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Terry Gilliam was already a cult star by the time the cameras began rolling on his sixth movie as a solo director. Even before the demise of his legendary comedy troupe Monty Python, Gilliam had co-directed 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail with fellow member Terry Jones, before embarking on a filmmaking career in his own right with Jabberwocky and Time Bandits.
1985’s Brazil may have confused viewers at the time of its release but has since been hailed as a genre classic, but it would be another ten years before he returned to sci-fi with 12 Monkeys.
Based on La Jetée, a half-hour long experimental short told in photosgraphs by late French artist Chris Marker, the concept was adapted for the big screen by husband-and-wife writing team David and Janet Peoples. David Peoples had already explored science fiction over a decade earlier with the Ridley Scott masterpiece Blade Runner, based on a short story by writer Philip K. Dick.
12 Monkeys starred Bruce Willis, then revelling in the resurrection of his career following Pulp Fiction, as a convict from a post-apocalyptic future who is sent back to the 1990s in order to investigate a virus that is destined to wipe out most of humanity. Initially dismissed as insane, Willis is locked away in a mental hospital where he attracts the attention of both fellow patient Brad Pitt, a potential suspect for the future catastrophy, and a doctor at the facility played by Madeleine Stowe.
Upon release in 1995, 12 Monkeys was greeted with a mixed response. ‘Gilliam’s seventh feature is neither as visually compelling as Brazil nor as emotionally gripping as The Fisher King,’ declared Variety, while the San Francisco Chronicle stated, ‘12 Monkeys may frazzle audiences with its knotted plot and twisting side trips, which at times seem little more than gimmicky diversions, lacking Gilliam’s trademark wacky humour.’ Over the years, however, a retrospective analysis has been more positive, with BBC’s 2001 five-star review complementing the lead performances.
In August 2013, SyFy announced their intention of adapting the movie into a television series with writers Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett, both of whom had worked on the updates show based on Luc Besson’s 1990 classic Nikita. A dozen episodes based on 12 Monkeys was officially greenlit in April 2014 following the completion of the pilot. ‘12 Monkeys is a captivating time travel adventure and high stakes race against the clock,’ said Dave Howe, president of Syfy.
Regarding their approach to the adaptation Matalas, who also serves as one of the show’s executive producers, told IGN, ‘I think it’s a complete sort of reimagining. We were all very, very big fans of the original film and had a deep love and respect for that material.’ He then added, ‘We changed the rules in the movie. [In the movie] you can’t actually change time, and here you can. So everything from the top down changed, from Cole’s character to Dr. Railly’s character to some new characters, Ramse and Aaron. So the story, while it has a lot of the same themes, it’s very different.’Replacing Willis in the role of reluctant time traveller James Cole is thirty-seven-year-old Aaron Stanford, a veteran of Nikita and the X-Men franchise. Stanford is two-and-a-half years younger than Willis was in the original 12 Monkeys, having turned forty midway through the shooting. ‘I had to audition for it,’ Stanford recently told ComingSoon. ‘I went in for a series of readings and kind of workshopped it with Amanda Schull, who’s the other lead and it worked out.’ Schull, who also made an appearance in an episode of Nikita, has guest-starred in a host of shows from Lie to Me to Two and a Half Men, but her more substantial roles have included One Tree Hill and, most recently, Suits.
‘We really wanted to do a really serialised time travel show,’ continued Matalas. ‘It was about five years ago. It’s been a very difficult show to get off the ground because I think a lot of people were afraid of time travel because people don’t understand it. But we collectively felt that audiences were ready for that.’ Regarding how time travel was portrayed in Gilliam’s film he said, ‘Something that we’ve always loved about the original film, was the fact that they’re not good at the time travel, and that’s something we’re going to continue throughout the series. This is very much the Apollo program. It’s dangerous.’