Terry Gilliam, '12 Monkeys' screenwriters reunite, admit they 'had no clue' when creating film's fictitious virus

As Dr. Tracey McNamara told Yahoo Entertainment last month, writer-director Steven Soderbergh went to extensive lengths to ensure scientific accuracy when conceptualizing the viral pandemic that would sweep the globe in his horrifying 2011 thriller Contagion.

Like Contagion, the post-apocalyptic mind-bender 12 Monkeys also deals with a disastrous disease, and has also seen an uptick in streaming and downloads in the wake of the real-life spread of the coronavirus. But the film's famed director, Terry Gilliam, and his writers, David and Janet Peoples, admit they weren’t nearly as scientifically stringent.

"How about not at all? We had no clue," David says when asked how deep they dove into the virology of the movie's man-made killer, which, though never mentioned by name, is revealed via newspaper clippings to be called CZT. "We knew as much about that as most people who write these post-holocaust movies have no idea how an atomic bomb works."

Released in December of 1995 and loosely based on the 1962 short film La Jetée, 12 Monkeys pivots between a dystopian 2035, where the scant human survivors are forced to live underground after the spread of a deadly virus, and 1996, the year of its outbreak (with a couple stops in WWI and 1990). The sci-fi story follows a prisoner (Bruce Willis) plucked by scientists to time travel (though the filmmakers prefer to think of it as "mind travel") to the mid-'90s to discover the root of the virus, which is thought to be generated by an anarchist faction known as The Army of the 12 Monkeys.

Bruce Willis in <em>12 Monkeys</em>. (Photo: Universal)
Bruce Willis in 12 Monkeys. (Photo: Universal)

In adapting La Jetée, which deals with post-nuclear time travel, the Peoples were inspired by animal rights protests they witnessed outside a research lab at the University of California - Berkeley, a campus from which to this day they live around the corner. They also explored the contrasts between science and spirituality. "We looked a lot at our background in terms of Sunday School and Bible stories and revelations, and tried to use a lot of that," Janet says.

As the Economic Times pointed out recently, the film's man-made virus "fans the flames of conspiracies surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak and how the pandemic could have been a bioweapon experiment gone wrong." Says Gilliam, the Monty Python comedian-turned-sci-fi provocateur behind Brazil (1985), "It can be made. … We tamper with things because we can. And nobody seems to want to stop us experimenting with nasty and dangerous things. And occasionally they get a bit loose."

Not that 12 Monkeys was necessarily a warning shot. "We understood, theoretically, that it could [be a threat to us]," David says. "We understood it the same way we understood the atomic bomb could be a threat. We didn't really imagine that we would live in a world in which the atomic bomb had destroyed half of the United States, and we didn't really imagine that we would go through a pandemic. But we understood the concept, and understood that it was potential real thing."

Gilliam and the Peoples — whose film was a box office success upon release, earned a still-budding Brad Pitt (as the scene-stealing mental patient Jeffrey Goines) his first Oscar nomination, and has only grown in stature over the years — are clearly entertained by the fact that viewers are responding to the coronavirus by revisiting Contagion and 12 Monkeys — both movies are about far more destructive diseases.

"Exactly as we planned it, right Terry?" David muses.

"Exactly," laughs Gilliam. "It just took a little bit longer than we expected. We thought the pandemic was going to happen in 10 years. It took far too long. It's here at last, and the film is being rediscovered, finally."

—Video produced by Jen Kucsak

Look for more coverage from our interview with Terry Gilliam and David and Janet Peoples as 12 Monkeys turns 25 later this year.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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