It may be impossible to turn back time -- a problem both Cher and physicists understand all too well -- but everyone knows those same laws of physics don't apply in Hollywood. Because between the time travel subgenre and remakes, it turns out you can change the past. Twenty years after Terry Gilliam's sci-fi thriller became an instant cult classic, "12 Monkeys" is getting remade for TV thanks to co-creators/executive producers Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett.
And while many of the details have changed (some more than others), the central premise hasn't: in a distant post-apocalyptic future, after a deadly plague has wiped out most of mankind, a survivor named James Cole (Aaron Stanford) is sent back in time to try to save the world.
HuffPost Canada TV visited the set of "12 Monkeys" in Toronto in November, where we spoke to the show's cast and crew about how they made the time travel story their own, and what kind of changes fans of the movie can expect. Here's everything you need to know to get ready for the series' premiere on Syfy and Showcase on January 16th at 10 p.m. - well, minus a working explanation of time travel. We can't help you there.
It's Not A Straight Remake
For fans worried that this new "12 Monkeys" is going to ruin the "original," it bears mentioning that Gilliam's 1995 film was itself a remake, an adaptation of an experimental French short film called "La Jetée." And in reality, the show is more of a reimagining than a straight remake or a reboot, even though that might sound like splitting hairs. But to hear Matalas and Fickett tell it, their "12 Monkeys" is going to be a much different animal than the version fans remember.
"This is based on the film, but this is not the film and we're not trying to be the film," explained Amanda Schull, who plays Dr. Railly, the character originated by Madeleine Stowe in the film. "The pilot is really the last time that we stick to the thing," agreed Fickett. "It's actually just the first act of the pilot," said Matalas, explaining that Railly's entire character arc in the movie -- going from thinking Cole's crazy to believing he really is a time traveller -- is essentially contained in Act One of that first episode.
Only here, the good doctor is a virologist, not a psychologist, and she's been renamed Cassandra, as a nod to the "Cassandra complex" that Railly diagnosed Cole with in Gilliam's film. "She's very much a different character," confirmed Schull. "This is not the same person, this is not the same name, or the same profession, or the same dynamic with Cole. It's a very distinct reimagining."
"It's really just about expanding and going deeper," explained Matalas, which means they'll also be spending a lot more time in that post-apocalyptic future. "You don't really understand it too much in the movie," he said. "What is the world minus seven billion people?"
"We have an apocalypse, but we also have a present that we're trying to save. So it's cool to be able to see the nightmare that they're trying to prevent," agreed Fickett.
There's No Doubt, Cole Is (Relatively) Sane
Another major alteration they made was removing Cole's nagging doubts about whether he actually was from the future, or just delusional. "In the film, they really had this through-line of is all this happening in the mind of this character, or is it happening in reality?" explained Stanford, who's reprising Bruce Willis' role, minus the psychotropic-induced drooling. "Is my idea of me being from the future just a psychotic break? Or is it real? That doesn't exist in this."
"You know right off the bat that time travel is real," he added. "It's happening, it leaves you without a shadow of a doubt."
"That doesn't necessarily mean he's not as psychologically damaged," cautioned Matalas of Cole. "He's got his own brand of crazy."
"We had to do that, because that's Aaron anyway," joked Fickett. "We couldn't hide it."
Goines Got A New Look
Speaking of crazy, there's a third major character who got a facelift for the series: Goines, the mental patient with a questionable connection to the Army of the 12 Monkeys and even more questionable psych profile. Played by Brad Pitt in the film, Matalas and Fickett decided to change Jeffrey to Jennifer in their version, reasoning that no actor could (or would even want to) follow Pitt's twitchy, scene-stealing performance. So, Matalas recalled, "We said, what if we gave it to a woman?"
Enter Emily Hampshire. "We actually found someone who is as eccentric and crazy as our character," laughed Matalas. "We don't even have to write." And after just a few minutes, it's easy to see why the co-creators thought Hampshire would be perfect for the role. Calling her high-energy is an understatement; she practically jumped out of her chair as she talked. "She's really good," promised Schull. "Doing scenes with her is exciting. Really exciting."
