There is a scene toward the end of 12 Monkeys in which James Cole sits in a 24-hour movie theater watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Cole, played by Bruce Willis, is not entirely certain whether he is a prisoner who “volunteered” to time travel from a future when 99 percent of the world’s population has been killed in a pandemic and the survivors live underground because the surface air is deadly, or whether he is just a man with a serious dissociative disorder. Next to him, applying a fake mustache to his face, is Dr. Kathryn Railly (played by Madeleine Stowe), his once doubtful psychiatrist who has become his coconspirator in investigating a group run by Jeffrey Goines (played by Brad Pitt) called the Army of the 12 Monkeys and their role in unleashing the virus on the planet.
Examining Kim Novak and James Stewart on screen, Cole is confused and agitated, his mind either scrambled by the effects of time travel or just in its natural state. He thinks he’s seen the movie before, maybe on TV when he was a kid, but something about it feels both familiar and unfamiliar. “It’s just like what’s happening with us,” he tells Railly. “Like the past, the movie never changes. It can’t change, but every time you see it, it seems different, because you’re different. You see different things.”
Arriving in select theaters at the end of 1995 before getting a wide release 25 years ago this week, 12 Monkeys was an immediate commercial success. Directed by Terry Gilliam, it was the middle installment of the three movies the iconoclastic filmmaker made for major American studios during the ’90s. But audiences quickly began to see 12 Monkeys differently.
In the midst of a wave of global natural disasters, film critic Elvis Mitchell wrote in a 2002 New York Times essay, “It’s as if the world has finally caught up to the lyric paranoid streaks in the imagination of the filmmaker Terry Gilliam.” In the ensuing decades, authoritarian-minded governments proliferated, environmental catastrophes continued, overpopulation went unabated, and the climate crisis neared the point of no return. More people started to feel like Cole, knowing witnesses to a civilization that seems destined to end during their lifetime. Writing for Vulture in 2018, Abraham Riesman called 12 Monkeys, “[O]ne of the most currently relevant pieces of science fiction ever committed to celluloid.”
And then came the coronavirus pandemic. At the time of this article’s publication, it’s estimated that COVID-19 is directly responsible for more than 1.8 million deaths, and that number is expected to continue to rise across the globe in the coming months, even as vaccines become more widely available. When lockdowns and restrictions were put in place during the first quarter of 2020, viewers started returning to 12 Monkeys or checking it out for the first time. “It had a whole new life,” says Charles Roven, one of the film’s producers. “It holds up really well.”
A TV adaptation of 12 Monkeys debuted at the start of 2015 and ran for four seasons on the Syfy network. Though the show is far different from the movie, it too has become a streaming favorite, even finding an audience for the first time in countries like India. “I certainly don’t love how topical our show has become,” says cocreator Terry Matalas, who estimates he saw Gilliam’s film in the theater three or four times when he was a student at Emerson College.
The movie Outbreak came out several months before 12 Monkeys, and journalist Richard Preston’s 1994 book The Hot Zone about lethal filoviruses was a national bestseller. Still, for most of the world’s population, a massive pandemic had not been a pressing concern since the Spanish Flu killed 50 million people between 1918 and 1920. Now there is a rising feeling that the next one won’t come a century from now. It could arrive much sooner and could be far worse. “I think the very first spoken words that aren’t voice-over in our show are, ‘It’s never been about if. It’s always been when,’” Matalas says. “When you start to really dissect that data, it’s terrifying. Right now we’re on the precipice of a vaccine, but are we truly ready for the next [pandemic]? I don’t think so.”
In 12 Monkeys, Railly has written a book called The Doomsday Syndrome and gives a lecture at a museum about madness and apocalyptic visions. She discusses the Cassandra complex, the idea taken from Greek legend about figures who know the future but whose warnings aren’t heeded, leading to what Railly describes as, “[T]he agony of foreknowledge combined with the impotence to do anything about it.” In the 25 years since its release, 12 Monkeys is increasingly seen as a Cassandra of its own kind.
“We told you so,” Gilliam says.
David and Janet Peoples live in the hills of Berkeley, California. Even though the married couple have been writing screenplays for the past four decades, they’ve spent their careers more than 360 miles from Los Angeles. Since shutdown orders arrived last March, they’ve left the house only to buy groceries, pick up takeout, or get their teeth cleaned. Still, things are going better for them than what they envisioned for the pandemic survivors in 12 Monkeys. “We’re lucky we’re not underground,” says David on a November morning.
