Whether it's been on the television screen, the comics page or in feature films, J. Michael Straczynski has long been a writer known for his strong characters and bold storytelling choices, particularly in the realm of the fantastic. Now, by teaming with with the visionary Wachowski siblings and the medium-altering Netflix model, he's hoping to give science fiction TV a breakthrough moment.
With the big-picture storyline of "Sense8," the 12-episode, globe-spanning series he co-created with storied filmmakers Lana and Andy Wachowski, still shrouded in mystery, JMS recently sat down with the media to shed a little light on the origins of the series, which centers on eight strangers scattered across the planet who, through an evolutionary advance, find themselves linked mentally and emotionally.
On using the flexibility of the Netflix form to create an intrigue unlike any other series that's come before:
J. Michael Straczynski: Our feeling was that [the initial reaction to] Episode One is like, "What the fuck just happened?" It's meant to be confusing. Episode Two is, "I think I see where it's going with this." Three: "Ah, I'm starting to get it." And the deeper you go in, everything is explained and it makes sense. You don't want this to be confusing in the long term. And each episode, different questions in the viewer's minds are answered in the episodes further down the line, so by the time you get to the end, everything that you were presented at the beginning has been explained.
Which is why it works at Netflix and wouldn't work somewhere else. If we did that show on a network... We'll make them want to find out what the hell's going on and stick around for the next one. Which is why I told Cindy Holland, it's not that this show could not have been made without you, it could only be made with you with the Netflix, online structure… It was something new and different. And you want to experiment and try different things, and it was a chance for us to do that.
On structuring the complex storyline in a way suited for the Netflix format, and changing viewer consumption patterns:
The freedom to really plan it out. It's like a 12-hour movie. You realize you don't suddenly have to worry about act breaks or coming back the next week or what the rating's going to be… If this were a pilot for a first episode for our network, you'd be explaining more things. You'd be much more inclined to a slower structure to things. We can hit the gas in episode one and never slow down and make each episode more intense than the one before. And that's a rare opportunity.
I do these graphic novels for DC, Earth One, "Superman: Earth One," and they're like eight books put together in one. And you realize when you have the freedom to write straight through a graphic novel without breaking it up for individual issues, where you put in false jeopardy to make the act break, it's a much more coherent story. So for us, it was a chance to make a very coherent 12-hour story.
And once we got into the details of it, it became progressively more difficult. Right down to the timeline, because it's a planetary story which means you have to figure in time zones in your storytelling. So if it's noon in San Francisco, and Nomi's in a situation that requires someone to help out, go to Capheus -- "No, he's asleep, because it's the middle of the night. Shit -- who else can we go to?" And so we had to have this concept flow chart of who's available, what their skills are, what time zone are they in and work around that.
So the challenges were just monumental. Plus, can we shoot this in this area? There were things that we couldn't shoot in India or either sort of cheat around a little bit to make them work. So there were a lot of challenges going into this that really had to be worked out ahead of time.
On his long friendship with the Wachowskis:
They were fans of "Babylon 5," and fans of my comic book work, and they invited me to the screening of the last "Matrix" movie, where we met for the first time and became good friends and worked on a movie together. And then Lana said, "Let's find something to work on together in the television space." And I went up to San Francisco and spent a weekend at their house. And we worked out the premise of what "Sense8" was going to be and started the mythology going. And actually, Lana was very cute: she came up the next morning with the notebook, in which she had written "Sense8" and said, "I got the title! It's "Sense8." All the hard work is done now!"
They're very down-to-earth people, but they're also scary smart. And they have a strong tilt toward philosophy, towards social awareness, and gender issues. I come from the nerd side of things, so oftentimes, I get kind of nervous around sexuality and gender things because sex -- being a nerd, that's what you do. You hide. And they pulled me out a bit in that area... and to be able to sort of find that common ground and common language with each other, that was a fun part of the process for me.
On the overall vision for pushing science fiction-themed television in a new direction:
We sat down and we said, "If we're going do this, we have to do something that has not been done before" -- and particularly in the science fiction genre, which tends to be about gimmicks or gadgets or about the mission that they have to accomplish, less so in some ways instead of being a character drama.
