There are time travel movies and there is 12 Monkeys. Director Terry Gilliam’s take on Chris Marker’s short film La Jetee is alternately horrifying and hilarious, anchored by powerhouse performances from Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt, whose work earned him an Oscar nomination. How then can any TV adaptation hope to compare? When we sat down with them at this week’s TCA Winter Press Tour, executive producers Travis Fickett and Terry Matalas (both of whom are best known for their work on Nikita and Terra Nova) told us how they rebuilt a masterpiece — casting leads Aaron Stanford, Amanda Schull, and, in a bit of gender-swapping, Emily Hampshire in Pitt’s role — as well as what we can expect in the first season of Syfy’s latest drama (airing Fridays at 9 ET/PT, starting January 16th)…
NERDIST: What kind of balance did you want to strike between honoring the source material and forging your own path?
TRAVIS FICKETT: First and foremost we were huge fans of the movie, and we felt like we would be doing the movie a disservice to just redo it, to mimic Gilliam’s aesthetic and to completely use that storyline; to the point that we almost said no to the project. But what we really deeply wanted to do was a serialized time travel thriller that features a conspiracy, that we can use to tell stories in different time periods like a giant puzzle. It seemed to us that it had never been done. The more we explored the idea of an investigation throughout time… Your first thought is, “Is this going to be repetitive?” But with all the stories we’ve come up with the answer is no. Once you’ve expanded the world and expanded that puzzle, and with all the stories and the characters we’ve come up with, it becomes very emotional. Because time travel has the unique quality to generate that. It seemed like we just had to do it.
TERRY MATALAS: It took a couple of key changes from the beginning, like the fact that you can change time. A lot of people have said, “How can this be a series? You’re just looking for a sample of the virus.” That’s true. The other aspect was the movie was so much about “Is Bruce Willis insane? Or is Madeleine Stowe insane?” Because she doesn’t believe him and all that. We had to dispatch with that, because if we did a series-long story about “Is he or isn’t he insane?” there’s only two answers, and none of them will be satisfying at the end of it. So that changed.
At the heart of that movie was someone who was such a great protagonist, who was a bad time traveler and an unlikely hero. That’s what we thought was such a great decision to have in a TV show and a television hero in those shoes. It’s like the core of the Indiana Jones character — he just fails upwards until God destroys everyone for him. That’s the fun of watching Indiana Jones keep trying and keep going. We beat the crap out of Aaron Stanford. He goes through so much and just keeps going; and [his character] is very much inspired by the character that Bruce Willis played. When you go back and watch the movie… Cole’s past is only hinted at when he’s in the prison. We thought there was something interesting about a guy who clearly had to do very, very bad things in order to survive in the post-apocalypse. And then that person has, literally, the weight of the world on his shoulders, to save it. It’s such a great set-up, and now we get to see some of those things. We ask, “What is that world like?”
N: Besides the questions of insanity, further ambiguity is removed through the presence of Tom Noonan’s character, who gives a face to the Army of the Twelve Monkeys.
TF: We knew we couldn’t do the red herring moral activist thing. Because it’s not as fun. And it’s such a great mysterious name — the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. I remember when watching it in the movie theater. Your imagination just goes wild. You’re like, “Why are they doing this? Who are they?” When we knew we weren’t going to do that we were like, “What if they are a malevolent force that’s doing this really horrible thing, and we come to learn they’re doing it for very complicated reasons?” It just seemed like a great set-up and a great enemy for a conspiracy thriller, and a great mystery to go to every week. There’s no one better for the face of that organization than Tom Noonan, and obviously we’ll meet others along the way.
TM: We did initially discuss for that character a Ron Perlman type, someone heavy, who was physically intimidating, a rough-and-tumble kind of guy. Tom plays it as someone who is really frustrated that not everybody understands that the world has to end. There’s something about the way that he plays that that’s so unsettling. You just don’t know what he’s thinking. You just don’t know his motivation. He’s brilliant as Louie. I don’t know if you saw his episode of Louie. He has this big monologue… We knew that we were going to have a villain who needed to be enigmatic in that way and have that mouthful of dialogue. Tom’s delivery is amazing, every single word. We knew we wanted that. So we have a lot of fun with him, especially in episode 5, which is a very big Tom Noonan episode.
N: The decision you made with Emily Hampshire’s character was perhaps the biggest character change from the film, since she plays the role for which Brad Pitt won a great deal of critical acclaim. As a woman, she creates a new dynamic, because the chaos she represents so boldly contrasts the order of Amanda Schull’s Cassandra.
TF: It’s a twofold explanation. One — we didn’t want to subject somebody to stepping into those shoes. That’s what everybody remembers — they actually call it “The Brad Pitt movie,” referring to the Brad Pitt role. The other thing is we knew it was going to be a different character anyway. It wasn’t just going to be the red herring guy, the comic relief. You were creating a different character, so a great way to say that was to change up the gender, the dynamic, all of it.
TM: And to really flesh out what makes somebody crazy. We come to learn a bit more about why she is the way she is throughout the season. There’s a lot more as far as our mythology goes to. As the series progresses you’ll see… It was challenging to find that person too. We looked at hundreds of people, because we knew we wanted somebody who would not just play the crazy and the darkness and be scary, but also could be funny…
N: She brings a sympathetic quality as well.
TM: Yes. We were lucky to find Emily.
Do you know how many years you’d like the show to run, and how you’d like to see it end?
TM: We know the whole thing. In order to not fall into the traps of your own mythology and mysteries. There are quite a few mysteries this season, and we had to sit down and say, “Here’s our mythology. How do you make it an onion and peel off a layer at a time and make it as satisfying to the audience as possible?” We know exactly how it’s going to end. We know exactly what season 2 is.
TF: Into season 3… The idea is that if you’re going to have a canvas like this and a character who can come back into what we’ve already done and go forward into things we haven’t done yet… At the end of this season Cole does go forward and see some characters who know more than he does. We needed to know what they knew. We needed to have that in our pocket.
N: Syfy appears to be in the midst of rebranding itself with smarter programming in the vein of Battlestar Galactica…
TM: Being mentioned in the same breath as Battlestar is unbelievably daunting. The two of us have probably watched every single one of those episodes twice.
TF: It’s one of the best shows of all time. So you have to not think about it. You do look at Battlestar as just one of the great character shows. We were just talking about that. They set those character dynamics up within forty-five minutes, and they’re deep and they’re emotional and they all have heartfelt motivations, including the Cylons. We share a little bit of that thematically. Our characters’ motivations come from trying to save someone they love — whether that might be the scientists, Cole, or the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. They’re making very difficult choices, ala Game of Thrones. That’s just really great storytelling. You don’t quite know who to root for.
N: I’ve heard it from others, and I like that you see it as a rebirth of Syfy. It’s not just about us, and I do think that they’re serious about that.
Nothing could be further from Dinoshark than Twelve Monkeys.
TF: No, they’re never saying, “Dumb it down. Make it easier to digest. They’re saying, “Go for it.” They are serious about getting back to those roots and making daring science fiction. You see some of that in the other material they’re presenting. We feel very well handled, very protected.
TM: They’re really letting us do some extraordinary mind-bending time-travel stories that we never thought possible. I think we did a good enough job of making them emotionally make sense. There will be moments where you’re like, “Wait a minute, what?!” But we think the audience likes to be challenged, likes the puzzle, like the Suduko of time travel. They let us do that tenfold.