“Yeah, but we’re almost ready to go there,” Janet adds.
The Peoples each got their first screenwriting credit on The Day After Trinity, a Peabody Award–winning and Oscar-nominated documentary about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man often called “the father of the atomic bomb.” The only other project they wrote together that reached the screen was 12 Monkeys. They swear they aren’t obsessed with how our society will end. “We don’t think about the apocalypse much,” David says reassuringly.
While it was their inventive script for 12 Monkeys that attracted both the on-screen and behind-the-camera talent to the film, the spark didn’t start with them. In the early 1990s, Roven produced mid-budget films like Cadillac Man and Final Analysis, which might be familiar to you if your parents sprang for subscription cable channels back then. Atlas Entertainment, the company he cocreated in 1995, didn’t start making DC Comics movies relevant again until 2005, when it released Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. That film was the first in a relationship between Roven, DC Comics, and Warner Bros. that has persisted for 10 projects, including Justice League, the recently released Wonder Woman 1984, and James Gunn’s forthcoming The Suicide Squad.
In the early ’90s, Roven had a first-look deal with another producer named Robert Kosberg, who brought him the idea of doing a feature-length remake of the French New Wave short La Jetée. Roven had never seen La Jetée (this will be an ongoing theme) and at that point, relatively few people in America had, besides deep cineastes and film school students. La Jetée didn’t scream mass-market appeal. Directed by prolific, convention-breaking filmmaker Chris Marker and released in 1962, the 28-minute piece is told through French narration over high-contrast black-and-white still photography, except during one crucial, beautiful moment when the image actually moves. La Jetée follows the story of humans who have been driven below the surface of the planet by the nuclear fallout from World War III. The surviving scientists in Paris send a man who is haunted by a memory from his prewar childhood across the boundaries of time in hopes that it will help them figure out how to rebuild a postwar existence.
After watching it, Roven thought La Jetée was great and brought it to the Peoples. (Kosberg is credited as an executive producer on 12 Monkeys. He did not respond to requests to comment for this article.) In the early 1980s, David Peoples made his name in Hollywood after Ridley Scott brought him on to revise the script for Blade Runner. After various writing and rewriting projects over the years, he received a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Western self-examination, which was a largely unchanged spec script he wrote in 1976.
Roven and the Peoples had prior history together. For years the producer had tried to develop David’s script for Soldier, eventually released as a Kurt Russell vehicle in 1998 with an entirely different set of filmmakers. Roven had also produced The Blood of Heroes, the only feature-length movie David directed.
When Roven brought La Jetée to the Peoples, they too had never watched the film. “It was one of those very famous pictures that you think you should have seen, just like you should have read Proust, but we hadn’t,” David says.
The Peoples also thought it was fantastic, but James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, another film about someone being sent back in time to save humanity after nuclear annihilation, had recently been in theaters and became a culture-defining work. “Terminator one and Terminator 2 are in our minds masterpieces,” David says. “There isn’t a way we want to look like we were copying those pictures.”
But the couple spent a weekend thinking about it and became intrigued by centering the film on a story in which the protagonist, the people around him, and the audience are all increasingly unsure whether his claims are true or not. “We’re in Berkeley, so it would not be particularly unusual if somebody came up to you and told you that he was a prisoner who escaped from the future,” David says.
They took the job and drew on more of their own experiences and what else from the culture was fermenting in their minds as they constructed the script, which was more “inspired by” La Jetée than a direct reworking of it. When David and Janet were younger, they both held jobs at the same state psychiatric hospital (though at different times), him as an orderly and her as a nurse. They found that the patients and the people who treated them could often have equally tenuous holds on reality. At the bio labs of nearby UC Berkeley, there were frequent demonstrations by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which led them to make the Army of the 12 Monkeys a group of extremist animal rights advocates with a penchant for dramatic protests. One of the Peoples’s daughters had a summer job in Southern California working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which was preparing to send out a probe to study Jupiter. They also heard about scientists who planned to venture up to the permafrost to find samples of the Spanish Flu, in order to sequence its genome and learn from it to combat new pandemics. These stories not only pushed the Peoples to shift the source of the world’s destruction from nuclear to viral, they solidified their vision of the scientists from the future as people intent on finding information and material to ensure humanity’s continued existence, not ones bent on changing the past.
