Inspired by the critically acclaimed 1995 science fiction film, the intriguing and compelling new Syfy series 12 Monkeys follows Cole (Aaron Stanford), a man from a post-apocalyptic future in which a plague has wiped out almost all of humanity. Using unpredictable time travel technology, Cole sets out on a mission, with the help of virologist Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), to stop the mysterious Army of the 12 Monkeys from releasing the virus that will have catastrophic consequences. The show also stars Kirk Acevedo, Barbara Sukowa, Noah Bean and Emily Hampshire.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, co-creators Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett, along with showrunner Natalie Chaidez, talked about how they came to be re-imagining 12 Monkeys, planning out the first three seasons with the possibility for more beyond that, wanting to have the audience jump right into the middle of the time travel thriller without too much exposition, what they see as the core of the story, the biggest differences in this version of the story, having the blessing of the film’s screenwriters, finding such a great cast, and having a lot of holy shit moments this season. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
TERRY MATALAS: We wrote a different time travel script that delved into some of the same ideas that are brought up in the pilot, like that great man theory of time travel. If you can go back and kill one man, does history change? That was a similar aspect.
TRAVIS FICKETT: What our original script did was really prove that you could do a time travel series because it locked down all of the possibilities for future episodes. That was something that people were scared of. They’ve tried to develop a Quantum Leap show. You’d think that’s a no-brainer. How could they not do that? But, time travel has been so difficult for everybody. There was Journeyman that was great, on NBC, and that didn’t survive or work. Our original script, while very different from the pilot that you saw, was a proof of concept that this can work in serialized television.
This must be a show that you really have to plan out.
MATALAS: Yeah. The second we were greenlit, the three of us sat down and started the arc of the whole season. Travis and I knew what we wanted the first season to be when we were developing it, and then Natalie came in and was like, “That’s it. That’s great! And what about this?” And we were like, “Yes, that, too!”
NATALIE CHAIDEZ: Having done a lot of big serialized shows, like Heroes and Sarah Connor, I knew the pitfalls of making a choice without knowing where you’re going, so we’re really, really careful in crafting the season, and future seasons, to make sure that we aren’t just saying, “Hey, this is a quick turn,” but knowing where it’s going to lead to. That’s so frustrating for audiences.
How far ahead do you have this plotted out?
MATALAS: Three seasons, at the moment. That’s not to say that it ends in three seasons. There’s much more beyond that.
Because you really throw the viewers into this story, how did you decide how much you would explain for the audience and how much you would make them catch up, as they go along?
MATALAS: We just wrote the kind of thing that we really wanted to see. There is something thrilling about jumping right into the middle of the time travel thriller, and then taking a breath and being like, “Here’s what’s going on.” The first act, in a lot of ways, is the first two acts of the movie, within five minutes. And then, we take a breath and are like, “Here’s what it is.” We still want to do all of that character stuff.
FICKETT: We really went for that thriller story of Cole’s goal to find this guy, kill him and save the future. That’s what the whole pilot ends up being about. We went for that, rather than a checklist of exposition to set up all the key pieces of what you might see, later on down the line. I think that’s why the pilot is as good as it is. We made that choice, and I think that’s what attracted Jeffrey [Reiner], our director to it, and our cast.
MATALAS: It allows us to develop that stuff more fully, in future episodes. If we tried to cram all of that into the pilot, everything would have gotten short-shrifted.
Travis and Terry, how does your partnership work?
MATALAS: We’ve been writing partners for almost seven years.
FICKETT: Once we started writing together, we were trying to get our stuff up to snuff and professional.
MATALAS: The best thing about partnership is that you’re really trying to wow the other person with an idea, and then they give you something back. That’s how we met Natalie, too. We pitched where we were going with the season, and she said, “That’s great! What about this?” And we were like, “We love that! What about this?” It just grows. If you’re entertaining yourselves, then hopefully you’re going to put that on the screen.
FICKETT: We were college roommates, so we’ve known each other long enough that we can say things to each other. If we had been assistants together for a couple of years, and then tried to do this, I don’t think it would work. You have to be able to say things to each other. The conversations that a lot of writers have in their heads, we’re having with our outside voices.
MATALAS: We can literally say, “That sucks, man. We can’t do that.” And what’s great about Natalie is that she’s cut from that same cloth. She’s like, “Guys, that’s not good.”
CHAIDEZ: Or I say, “I love it! It’s fucking great! This is it.” There has been a spirited level of debate, I would say.
FICKETT: I do think this show his harder than a lot of other shows because with time travel, you have a lot more possibilities for where any story may go or what may happen to a character, so we do end up having to vet all of that, endlessly, and talk about it more than if it were a procedural or a cop show or even a vampire show.
MATALAS: It’s not that you have to figure out what’s happening in the police precinct, but you have to figure out a hundred years of the police precinct.
Are there challenges specific to adapting a show from already existing source material, and deciding what will work and what won’t?
MATALAS: It wasn’t about what worked. It was mostly about this perfect movie. You really have to make it its own. Obviously, we’re going back in time using this untested, faulty piece of time travel technology. That’s the core, with this relationship that he develops.
