Time travel, faulty memories, and a chemically engineered apocalypse. It’s been 20 years since the release of director Terry Gilliam’s film 12 Monkeys, a grim, desperate sci-fi tale set both in the present, as well as a dystopian future. Utilizing many of the same techniques he used when making Brazil ten years earlier, Gilliam tells the tale of survivors who dwell underground, repeatedly sending prisoner James Cole back in time so he can gather clues and help undo what was done to their world.
The movie was made for just under $30 million, with most actors taking pay cuts out of a collective desire to work with the visionary director. Despite its cluttered plot and mind-bending subject matter, the film managed to find a substantial audience, even holding the number-one box office spot for two weeks in January of 1996. In honor of the film’s 20th anniversary, here’s a look at some of the stories behind the scenes that went into making the celebrated cult classic.
At the time, Terry Gilliam hadn’t seen the short film on which it was based
It’s well-known that 12 Monkeys is loosely based on French director Chris Marker’s short film “La Jetée,” which is told almost entirely in still photographs over 28 minutes. Many of that film’s themes influenced Gilliam’s remake via the script by David Webb Peoples and Janet Peoples, even though Gilliam had not seen the original film until after production wrapped. When asked why, he said he simply didn’t believe doing so was necessary, referring to “La Jetée” as “the springboard, but the diving board is not the dive.”
Director Terry Gilliam was allowed final cut of the film
Universal, decided to give Gilliam the final cut, which was the first time in his career that he’d been granted that privilege. Gilliam had well-publicized creative differences with Universal during the making of Brazil in 1985, and the studio’s offer was only valid under certain conditions. First, it had to secure an R-rating, and second, it couldn’t exceed a run time of two hours and 15 minutes. Gilliam managed to adhere to both stipulations, bringing in an R-rated movie clocking in at two hours and nine minutes — and for doing so, he got to keep his fatalistic ending, despite the fact that test audiences reacted poorly to it.
The insane asylum once housed Al Capone
When Cole (Bruce Willis) is first sent back in time, he misses his mark by six years and lands in an insane asylum circa 1990. The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia — the largest and most expensive prison ever constructed in its day — was used for the asylum. It operated from 1829 until 1971, and was designed with the idea of theoretically emphasizing reformation over punishment. In reality, the prison’s approach thrust inmates into a solitary existence that caused quite a debate among critics and literary titans at the time, including Charles Dickens and Alexis de Tocqueville, who separately visited in the mid-1800s.
Eastern State still operates as a full-time museum, offering guided audio tours narrated by Steve Buscemi. It’s been featured in everything from Ghost Hunters, MTV’s Fear, and served as a location in 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It also famously housed gangster Al Capone after his 1929 arrest in Philadelphia for carrying concealed weapons. The cell he occupied remains a featured stop on tours.
Gilliam stole Brad Pitt’s cigarettes
Gilliam had some reservations that Brad Pitt wouldn’t be able to handle the manic, fast-paced rambling of would-be revolutionary Jeffrey Goines, so he brought in a vocal coach to help him with the dialect. In the end, Gilliam simply took away Pitt’s cigarettes, which was enough to get the performance he required out of him. It also made an obvious impression on Pitt, who channeled many similar character traits when he played another society-undermining idealist named Tyler Durden in David Fincher’s Fight Club four years later.
One location prompted a last-minute re-write
In the original script, the time-travel sequence was only two sentences long. However, when the film secured an old power station to use as a location for the scene, the grandiose structure inspired the filmmakers to build a slightly more elaborate sequence to make the best use of the surroundings.
A hamster held up production for an entire day
In the scene where Cole draws his own blood, you may not have noticed the out-of-focus hamster in the foreground. The shot called for that hamster to be spinning in its wheel, but the animal refused to cooperate at first. Gilliam, a well-known perfectionist, insisted the shot work exactly as he envisioned it, and the crew spent the rest of the day trying to get it right, succeeding several hours later. This meticulous approach was nicknamed “The Hamster Factor” by the crew for the remainder of the film’s shoot. That nickname also inspired the title for the behind-the-scenes documentary about the filming of 12 Monkeys.
An improvised scene from Die Hard helped win Bruce Willis his role
Gilliam had originally imagined Nick Nolte playing James Cole and Jeff Bridges — having worked with him on the 1991 drama The Fisher King — playing Jeffrey Goines. The studio, however, didn’t agree and pushed for Bruce Willis, who had auditioned for The Fisher King years earlier. Gilliam had taken note of Willis’s performance in 1988’s Die Hard, specifically the improvised scene where he talks about his wife while pulling shards of broken glass from his feet. However, the director still had concerns about Willis’ acting ability, much as he did with Pitt’s. Instead of stealing his cigarettes, Gilliam simply made a list of Bruce Willis acting clichés that were to be avoided during production, including the actor’s notorious “steely blue-eyed look.”
The film contains references galore, both apocalyptic and otherwise
When you’ve got a cinematic craftsman like Terry Gilliam dealing with this kind of dense subject matter, there’s bound to be some layers to peel back. Of course, there are some obvious biblical references to the end times, most notably the man on the street preaching about seven golden vials filled with God’s wrath while Tom Waits’ “The Earth Died Screaming” plays in the background. Other more subtle allusions include the second appearance of Dr. Peters (David Morse), who’s holding a tray with seven containers filled with a yellow liquid, all while saying the words “apocalyptic visions.” Both of these provide a pretty big hint as to the film’s last-minute plot twist.
There are also numerous references to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 movie Vertigo, including Dr. Railly (Madeleine Stowe) donning a blonde wig just after hiding out in a theater that was playing the film, which features a memorable blonde transformation from Kim Novak. Vertigo‘s Muir Woods scene, which talks about the futility of human life in the face of nature — a prominent theme in 12 Monkeys — makes an appearance here and influences a pivotal scene in La Jetée. Finally, the scene where Cole wakes up in the future to a group of scientists that serenade him with “Blueberry Hill” is a tip of the hat to the BBC miniseries The Singing Detective, of all things.