Time travel is the third rail of science fiction, opening up questions about which actions will alter the course of history, the possibility for multiple realities, and all kinds of paradoxes. The Peoples decided from the outset that in 12 Monkeys, the death of 5 billion humans was inevitable. As Cole tells a panel of psychiatrists in 1990, “This already happened. I can’t save you. Nobody can.” Instead, journeying into the past serves as a crucial form of research. The scientists from 2035 ultimately want a pure sample of the virus from 1996, before it started mutating, so they can synthesize a cure. “It was a completely different take on the time travel,” Roven says. “Most time travel movies talk about the fact that if you change the past, you can change the future because you’re fucking up the space-time continuum. Or they say that the past, present, and the future is all one time, and that there is no such thing as time. But the premise of this movie was, you can’t change the past, you can’t undo it, it is what it is.”
The producers brought the Peoples down to Los Angeles to discuss the project with Marker. When they got there, they learned that the rights for La Jetée hadn’t been secured from the French filmmaker yet and hopefully they would be the ones to convince him. This was beyond their comfort zone. “We’re not salespeople,” says David. Though they did have a pleasant meeting with him at the Chateau Marmont, Marker made it clear he wasn’t interested in a Hollywood adaptation.
Afterward the Peoples ran into their friend Tom Luddy, the cofounder of the Telluride Film Festival and a fellow Northern California resident who had ties to Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope production company. They told Luddy what happened and he let them know that Coppola was also in town, and that Marker loved the gregarious filmmaker, so he might be able to persuade him. Luddy arranged a big dinner with the principal players and some other friends (“Just writers, no producers, no suits,” says Janet) at a Chinese restaurant. At the start of the night, Coppola sat at one end of the table and spent 15 to 20 minutes conferring with the chef about what to order. “We started eating and there was a lot of wine and everyone was very happy,” Janet says. “Chris was very quiet, but seemed to be content. And then in the middle of it, Francis says, ‘Chris,’ and Chris says, ‘Yes, Francis.’ And Francis says, ‘David and Janet want to write this movie based on La Jetée. They’re good people. I think you should let them do it.’ And Chris said, ‘OK.’ So that’s how we got the rights to La Jetée.”
Roven worked with the business affairs department at Universal, the studio where the film had been set up, to put together paperwork that was more thorough. Well, slightly more thorough. “He was a very secretive guy,” Roven says of Marker, who was rarely photographed and wouldn’t even reveal to journalists where he really grew up. “He required the contract for the option of the property to be on no more than two pages.” That way Marker could understand it all without the aid of lawyers.
Months later, the Peoples were back in Los Angeles and ran into Terry Gilliam. They told him about their idea for 12 Monkeys and when they finished it, they sent him a copy of the script. He liked it, but he was already lined up to make an adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities starring Mel Gibson. Then Gibson dropped out to direct and star in Braveheart, and Gilliam was unable to get the level of financing he needed for his movie, even with Liam Neeson in the lead role.
In the intervening time, the producers of 12 Monkeys hadn’t been able to find a suitable director and the script had undergone a minor rewrite from the Peoples to keep the project alive. With Gilliam now available, they sent him the new version and he asked why they had wrecked the original. “By the time they got to me, they had tried proper directors and nobody wanted to do it,” Gilliam says. “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.”
The Peoples were confident their screenplay had found the right director. “We were very comfortable with Terry because he loves absurdity as much as we do,” David says. “He is also interested in ambiguity, and ambiguity is what we live on, in a way.”
Gilliam had long burnished a distrust of the American film industry. Raised in Minneapolis, the filmmaker has spent almost his entire adulthood in England. As a founding member and writer for the Monty Python comedy troupe, he created their TV show’s animation sequences and codirected the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. His 1981 movie Time Bandits, a charmingly bizarre adventure about a thieving group of little people and the child they befriend, was a surprise hit in the United States, bringing in more than $42 million at the U.S. box office on a $5 million budget. In its aftermath, 20th Century Fox offered Gilliam the directing job for the interspecies bromance Enemy Mine, but he instead made Brazil, a dark satire about a man’s reluctant fight against a bureaucratic, authoritarian government.
