay with it over the course of those two hours, eventually all those mysterious points will be cleared. Our structure is the same thing. The first act is setting up the mystery and what the hell’s going on. But the deeper you go, the more everything lines up and everything gets explained. The episodes either answer the questions that were raised in four or maybe the questions that were asked in three. It\'s a matter of just staying with it and we trust the audience’s smartness to figure that out.
HitFix:    Do you think that this represents an evolution of the audience and the audience’s understanding that maybe wouldn’t have existed 10 or 15 years ago?
J. Michael Straczynski:    I think so. You’ve seen a lengthening of both the structure and the attention span. Before, "Babylon 5," was the very first show to have a five-year arc. Before then shows always hit the reset button. You would watch a story in that episode, they would resolve it, hit the reset button and next week it starts again. Then you got used to the idea that there’s arcs that will continue and that they actually will pay off. When Damon Lindelof did "Lost," he said to me very straight-up, "We’re following some of the arc structure from \'Babylon 5\' to make this work." Now we have an audience that A) Is more prepared to look at the whole season of the story rather than just one episode. And B) that has gotten used to watching multiple episodes at a time courtesy of Netflix and DVDs and are more prepared and open to the idea of seeing a long saga. To look at the "Harry Potter" movies and the "Lord of the Rings" movies, there’s this I think openness to a story that takes a while to resolve itself. So I think that we are looking at evolution that allows for more complex storytelling, more depth of characterization and more complexity than we’ve had in the past. 
HitFix:    Is there a part of you that thinks back on the early days of arcing out "Babylon 5" and goes, "God, I wish I could do that now with a Netflix style system. This is how I would do it and it would be so much different/better"?
J. Michael Straczynski:    Oh yeah. When I did "Babylon 5," no one believed that you could launch a five-year arc. They said, "You’ll be lucky to get two seasons out of the average science fiction audience." Other than "Star Trek," no American space-based science fiction show ever got more than three seasons in 25 years. So the odds were against us us. And to make Warners understand, "No, we’re doing a long-term sort of pay off. It\'s structured with a clear beginning, middle and end." They didn\'t understand what the hell that meant, so every day was a hike. Now, you know, if we did "Babylon 5" today with Netflix it would be much easier going in and we could go to a level of complexity that we only dreamed about in the original version.
HitFix:    One of my colleagues reminded me that at one point you intended to have one of the aliens in "Babylon" 5 exhibit gender fluidity. And I was wondering if you view the trans arc as an extension of that, finally getting to play out that arc in a different form here?
J. Michael Straczynski:    No, that was done early in the show, we just couldn’t make the technology work with different storylines. It was a different story line, but I’ve always been interested in playing with the rules. Here’s the problem with science fiction: It’s always been something about putting emotion at arm’s length. If you’re dealing with gender or prejudice or social issues, what tends to happen is it\'s about the alien culture. "Yes, they have their strange ways, they have four different genders." And that keeps it safe because a lot of science fiction tends to lack, television at least, lacks the maturity you have of a show like "True Detective" or "Boardwalk Empire." And I’ve always been pushing hard to sort of move that forward. 
What’s interesting is that if you look back at the history of television, cop shows were not always a mainstream franchise genre. For a long time they were of interest only to those who liked police procedurals. They were considered niche programming. They didn’t do a whole lot. Two shows changed that. The first one was "Dragnet," believe it or not which for the first time showed cops who got married, went on dates, had dinner together, barbecues and humanized them. The show that transformed once and for all cop shows into a franchise, a mainstream-accepted genre, was "Hill Street Blues."That was the first time they showed cops who had problems with drugs and alcohol, having affairs, marital problems, all these things. And science fiction has had its "Dragnet" moments with the first "Star Trek" movie. We had that with "Babylon 5" and "Battlestar." But it really has not had its "Hill Street Blues" moment yet. So we’re trying to sort of bring it to that point and say that we can do a show about the journey that addresses serious social, personal, sexual identity issues in a science fiction construct and then makes that into an honest-to-God, no-kidding-around mainstream franchise.
HitFix:    Well where do you see the overlap in mainstream audience and genuinely hardcore sci-fi? Is it a big overlap in 2015 or is it still kind of niche-y I guess?
J. Michael Straczynski:    I think that they’re each sort of out there standing at either end of the room sizing each other up. The mainstream audience tends to look for complexity of storytelling and deep, rich characterizations and challenging ideas. And the science fiction crowd is more about, "What’s the technological idea? What’s the mission?" It’s very structured. And finding a middle where those two can intersect is tough, but the fact that the superheroes have done as well as they have, that most of the top-grossing motion pictures of all-time had been science fiction films. You wonder, "Why hasn’t that transferred to television?" I mean "Avatar," look at the money that that made, the "Star Trek" movies, "Star Wars" movies, "Indiana Jones" movies. These are films that really brought in a huge audience. But it just never translated to television before. So let’s now try to make that work.
HitFix:    Did you and the Wachowskis talk at all about the fact that even their audience already has a split in that regard? There’s a large split between the "Matrix" audience and the "Jupiter Ascending" or "Cloud Atlas" audience and how maybe those audiences don’t necessarily reconcile entirely.
J. Michael Straczynski:    We never had that conversation. I know that to a degree that the filmmaker’s obligation is to tell that story. Some people will [inaudible] and some people won’t. I mean I did "Murder, She Wrote" and I did "Babylon 5" and those are two very, very different audiences, you know. So it’s all about the story you’re trying to tell and some people will follow you and some people won’t.
HitFix:    As last question how are you guys viewing this season as fitting into a long-term strategy? Is this also a five-season plan in your mind?
J. Michael Straczynski:    Definitely. As we were develping the first season, I’m a structuring nut, I like to know where I\'m going at all times. So consequently there were things in the first season we wanted to do I would say, "Okay, we’re going to do this now. Where is that going to take us? Where is that going to go in year two? How are we going to end the show?" And we ended up looking at a rough five-year structure with year one being kind of the origin story for our characters. And we know year two. I put together a 30-page document that has all the key points we want to hit for year two. They haven’t given us the go-ahead yet but when they do, we’re ready to hit the ground running. So that’s all ready to go. And with luck we’ll do five years. One never knows. That’s certainly the plan.
Related Searches: Sense8, Netflix, Interview, J. Michael Straczynski, summer tv 2015
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A long-time member of the TCA Board and a longer-time blogger of "American Idol," Dan Fienberg writes about TV, except for when he writes about movies or sometimes writes about the Red Sox. But never music. He would sound stupid talking about music.
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