FICKETT: Once you get the characters populating your story, it becomes about them. Nikita was the same way. Craig Silverstein created the character of Alex, which was new to that entire franchise. Once that was introduced and the show became about Nikita and Alex, it gave that show its own life. It became its own thing, and I think our show is going to be the same way. It’s going to be its own thing to the movie 12 Monkeys, just like Nikita was to La Femme Nikita, the show and the movie.
CHAIDEZ: It’s a challenge because you have to, at every point, say, “Is this a cool wink to the audience, is it an homage, or are we doing something that’s repetitive?” But when you get it right, it’s so satisfying for the audience. With Terminator, and with this, there will be people who are watching with such minute detail and they’ll remember the movie, so when you put in that right prop, that right word, that right phrase or that right image, it pays off for them, in such a big way. It’s really exciting, and it builds up the world of that idea. It’s exciting when that happens and you’re able to tap into the wonderment of the franchise, in the right away. It’s cool.
MATALAS: I’m not sure you could have done that. In the movie, you can’t change time. There could be some smaller mini-series version of that, but that movie is such a perfect puzzle piece about a man who’s witnesses his own death. But here, this is more of a conspiracy thriller. We can really blow open the world, really great to explore the future, and introduce all of these new characters.
FICKETT: There are certain feelings and emotions that we take from the movie, like the desperation and the questioning of the possibility of time travel and sanity. I think Fargo is a really good example of how you take a perfect movie where you’re like, “Why would you ever make that a show?,” and make it a spiritual successor. You take the core elements and the essence of what that is, and you play with that episodically. I think Fargo worked beautifully. It did it so well. It felt like Fargo, but they weren’t telling the same story, at all. What would be the point? You’d just be watching them hit those benchmarks, and that’s not fun or interesting.
MATALAS: To be fair, if someone announced a reboot of 12 Monkeys, we would be like, “Wait, hold on a second.”
FICKETT: I would get on Twitter and be like, “This is bullshit!”
MATALAS: So, we totally understand any kind of skepticism because we dealt with it ourselves before moving forward.
When you hear Terry Gilliam make comments about this being a ridiculous idea and how it can only be good, if the people who wrote the movie write the show, do you think that comes from just not being aware that this is a reinterpretation?
MATALAS: Well, we did this with the blessing of David and Janet Peoples, who wrote that original script. Terry Gilliam is amazing. We’re huge Terry Gilliam fans. But we also think about David and Janet’s original script, and that moment of Cole in the car, hearing that song when he’s never heard music before and has all of that emotion.
CHAIDEZ: It’s also part of a great creative legacy that goes back to La Jetée. You’re not just dealing with the original film. You have a brilliant, iconic, classic idea about time travel that pre-dates the movie. Not to undercut the movie, but the original material is so exciting.
FICKETT: If Terry Gilliam listened to everyone who said something was a bad idea, there wouldn’t be any Terry Gilliam movies.
CHAIDEZ: But we’re still hoping he can come and direct an episode, so can you put that out there? It can be the finale.
How did you approach the casting for this?
FICKETT: Well, there was no Cassie in the movie. Madeline Stowe was a psychologist, specifically because the question was whether or not Cole was sane and whether he was a time traveler. He wasn’t coming back to stop the virus. He couldn’t do that. Whereas our Cole is coming back to stop the virus, so he’s going straight to somebody who can help him and who knows that world, which is Amanda Schull’s character, Cassie. It’s a different beast.
MATALAS: As far as Aaron Stanford goes, we worked with him on Nikita and knew that he needed his own show. You’re just drawn to him. He’s able to convey this aggression and hurt puppy, deep emotion thing that we really need from Cole. He’s perfect. The moment we saw Amanda and Aaron read together for their chemistry read, we were all like, “This is the show.” It was like lightening being struck. We saw it.
FICKETT: And that’s not bullshit press stuff. That’s actually true. That actually happened. We actually said that. They’re so believable, and that’s the key thing about both of those actors. Something we try to do with the show, in general, is that everything seems real and everything seems like it’s actually happening.
MATALAS: But that was an exhausting process. We saw everybody before we were lead to who it was meant to be. We have a great cast, from Barbara Sukowa to Noah Bean to Kirk Acevedo, who you just get a glimpse of in the pilot, but you see a whole lot more of.
FICKETT: And you get to see a side of Kirk that you don’t see a lot of. He has such a warmth to him, and that comes across in our show, but you don’t get to see that in a lot of stuff that he does.
CHAIDEZ: We will very quickly explore what happened to Cassie, in between the time Cole kidnapped her and the time he came back, which was a very challenging time, in which she was wrestling with the reality of the situation that Cole had presented her. We’re really excited about that episode. We’re going to quickly explore that for her character.
MATALAS: You’re going to learn a lot about it.
In this time period that Cole is gone, will Cassie have anyone to work with or confide in?
MATALAS: We explore that in the second episode. It’s very difficult for her.
FICKETT: It won’t be easy. One of the difficulties she has is that she seems sane, but she’s saying something that sounds completely insane, and that everybody knows is completely impossible. It’s that dynamic that we’ll explore in the first few episodes after the pilot.
Will we continue to get big reveals, throughout the season?
MATALAS: There will be a lot of big holy shit moments in the first season. I think you’re going to be torn a lot of different ways, in how you feel about each character. It’s not a black and white show. It’s complicated.
12 Monkeys premieres on Syfy on January 16th.