Chicago natives, siblings and “The Matrix” creators Andy and Lana Wachowski always want to push the envelope when it comes to their various journeys into the worlds of science fiction. That again was the case with “Cloud Atlas” (2012) and more recently with last year’s “Jupiter Ascending.”
Now the Wachowskis are diving into the world of television with their new series “Sense8,” a 12-episode program that will be available for streaming — and binge-watching — on Netflix beginning Friday.
The Wachowskis teamed up on this project with”Babylon 5″ creator J. Michael Straczynski and director Tom Tykwer. The storyline focuses on eight complete strangers from all over the world who suddenly become both mentally and emotionally connected. There is a strong thriller aspect to it all — certainly a Wachowski trait — as these “Senseates” are the target of a mysterious and evil Mr. Whispers who is out to destroy them. Much of the plot revolves around the octet trying to figure out why they have been so targeted, following the tragic death of yet another stranger.
This experience is all about the future of humankind, which will become clear as another stranger named Jonas attempts to bring the eight individuals together before Mr. Whispers can capture and kill them.
For Brian J. Smith. a Texas native who plays a Chicago police officer among the eight, a key thing was learning how law enforcement works in Our Town. A month of so before filming began on “Sense8,” the Wachowskis flew the actor to Chicago to spend some time with the local force.
“We did a ride-along with some really great guys,” said Smith. “It was really helpful to me to talk to those guys and get a sense — at least a little bit — of what a police beat is like. They were very good about showing me what a typical day is like, including the mundane parts like checking in, doing paperwork and how really meticulous they have to be.”
Smith said he was particularly impressed with the “professionalism of the officers and the pride they take in their jobs and what they do for the community they serve.”
While the actor, a graduate of the famed Julliard School in New York, really focused on listening to the cops and attempted to capture both their police lingo and their Chicago accent, he later learned that was not something the Wachowskis wanted so much.
“At a number of occasions, Lana [Wachowski] would come up to me on the set and say, ‘Brian, cut the accent a bit — like about 80 percent!’ I guess I was laying it on a bit too thick! I did want to really get across that very regional Chicago accent, but they didn’t feel that was necessary to get across what they were trying to do, since this is such an international kind of story.”
Working with the Wachowskis was a unique experience. For the actor, the filmmakers “are really artists who ‘paint’ using film and now TV as their ‘canvas’ on which they express themselves and their ideas.
“It’s very difficult for them these days, because they are trying to make art on a commercial scale, and that is really tough to do. However, they have managed it better than most people have. Even considering a lot of the flak they get for films like ‘Jupiter Ascending’ or ‘Cloud Atlas’ or ‘Speed Racer,’ you’ve got to understand they represent an unfortunate dychotomy. On the one hand they are like painters or musicians who have a viewpoint that is very authentic and original. At the same time, they want a lot of people to watch their films and want them to be commercially successful and operate on a mainstream stage.
“That is very difficult to pull off, because you often have to leave behind some of your artistic instincts to satisfy the demographic aspects needed to be successful with filmmaking today. The Wachowskis make things that are on the edge of our comfort zone.”
Because the Wachowskis’ ideas depart from virtually everything else that is being produced today, I had to ask Smith what he thought when he first read the script for “Sense8.”
“I had never read anything like it before. Usually when you read film scripts or television scripts the language is, on purpose, very dry and action-oriented. However, the way the Wachowskis would describe an atmosphere or a scene was very poetic. It’s like they are painting with words. Frankly, I think they should publish their scripts, because their descriptive language is so beautiful.
“For example, in one of the very first scenes there’s something in the script about a fly buzzing around a half-eaten burrito. It’s not in the show,” Smith quipped. “They didn’t get a burrito from Chipotle and then hire a trained fly to buzz around it in the scene. But there was something about the dirtiness and the drug-den atmosphere of it that they wanted to convey that comes across when you read that.”
Though Smith enjoyed filming in such locales as Mumbai, Berlin, San Francisco and Seoul, one Chicago memory stood out.
“We got to film at Superdawg, because that’s one of Lana and Andy’s favorite Chicago places!” said Smith. “That was a complicated shoot, since we were only supposed to spend one day there. It was very complicated because of the concept Lana had in her mind. Basically you’re supposed to see one character become another character. Melding the choreography of that was really, really difficult.
“Then on top of that, it started to rain on us. But, that’s that good old Chicago weather for you! So we had to come back and finish on the next day.”