"People don't call it 'the Madeleine Stowe role,' they don't call it 'the Bruce Willis role.' But they call it 'the Brad Pitt character,'" said Fickett. "And hopefully once you guys see it, you're going to be like, 'Oh my God, did you see the Emily Hampshire character?' "
Hampshire credits her ability to make the character her own to not having seen the film prior to auditioning. "Which I know is a terrible thing," she laughed. "My first introduction to Jennifer Goines was their script," Hampshire continued. "So I got to make up my own idea of who this woman is. And then I saw the movie." Her reaction? "I was like, 'Oh, I am f**ked...' " she joked.
"I think if I had seen the movie first, I would've been too overwhelmed and under the weight of this fantastic performance to have any of my own creativity come into it," Hampshire reasoned. "It's not me trying to do that part, but it comes from the same DNA. She's a Goines, he's a Goines."
There is one more thing they do share: a wardrobe. "We did this one great wink to the movie for the second episode, where Jennifer Goines is wearing the same brown velour that Brad Pitt wears," explained Matalas. "We had to build it from scratch, just based on the still frames from the movie."
"That's one of the homages to the movie, the little winks that we like," said Matalas, which made it worth the extra effort. "We're still in the family of that movie and we are respectful to where we came from."
It's Like "The Apollo Program Of Time Travel"
Essentially, Matalas and Fickett are building off the work that Gilliam did in the past (and Chris Marker with "La Jetée" before him), much the same way the show's scientists built off their predecessors' work when it came to developing their time machine.
"This was a government project that started probably in the 1960s called Project Splinter that was never really fully completed until one of our main characters, Jones, played by Barbara Sukowa, came and finished it in a last-ditch effort to save mankind," said Matalas. "Our scientists have only recently completed it and jury-rigged it with what's remaining in 2043 technology."
Jury-rigged or not, the resulting machine is an impressive bit of set design -- a massive behemoth of wiring, exposed circuit boards, blue lights, and something they call the "splinter chair."
"'Splintering'" is how we travel through time, and when it's activated, we have some pretty incredible lighting effects that come through," explained Matalas. "It's sort of like the Hadron Collider meets a wormhole emitter." (And if you can picture that, chances are you're in the show's target market.)
"We came to John with this herculean task of building an iconic time machine," said Matalas, referring to John Mott, the show's production designer. "It really came down to we didn't want to do the aesthetic from the movie, we wanted it to feel really, really grounded."
"The chair, the more we use it in the show, and this beam of light, it really is a feeling of time travel I haven't seen before. I mean, it's not a DeLorean, it's not a phone booth, it's not 'Quantum Leap,' " promised Matalas. "This thing lit up is amazing."
"We definitely wanted to give the feeling that it really was real," explained Mott. "I think we did achieve that. It's almost like we could turn it on and we really could go back in time."
Well, assuming anyone knew how to use it, that is. Because according to Matalas, Jones and the rest of the scientists are pretty much making it up as they go. "It's very much like the movie in that they don't entirely know exactly how this works. They're not good at it," said Matalas. "It's sort of like the Apollo program of time travel. It's trial and error."
"Our characters don't know everything," said Fickett. "And neither does the audience, so they're going to go on this journey together and start figuring out how this works."
The Rules Have Changed
There is one thing they do know, though: they can change the future. And if you remember the Gilliam film, that's a mighty big modification. But it was also a very necessary one, according to Fickett.
"There was one specific rule of time travel in the movie -- that you can't change time. The only thing they're doing in the movie is going back and getting a sample of the virus," he explained. "It's a great idea for that puzzle box of a movie. And it works so well in the two-hour story. But it doesn't work for a series." Or at least not one that plans on running more than one season. So, said Fickett, "Very quickly in our series, we see you can change time."
