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After winning over fans and critics with series like House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black and the revived Arrested Development, Netflix is turning to a trio of trusted sources to bring science fiction to its stable of original content: The Matrix directors Andy and Lana Wachowski, and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski.
Launching late next year, the sci-fi thriller Sense8 follows eight people from all corners of the globe who simultaneously develop the ability to connect with one another telepathically. As they begin to learn about their powers, they’re forced to confront the reactions to their mysterious gifts from world governments and average citizens.
The Wachowkis and Straczynski will direct installments of the 10-episode first season, as well as writing and producing. For Straczynski, Sense8 marks a welcome return to serialized television, but it’s the Wachowskis’ first foray into the medium.
“After doing a truckload of amazing films, Andy and Lana began looking for new challenges and thought it could be really cool to try their hands at television,” Straczynski told Spinoff Online. “Since I have that background and it was all still new to them, Lana invited me up to San Francisco for several days to toss some ideas back and forth. The thing about working with the Wachowskis that you always have to remember when you walk in the room is that they have these 12-story-tall brains, and what starts off as a story idea quickly spirals into discussions of quantum mechanics, free will, Heidegger, Kant, and suddenly you’re really in the tall grass trying to keep up. Working with the Wachowskis always keeps me on my toes because the last thing I want is to come off as an idiot in front of them by putting Descartes before the horse.”
Setting puns aside, the veteran writer of TV, movies and comics explained how the concept for Sense8 developed out of the trio shared interest in evolution and empathy.
“We started out at one point talking about how evolution involves creating ever greater circles of empathy: You belong to your family, then you belong to your tribe, then two tribes link up and now you have empathy for your people on this side of the river, and you’re against the people on the other side of the river … on and on through villages, cities, states and nations. One day we’ll hit the planetary level but we’re not there yet,” Straczynski said. “So what if a more literal form of empathy could be triggered in eight individuals around the planet, in India, the U.S., London, Mumbai, Nairobi and elsewhere, who suddenly became mentally aware of each other, able to communicate as directly as if they were in the same room. How would they react? What would they do? To what degree could they accept each other? What does it mean? And what would the world think about people with this ability? Would they embrace it, or hunt them down as threats to our own evolution? How would they survive? It would give us a perfect platform to do a show that was loaded with action, big ideas, some amazing stunts that no one’s done before, and play to a planetary audience.”
The title Sense8 originated with Lana Wachowski as a play on the word “sensate,” meaning aware, but also because the series involves eight characters with a shared empathy.
“We were so excited about the idea that instead of pitching it out and setting up a deal somewhere to develop it, we decided to develop it ourselves by writing the pilot,” Straczynski said. “That process went so well that we decided to keep on going, and before we knew it wrote the first three scripts for a projected first season of 10 episodes.”
When it came time to find a suitable outlet to fund and distribute Sense8, the three creators took their plans on the road and were met with a very welcome surprise.
“Our first meeting, at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday, was with Netflix. We thought the meeting went really well and went out to get a bite before moving on to the rest of the meetings, which were planned to occupy the next several days,” the writer recalled. “But by noon Netflix had called to make a preemptive offer to buy the show and take it off the market with a straight-up deal to produce all 10 episodes. They were that excited by it.”
With the ink dry on the deal, the Wachowskis and Straczynski spent the next several months revising the scripts for the initial three episodes and hamming out the arc for the entire season.
“We had to work around their shooting schedule on Jupiter Ascending, so we variously met in Chicago, Berlin and London, any place and time they had a break,” Straczynski said. “And now we’re deep into the writing process with shooting slated to begin early next summer.
Like Netflix’s other original programming, Sense8’s entire season will be completed before its debut next fall. Straczynski said he expects casting to be announced in early 2014, and he’s already deep into pre-production and planning ahead for a project that will take him from the United States to England, India, Kenya and beyond.
“We plan to block shoot this as a 10-hour movie, and the best part is that we’re going to be shooting in the very same locations we describe, meaning we don’t fake Mumbai, we go to Mumbai, we go to Nairobi, we go to London,” he revealed. “The plan is to shoot as much as we can on stages in Chicago, then the Wachowskis, I and two or three other directors will blitz out and shoot simultaneously in seven different countries, taking along the appropriate cast.”
Straczynski will be directing all of Sense8’s London sequences, as well as some of the Chicago filming.
He said this unique collaboration with the Wachowskis evolved from a connection he shares with the siblings that can be traced back to their shared roots, not in film but in comics. In 2003, the writer was surprised to be invited to the cast-and-crew screening of The Matrix Revolutions. Although he didn’t know anyone from the film, as a fan of the trilogy he quickly accepted.
“So I went to the screening and took my seat in the balcony next to an attractive couple beside me. At one point, one of them leans over to me and says, ‘So what do you do with all this?’” Straczynski recalled. “’Nothing, I’m here on somebody else’s invitation.’ Then she asked my name, and when she got it, leaned over and said, ‘Lana, it’s Joe, it’s the Babylon 5 guy.’ Lana shot up out of her seat and came over, and we began talking about comics and TV and science fiction … turns out she and Andy were and are huge comic book fans and big admirers of my work at that time on Amazing Spider-Man.”
Years before Straczynski began working in comics, the Wachowskis had a brief career in the early 1990s writing for Marvel’s Clive Barker line. In 2003, following the success of The Matrix, they founded Burlyman Entertainment, which published such titles as Shaolin Cowboy and Doc Frankenstein.
“They kept trying to dim the lights to start the movie, but they wanted to talk Spidey,” Straczynski remembered. “And when the lights came back up, the first thing they did was pick up where they left off in the discussion. Here were all these bigwigs from Warner Bros. standing downstairs from the balcony, waiting to talk to them, and all they wanted to do was to talk Babylon, comics and science fiction. They both won my heart at that moment.”