Though it’s considered Gilliam’s masterpiece today (over the years Criterion has released the director’s cut on laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-Ray), the director had an infamously difficult time getting distributor Universal to release Brazil in the United States. It had done fairly well in Europe, but Sid Sheinberg, the president of Universal’s parent company, MCA Inc., hated the movie and demanded a drastic recut that eliminated its signature fantasy sequences and slapped on a happy ending that ran counter to the entire point of the film. A stalemate ensued. As the movie languished, Gilliam even resorted to taking out a full-page ad in Variety that called out Sheinberg by name, asking when he was going to put out the movie. Gilliam held clandestine screenings of it around Los Angeles, which led to the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awarding Brazil best film, best director, and best screenplay of 1985. Those wins forced Universal to acquiesce and finally release a slightly shorter version than the one that played in Europe.
But Gilliam’s follow-up, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, went catastrophically over-budget, reportedly ballooning from $23.5 million to $46.63 million. Subsequently he couldn’t get an insurance company to give him a completion bond, a critical form of independent film financing. With his career adrift, Gilliam signed on to TriStar Pictures’s The Fisher King. As Gilliam writes in Gilliamesque, his 2015 memoir, “The painful truth was that the main reason Richard LaGravenese’s script had been sent to me in the first place was because they wanted Robin Williams to be in the film. Robin had been in Munchausen and was my buddy, and therefore I was the bait—that’s all, just a little worm stuck on the end of a hook.”
The Fisher King was the first film Gilliam directed that he didn’t have a hand in writing. It turned out to be a much-needed critical and commercial success. “I guess it was my seduction into Hollywood,” he says now.
For a major studio, Gilliam was now a viable choice as a director, but in this particular situation there was still leftover baggage. Universal, the same studio Gilliam went to war with nearly a decade earlier, was set to make 12 Monkeys. Reflecting on whether he had any hesitation in hiring the director, Casey Silver, the chairman and CEO of Universal at the time (and who wasn’t with the company during the Brazil debacle), diplomatically writes in an email, “I respected his talent and passion for the project. Of course I knew about Brazil, but after sitting down with Terry and having a straightforward conversation about having to execute the movie at the agreed upon budget, ultimately believed in his sincerity, his talent and his passion for the script, which I shared.”
Then there were some more personal matters. Charles Roven’s wife was Dawn Steel, who became president of Columbia Pictures while Gilliam was finishing Munchausen for the studio. (Steel passed away from brain cancer in 1997.) Gilliam felt that Steel dumped the film, releasing it into few theaters, and hadn’t honored the agreements that the previous administration made with the director. “They became very estranged from each other as a result of the dynamics that occurred on that movie,” Roven says. “So it was with some uncomfortableness that I had to explain to Dawn that I was going to Terry. And then there was some uncomfortableness when I explained to Terry that I was coming to him, but I didn’t want him to be surprised by the fact that she was my wife. And instead of him being outraged, he just started to laugh with that Terry giggle. He just laughed and he said, ‘You know, it just goes to show, you can never burn a bridge in Hollywood.’”
As 12 Monkeys entered pre-production, Gilliam hired Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton, a pair of graduate students at Temple University film’s program, to chronicle its making. “He always joked that he liked having witnesses,” Pepe says. “That was definitely a not thinly veiled reference to the fact that the last time he had made a film with Universal it hadn’t exactly gone well.”
Pepe and Fulton eventually turned their behind-the-scenes experience into the full-length documentary The Hamster Factor. They would go on to make two more documentaries about Gilliam projects: 2002’s Lost in La Mancha, which followed the disastrous production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote that got shut down after a week of filming, and 2019’s He Dreams of Giants, about Gilliam’s second attempt to complete a Quixote movie. Pepe believes that Gilliam’s creative process relies on courting a certain level of chaos. “Terry actually thrives a little bit on stirring up the pot of potential curses or problems, and the energy that he gets out of tackling those things and trying to best them,” he says.
Though the 12 Monkeys script had plenty of unconventional elements, it was Gilliam’s most mainstream project yet. As the trailer would later show, it could be marketed, albeit inaccurately, as a fairly straightforward sci-fi thriller. “The potential conflict was that Terry was very aware that he was going Hollywood,” Pepe says. “Artistically he was trying to figure out: How do I make something that is still true to my vision and more on the arty side, but do that in the Hollywood system? And he was doing it with three major Hollywood stars.”
