June 12, 2022
By the time they got to me, they had tried proper directors and nobody wanted to do it. Nobody seemed to understand what it was, what it was about, what the focus was, and how you dealt with that. I loved the fact that it went so many different places, and it wrapped you into this kind of DNA double helix of the future.
By Sven Mikulec
As the final shot of Chris Marker’s iconic La Jetée faded to black, screenwriter Janet Peoples turned to her husband and writing partner David Webb Peoples, who penned Unforgiven three years prior. “But this is a perfect film,” she said as they locked eyes. “How can you do a remake of it?” Indeed, Marker’s 1962 28-minute-long science-fiction gem, a black-and-white audiovisual composition of still photos and only one brief insert of live footage accompanied by voice-over narration, is a self-contained and masterful artistic treat that didn’t seem to warrant a big-budget Hollywood reincarnation. And yet, the producers insisted that the Peoples give it a shot. The unassuageable feeling that La Jetée’s nature simply resists the notion of a remake wasn’t the only hurdle on the screenwriters’ path: there was already one popular Hollywood blockbuster that sort of brought Marker’s ideas to the big screen with tremendous success. “The Terminator’s an absolute masterpiece,” David explained. “It’s intimidating not only trying to adapt Chris’ movie, but it had already in a way been done.” Thankfully, a prudent decision was reached: the screenwriting couple would accept the gig but rather than directly remaking Marker’s film, they chose to base the new story on several of the original’s main ideas and explore them in their own unique way. Soon enough, the script for 12 Monkeys was sitting on producer Charles Roven’s table.
Roven knew who he wanted in the director’s chair. By that time, Terry Gilliam created a name for himself with his work on the Pythons and films like Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, while with the 1991 comedy/drama The Fisher King he proved he could equally impressively handle other authors’ material. But the script for 12 Monkeys didn’t exactly get his hopes up. “It was a great script,” he later recalled, “but when I read it, I said, ‘this isn’t going to get made. This is too complex.’” Universal was already skeptical enough as it was, giving the project an under-30-million-dollars budget, quite modest for a film of this ambition and scope. What Gilliam needed to seal the deal was a highly appealing cast. After Universal’s veto forced him to discard the initial idea of casting Jeff Bridges and Nick Nolte, the director turned to Bruce Willis, whom he met during the casting process for The Fisher King.
“Bruce wanted to do it and I was certain he could be right,” Gilliam remembered. “We talked and he asked me, ‘Do you think I bring the wrong kind of baggage to this show, do you think that who I am could hurt the film?’ (…) And I told him, ‘I don’t want Bruce Willis the superstar around this film, but Bruce Willis the actor. You’ve got to come here like a monk. You’ve got to be naked in every sense and you’ve got to make yourself vulnerable. You’ve got to trust me–and you can’t direct the film.’” And while Madeleine Stowe was a rather simple solution for the important female lead, as Gilliam admired her combination of intelligence, seriousness and beauty, he had some reservations regarding Brad Pitt. Luckily for 12 Monkeys’ subsequent theatrical run, Gilliam went along with his casting director’s advice and hired Pitt, who would become a legit superstar by the time of 12 Monkeys’ premiere thanks to his performances in films like Legends of the Fall and Se7en. The script was ready, the budget was set and the casting process completed after adding the esteemed Christopher Plummer to the team: all that was left to do was to start shooting. Principal photography took three months—from February to May 1995—in Philadelphia and Baltimore, and under Gilliam’s supervision, this remarkable story became a beautiful film.
The year is 2035 and the decimated human race is forced to live underground because of a highly lethal virus outbreak that wiped out almost all of humanity four decades earlier. James Cole, a violent prisoner who proved to be of a stable, healthy mind and impressively sound memory, gets offered a pardon if he “volunteers” to be sent back to 1996, when the virus first struck. The goal that the stern committee of scientists wants to achieve is to collect more information on the nature of the virus before it mutated so as to rebuild life on Earth’s surface once again. Cole is mistakenly sent back to 1990, where he soon finds himself locked up in a mental institution under the supervision of the rising star of American psychiatry, dr. Kathryn Railly, an expert on the connection between madness and prophecy who finds his case deeply intriguing, while a rambling neurotic patient called Jeffrey Goines tries to show him the ropes of functioning in the facility. But this is just the beginning, as Cole gets dragged back and forth from 2035 to 1996 with even a brief but consequential trip to the trenches of World War I. All in all, his quest for information turns out to be a disorientating tough ride that slowly but surely starts fracturing his psyche.