But what about the headache-inducing paradoxes that might create? The show deals with that fairly quickly too. See, the same object can't occupy the same space at the same time, explained Fickett -- at least, not without explosive results. "It's a physical reaction that happens, and the larger the object, or if it's organic, then it's a different kind of reaction," he added. And that goes for "objects and people," teased Matalas. "It's something that we'll play with throughout the series," Fickett promised.
But don't expect Cole to be sent back to try to kill Hitler or go joy riding in the splinter chair. "They are not limitless in their time travel abilities," Matalas explained. "Powering this time machine is a real problem, and it becomes a major, major plot point. It's one of the reasons you can't just decide to go back to 1936."
As for any other rules or limitations, he said, "They're learning them as they go along." Which means you can expect to see the 2043 scientists sitting around arguing about the same time travel paradoxes and questions the fans are sure to bring up. "Which is actually just what happens in the writers' room," Matalas joked.
Time Travel Is Hell On The Wardrobe Department
According to costume designer Barbara Somerville, working on a time travel show can be just as big a challenge for the wardrobe department as it is for the writers -- and not just when they have to build clothes from scratch for an Easter egg.
"I had no idea what I was signing up for," laughed Somerville. "I sort of thought maybe we just had two time periods. I think everybody thought that for a while and then Terry and Travis surprised us all and said, '...Guess what?' "
"She has an incredible task of doing the apocalypse, and the many factions in the apocalypse that exist, to 2015 and the many worlds that exist," admitted Matalas. It's almost like having two shows, agreed Fickett. But 2043 and 2015 aren't the only times they travel between.
"We've explored all kinds of time periods," promised Somerville, pointing to the racks and racks of costumes that seemed to go on forever. "We can't say which eras," Matalas said. "But time travel, it's a pretty exhausting process."
Everyone Wanted to Work In The Time Machine Room
Constantly jumping between the post-apocalyptic future and present also meant the set design had to be just as eclectic. "What we like about this show is we get to spend so much time in 2043, which is very overtly a sci-fi world, but we spend a tremendous amount of time in 2015, in the real world," explained Matalas. "It's a fun aesthetic to bounce back and forth in and feel like you're a part of something in many, many different worlds."
We received a tour of a few of those worlds, from the scientists' underground bunker in 2043 to the halls of power in present-day Washington, D.C. and the villainous Markridge company boardroom -- "In the later episodes, there's a really great time travel twist that is unpacked in this room," promised Matalas. "As well as some other things that are unpacked in this room," teased Mott.
But if there was one set that was everyone's hands-down favourite, it was the show's time machine room. "This is the most amazing set to come to work to," gushed Matalas. "This is the best office."
And Schull said that's something her co-workers were constantly rubbing in, before admitting to a little professional jealousy: "I have to walk through the time machine room to lunch, and I always kind of slow down and look in their territory."
"What's so cool about these sets is they're all connected," Matalas said. "You could go throughout this entire facility, and it's so immersive."
"It's great when people can come in and not see the real world wherever they look," agreed Mott, saying it can be a big benefit to the actors. "Even though we might not see it all on camera, they see it."
"As an actor, if you can come into a physical space that you can believe and that is well-designed, it's a helpful piece to the puzzle," explained Noah Bean, who plays Railly's former fiancé Aaron Marker. "Our design is really wonderful." And extremely unique, he added, saying, "The bones of the film are there, but the show has its own aesthetic."
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Cole's Not The Only One Who Gets To Jump Around In Time
Stanford may be the only one who gets to sit in the splinter chair (as far as we know, anyway), but all that time travelling gives the rest of the actors the opportunity to play their characters at different moments in their lives, something you just don't get working on a typical TV show. At least, not over the course of a single season.
"While she isn't a time traveler per se, we do see her in different stages of her life," Schull said of playing Railly. Her co-star Hampshire agreed, saying, "We've had the opportunity to play our characters older and younger. And so you get a whole life. You rarely get that."