Though he thought the script was brilliant, Silver at Universal saw 12 Monkeys as a financial risk since it was “hardly conventional studio fodder” and since he knew what had happened with Brazil, so he required that the producers find cofinancing from outside sources. To secure that money, the producers knew they had to cast big-name actors in the main roles, and they eventually landed Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt (the three performers either declined to comment for this article or did not respond to requests to do so). Gilliam initially wanted to reunite with Jeff Bridges, who had starred in The Fisher King, as Cole, but he came around to casting Willis for the part. Though just years earlier the actor had been flying around the world for Planet Hollywood openings, when filming on 12 Monkeys began in 1994, Willis was in the middle of a career rehabilitation. While the third Die Hard movie was coming to theaters in the summer of ’95, he’d already taken smaller roles in more prestigious films like Pulp Fiction and Nobody’s Fool. Willis was looking for parts that went against how he’d been typecast. “One reason why he wanted to do [12 Monkeys] was to show that he was a real actor—a guy who was vulnerable, a man who’s lost, not the man in charge of the whole thing,” Gilliam says.
The director said he decided to go with Willis because of the scene in the first Die Hard in which a physically and emotionally exhausted John McClane picks glass out of his feet in a fluorescent-lit bathroom. But before finalizing Willis’s casting, Gilliam made the actor agree to three conditions that went against what he’d become known for in movies: (1) No smirking; (2) no steely-eyed staring at the camera; (3) no entourage on set. Gilliam believes that it ended up being a career-best performance for Willis.
For Railly, they cast Stowe, one of the most underrated actors of the ’90s. She had proved herself to be an adaptable presence, equally capable of standing out in a period action piece like Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans as she was in the everyday intimacy of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. “I have to really credit her for getting me through the movie because she was the one that was so constant and solid,” Gilliam says. “She’s the one I could always go in and talk to when I was getting confused about things or unhappy. She had a calming influence.”
Pitt originally met with the makers of 12 Monkeys about playing Cole, but they were already leaning toward Willis, and besides, they thought he was too young for the part. Instead they asked him whether he’d be interested in being Jeffrey Goines, the son of a wealthy virologist, who Cole meets in a psychiatric hospital and who he starts to believe is responsible for humanity’s demise. Pitt revealed to Gilliam and the producers that Goines was the role he actually wanted to play, but his representatives told him to go for the lead. They cast him at a fortuitous moment. An obvious star on the rise, he already had filmed Interview With the Vampire and Legends of the Fall, but they weren’t in theaters yet. As Gilliam notes, the release of those films would transform Pitt “from a guy that I could walk down the streets of Philadelphia with to a guy that couldn’t move and had to be protected all the time.”
Pitt went all in on the part, working with a coach to help him deliver his motormouth lines, visiting a psychiatric hospital for research, and choosing to wear a special contact lens to make it look like he had a wandering eye. (That last detail is particularly funny if you believe the theory that the pompous actor in Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion is based on Pitt, since at one point he decides that his character should wear an eyepatch.) The first scene Pitt shot in 12 Monkeys was the one that introduces his character—a monologue tour of the psychiatric hospital for Cole with discourses on drug dosages and how the patients can’t spread “a plague of madness” if they’re not allowed to communicate with the outside world. “He just fired on about a dozen different cylinders to the point that at the end of the day, he could barely stand he was so exhausted,” Gilliam says. “It was such a wonderful, surprising, outrageous, comic, and manic performance.” Pitt would receive his first Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for 12 Monkeys and won a Golden Globe because of his work in the movie.
The Peoples’ original script went largely unchanged as it reached the screen, aside from some minor alterations, including cutting a scene in which Cole and Railly consummate their relationship in the 24-hour movie theater’s storage room. Though the screenplay was evocative, it gave Gilliam plenty of space for both his ludicrous visual humor and incredible sets. “It wasn’t very descriptive of the world, so that gave me a chance to invent my own version of what that world would look like,” Gilliam says. “That for me is always the fun part. It’s playing God is what it is. … They had made a world that made sense to me, they had thought out how the people within that world function. It was up to me to create the rest.”
