Premiering tonight at 9/8c on Syfy is 12 Monkeys, the serialized re-imagining of Terry Gilliam‘s cult-classic film. But as you’ll come to find out, the show is an animal all its own. Like most people, I was skeptical about the idea of a remake, but the new series is a fresh take on the material, and some of the most fun to be had with time travel this side of Doctor Who. Building on the bare-bones premise of the film, the series follows James Cole (Aaron Stanford) as he travels through time on a mission to prevent the apocalyptic pandemic set off by the Army of the 12 Monkeys. As he jumps from year to year, Cole encounters Dr. Cassandra Reilly (Amanda Schull), a virologist caught up in Cole’s Mission, and Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire) a mental patient harboring the secrets that could save the world, both of whom play a critical role in the future of the human race.
I had the opportunity to visit the set last November and while I was there I learned a lot about the approach creators Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett took in adapting Gilliam’s film (and its predecessor La Jetee), including how different the show will be from the source material, how the series format allows for a story that is constantly expanding, why they gender-swapped the Goines character made famous by Brad Pitt, and more. Check out 12 things you should know from the set of 12 Monkeys after the jump.
The series is almost nothing like the film. Don’t expect a remake of La Jetee or Terry Gilliam’s movie. Creators Terry Matalas and Travis Bickett initially conceived of this show as an original TV series called “Splinter”, and it was only later that their concept was merged with the idea of a 12 Monkeys show. As such, the series has an identity all it’s own and it is definitely not trying to be a redo or a reboot of what Gilliam created.
But there are familiar similarities in the basic premise. First of all, the characters probably sound pretty familiar. Aaron Stanford stars as James Cole, the everyman action hero sent back in time to save the world, Amanda Schull as Dr. Cassandra Railly, his reluctant ally, and Emily Hampshire as Jennifer Goines, a deranged but brilliant mental patient. As you can see, those names and characters are familiar, but not identical to the film version, and that holds true for a lot of the basic series concept.
When asked about adapting the film for Matalas said, “It’s actually just the first act of the pilot really. What that equates to is a set of similar circumstances at the basic premise of the show. The show still deals with a dystopian post-apocalyptic future, time travel is still mysterious and largely undeveloped, and Cole is still searching for the twelve monkeys, but where the series goes from there is completely unique. Having seen more than half of the first season, I can say that’s completely true. The show is very different from the film and the major reason why is….
The characters on the series have the ability to change the future. Unlike Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, in which time is immutable and Cole was sent back only to find a sample of the virus, in this version Cole is not only seeking the source of the outbreak, but his entire mission is to stop it. Fickett explained, “There’s one specific rule of time travel in the movie, that you can’t change time. The only thing they’re doing in the movie is going back and getting a sample of the virus. It’s a really cool idea. It’s a great idea for that puzzle box of the movie, which is a closed of narrative. It’s great, it’s amazing and it works so well in a two hour story – it doesn’t work for a series. very quickly in our series we say you can change time and that’s the goal.” This shift in purpose allows the narrative of the 12 monkeys series to grow outward, expanding and world building with every episode (unlike the film, the very conceit of which leant to a contained story that looped back in on itself).
Matalas and Bickett wrote the series for an audience that is savvy to the rules of Time Travel. Matalas explained, “Nowadays people have grown up with Back to the Future trilogy and Doctor Who,” and Fickett continued, “The Simpsons and Futurama, Family Guy, they make jokes now that rely on you understanding time travel and how it works, so it’s kind of a narrative convention.” In this day and age, we all know the basics. As such, they’re writing in a way that assumes the audience has knowledge of those narrative conventions and doesn’t waste time explaining basic concepts like paradoxes and the butterfly effect, allowing the story to propel forward without the weight of exposition.
They’re also creating their own time travel rules. The first that we’re introduced to is the idea that two versions of the same object can’t occupy the same space at the same time. It’s sort of a twist on the “never the two shall meet” trope. I won’t spoil what happens if they do, but the rule is established quickly and clearly, and you really just shouldn’t. Matalas expanded on the idea saying, “It’s a physical reaction that happens, and the larger the object, or if it’s organic, then it’s a different kind of reaction. That’s something we’ll play with throughout the series.”
They gender-bent the Goines character, turning Jeffrey Goines into Jennifer Goines. But don’t expect Emily Hampshire to just play a female version of Brad Pitt. Hampshire never saw the film before auditioning for the role, which allowed her to bring her own take on the character rather than doing a pale imitation of Pitt’s iconic character. Hampshire described her process, “I was kind of fortunate in retrospect, because when I first auditioned for the show – it was a time factor, I didn’t have much time to prepare, and I hadn’t seen the film yet, which I know is a terrible thing, but I hadn’t seen the film so my first introduction to Jennifer going in was their script, was this girl on the page. So I got to make up my own kind of idea of who this woman is.” After landing the role Hampshire finally watched the film, she joked that her first thought was, “Oh, I am fucked!” She also said that Jennifer is built from the same DNA as Jeffrey, and that they feel like distant relatives.
