Despite a remarkable run of idiosyncratic classics that included Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and The Fisher King (1991), Monty Python alumnus Terry Gilliam still doubted the plausibility of making 12 Monkeys, the predictably odd and ambitious sci-fi favorite that would become the filmmaker’s biggest box-office success.
“I thought, ‘Nobody’s going to make this film,’” Gilliam tells us during a recent virtual interview in which he reunited with the movie’s husband-and-wife screenwriting duo, David and Janet Peoples, ahead of its 25th anniversary this month (watch above). “It just didn’t fit into what Hollywood was known for doing. And I was blown away by [the script], because I thought, this is a challenge. I thought if anything’s a challenge, this is one.
“And it touched on so many elements that appealed to me: time travel, the idea of something that wipes out half of humanity, if not more. I’ve always been a great fan of the idea of a big cull of the human species. … We are the most dangerous creature on the planet. We’re f****** it up.”
12 Monkeys, which like several other disease-oriented films has seen a spike in interest during the coronavirus pandemic, follows a convict (Bruce Willis) from a dystopian future sent back to the past (in this case 1996) to gather information on a man-made virus that has forced humanity to live underground. While there, Willis’s James Cole memorably encounters Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), the insane asylum resident thought to be a suspect for his ties to the activist group The Army of the Twelve Monkeys, and Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), a psychologist Cole kidnaps who later becomes an ally.
While Gilliam directly referenced time travel, the Peoples couple insist they always viewed the story to be more about “mind travel.” As David Peoples puts it, “It was not a sci-fi picture about magic traveling from one time to another. It was about, what would happen if you could travel? And what would it do to your mind? ... What is the future? And if you had a dream that you were in the future, could you really have been there? How would you know you hadn’t been there? And that was the dilemma of poor Cole. Did he just have a bad dream, and now he’s stuck trying to warn everybody about something?”
Loosely based on the French 1962 short film La Jetée, the Peoples’ conceived their story after witnessing animal rights protests outside a research lab near the neighboring University of California, Berkeley campus.
“The script was a mess. … It was so dense and so weird,” David Peoples admits about the project before Gilliam came onboard. “We realized that Terry was the only person who could’ve made that movie. Nobody else could’ve got that narrative, along with all those visionary [elements]. Terry had us make some changes in the script, and unusually in the motion picture business, they were improvements.”
That included one of the film’s key twists. In the original script, the Army of the Twelve Monkeys did actually release the virus.
“It was very conventional,” Janet Peoples says.
“And Janet suddenly pointed out, ‘They can’t send out the virus. That’s absurd, it’s somebody else. It’s just a big McGuffin.’ And from there on we had a story that was working.”
12 Monkeys is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Watch Gilliam and the Peoples talk about creating the film’s deadly virus:
— Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by John Santo.
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