Gilliam too had never watched La Jetée and vowed not to until he was done with his own movie. (He eventually did when it was shown before 12 Monkeys at the film’s Paris premiere.) Still, he believed he had seen enough images from La Jetée in magazines over the years to get the gist. He worked with production designer Jeffrey Beecroft—a veteran of David Fincher commercials and music videos, and currently a frequent Michael Bay collaborator—to develop the film’s look. Beecroft introduced Gilliam to the nostalgic images of Czech photographer Josef Sudek and Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado, who documented industrial workers in developing countries.
They also grabbed on to the idea that the underground society Cole comes from in 2035 had to rely on pre-virus materials to make their futuristic technology. That’s why in this world where “science is not an exact science,” the time traveling device sometimes sends volunteers back to the wrong year. Most of the scenes set in the future were shot inside decommissioned power plants and factories on the East Coast. For the psychiatric hospital in 1990, they used Eastern State Penitentiary, a Philadelphia prison built during the 19th century in the shape of a wagon wheel. “As much as Terry was a gun for hire on the project, he really understood it,” Beecroft says. “What he brought to it was this edge of madness and this kind of dystopian decay that was like, things were degrading in front of you. That’s what I was trying to find, a world that would equal what was going on in Cole’s mind.”
Though 12 Monkeys was considered a mid-budget film, the scope of what Gilliam pulled off with the resources he had was impressive. The movie marked one of the first appearances of Jon Seda, who plays fellow time-traveling prisoner Jose and has since gone on to a long acting career that’s included roles in Homicide: Life on the Street, Treme, and Dick Wolf’s Chicago TV universe. One particular memory that still stands out for him is the short sequence in the film when both Jose and Cole are accidentally sent to France during a World War I chemical weapons attack. “That was the first time for me to be involved with a scene that was so massive,” Seda says. “The set, it really felt like we were in the trenches, and the special effects were amazing. The enormity of it and the bombs bursting around us. I remember I could hardly keep my eyes open because they had to keep stopping the takes to pluck rocks and sticks out of my eyes.”
In the final film, Gilliam’s influence on the material is inescapable. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “There are relatively few shots in this movie that would look normal in any other film; everything is skewed to express the vision.”
Gilliam has cultivated an image of himself as an outsider and provocateur, but during 12 Monkeys he was far from reckless. He just may be more honest than other directors about the base level of mayhem and precariousness that comes with making any film. “The mythology of Terry was very much that of the visionary filmmaker who goes up against the system, which is a pipe dream that any young filmmaker imagines for themselves,” Pepe says. “Part of the experience of watching Terry at work was realizing how practical he is as a filmmaker and how much he understood the mechanics of filmmaking and was really open to ideas that would save money and coming up with creative solutions to problems that other people would have only found difficult and expensive solutions to.”
While the filming of 12 Monkeys went relatively problem free, when it entered post-production more issues emerged. Pepe and Fulton had been hired to capture just what happened on set, but they decided to keep shooting all the way until the film’s release. As the studio saw how 12 Monkeys was coming together, executives began to express their concerns. “There was starting to be some pressure about, ‘Is this too much of an art film? Do audiences not understand it?’” Fulton says.
Part of the defining character of 12 Monkeys is its uncertainty, not just in solving the mystery of who started the pandemic and what the Army of the 12 Monkeys really is, but what is real and what is imagined. “It’s a bit like a mosaic, the question of how much of the image have we given away and how much does it imply the rest,” says Mick Audsley, who edited 12 Monkeys and would go on to edit two more of Gilliam’s features. “So if we’re building a portrait of a face, we’ve got the eyebrows, then we’ve got the nose in. What’s it going to take for [viewers] to fill in the whole face and recognize the complete image?”
The studio held two National Research Group screenings in Washington, D.C., near the Georgetown campus, hoping that young, smart college students would get it. The filmmakers felt pleased with the showings, until the next day when the response card results came back. “The audience seemed to respond brilliantly to the film [in the theater],” Gilliam says. “It was only when they fill out the cards afterwards they become different people. They become professionals.”
They said that they found the film confusing, that it took too long to engage them, and that the ending wasn’t clear. There are plenty of infamous tales of movies that got hacked apart and hastily reconstructed by the studio in a quest for higher audience test scores, but the makers of 12 Monkeys managed to evade that disaster. “We all felt passionately positive about this film,” Audsley says. “We weren’t going to change it. It couldn’t be changed hugely. It was what it was, and we embraced it.”
