Press Tour: Syfy’s ’12 Monkeys’ isn’t a cover version of Terry Gilliam’s movie

The first thing I'd tell you about Syfy's “12 Monkeys” is that it isn't Terry Gilliam's “12 Monkeys.” 

Fortunately, that's one of the first things that the people being the new Syfy time-travel drama would tell you as well.

“I think it”s a complete sort of reimagining,” co-creator Terry Matalas says at Monday's (July 14) Television Critics Association press tour panel for “12 Monkeys.” “We were all very, very big fans of the original film and had a deep love and respect for that material. So when we came together with Richard and talked about this, we didn”t want to just re do what the movie does. We changed the rules in the movie. Can”t actually change time, and here you can. So everything from the top down changed, from Cole”s character to Dr. Railly”s character to some new characters, Ramse and Aaron. So the story, while it has a lot of the same themes, it”s very different.”

Adds co-creator Travis Fickett, “Wouldn”t make sense to tell the same story again.”

There are certainly aspects of overlap.

Like Bruce Willis in the 1995 Oscar nominee, Aaron Stanford plays James Cole,  resident of a bleak future in which much of the popular has been decimated by a mysterious ailment. He's sent back to our present with a mission to prevent the outbreak. In the present, he meets scientist Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull, stepping in for Madeleine Stowe, whose character had the less prophetic name of Kathryn). She's incredulous. He's persuasive. Etc.

Richard Suckle, a producer with Chuck Roven on the original “12 Monkeys,” says that the idea to do a TV show came up very soon after the original was released, but things only got moving when “Nikita” and “Terra Nova” veterans Matalas and Fickett's manager showed up with a different-but-similar script from the duo. That script was then reworked into what Syfy will premiere in January.

“And for us, it wasn”t really something we took lightly, because we were such diehard fans,” Matalas recalls. “They were like, 'You guys want to get involved in developing “12 Monkeys,” a series'' We were like, 'I don”t know.' It”s a perfect movie, and it”s a perfect puzzle piece, and it”s one of my favorite films of all time. And I still talk about the moment with Bruce Willis and the car and hearing music and crying. It”s an incredible piece.”

The opportunity, though, to play around with time-travel proved too exciting, especially with decisions to alter the time travel rules from the movie and also to dig deeper into things the movie only hinted at.

“There”s these great side treks that happen, whether it”s Cole going back to World War I or you find out there”s other people who have been taken and used or the fact that he was held in this penitentiary. You don”t know what happened to him,” Fickett says.

In this version of the story it's possible to go back in time and change the future, but the creators, plus showrunner Natalie Chaidez, talked about the hours of arguments spent around dry erase boards straightening out the rules.

Shot in Detroit and directed by Jeffrey Reiner, the pilot establishes its own dystopic future that lacks the aggressive and demented quirkiness of Gilliam's cinematic vision, which is a twisty, ugly, perspective-warping journey into insanity, accompanied perfectly by Paul Buckmaster's carnivalesque score. This isn't that.

“It”s something that started with the development,” Matalas says. “It”s actually something that started with the script, and we thought there will be a lot of glimpses into a lot of there will be weird, strange scientists. Our main scientist, Jones, is an homage to the Jones at the end of the film, so you will see bits of that. But we always wanted to keep this grounded and a little bit closer to a thriller. That”s not to say we won”t play in some of those tone poem kind of places.”

Fickett adds, “We had no interest and Jeffrey had no interest in mimicking what Gilliam did. It”s so specific. It”s so much his thing. It would be like a cover album. We didn”t want to do that.”

That commitment extended to the actors as well.

“I made the conscious decision after getting cast not to watch the film because I didn”t want too many things to enter my subconscious,” Schull says. “As these gentlemen have said, this isn”t a remake. This isn”t a cover band of the film. And so I remembered it, and I appreciated it, but I did not totally invest myself to try to make every single action similar to that. However, after we finished the pilot, I did rewatch it, and that”s a good film.”

It is, indeed, a good film.

A few other highlights from the “12 Monkeys” TCA panel:

*** Matalas and Fickett worked on “Nikita,” the CW favorite that co-starred Stanford and “12 Monkeys” regular Noah Bean and also featured Schull for at least one guest appearance. Like “Nikita,” “12 Monkeys” will shoot in Toronto and that will let the show use parts of the “Nikita” crew as well. “It was a super well oiled machine. You would be crazy not to use some of those stunt guys and sound guys,” Matalas agreed. And as for other “Nikita” connections, Bean joked, “When will Shane West appear in '12 Monkeys'?” with Matalas kidding that the current “Salem” star will play the 13th monkey.

*** Schull, at least, will miss working in Detroit, offering particularly high praise for the famous Diego Rivera mural featured in the pilot. “The city”s incredible. The architecture is amazing. It”s like a skyline full of Chrysler Buildings. It”s all art deco. It”s an absolutely breathtaking city. It”s 50 percent empty,” she says.

*** A different time-travel film has given the “12 Monkeys” team some inspiration for the depiction of time-travel. “We really had conversations about lots of films and effects, and one of the films I think we talked about a lot was 'Looper,' and we liked the way in which Rian Johnson approached it, and it was a pretty low rent way, and for us when I say 'low rent,' it”s all relative. The fact is, we just didn”t want to make too big of a deal out of it. We didn”t want to make too big of a deal out of the effect. After discussions, we decided to go with something that we would consider fairly simple, but effective, or hopefully effective.”

*** “12 Monkeys” will not be at Comic-Con and they have a reasonable excuse. “We actually had discussion about that, and ultimately because we”re here, and even though Comic-Con clearly seems, and probably is, a really great venue for us, it coincides with when we start shooting, and the most important thing for us and we discussed it, as I said is that we put the show on first,” Suckle says.

Syfy's “12 Monkeys” will premiere in January.