The film’s storyline, with frequent abrupt jumps from one period to the other and back, is definitely not as complex or bewildering as the contemporary reviews and analyses would have you believe. It’s just more demanding than what big-budget Hollywood spectacles are usually comfortable at offering. David and Janet Peoples put the central point of La Jetée under their spotlight—that of a deadly pandemic and the figure of a regular fellow haunted by a specific traumatizing image from his childhood—and used it as a starting point to weave their narrative web engulfing several curious and absorbing characters and their intertwining lives. What they delivered isn’t just a wonderfully odd, pessimistic time-travel thriller, but an exploration of memory, free will and determinism, as well as the frailty of both the human mind and our species in general. It’s also refreshing to see how they solved the motivation issue for the protagonist: he doesn’t go back in time to prevent a catastrophe and change his present, but rather to help acquire the knowledge needed to make life more tolerable in the future. “How can I save you?” he impatiently explains at one point. “This already happened. I can’t save you. Nobody can.” The screenplay is brought to life on the back of the cast’s perfect performances (Brad Pitt went on to win his first Oscar nomination), but what makes 12 Monkeys so enduring is the crucial help of what we came to expect from a Terry Gilliam picture—the visual component.
The future that Gilliam and his team, and by this I mean primarily production designer Jeffrey Beecroft, envisioned is one of depravity and regression. Beecroft, who worked on the likes of Dances with Wolves, The Game and A Quiet Place, significantly helped the visionary director carve out the visual identity of post-apocalyptic 2035 with its low-tech development. “The reason for that was, if the world stopped today, and you can only take things down below now, what could you find down there? These people put all of this stuff together, and then had to kind of make up things, gerry-rig together,” Beecroft commented on their thought process. The suit the protagonist has to wear for protection from the virus is plastic, archaic, almost comical in its primitivism, and goes hand in hand with the sunlight-depraved underground interior of the gloomy penitentiary. In the interrogation sequence, as Cole is strapped to a metal seat and elevated three meters up the wall, a bizarre-looking giant globe with dozens of TV screens springs up in front of him, closely inspecting his reactions. The screens show the faces of the same scientists that are sitting only a few meters away, impractically and senselessly obstructing his view, effectively highlighting the idea that human ability to communicate is damaged by the use of technology.
Architect Lebbeus Woods and photographer Josef Sudek proved to be two vital sources of inspiration for the deconstructivist architecture that makes the 2035 sets so captivating. “We were sitting in our first meeting, and Terry had a Lebbeus Woods book and I brought Josef Sudek, and we wanted the sadness of this photographer Sudek and the architecture of Labbeus Woods—he’s an artist that no one’s ever built anything he’s drawn, because it doesn’t stand up. So I built it! And it doesn’t make sense, but it works.”
Beecroft was pivotal in keeping the production costs down: he had less than 2 million dollars at his disposal. “It’s the same money I had on The Bodyguard. Terry and I both come from backgrounds that are effects-driven so we know how to cheat,” he elaborates. “And so we did a lot of that, I reused things a lot, reused parts of sets over and over again, you can’t tell what they are. The airport became a lab set. The counters at the airport were turned upside down and sideways and became the walls of the set. It looks fantastic and you have no idea.”
The shot that made me fall in love with the film is played early on, when the protagonist is sent on a scientific mission of collecting some bugs on the surface. It’s a beautiful image of the snow-covered streets of Philadelphia as Bruce Willis makes his way across a decrepit square, as tiny as an ant, a powerful symbolical depiction of the feebleness of the human race when observed in the bigger picture. The streets that bustled with businesspeople and their everyday routines only a couple of decades ago are now home to wild beasts. A bear appears behind Willis, a lion roars on a fading rooftop. The animal kingdom reclaimed what was originally theirs. Roger Pratt’s cinematography perfectly complements Gilliam’s fancy for the unorthodox and uncanny. Later on, there’s a beautiful sequence where the sound of the flapping of birds’ wings in 1996 makes Cole realize he’d already stood at the same spot in the bleak future, and the setting subtly shifts back to its 2035 barrenness, a huge hole gaping from the ceiling.
