The Wachowskis on Netflix's Sense8, global drama, and playing fair with the audience

The Matrix siblings tell Sarah Hughes about their ambitious Netflix sci-fi series, shot in nine locations around the world

Sarah Hughes
Wednesday 27 May 2015 15:47
Telepathic: Daryl Hannah's Angel stars in a story that takes in Nairobi, Seoul and more
Telepathic: Daryl Hannah's Angel stars in a story that takes in Nairobi, Seoul and more

In 2012 when the Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana, first announced they were venturing into television in conjunction with J Michael Straczynski, the creator of sci-fi classic Babylon 5, initial reaction was cautiously excited.

Then came news that the secretive project now named Sense8 and bought by Netflix, would be shooting in nine locations around the world, including London, Mumbai and Reykjavik, and using actors from each of those locations. It sounded intriguing, albeit insanely complicated.

"There was a point in both the writing process and when we started to lay out the production calendar when we looked at each other and said: 'You know this is impossible right?'," says Straczynski of the 12-part series, which finally arrives on Netflix this June. "So we nodded, acknowledged it was impossible and then went out to do it anyway."

Then again, no project involving the Wachowskis, creators of 1999's The Matrix, which reinvented the action movie with its combination of groundbreaking special effects and deadpan, cyberpunk cool, was ever likely to be simple. In recent years their movies may have become ever more abstruse – this year's Jupiter Ascending, which was widely condemned as an incoherent mess albeit one with stunning visuals – but no one can fault them for ambition.

"One thing that the three of us have in common is the belief that tyranny succeeds when it manages to divide us along gender, party or other lines," says Straczynski. "We feel strongly that we're better together than we are apart, that what binds us – the common coin of our shared humanity, our dreams and hopes, is stronger and more important than what divides us. It's a great idea, but how do you dramatise it?

"We hit upon the idea of characters in vastly different parts of the world, the Nairobi slums, the high rises of Seoul, a Chicago neighbourhood, who suddenly find themselves linked empathetically and telepathically to one another. What do you do when there's someone else living inside your head who has access to all your skills, history and secrets? Especially since we're so often defined by our secrets?"

Yet while Sense8 has a concept so high it's practically in the heavens, it's also a surprisingly relatable show. There are plenty of "wow, what just happened there?" moments with more certain to come. Andy Wachowski, in a rare interview with the US website, talked about filming a "live birth" for a later episode – and there's the odd bit of spiritually tinged, somewhat portentous dialogue but what stands out are the human touches.

"It's a very personal show," says producer Grant Hill, who has worked with the Wachowskis since 2003's Matrix Reloaded. "I do think it's a slightly different mode of storytelling than we're used to from the Wachowskis, and as the show progresses, so it becomes ever more personal and intimate."

When we first meet the eight newly telepathic strangers or "Sensates" – a cop in Chicago, a Korean business man, a Kenyan bus driver, an Indian pharmacist, a German crook, a Mexican actor, a British-based DJ and a San Franciscan blogger – they are all struggling with flashbacks and hallucinations, seemingly caused by the desperate actions of Daryl Hannah's Angel during the episode's opening minutes.

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Throw in the mix two mysterious foes – played by Lost alumnae Naveen Andrews and Broadway star Terrence Mann – and hints of a government conspiracy and you have the beginnings of a richly complicated stew. Anything could happen, and it frequently does.

If at this point you're thinking "hang on, is this the new Lost?" then you're not far off. It's a comparison Straczynski is tickled by. "Damon Lindelof is a friend of mine and he mentioned a few years ago that when they went to create the original five year arc for Lost he looked to the structure of the arc I pioneered with Babylon 5, so that level of complexity isn't new to me or audiences or unique to Lost, though they did a great job with it," he says.

"Our theory going into this is that the audience is generally smarter and hipper and better informed than most people seem to give them credit for being. You can either assume they're not terribly bright and come up with something very simplistic, or assume they're willing to get on the boat right next to you and go for something with a lot of meat and meaning and complexity. We went for the latter, and I think that was exactly the right thing to do."

Certainly it's true that in depth of ambition at least, Sense8 doesn't just equal Lost, it surpasses it. In part that's down to the way in which the show was filmed – "to give credit where it's due, Lana lobbied the hardest for shooting it all on location," says Straczynski – which ensures that each city from London to Nairobi has a distinct storyline and feel, making the setting as much part of the tale as the characters.

"It's a truly global drama not just in its scope, but also in the lengths we went to do to go deep into places and characters," says Hill. "It's not as though we picked a couple of favourites and then sent a second unit to cover the other stories. It might have been easier to do it that way, but for it to work it had to be this way."

That said, some early strands resonate more than others with Brian J Smith's kind-hearted cop and Aml Ameen's determined bus driver particular standouts, while British actress Tuppence Middleton impresses as a London-based DJ seemingly surrounded by Pete Doherty lookalikes. Best of all though is Jamie Clayton, who plays San Franciscan transwoman, Nomi. Clayton, herself a transwoman as is Lana Wachowski, provides the story's emotional core and the scenes with her girlfriend Amanita (Dr Who actress Freema Agyeman) are involving, honest and true.

Nomi and Amanita's story flags up what is most unusual about Sense8: in contrast to the Wachowskis' movies, visually beautiful but somehow empty affairs, this is a very warm show. Yes, it's tricksy, playing with time and space and constantly hinting at conspiracy, but this is a drama about empathy as much as action and it's the personal stories that draw us in. Thus we care about Mexican actor Lito's secrets and petty thief Wolfgang's lies. We're interested in Korean businesswoman Sun's double life and Indian scientist Kala's suppressed dreams. Sense8 is about human connections on the small scale as much as the grand, and it's in its smaller moments that it resonates the most.

And, in contrast to Lost, the show's creators don't intend to drag out its central mystery: the question of why the Sensates can enter each other's minds. "I'm a big believer in playing fair with the audience," says Straczynski. "If you raise a question, then you are honour bound to answer it. So by the end of season one of Sense8 all of the crucial questions raised in the beginning of the season are answered. To not provide those answers is, I think, just mean."

'Sense8' arrives on Netflix on 5 June

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