"You meet characters at different ages, you meet them at different parts of their emotional journey," explained Matalas. So it's almost like playing two different characters. "For me, it's like 20," laughed Hampshire.
"There was one day when we shooting scenes from Episode 3, which took place in 2013, and scenes from Episode 5, and then a scene from Episode 6," recalled Schull. "I did need to have very meticulous notes written, and I constantly referred back to my notebook. Because I needed to remember what had happened, what did she know at that point, what does she not know, what has she learned, what has she accomplished."
"It can be a challenge," she admitted. But Matalas said the cast has been more than equal to the task. "Each script, we give them some really crazy, challenging s**t, and they not only meet those expectations, they exceed them," he said. "I can say with great confidence, this is one of the best casts on television."
This Show Won't Wait For You To Catch Up
And while Matalas and Fickett placed a great amount of faith in their cast, they're doing the same with audiences, trusting that you'll be able to follow along with a show they admit moves pretty fast.
"Even when we were pitching the show, we knew that we were bringing to the audience a complex show, an intelligent show that's not going to talk down to them. And not really going to wait for them either," said Fickett.
"Especially for a sci-fi audience, I think they want to be challenged," agreed Matalas. "We tell a lot of stories out of order," he explained. "There's something set up in a different timeline that is paid off in the next episode."
But they're not worried about losing people, because over the past two decades, they argue, audiences have become much more savvy about time travel. "It's the perfect time for a serialized time travel drama," said Matalas. "Nowadays, people have grown up on the 'Back to the Future' trilogy and 'Doctor Who.' "
"'The Simpsons' and 'Futurama' make jokes that rely on your understanding of time travel and how it works, and what the narrative conventions are," added Fickett. "But when you do that narratively and you play with those mechanics, you have to anchor them in something." That's where the cast comes in. "You're always anchored in what they're feeling and what's happening emotionally on-screen," Fickett explained, which means you don't have to understand quantum physics in order to follow along at home.
Besides, joked Bean, "There's going to be a 30-minute 'Previously On "12 Monkeys" ' every episode." And if you're still having trouble? Well, thanks to modern technology, you can always go back and rewind.
They Understand If You're Skeptical
It's something every remake, reboot and reimagining has to deal with at some point, but Schull told me the production started hearing from fans of the movie as soon as the project was first announced. "People are very passionate about this film," she said.
And while we're sure there are some out there who would love to be able to go back in time and prevent this remake from happening, the "12 Monkeys" cast and crew want fans to know that they have the utmost reverence for Gilliam's film, with Fickett calling their show more of a "spiritual successor" to the movie. "We have to become our own thing," he explained.
"We're expanding ideas that are touched upon in it and creating a totally different experience for the audience," said Schull. "The great thing about a TV series is you can tell an epic story, you can tell a novel-sized story, as opposed to a film, which often is closer to the dimensions of a short story," agreed Stanford.
Which means their "12 Monkeys" isn't just a time travel show or a plague show, but also "a massive conspiracy show," said Matalas. "It's really about who is the Army of the 12 Monkeys, what are they doing and why are they doing it?"
"We were definitely not trying to imitate the original film. We are respecting it, and we tip our hats to it every once in a while," explained Schull. "They did a lot to make sure that fans of the film would see the kernels of the film, but not ever feel in any way that we were trying to knock it off."
So expect to catch a few Easter eggs and nods to both previous versions of this story, like Goines' brown sweater. "Little tiny flashbacks that are reminiscent of 'La Jetée,' or the name of a character, or of a building, or of a set design. Or costumes even, that are just nods at the two prior versions," said Schull. "We do our best to give fans of the original just a little something to find once in a while."
And as for any skeptics, she added, "I really hope they realize how much respect we have for the film and that this will be its own entity."
"We're in no way trying to take the place of the film, that is no one's intention," Schull promised. "We want fans of the film to also be fans of the show."
"12 Monkeys" premieres on Friday, January 16 at 10 p.m. ET on SyFy in the U.S. and Showcase in Canada.