Cleverly scheduled for release on December 29, right after the traditionally popular pre-Christmas period when a lot of movies came out at the same time and basically canceled each other out, 12 Monkeys was a box office bingo. Having two hugely popular A-list actors on the posters definitely didn’t hurt. A plethora of great films failed to get the immediate gratification through box office numbers, but the stars aligned favorably for Gilliam and his crew. Despite the initial justified reservations put forth not only by the studio, but even the screenwriters and the director, 12 Monkeys was a financial triumph—a complex, intricate, original film managed to conquer the mainstream. “So the question is, can you make films in that system that are intelligent and demanding?” Gilliam pondered later. “That’s what intrigued me about this one, because I think we’ve done it. We’ve pulled off an art film.”
Infatuated with the world of film since the early days, when ‘The Three Amigos’, ‘The Goonies’ and ‘Back to the Future’ rocked his world, Sven Mikulec majored in English with a special emphasis on American culture and started an unlikely career in organizing pub quizzes. Huge fan of Simon & Garfunkel, a mediocre table tennis player and passionate fridge magnet collector, he’s interested in fulfilling his long-term goal of interviewing Jack Nicholson while Paul Simon sings ‘April Come She Will’ quietly in the background. Read more »
“We bumped into a friend of ours from Berkeley: Tom Luddy. Tom laughed and said, ‘Oh, I know Chris. You know, Chris loves Francis Coppola. And Francis is in town.’ So we all met at a Chinese restaurant—writers and a couple of directors; no producers, no suits—and Chris Marker at one end of the table and Francis at the other. Francis looks up and says, ‘Chris!?’ and Chris says, ‘Yes, Francis?’ and Francis says, ‘Jan and Dave want to make this movie. They’re good people; I think you oughta let them do it.’ And Chris says, ‘Oh, OK, Francis.’” —Janet Peoples
A monumentally important screenplay and a screenwriting school in itself: David Peoples and Janet Peoples’ screenplay for Twelve Monkeys [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only.) Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys gets 4K UHD Edition from Arrow Video. Our absolutely highest recommendation.
THE ORAL HISTORY OF ’12 MONKEYS’
Inverse speaks with director Terry Gilliam and nine other people involved in the making of this 1996 sci-fi cult classic. —The oral history of 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam’s time travel masterpiece
Behind the scenes of Terry Gilliam’s allegorical epic; plus, screenwriters Janet and David Webb Peoples, Cinefantastique Vol 27 No 6.
12 Monkeys director Terry Gilliam, star Madeleine Stowe, producer Charles Roven and look back at the groundbreaking film 25 years later and the creative battles that made it great. —’12 Monkeys’ at 25: How the Eccentric Sci-Fi Film Went From Disastrous Test Screenings to Cult Phenomenon
12 Monkeys was based on Chris Marker’s brilliant 1962 science fiction featurette called La Jetée. It takes only 28 minutes to complete it but it will most likely stay with you forever.
In a captivating conversation with Charlie Rose back in 1996, Terry Gilliam discusses the creation of 12 Monkeys.
THE HAMSTER FACTOR AND OTHER TALES OF ’12 MONKEYS’
A really interesting documentary chronicling Terry Gilliam’s process of creating the film. The director hand-picked Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe to make this thoroughly fascinating examination of his work.
Commentary with director Terry Gilliam and producer Chuck Roven.
ROGER PRATT, BSC
Roger Pratt, BSC started his illustrious collaboration with Terry Gilliam with Monty Pyhton’s The Meaning of Life, after which the two of them worked together on masterpieces such as Brazil, The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys. Besides the fruitful relationship with Gilliam, the British cinematographer successfully worked with the likes of Neil Jordan, Mike Leigh, Tim Burton, Peter Yates, Richard Attenborough and many others.
In the following video, Roger Pratt, BSC talks about his art and craft at Raindance Film Festival.
A great piece by Stephen Pizzello for American Cinematographer on the complex aesthetics of 12 Monkeys and the crucial role of Roger Pratt in its development.
