Touring Toronto: On Location With Syfy's '12 Monkeys'

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Rick Acevedo as Ramse, Aaron Stanford as Cole in '12 Monkeys'
Rick Acevedo as Ramse, Aaron Stanford as Cole in '12 Monkeys'

It’s a cold, blustery day after Toronto’s first major snowstorm of the season, the kind of day that non-Canadians probably imagine when they think of reasons to never move to Canada. In an industrial neighborhood of Etobicoke — a tough, outer region of the city whose most famous resident is probably the city’s now-ex-mayor Rob Ford — the warehouses, hardware stores, and office buildings feel nearly as uninviting as the dark skies and dirty snowbanks. It’s a miserable day in a drab part of town.

Thankfully, there’s a time machine nearby.

Several of these warehouses make up the second campus of Cinespace Film Studios, a company largely responsible for Toronto’s booming production industry. Formerly a glass factory, the otherwise-unassuming buildings are home to grand medieval costume drama (Reign), a New York cop show with a fantastical twist (Beauty and the Beast), and Syfy’s anticipated time-travel thriller 12 Monkeys, which premieres Friday, Jan. 16 at 9 p.m. On a day like this, time travel seems like an appealing idea.

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12 Monkeys, a spiritual successor to Terry Gilliam’s acclaimed 1995 film, tells the story of James Cole (Nikita’s Aaron Stanford stepping into Bruce Willis’s shoes), a man sent back from the year 2043 to find the source of a plague that has destroyed nearly the entire human race. (A future for which post-snowstorm Etobicoke could probably serve as an appropriate setting.) The show’s time travel technology allows its characters to travel not only to different times, but to different locations. Co-creators Travis Fickett and Terry Matalas, veterans of Nikita’s writers’ room, say that shooting in Toronto allowed them to pull that off.

Aaron Stanford and Amanda Schull in '12 Monkeys'
Aaron Stanford and Amanda Schull in '12 Monkeys'

“There’s an incredible variety of locations. We’ve had to do post-apocalypse, we’ve had to do Chechnya, on Nikita we managed to do Mumbai,” says Matalas. “We did China, we’ve done Hong Kong. So anything can be done here [in Toronto].” Stanford also says he recalls Nikita managing to make Toronto, a lake-side city surrounded by farmland, stand in for Afghanistan. They did take the show out of Toronto on occasion, shooting in Macedonia and the Dominican Republic, because, as Fickett puts it, “You can’t really build the Dominican Republic in [nearby city] Hamilton, as much as you may want to try.”

As cliché as it might be to complain about Canadian weather, Fickett and Matalas can’t help but admit that the weather outside the studio can be, in a word, challenging. “There’s only so much you can put people through,” says Fickett, “in terms of suffering through the elements. Our lenses froze, which our camera department had never seen before.”

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That being said, Matalas also echoes something mentioned by Amanda Schull, who plays virologist Cassandra Railly. “I think [the weather] really adds production value,” he says. “Last night, we did this shot where two of our main characters were walking down the street in what would be New York City, and the snow coming down was so beautiful, it was like we faked it. It was pretty stunning.”

Of course, much of the series is shot inside, and the sets, connected by a spidery network of dank concrete hallways, are impressive. The centrepiece is the “Project Splinter” time machine itself, which sort of resembles a giant battery split in half and emanating blue light. The show looks quite a bit different than the film, which flaunted Gilliam’s unique, psychedelic visual sensibility through disorienting camera angles and some bizarre production design. 12 Monkeys the show looks far slicker than its ancestor, owing partly to its shared roots with Nikita. “Nikita was watched by like nine people,” jokes Fickett, “but it was a very good-looking show. The stunts and the production value and everything… Some of the people we brought in [for 12 Monkeys] were key to that. We knew what they could do.”

Emily Hampshire as Jennifer Goines in '12 Monkeys'
Emily Hampshire as Jennifer Goines in '12 Monkeys'

The show’s departure from the film, as the cast and crew are all quick to point out, goes far beyond the aesthetic differences. Brad Pitt’s memorably-unhinged Jeffrey Goines is now Jennifer Goines (played by Emily Hampshire), a decision that came early on in production. And while in Gilliam’s world, the characters can’t change history, Matalas calls their version of time “more of a conscious force that behaves how it wants to behave.” It quickly becomes evident that the characters of 12 Monkeys can affect the flow of time, which allows for quite a bit of complexity.

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"You never want to talk down to your audience,” he says. He references the 2012 cult hit Looper when describing the kind of storytelling they’re going for. “There’s a section in the middle of Looper where you’re not entirely sure what [director] Rian Johnson’s doing,” he says. “But by the time it clicks in, it’s so satisfying because you figured it out.”

12 Monkeys premieres Friday, Jan. 16 at 9 p.m. on Syfy.