According to Matalas, they decided to gender swap the character early in the writing process. He explained, “I remember we were sitting in my office one day and we were like ‘No one’s going to even want to play what Brad Pitt did again.’ We were just wracking our brains and thought, ‘What if we give it to a woman?” He continued, “Then we actually found someone who is as eccentric and crazy as Jennifer, and we don’t even have to write. We just say ‘do something like this’ and Emily takes it.”
This is not your typical apocalypse story. While half of the plot takes place in the post-apocalyptic wasteland left in the wake of the viral outbreak, 12 Monkeys sets itself apart from recent end-of-the-world series like The Walking Dead because it’s not about surviving in the apocalypse, it’s about trying to prevent it. That’s not to say 12 Monkeys doesn’t explore the post-virus world. It does! But that’s only half the story. Fickett explained, “We’re doing a lot of stuff which I don’t think you’re going to see on a lot of shows that are playing in an apocalyptic world, because we have the apocalypse, but we also have the present that we’re trying to save. So it’s cool to be able to see the nightmare that we’re trying to prevent. You don’t see that The Walking Dead or a lot of the shows that just keep you mired in the nightmare.”
12 Monkeys is a uniquely challenging project for the actors and you can expect to see some excellent performances. Do to the time-hoping nature of the show we see characters at various stages in their life, and in a wide range of settings, making the show an extremely challenging project for the actors. Matalas boasted, “I can say with confidence that this is one of the best casts on television. What they have managed to do – you meet characters at different ages, at different parts of their emotional journey, and each script we give them some really crazy challenging shit, and they not only meet those expectations, they exceed them.”
It can be enjoyed equally week-to-week or in a binge watch session. Because of the time jumps, delayed payoffs, and complicated nature of the narrative 12 Monkeys is an ideal series for binge-watching. Matalas said, “We’re starting to look at all our episodes now cut together in big chunks, eight episodes, nine episodes, and it really does feel like a great binge watching show because it’s told out of order and if something’s set up in a different timeline that’s paid off in the next episode and it keeps going that way. [Travis] had that great quote about the emotional journey, which is that the emotional journey of the show is linear, but the actual storytelling is not. That’s kind of a unique thing we’re trying to do here.” I’ll say this, I watched the first 7 episodes back to back, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the instant gratification, this is the perfect kind of series to analyze and speculate about during the weekly breaks.
This show requires a huge amount of costume work. While on set, I got to walk through the costume department, and man, a series that visits so many different locations and time periods demands a lot of range from the costuming department. From locating the time-appropriate materials, to dying the fabrics, and constructing the costumes a lot of old fashioned hard work goes in to making a show like this look good and authentic. I saw a lot of interesting cultures and time periods represented in the costume room, and I don’t want to spoil the fun, so let’s just say Cole is headed to some unexpected places.
Noah Bean’s character, Aaron, get’s in on the time travel hijinks eventually. At first Aaron comes off as a bit of a moldy fig. He’s Cassandra’s boyfriend at the start of the tale, and never believes her when she tells him about what she’s seen. Which is not to say he’s a bad guy, while he never believe Cassandra, he always believes in her and stands by her. But he’s going to get set straight at some point. Bean said, “Yeah, Aaron, my character, is definitely the skeptic. When Cassandra tells him the truth what he’s basically saying is ‘That’s a bunch of bologna, it doesn’t exist, there is no time travel.’ It takes a few episodes, but eventually Aaron is witness to some things that he can’t deny and he becomes aware of the situation.”
This is not a show you want to watch while you’re doing something else. Due to the multiple timelines and non-linear storytelling the narrative is complex and engaging, and it requires you to pay attention. It’s always great when a show doesn’t underestimate the audience and trusts the viewer to keep up. 12 Monkeys has two basic plotlines running, Fickett explained, “We have two shows. There’s the 2043 reality, which is where Kirk and Aaron are from and Barbara, who’s the scientist in that future, and then you’ve got the 2015 reality which is where Emily’s character and Noah and Amanda all kind of live. Then gradually the walls between those realities begin to break down because Aaron’s traveling between the two and you start to see that.” There are also flashbacks and time traveling misadventures that lead to even more narrative threads. It’s a complex, interwoven plot with a lot of moving pieces.