“While canvassing the concrete-crammed urban landscapes deep within the two cities, Gilliam and his companions discovered a treasure-trove of bleak, forlorn sites perfectly suited to the story’s aura of apocalyptic decay. Chief among these were Philadelphia’s disused Richmond and Delaware generating stations, which had once supplied electricity to the entire city, and Baltimore’s rotting Westport power plant, on the shores of the Patapsco River. Other Philadelphia sites included Memorial Hall, the last remnant of the 1876 centennial World’s Fair Exposition, which was cast as a university lecture hall; the deteriorating Met Theater, which became a homeless enclave where Cole does battle with a pair of vicious vagrants; the Greek-revival Ridgeway Library, a once-majestic structure now awash in graffiti scrawls; the Eastern State Penitentiary, which was turned into a present-day mental institution; and Philadelphia’s new convention center, which doubled as the airport featured in Cole’s recurring dream. Says Pratt, ‘The kinds of places we ended up shooting at were disused theaters and ugly sections of town—abandoned places that had faded and fallen into disrepair.’
Serving up the film’s photographic recipe, Pratt relates, ‘The overall concept was that the people who were stuck underground were dependent upon a kind of under-powered, shaky generator that gives them tungsten light that’s not up to par. There, we used a kind of sepia look with warm pools of light. When Cole goes above ground, he’s in a twilight area of snow, a place where there are no human beings, just animals. It’s a fairly simple look—cold, darkish, unfriendly daylight. Once we got into the everyday world of 1996, we went after a drab feel because of the places Cole and Dr. Railly encounter on their search for what actually happened to the world.’
Pratt felt that Kodak’s 5298 stock would be best suited to the task, and he used it exclusively. ‘I find that the 98 is adaptable to most situations,” he says. “What happened to us time and time again, working during the winter, was that we’d start out shooting brightish days and then see it all go to ratshit at about three o’clock in the afternoon. I just stuck ND filters on the camera when it was bright and took them off when it was dark.’”—Twelve Monkeys: A Dystopian Trip Through Time
Terry Gilliams talks about how much effort Brad Pitt put into developing his character, “working his ass off” to get everything right.
Bruce Willis promotes 12 Monkeys in a brief talk with Bobbie Wygant, explaining why he wanted to do the picture. “I read the script, it was a really, really well-written script written by David and Janet Peoples. Really well-written scripts are a very rare thing in Hollywood.”
ENGLISH CELLIST PAUL BUCKMASTER’S SCORE FOR ’12 MONKEYS’
With a career spanning five decades, English Grammy-winning cellist, arranger, conductor and composer Paul Buckmaster was hired to create the original score for 12 Monkeys. What follows is his great interview given to Christian Dueblin in 2009.
You are also the composer and arranger of the score of Twelve Monkeys, a famous movie with Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis. How did you come to get that opportunity?
I was recommended for that work by Terry Gilliam’s music consultant, Ray Cooper. He has been a friend—if a “long-distance” one—for many years, having met while we were both students at the RAM. Sometime during the 70s, Elton’s office called me and asked if I would recommend an all-round percussionist—that is, one who could read, and play not only all the “non-specific pitch” (non-tuned) percussion, but also all the tuned instruments: xylophone, marimba, vibraharp, glockenspiel, timpani, etc. Well, I couldn’t think of anyone better than Ray, so I gave them his name. By this time, I had become a permanent resident in the U.S., residing at Los Angeles, and had been working in a music-production studio on Sunset Boulevard, run by my friend the record producer/music supervisor, Steve Tyrell, who had invited me to come to L.A., and write the music for a film he was the music-supervisor on, Midnight Crossing, starring Daniel J. Travanti, Faye Dunaway, Kim Cattrall, and Ned Beatty (that movie was pretty awful, but was a chance to develop my skills). I flew over from London and at Steve’s invitation, stayed at his place while, together with Al Gorgoni, who composed about half of the score, I wrote and performed the score, using samples, synths, and working with MIDI-sequencing on my, by this time, third Mac computer.