It was my feeling that there was a time when cop shows were not considered a franchise. They were of interest to those who liked police procedurals. They were niche programming. Two shows changed that. The first, oddly enough, was "Dragnet," which for the first time showed characters having picnics and cops were getting married, went on dates. It had never been done before. The show that finished that transition and made the cop genre a franchise was "Hill Street Blues," which showed characters having affairs, having drug problems. Suddenly that transformed a niche programming genre into a full-fledged franchise. Science fiction has had its "Dragnet" in "Star Trek," "Babylon 5," "Galactica." It hasn't had its "Hill Street Blues" moment yet. And we're hoping that this will be that… by stressing the human part of it.
We deal with politics, with gender, with sexuality, identity -- things that are not specifically science fiction-related. If a character is in danger in the way that doesn't require science fiction, if it's about brutality towards someone who is gay or someone who is afraid to reveal themselves, you don't need to have a science fiction key to that. There was a great period in the '70s of new wave science fiction that dealt with more personal issues, more gender issues that is in some way, parallel with what we're doing with this, so we're kind of catching up with where science fiction was in the '70s, in a respect.
On the importance of the international cast and locales:
It was the whole reason to do it. We said at the very beginning, we want to do a story on planetary scale. It had never been done before. And part of what sort of started that ball rolling was I have friends -- three dubious words -- who will be in different parts of the world and we'll all be online together, and one of them will say, "Oh, let's cue up a movie." And they'll all hit play at the same time. And then blog with each other about what they're seeing. They're sharing an experience, even though they're in different parts of the world.
We go, "Let's take that to the next logical level, where you can have someone who's in Seoul or Nairobi, a character who's in San Francisco, and they can still be in contact with each other." And we didn't want it just to be about those areas as backdrop. You wanted it to be about those cultures, so each city in each country is a character in its own right. We had the cool meeting with the production coordinator from India in Mumbai who said "We're all very excited about shooting 'Sense8,' because we do a lot of Western shows set against an Indian backdrop, but never really about our culture. Our own movies deal with it, but the Western projects don't. They're just set as a background."
Here, we're dealing with religion in India, and marriage customs and wedding customs and language. All things that are part and parcel of who and what they are. He said, "This hasn't happened before with us." So in each area we went into, we did the same thing and made those locations a part of the story.
On recurring theme of connectedness in the Wachowskis' work:
That's in my own work as well in "Babylon 5," and the reality is, governments survive by keeping us as each other's throats. Particularly in this country, we have been fractionalized and marginalized and tribalized within an inch of our lives. If we were divided in this country geographically as we are politically, you'd be hearing gunfire in the distance right now. And we wanted to do a story that says we are better together than we are apart; that as a species, that we were nobler than we know and better than we think we are. And we have to start getting over these stupid, arbitrary boundaries that keep us at each other's throats.
I figure right now, it's a pretty important time to talk about that with things happening in Baltimore. And actually, it's kind of funny. We have the incident with Will [the police officer] and the kid he rescues in the first two episodes where the kid's saying, "We kill all the time, and it doesn't matter." Like, that couldn't be more prescient, could it? So we're trying to deal with those issues. What unites us is stronger than which divides us.
On his advice for viewers who sometimes find themselves perplexed by the show:
What I would say is, it's okay to be confused by the first episode. This is written specifically to create a, "What the hell just happened?" moment because that moment is the same moment that the characters are having. They're not sure what's going on. And you shouldn't be sure what's going on because you're only living with them.
We made a choice early on to shoot this subjective point of view -- meaning, you never go outside our characters' points of view. When you're in San Francisco with Nomi, you are never in San Francisco with someone other than Nomi. She's in every single scene. In Chicago, Will's in every single scene. You never cut outside them. So all the information you have access to is only what those characters know -- and they don't know what's going on, so because of that, we can't just tell you. We can't have someone come in from the outside, some scientist to say, "Yes, this is what's going on." They don't know, so we don't know. But as they figure out more stuff, the audience figures out more stuff, so you're on that journey with them.
Every episode raises certain questions in the viewer's mind that are answered in the next episode. So every time you think, "Huh?" The next episode will answer that question for you. So the important thing to know is that by the time you're done with the show, every question that was raised in the course of the show will be answered.
On why he continues to love telling stories set against fantastic backdrops:
Because the genre of the fantastic allows you to ask the big questions. It allows you to ask "Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? And what does it all mean?" A regular, little character drama doesn't let you deal with those big questions. And the Ws are also a big fan of asking really big questions. For me, we all have a philosophical bent, the three of us, so to have a chance to ask questions about who we are as a species and what is gender, and what is identity, those can only be answered and asked in that kind of a genre.