On Location with Syfy’s 12 Monkeys

In advance of Syfy's new series, we took in a set visit in search for the Army of the 12 Monkeys.

It’s a blustery late-November afternoon and there are an underwhelming amount of monkeys roaming the snow-dusted streets of Toronto.

There are none, actually. They keep them concealed inside a production studio the size of an airplane hangar on the outskirts of downtown.  

The monkeys held there, I’m told, are dangerous, but I wasn’t to be deterred.

When I entered the expansive set of 12 Monkeys, Syfy’s new series, I stepped into a bleak post-apocalyptic future and I could hardly take notice because everywhere I looked the freshly inked stamp of the Army of the 12 Monkeys teased me. Where in this time-traveling wasteland could they be? I looked under scientists’ desks, through the dreary corridors soaked by bright-red flood lights and peeked around a time-traveling accelerator called the “Splintering Chair,” before I finally gave up.

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I saw nothing resembling a primate while on set. Did I go too far back in time?

***

Syfy brought 12 Monkeys, the television remake of a classic cult film bearing the same name, to 2015 without the use of a “Splintering Chair.” They’d build that later on.

Under network president Dave Howe, Syfy is splurging on sexy, ambitious projects as it continues to search for a show that rivals Battlestar Galactica, the hit that first changed the perception of the channel. The way science-fiction and the space drama are entering mainstream popular culture–just look at recent blockbuster boons in Gravity and Interstellar–bodes well for the cable network. Howe himself said sci-fi is now “the most mainstream genre,” giving people permission to “embrace it in a way that they may not have done before.”

The genre entering the mainstream might not have been at Syfy’s doing, but the network saw it as a perfect time to resurrect 12 Monkeys and bet big on its name and crossover appeal. The writers emphasized how loosely the series is based on the film. James Cole (played by Aaron Stanford) is from the year 2043, a time when the plague killed off millions. As the show’s focal point, he travels back to the past in an effort to find the source (Monkeys, hint, hint) of the deadly plague that threatens the human race. In going back to 2015, Cole kidnaps Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull) and then convinces her to help with his mission. That synopsis pretty directly mirrors the film. 

Before monkeys roam the future earth like zombies and ascend the show to The Walking Dead status, the network is tasked with promoting the hell out of its 2015 centerpiece–the stamp of the monkey is all over midtown Manhattan–and the production team is hidden away at sites like an old power plant in Toronto, concocting ways to distinguish a television adaptation from its source material.

***

mental illness movies

In 1995, Terry Gilliam set out to direct 12 Monkeys, a major-studio adaption of a French short film, La Jetée. Gilliam squeezed plenty out of a modest budget of close to $30 million. After earning more than $160 million at the box office, the film took on a life of its own. Bruce Willis was an anchor as the lead role of time-traveling prisoner James Cole, but a young Brad Pitt starred as a mental patient Jeffrey Goines. The film achieved cult status on the strength of Pitt’s performance, which netted him a Golden Globe award and the first Oscar nomination of his now storied career.

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Gilliam tailors his films to make a statement on the world we live in, often using dystopian themes for what he now refers to as a trilogy–starting with Brazil (1985), then on to 12 Monkeys, and most recently with The Zero Theorem (2014). Those films are hardly considered appealing fare for the masses when 20 years ago the highest grossing domestic films of the year were Toy Story, Batman Forever, Apollo 13 and GoldenEye — making Gilliam’s accomplishment all the more impressive. After all, it wasn’t even Willis’ biggest box office hit of the year — the Die Hard sequel took care of that.

In September, Gilliam told Den of Geek he found out about the television adaption just like the rest of us, from the internet, and has no connection with the project. He did acknowledge the curious state of filmmaking and temptations of bringing passion projects to cable.

“What’s happening with television, with cable, that’s where all the good work is coming from,” Gilliam told us. “I think films are really getting in trouble, because the writers are moving to television. There’s not the great writing available for film anymore, because you just have to keep doing Marvel Comics, it seems to me. What we’re doing here, for the first time, I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing, but The Zero Theorem is coming out first on Video On Demand, and then, a month later, in the cinemas. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, but it’s the world we’re living in when you make films that don’t fit the big tent pole pattern. It’s a strange time.”

***

The sound of set construction thuds off the gloomy post-apocalyptic decor, playing like a soundtrack to the end of the world as 12 Monkeys co-executive producer and writer Terry Matalas tells us how this is best place to come to work everyday.

