Terry Gilliam’s 1995 sci-fi film 12 Monkeys is often viewed as one of the director’s best works. Now, Syfy has ambitiously reimagined the movie’s worlds – the ravaged future and the present day – for a drama that will premiere in January.
In the television series, as in the film, a criminal named James Cole is sent back through time from a post-apocalyptic future to the present day in hopes of finding the source of a deadly virus that will eventually destroy most of humanity.
But how do you reinterpret an intricate 127-minute film as a weekly series that can keep viewers interested (hopefully) for seasons on end? During a roundtable discussion at New York Comic Con, series writers/executive producers Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett admitted it was a challenge.
“Our initial instinct was, ‘Don’t do it,’” said Matalas, whose original pilot script wasn’t meant intended as a 12 Monkeys adaptation. In exploring the “thriller, whodunit conspiracy” aspect of David and Jenna Peoples’ screenplay, however, he and Fickett saw the possibility of a “serialized, gritty time travel show.”
To accomplish that, they had to veer away from Gilliam’s original, and make key changes to the mythology and characters in order to give the writers new avenues to explore. For example, Matalas said they’ll spend a lot more time in the future that Cole calls home. “In the movie, he’s sort of plucked out of this prison and you’re not really sure why he’s there. While we have a similar setup here, his backstory and his arc is pivotal to the redemption story that we’re trying to tell.”
Showrunner Natalie Chaidez agreed that’s one of the pleasures of adapting 12 Monkeys as a series. “When you watch the original movie and you see Bruce Willis’ world, you go, ‘Wow, that looks really cool.’ That prison and stuff, we as a series are able to open that up and visit those places.” She added that shooting in Detroit contributed to the post-apocalyptic feel of the show, “which is really sad for the city, but really great for production design.”
Elements will carry over from the film, but only if they work for the story. Fickett noted that the inability to alter time is one of his favorite aspects of the movie, but Matalas interjected. “You can’t do it in a long-running, television time-travel, serialized show.” He said the stakes are higher if “you can make a change to time and history that could be devastating, worse than the disaster that you’re trying to save.”
As for what those stakes are, there’s the obvious fact that Cole is out to save 7 billion lives from a devastating plague. But emotionally, Matalas said there’s more to it. “In order to survive this apocalypse, he had to do these horrible things,” he said. “And he’s really about saving himself; if he changes history, he’ll have undone roughly 30 years of pretty horrible living.”
Time travel will lead to nonlinear storytelling, in which people could bump into each other in timelines before one character technically meets the other. “Audiences are sophisticated and smart enough now -- they’ve been raised on Back to the Future and Doctor Who and Star Trek -- that they can understand the fragmented timeline and enjoy putting that puzzle together,” Matalas said, adding that binge-watchers especially will delight in the story’s “setup-payoff” structure.
Binge-watching is actually responsible for networks’ willingness to buy less episodic programs like 12 Monkeys, Chaidez suggested. She also agreed that audiences are ready for complicated paradoxes and time loops, saying very directly, “This is the best time travel series in the history of television. It’s done. Oh, and we have a cool time machine.”
She said her experience working on such series as Heroes and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles has aided her in wrangling the complexities of time travel. “We have an enormous timeline, an actual written timeline, that we keep on the wall,” she explained.
To carry the weight of such a complicated story structure, the writers are relying on their cast. Aaron Stanford plays Cole (portrayed by Bruce Willis in the film), “a non-traditional hero in every way” filled with “hurt and intensity,” while Amanda Schull plays Cole’s "confidant,: a reimagined version of Madeleine Stowe's character Kathryn Railly, here named Cassandra. Matalas also gave a nod to Barbara Sukowa, who portrays the scientist behind the show’s time-travel tech. Fickett said Kirk Acevedo’s Ramse will present a “side of him you really haven’t seen.”
There’s also Emily Hampshire, who plays Jennifer, a gender-swapped version of Brad Pitt’s Jeffrey Goines. “She’s the wild card of the show,” Hampshire explained. “She meets Cole in a mental institution and you don’t know if she’s necessarily part of the conspiracy that’s going to end the world or if she’s a victim of it -- because she’s crazy!” She added that the crazy ones often see the truth more clearly. “I feel like Jennifer has all the secrets locked in her head. If there’s anybody that knows what’s going on, it’s definitely Jennifer. But you’re going to have to get in there to get it.”
Asked how she went about recreating a character so memorably portrayed by such a famous actor, Hampshire said there was a bit of serendipity before her audition. “I had very little time to prepare for this thing, and so I made a choice to dedicate myself to reading the script and working on the character from there before seeing the movie,” the actress said. That allowed her to approach Goines as something completely new, although she admitted to feeling the pressure once she saw Pitt’s performance. Still, she said it’s like multiple actors playing the same character in different theater productions, and that it’s the part itself that excited her.
Apparently, everyone from the wardrobe department to her friends has said she’s perfect for the role. “So now I’m start to think that might be an insult to me,” Hampshire laughed. “I guess I didn’t think I’m crazy, but other people seem to think so.” The way she would pop out of her seat at certain questions and flail her arms as she spoke certainly gave the impression that the casting directors knew what they were doing.
Goines is quickly introduced in the pilot, with Hampshire referring to Episode 2 as the character’s “breakout episode” “And then Episode 4 is the game-changer episode,” she said. “It’s where all the characters converge in this place called the Night Room,” a location central to the show’s mythology and the off-site lab of her father Leland Goines. Hampshire cut herself off, afraid she was revealing too much.
Asked whether we’ll see glimpses of Goines’ past, Hampshire went wide-eyed and leaned back, afraid of again divulging something. “I don’t think I’m allowed to say that,” she said cautiously while giving an exaggerated nod. She added that playing the same role in different points of history is an enticing prospect and the show’s ability to explore each character in deeper detail is one of its advantages over the movie. “You get to play a whole life!”
Although the show was only give a 13-episode season order, Chaidez explained there are plans for what happens next. “Is it going to be stopping the plague every season for seven years? I don’t think so,” she said. “Are we opening up the show to a bigger mythology for the 12 Monkeys? Have the 12 Monkeys only existed in 2015 or 2043? Probably not.”
Offering his own spoiler, Fickett interjected, “What you will find out at the end of the first season is that the plague and the virus is not the worst thing to happen to humanity -- something else was.”
“Wow,” Matalas said, his eyes on the table. “Just dropping that bomb without checking with me. It’s true, the plague is just the beginning of the conspiracy.” He then turned to Fickett and added, “Now we have to stop on that. I’m serious.”
12 Monkeys premieres Jan. 16 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Syfy.