Gilliam also had the stars of the film backing his version of the movie. That support proved essential. “I always plan for the big battle at the end,” Gilliam says. “As long as Brad, Madeleine, and Bruce were all together with me, they couldn’t touch us. That’s the way I approach almost every film: Who’s going to be in the foxhole with me at the end? And they all stuck together with me, and the studio just couldn’t do anything about it.”
The filmmakers eventually agreed to some minor concessions. Roven says they added a pre-title epigram to help set the tone for the film, while Gilliam mentions changing the score during a scene between Cole and Railly in the middle of the film that sounded too romantic before audiences believed that element of their relationship existed.
When 12 Monkeys initially came out, critical reception was mixed, but leaned positive. In The New York Times, Janet Maslin called it “the best of Mr. Gilliam’s evocative nightmares about modern life,” while Emanuel Levy of Variety wrote that “its look and tone are incoherent.” When it was released widely in U.S. theaters at the start of 1996, it reached no. 1 at the box office, where it stayed for two weeks. It made more than $57 million domestically and more than $168 million worldwide, which remain the highest figures of any of Gilliam’s films.
During his first scene at the psychiatric hospital in 12 Monkeys, Pitt’s character Goines gets distracted by the television and starts talking about commercials. “We’re not productive anymore,” he spews to Cole. “No one needs to make things anymore. It’s all automated. What are we for then? We’re consumers, Jim. OK, OK, buy a lot of stuff, you’re a good citizen. But if you don’t buy a lot of stuff, what are you then, I ask you? What? You’re mentally ill.”
Four years later, Pitt would deliver similar ideas, armored with six-pack abs and ostentatious sunglasses, as Tyler Durden in Fight Club. Though that film’s director, David Fincher, and the writer of the book it was based on, Chuck Palahniuk, saw Fight Club as a satire of modern masculinity, Durden’s views have become increasingly mainstream on both the left and right side of the political spectrum. He has been adopted as a prophet by some.
Talking to Gilliam, it’s clear that the character in 12 Monkeys that he most relates to isn’t Cole, a man who knows what terror the future will bring but still has moments when he excitedly gulps in the air of a dying world. Instead, he finds a kinship in Goines. “What David and Jan had written, and what Brad was doing, was the way I saw things as well,” he says. “I’ve always liked the idea that possibly the person who sees the world most clearly is a madman. They’re free from the constraints the rest of us live within.”
The last time viewers see Goines, he’s just kidnapped his father and is about to free all the animals from a Philadelphia zoological society. Blindfolded and lying in a bodybag, the elder Goines (played by Christopher Plummer) tells his son, “I never let myself believe it. Now I know it’s true. Jeffrey, you’re completely insane.” The camera lingers on a closeup of Pitt’s face, lost in a swarm of thoughts, for a full five seconds before he responds, “No, I’m not.”
Gilliam does believe that the end of society may soon be upon us. The question for him is: What shape will the new one take? He’s troubled by how much hope and money is being put on colonizing planets like Mars rather than protecting the hospitable one we already inhabit. “My biggest concern is who is going to be managing the cull of humanity,” he says. “Because there’s too many of us. We consume everything, and I don’t see how we can keep taking everything we seem to think we need from the world, from nature, and the whole thing not fall apart.”
It’s late November when Gilliam offers these opinions, a few days after he turned 80 years old. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines haven’t been authorized for public use yet, but the news is imminent. Gilliam speaks wistfully of the early days when lockdown came to London, of how you could hear the birds and walk through uncrowded streets, calling it “like heaven on Earth.” Now the sound of traffic and airplanes have returned. The stores are open 24 hours a day for customers doing holiday shopping.
In his film, one of the twists is that in the end, Goines and the Army of the 12 Monkeys has nothing to do with the virus and its spread. They weren’t humanity’s killers, just a group of self-congratulatory pranksters with cans of red spray paint. Gilliam says he sees a connection between the flaws in Cole’s mission and the warp speed race to stop the coronavirus. “The search for the 12 Monkeys was fraudulent, they were going searching for the wrong thing,” he says. “We may be doing that again, the way we’re dealing with this pandemic. We’re going the wrong way, maybe. I don’t know.”
In the months ahead there will be queues of people in London waiting for the vaccine. Gilliam jokes mischievously that he will be there, to make sure there is some discernment in who receives it, “I’ll be blocking the lines saying, ‘No, no, I’ve chosen you to not get the antidote.’”
And then he giggles.
Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.