It’s a bit easier to get out of bed in the morning knowing you’ll be working alongside people you’ve gone to battle with before. Matalas met co-executive producer and writer Travis Fickett while at Emerson College in Boston. Ever since, the duo have written together, from graphic novels to cutting their teeth on the short-lived Fox series Terra Nova, before finding a steady paycheck writing for The CW’s Maggie Q vehicle, Nikita. 

When Syfy picked up 12 Monkeys, the Nikita influence helped speed along the casting process. They were already familiar with Stanford, who spent four seasons starring in Nikita. The former theater actor, who secured his biggest roles in X-Men 2 and 3, signed on to play the lead role for Matalas and Fickett. 

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Amanda Schull, best known for turns in Pretty Little Liars and One Tree Hill was tapped for the female lead in Dr. Cassandra Railly. Noah Bean, who plays Dr. Railly’s love interest, political insider Aaron Marker, also came along from the Nikita days. Tom Noonan of Manhunter fame, who was absent on this particular day, plays the leader of the Army of the 12 Monkeys. 

Rounding out the cast is Cole’s mate from the future, Ramse (played by Kirk Acevedo of HBO’s Oz), and in the past he befriends “unhinged math genius” and psych-ward patient Jennifer Goines. If the latter sounds familiar, Matalas and Fickett changed the sex of Brad Pitt’s revered character to alleviate actress Emily Hampshire of the Pitt comparisons and allow her the opportunity to make the character her own.

That was easy for Hampshire — she had never seen the film before she auditioned. The character was what came alive on the page. “I got to make up my own idea of who this is,” says the Montreal native. “I saw the movie after everyone was like ‘this is Brad Pitt,’ and then I was like ‘I’m fucked.’”

She adds: “I watched the movie as if he was kind of a relative of Jennifer Goines. It’s not me trying to do that part. It comes from the same DNA.”

The cast had differing methods on how they prepared for their respective roles.

Stanford studied war literature, reading through testimonials of Vietnam veterans get him in the mindset of someone coming home after experiencing horrific trauma from a ravaged faraway place.

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“I tried to read books about [the apocalypse] and I tried to watch films about that subject because really it only exists in our imagination,” Stanford says. “There’s no real historical text we go to to figure out what it would be like in the apocalypse.”

“I very intentionally did not watch the movie again,” Schull says. “I know that this is based on the film but we’re not trying to be the film.”

Fickett contends the pilot is the last time they stick to the film — though there will be small nods, or “spiritual successors,” to the film throughout.

“There’s an internal struggle of ‘who’s sane and who’s insane?’” Stanford says of the film. “In [the Syfy series], pretty much you know right off the bat that time travel is real.”

“But that doesn’t mean [Cole] is not physiologically damaged,” Matalas chimes in. “He’s got his own brand of crazy.”  

Once the writers were able to shake the image of the film and let 12 Monkeys stand alone, the focus switched to creating a dynamic between the past and future that engages viewers without confusing them.

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“The cool thing about this show, and it’s difficult in the writers’ room for us, is we have two shows,” Fickett says. “There’s the 2043 reality… And you’ve got 2015, which is where Emily [Hampshire]’s character and Noah [Bean’s Aaron] and Amanda [Schull’s Railly] live. Gradually the walls between those two realities start to break down because [Cole] is traveling between the two.”

Matalas wasn’t shy about touting a cast he called “one of the best” on television: “You meet characters at different ages and different parts of their emotional journey and each script we give them some really crazy, challenging shit and they not only meet those expectations, they exceed them.”

No matter who is exceeding what, the creative team was unsurprisingly tight-lipped about the Army of the 12 Monkeys. I still don’t believe they exist. Maybe none of what I saw was real and I was just living out one of Jennifer Goines’ delusions. Spending time in a dark, underground world has a dizzying effect on people.

If season one is successful, or if I’m able to finally catch one of those pesky primates, there’s another good omen on the horizon. The Chinese zodiac says 2016 is the year of the monkey.

“It does feel like a really great binge-watching show because it’s told out of order, something set up in a different timeline pays off in the next episode,” Matalas says. “It’s the perfect time for a serialized time-travel drama.”

12 Monkeys airs Friday, Jan. 16 at 9 p.m. 

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