I remained in L.A., obtaining my permanent residency (“Green Card”—which is actually pink), and working with Steve seven days a week on such TV series as Frank’s Place, Snoops, the animation series Peter Pan and the Pirates, Jake and the Fatman, Matlock, and others, several movies-of-the week (MOWs), such as The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, and Captive. In 1992, Steve went back to record-production and I moved my gear into an office next door, and was then commissioned to write the music for four episodes of Eerie, Indiana, which was great fun. I then moved out of those offices, and set up studio in my apartment, continued writing arrangements for record dates. The call from Ray Cooper to meet the producer of Twelve Monkeys, Charles “Chuck” Roven came sometime early 1995; I took the meeting, just up the road from me at Chuck’s offices. Chuck Roven showed me some stills from the production and some of Terry Gilliam’s production-sketches. I also read a brief synopsis, and realized that the movie was based on Chris Marker’s extraordinary 1963 short, La Jetée. As a fan of science fiction, I was very excited to discover this, as I was familiar with the story, and told Chuck about how I felt when I first saw it, in 1965.
So within a few weeks I was back in London where I spent late summer, till November 1995, collaborating with Terry Gilliam and Ray Cooper on that movie. We decided to use one piece of Astor Piazzolla’s in the movie, taken from a suite, Punta del Este. As soon as you have a rough cut of the movie you want to see it with music. It is very common for the director to find music that already exists in order to get a feeling of how any given scene or sequence plays. The director and the editor take music from different sources and lay it in to picture to see how it goes together with the movie. It can be any music from anywhere, and you soon find out if it works. This is called a „temp” score, in other words, a temporary score. It’s a great idea to mock-up a temp, and everybody does it, but it is also tricky. When the composer is called in one of the things he asks the director is how married he is to the temp. If you come up with something like the temp they would say: “But it’s like the temp!”; if you do something different they might say: “But it’s not like the temp!” Sometimes the director—or even the producers—can never be pleased; some of the greatest film composers have had serious clashes with directors… you can imagine that it does not always work to convince the director and film team. The great Jerry Goldsmith got fired from the sound-stage in the middle of recording a score with a large, 80-piece orchestra. I understand that John Williams, the multi-Oscar-winning composer of movie scores like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Indiana Jones series, the Star Wars saga, Schindler’s List, and many other famous films, also got fired once. You have no right in the music industry to call yourself a film composer until you got fired once (laughs). I have had that dubious honour as well.
I suppose that the work together with directors can be very difficult, because they have their own specific view of things and a vision they would like to realize.
That is true! The director is the person who decides and rules. The producer might just love what you do, but finally it is the director who decides. If he does not like your music, you are off, so you had better follow and support the director’s vision. If you have a good relationship with him it can be great. I had a certain amount of freedom with Terry Gilliam, and when we listened to the temp with Astor Piazzolla’s music I said to him that I would not be able to compose anything better, and that this music was perfect for the film. It is like you asking an artist to do something like the Mona Lisa: that is generally not possible, so regarding Piazzolla’s music I could not come up with anything better. I said, “Terry, let’s license it; I will rearrange it for the large orchestra we’ll have at our disposal, and make it sound fabulous.” So, with his blessing, I went ahead and wrote a new arrangement—pretty much like the original, but expanded for the larger group, which turned out to be a 70-piece orchestra, and it sounded fantastic. The other piece of music which was temped in was the slow movement from a violin concerto by Jacques Loussier. I had a state-of-the-art home-studio set-up where I was living in London, and was able to try all kinds of different things. So I wrote something similar as wished for by Terry—we call this a “soundalike”—but soon realized there would be a problem with the copyright, as what I had written was fairly close to Loussier’s original, close enough that I knew there would be a problem. Jacques was contacted, we had a legal-musicologist expert take a listen, and indeed, this was confirmed. Jacques was not very happy with the situation; the musicologist determined that my reworking of it was sufficiently original that Jacques was agreeable to evenly splitting the writer’s share. That is another part of the story but it shows you what the problems and challenges can be when writing a score for a movie.—Paul Buckmaster about his music career, famous musicians and his insights behind the scenes of the music business
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. Photographed by Phillip V. Caruso, Anna M. Elias © Universal Pictures, Atlas Entertainment, Classico, Twelve Monkeys Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or donate directly below: