The oral history of 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam's time travel masterpiece
Inverse speaks with director Terry Gilliam and nine other people involved in the making of this 1996 sci-fi cult classic.
A quarter of a century after its release, Terry Gilliam still can’t believe anyone let him make 12 Monkeys. “You have your moment when you’re a golden boy and they listen to you,” the director tells Inverse.
The 1996 sci-fi classic about time travel, death, and madness was Gilliam’s sixth project as a solo director (following 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail and his 1985 dystopian cult classic, Brazil) and is regarded as one of his finest pieces of work. Though such a complex and ambitious film was fraught with drama — from asbestos to a knife-wielding prostitute — a number of stars aligned to ensure its commercial and critical success is remembered fondly 25 years on.
The opaque tagline, “the future is history,” is as much of an absurd paradox as the story within. A dense and destabilizing film, 12 Monkeys was unusual in being unapologetically weird while starring two of Hollywood's hottest names, Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, in lead roles.
Given that Willis was synonymous with Die Hard in the mid-’90s, it came as a surprise when one of his next movies was a Gilliam mind-bender based on a dystopian black-and-white French arthouse film, but casting John McClane as a confused time traveler turned out to be sci-fi cinema’s best idea until Keanu Reeves said “whoa” three years later. (Though the casting what-ifs will make you wish you could travel back in time and change Gilliam’s mind.)
“I had never been a great fan of Bruce's before,” Gilliam says, revealing that he passed on Nicolas Cage and Tom Cruise before coming around to Willis.
As James Cole, Willis travels back and forth through time in an attempt to prevent the release of a virus he believes to have killed almost everyone on the planet. Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) diagnoses him as mentally ill, sending Cole to a mental institution where he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). But after encountering him again and again, Railly comes to realize Cole may be sane after all.
Confusing, amusing, and a Gilliam film through and through, 12 Monkeys is the definition of a movie that rewards repeat viewing. Twenty-five years after its January 5 wide release (following a limited premiere in late December of '95), Inverse spoke to 10 of the film's key players to piece together how such an ambitious project came to be.
Charles Roven (producer): I was given the short film La Jetée by Chris Marker by a gentleman by the name of Robert Kosberg. I then gave that to Dave and Jan [Peoples].
David Peoples (screenwriter): We had missed seeing La Jetée in the ‘60s when we should have seen it. They sent us a terrible video of it, but in spite of the fact that it was an awful video, it really was such a wonderful movie. We said, “We'll spend a weekend on it and see if there's anything we can come up with that would be interesting.” It did come to us that people hadn't been doing a lot of stuff with the threat of germs – man-made germs or germs from nature. We had an image of a city with no people and just animals roaming around, totally out of place. Chris [Marker] hadn't said it was OK to make a movie out of his movie. He hated all Hollywood movies except Vertigo.
Janet Peoples (screenwriter): We bumped into a friend of ours from Berkeley: Tom Luddy. Tom laughed and said, “Oh, I know Chris. You know, Chris loves Francis Coppola. And Francis is in town.” So we all met at a Chinese restaurant – writers and a couple of directors; no producers, no suits – and Chris Marker at one end of the table and Francis at the other. Francis looks up and says, “Chris!?” and Chris says, “Yes, Francis?” and Francis says, “Jan and Dave want to make this movie. They're good people; I think you oughta let them do it.” And Chris says, “Oh, OK, Francis.”
“I will die to make this film.”
Mick Audsley (editor): About two years before Terry [Gilliam] contacted me, Dave and Jan sent me a very early draft of Monkeys. I thought, I will die to make this film. If I have to lose my arm or sell my children, I want to make this film. They said, “Is it comprehensible in any way?” to which I replied, “Not at all, which is why I want to do it.”
Charles Roven: We were talking about directors to give it to. We all agreed that Terry would be a great choice.
David Peoples: Terry read it and liked it a lot, but he was totally devoted to a long-time project to make A Tale of Two Cities for Warner Brothers. So he had to say no to 12 Monkeys, at which point Chuck [Charles Roven] had us do another rewrite which he thought would make it appealing to other people. In the meantime, something went wrong with A Tale of Two Cities and suddenly Terry's available again. So we gave him the rewrite we'd done for Chuck and he said, “How come you ruined the script?”
Terry Gilliam (director): I was told by Chuck that it had been read by many different directors and nobody knew what to do with it. That's what excited me about it. The complexity was one thing that was intriguing. Who is the mad person in here? Is it Madeleine [Stowe]'s character or is it Bruce [Willis]'s character?
Janet Peoples: Both David and I worked in state hospital mental institutions when we were really very young.
David Peoples: We both remembered instances of sitting in staff meetings with the doctors all there and the patient not in yet, and one doctor would say something like, “Oh, by the way, what's the date today?” Then when the patient came in and they started asking him, “Do you know what the date today is?” it would be a big deal if they knew that stuff. That's what Terry likes, because Terry has this sense of absurdity that is just wonderful.
Terry Gilliam: The pressure was to get a movie star in. That was at a time when I was still a hot director, so people wanted to come near me and touch me. So they were coming up with all these names. And I just kept saying no. Tom Cruise, Nic Cage, they were all being thrown at me.
Margery Simkin (casting director): Terry called. Whatever he does, I will always be willing and able to come play. After all these years he trusts me a lot. It's like, I imagine when you're dealing at a restaurant and people are developing dishes. You're looking for various flavorings that will spice something up and make it special.
Terry Gilliam: I had never been a great fan of Bruce's before, but I liked talking to him, and I thought, OK, this guy's smart; he's funny. I explained to him my concerns about him as an actor. I hated that moue [pursed-lip expression] he does in his films when he gets a bit nervous. I thought, 'God, that's horrible.' He does a moue with his mouth; it's a Trumpian mouth. For a moment it goes all Trumpian. Rectal. It's like I'm looking at somebody's asshole."
Margery Simkin: Bruce was perfectly willing to leave the entourage behind.
“It's like I’m looking at somebody's asshole.”
Terry Gilliam: Brad [Pitt] came to London, and we had dinner because he was keen to get on board to play the part that I had already given to Bruce. I was actually scared shitless that Brad might not be able to do the character because up to then we'd never seen him as a motormouth.
Charles Roven: We were lucky that the actors fell in love with it and that they were willing to do the movie for not their established prices.
Margery Simkin: It seemed that they both wanted to be involved because it was an opportunity for both of them to stretch.
Terry Gilliam: I put [Brad] together with Stephen Bridgewater, who had worked with Jeff Bridges on The Fisher King. Stephen's first meetings with Brad — he liked pot too much, he had a lazy tongue. But he worked his ass off; he really did.
Charles Roven: To prepare for the movie, he checked himself into a mental ward. And he spent a few days there, just to get the feel of it.
Margery Simkin: With Brad at the time, it was a failure of people's imagination about him. And also the curse of the pretty boy, that people don't believe God gives with both hands or something.
Jon Seda (Jose): Once I got the script, I had to read it probably at least five times in a week, and I was still lost. I was trying so hard to make sense of it.
Scott Elias (location manager): I had just returned from doing something or other and had been away for quite some time and really didn't want to do another project right away. But then I got a call from Lloyd Phillips, who was a really interesting guy; he was the co-producer of the film. The moment he said, “Terry Gilliam,” I said, “Gee, I think I'm in, no matter what.” He said, “We need you here right away; we're on the verge of losing a location that Terry wants very badly.” I dropped everything and just ran over to Philadelphia.
Margery Simkin: Their downtown hadn't been torn down and rebuilt like many other American cities, so it still had all of these amazingly stunning old buildings downtown. There was something about that energy – of this beautiful, slightly crumbling place that was being energized.
Charles Roven: There were these amazing old 19th-century generator plants, which served as the locations for the subterranean areas where Cole was in the future.
Terry Gilliam: Having used Croydon power station for Brazil, I was obsessed with power stations and the technology within them.
“I learned more about asbestos abatement than I ever thought I would have to know.”
Scott Elias: Terry was enamored very much with a closed power plant on a Delaware river. It was maybe the biggest building in all of Philadelphia. We were maybe 30 feet inside this place and a huge chunk of the ceiling fell directly in front of me. Honest to God, had it hit me, it would have been the end of me. I looked up and in the distance on the ceiling it was just crumbling; all this concrete barely hanging there. I remember driving to the office, and I met with Lloyd Phillips and Chuck Roven. I said, “I can't take two people in there, let alone 200.” It took a pretty solid three months to make it safe.
Anthony Simonaitis (special effects on-set supervisor): The thing that we would do CG now, we wouldn't shoot in a power plant. We'd shoot on a stage and they would do CG set extensions, do blue screens. We'd be on a stage with a heater; it wouldn't be 15 degrees in there with 100 years of toxic residue and mold and asbestos and bird poop and all the other stuff that's in a 100-year-old industrial building.
Anna M. Elias (assistant location manager): I learned more about asbestos abatement than I ever thought I would have to know. One of the things that was unique to these power plants was they were freezing inside, and we were filming in the winter in Philly. They had their own weather patterns. And we had Bruce Willis in next to nothing, so we had a tent for him that we'd have to haul up these steps.
Scott Elias: We did shoot one scene in Camden, New Jersey. At the time it was really rough and tumble. I looked everywhere for a motel. It was a freezing cold day and I'm taking photographs of this motel, and a knife suddenly comes across my throat from behind. It was a hooker. It turns out that this was a hooker motel and she thought I was some kind of a policeman. And she actually stole my video camera, and she took my money as well.
Anna M. Elias: In the movie, we depict a World War I trench that we had to create from scratch in this quarry-type place in Chase, Maryland. Our art department had to go in and build World War I trenches. At some point, this wind arrived — like a tornado. It was strong enough to lift the tents out of the ground. I just remember lunging and grabbing the side of the tent and hanging on for dear life.
Jon Seda: I remember I could barely keep my eyes open because of all the stuff from the bombs going off and the dirt was flying down from the sky. They had to keep plucking pieces of rocks and sticks out of my eyes so we could get the take.
Scott Elias: We used a penitentiary for the psychiatric asylum, which was the first real penitentiary in the world. I think Charles Dickens even toured the place when it first opened, and Al Capone was housed there for a while. It was supposedly haunted, which I wouldn't doubt. They had a central rotunda and then various cell blocks pin-wheeled out from that center. The whole idea was that the guards could be in that center and could see everything that was going on.
Charles Roven: Terry and I had a very interesting give-and-take relationship. We had some pretty nice arguments, but we also had some pretty nice times where we really agreed.
Anthony Simonaitis: It's the one movie I point to where the grey started to show up in my beard.
Margery Simkin: It wasn't easy, and Chuck really produced the film. He wrestled that film into being.
Anthony Simonaitis: I remember some pretty contentious budget meetings about the snow and some stand-offs on the set. There's a technique where we use a soap solution and compressed air and water. You aerate this material and you create a foam. You spray it on the ground, you spray it through hoses; you can cover large areas quickly, and it creates this white, soft blanket of snow. But at first, it looks like shaving cream. Terry was not happy with it when we first put it out.
Terry Gilliam: Bruce was trying incredibly hard to just be an actor at work, but he had been spoiled by success for so long. So he was in many ways like a kid who was pushing the limits constantly and then coming up with stupid excuses for being late on the set. There was one point he had something that looked like a note from his mother. We let Bruce go away for a long weekend and he came back and suddenly he was Bruce Willis Superstar again.
“There was one point he had something that looked like a note from his mother.”
Mick Audsley: He became the Die Hard man with his pouty mouth. Then we decided to see if we could rescue our Bruce, which we couldn't. He got re-molded back to the character.
Charles Roven: I would say that those were tense conversations, but ultimately it all worked out, clearly.
Terry Gilliam: Stephen Bridgewater was working with Brad daily. He was like a coach. And I think at a certain point, he decided that day he didn't need Stephen. It was a terrible day because Brad was not getting it right, and he knew it, which made it worse. Bruce became fantastic; he was like a father figure to Brad. I said, “Brad, you've got to call the studio and ask for another day.”
Anna M. Elias: Brad had just been Sexiest Man of the Universe.
Terry Gilliam: Legends of the Fall did it. It just changed everything. Girls were threatening to throw themselves off Philadelphian bridges.
Anna M. Elias: That penitentiary… I don't know how she did it, but somehow a girl got in and hid overnight. The next day, when we showed up to continue filming, she came out in the middle of things and wanted Brad.
Scott Elias: Sasha the Siberian tiger was a particular favorite because we housed her at the armory where our office was located. It had huge walls everywhere. And don't you know, a couple of teenage gang members decided that that was a good night to climb over the walls with ladders. So they crept up to this fancy-looking trailer that housed Sasha and they broke into it. And they were stealing a radio out of the cab of the truck, and the window was open between the cab of the truck and the trailer. I get a call from the security people, saying, “You need to come down to the armory, there's been a break-in.” So I just throw on some clothes and run down there as fast as I can to find these two 15/16-year-old kids literally weeping, one having wet himself – no kidding. What I discovered was, as they were breaking into the cab and they were stealing this radio, Sasha's paw comes through and she growls at them, and it scared them out of their wits.
The focus groups
Terry Gilliam: People don't understand the test screening aspect of filmmaking, which is possibly the most critical. You've made the film, you've done the work, and now you're surrounded by all these studio executives who are shitting themselves with nerves, worrying that they might have their name on a failure of a movie.
Mick Audsley: It was Georgetown. It was an educated audience. You felt this sparkle, and we thought, “Wow, they're loving it as much as I do,” only to get comments like, “I can't rate it, I'm too confused.” The one that I shall never forget: A man stood up and said, “This film is predictable.”
David Peoples: We did go to a screening where we were sitting in the back of the theatre. And some guy in the back of the theatre, as everybody was filing out, said, “They oughta shoot the writer!” We were a little panicked that people weren't being that entertained by the movie, but Mick and Terry are tough as nails. They just refused to make stupid changes.
Jon Seda: At the wrap party, Bruce was DJing the party. I went over and I joked, “Hey, where's the Latin music?” And he joked back, “You're the only Puerto Rican here.” Then he put on some salsa music.
Terry Gilliam: Getting to the premiere was a nightmare. It took place in New York in December and there was a huge blizzard. The whole thing was apocalyptic.
Jon Seda: I was so excited and eager to see it, and when I saw it the first time, I was blown away. Terry knew the story so well. He was the captain of the ship.
Anna M. Elias: He achieved a vision that probably none of us saw going in.
Terry Gilliam: I thought a [limited] release date of December 27 was a stupid idea, but it turned out to be brilliant. Boom, we went to number one.
Charles Roven: I had done some well-reviewed movies and had some commercial success, but this was by far my biggest hit. For a $30 million movie to do $180 million [$168.8 million] in worldwide box office at that time, that was quite significant.
Mick Audsley: People were going to see the film more than once. There were things to reveal on a second viewing, which for cinema was quite unusual.
Margery Simkin: I saw it again a couple of years ago. And I gotta say, there were a few things I didn't understand to begin with in the script and that were not illuminated on reviewing it.
Janet Peoples: We were lucky because it did well in our hometown and it didn't embarrass our children. We enjoyed it. We thought that Terry did a fantastic job.
Jon Seda: Sometimes we don't realize the significant moments in our lives as they're happening. It's years later when we look back and go, “Wow, I was a part of that.” This was one of those. If someone else brings it up and says, “Hey man, you were in 12 Monkeys,” I stop and I go, “You know what? Yeah! I was in 12 Monkeys!”
Update 1/11/2021: At Terry Gilliam's request, we've added the full version of his quote about a certain Bruce Willis facial expression to provide additional context.