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.”
Screenwriter must-read: David Peoples' & Janet Peoples' screenplay for 12 Monkeys (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.