Dreams: 12 Monkeys

Edited by Phil Stubbs

Terry Gilliam directing 12 Monkeys

Terry Gilliam reflects on the strange visual world of 12 Monkeys. Interview by Nick James [Sight and Sound, April 1996].

Time and the Machine

Terry Gilliam ought to be experiencing deja vu. What should have happened after The Fisher King is happening now. He has a hit movie in 12 Monkeys, with major stars Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt and Madeleine Stowe, which he brought in for modest (by Hollywood standards) $30m and is now "a very popular boy" in Hollywood. His turning The Fisher King into a successful vehicle for Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges was much the same thing, and it also proved he could work with other people's ideas and material. But its success was somehow forgotten, and a three year hiatus of unresolved projects followed, right up until he was presented with David and Janet Peoples' script for 12 Monkeys.

12 Monkeys is a complex time-travel thriller about a convict, James Cole (Willis) from a desolated 2035, when a killer virus has wiped out most of mankind. He is coerced into travelling back in time to 1996 - just before the epidemic broke out - to discover the source of the virus, not to prevent the cataclysm but for future's research. Arriving by mistake in 1990, he is diagnosed as a dangerous lunatic. Sent to an institution where he befriends another patient, Jeffrey Goines (Pitt), he is put in the care of Dr Kathryn Railly (Stowe). Yanked back and forth through time again, he once more meets up in 1996 with Railly and Goines, who both prove to be crucial players in the events unleashing the virus.

The Script is based on Chris Marker's 29-minute 1962 film/photo roman, La Jetee. Like Marker's protagonist, Cole is haunted by a single image from childhood - an airport shooting - and La Jetee's existentialist melancholy finds its way into Gilliam's film. But the Peoples' scriptwriting team have spun Marker's narrative into a fable of interleaving worlds, each connected to the other and all located in Baltimore.

Nick James: There are several worlds within 12 Monkeys - the Philadephia of today, the virus-ridden desolate above-ground world of 2035, the underground future world where the surviving humans have rebuilt society using ad hoc mixtures of technologies. Where did all those images come from?
Terry Gilliam: The film was less about design than 'found art'. We didn't storyboard it. I've got this little Hi-8 camera which I'm taking everywhere because I trust it more than my eyes. We went to Philadelphia and Baltimore because the script named them. Philadelphia has an amazing mixture of architecture, nice nineteenth-century stuff and 20s power stations which are now disused. A series of civilisations lived and died there. The City Hall is this wonderful Beaux Arts building which we used as a centrepiece for the above-ground future, which we got because the Mayor controlled it. He said: "It's yours, you can use it." So I didn't really have any specific images when we started.

Throughout the film there's the idea that time travel may be a figment of Cole's delusional imagination. But you then go out and find already existing places to tranform into what he imagines.
I made choices based on keeping the audience uncertain about what is real and what isn't. For example, the present-day mental hospital dayroom, where Cole is locked up, is built like a wheel with spokes and a hub, and we used just one section where three of these seemingly endless quarters headed off. I've always used architecture as if it was a character, so it seemed to me this trifurcated room was right for multiple personalities. In three ways it extended to infinity - or escape into the future - and which one do you choose? If I want to use that room, I find a way of justifying it, that's the way I make movies.

Bruce Willis brings a certain known persona with him. How do you deal with that when making something so different from his usual vehicles?
Bruce wanted to do it and I was certain he could be right. We talked and he asked me, "Do you think I bring the wrong kind of baggage to this show, do you think that who I am could hurt the film?" It's swings and roundabouts. People may not go see it because they don't like Bruce Willis films. But what they really mean by that is that they don't like Die Hard and The Last Boy Scout. I'd heard all sorts of stories about entourages, and I told him, "I don't want Bruce Willis the superstar around this film, but Bruce Willis the actor. You've got to come here like a monk. You've got to be naked in every sense and you've got to make yourself vulnerable. You've got to trust me - and you can't direct the film." There are trappings you'll never get rid of because he's become accustomed to them, but they didn't get in the way.

Why do you think you identify so much with objects from the redundant past?
I love things from the industrial revolution because I can understand gears and pulleys, cars and wheels. I don't get the electronic revolution because I can't get my hands on it. I'm impotent. I think that's growing up in the country - if something's broke you had to fix it, and so without that ability I get very frustrated. So a lot of the gear you see in my films is harking back to some kind of Victoriana.

If you think of where your ideas come from, what was the key original source?
It was listening to the radio. I lived out in the country so it was a Tom Sawyer world of dirt roads, trees, forests and lakes. There was The Shadow and Let's Pretend and The Fat Man: a whole world in sound and you had to invent the faces, the costumes and the sets. Even the films I grew up watching were the big epics and all the escapist films - I loved that. All these different worlds out there to be seen and experienced. It didn't matter if they were a thousand years old or in the future or from the present.

Do you think you'll follow the 'found art' process again?
Everything is now designed to avoid me getting depressed, because if I have a very clear image in my head, and we can't do it, I just go into a spin and I keep fighting that. There's a shot in the opening of the film when we first see the decaying city. We shot it and I just didn't think it worked. It took weeks before I said, all right, we will just have to use it because we don't have time and money to do it the way I want it. Things always cost that extra bit becuase I've got this eye which demands feeding. So you make this leap into commercial film-making. It was interesting watching the distribution of this one because they were very clever. It was released just after Christmas and a lot of the big guys, Nixon, Casino, were stumbling. The exhibitors wanted them desperately until they started failing, and then ours took off. Out goes Nixon, out goes Casino, in comes ours - ruthless! So the question is, can you make films in that system that are intelligent and demanding? That's what intrigued me about this one, because I think we've done it. We've pulled off an art film.

The Chair
We used three power stations, two in Philadelphia and one in Baltimore. Here in Baltimore we built two walls and dressed it for the interrogation room. An existing place has a structure and a lot of detail to begin with. I always enjoy that more. We were never going to get to Jeffrey Beecroft's design or my sketches. While walking around this power station, I said, "This is what we're going to use." It was too small with many things wrong, but "end of hunt!" I said "We work it within that, do what I've sketched out and stick it in and make it work." And this came out of it. The chair and the walls came from Lebbeus Woods, an architectural visionary who does these amazing drawings. The sense of what he was doing intrigues me.

Cole in the Time Machine
I'd seen something on the Ebola virus, and they had this isolation chamber to put people in, but its opening was like some transparent haemorrhoids. People were wheeled in on a gurney with a tent around it and gloves, so they were sealed. That's the container that he's in. It's about isolation and people not touching each other directly, which is why the virus is a major current. He's like a larva in a chrysalis that floats through the air, or an amniotic sac, and he goes through this great birth canal, but it's made of steel. So it combines scale and changing textures. On one hand, light and airy and gossamer, almost, and on the other, three-inch plate steel. I love mixing these things.

Cole in the Surface World
In the script it wasn't the middle of winter but the studio delayed our start. But I realised that it would be more quiet, more desolate and so we created snow. We had a corner of City Hall which is like a big traffic island. We commandeered a little bit out to about 50 feet, and built a little lip up and covered it with foam blankets. That was enough because we couldn't see the cars, though we stopped traffic when shooting because the odd bus would have ruined the thing. Then afterwards, using computers, we broke masonry and had trees growing out of the top, and we put in the snow flurries in afterwards. There are people out in Texas that make their living doing snow flurries on computers and we bought some and stuck them on.

The Multi-screen Interrogator
I love the idea of being interrogated in a room with all this technology between you and the interrogator. It's that nightmarish intervention of technology. You try to see the faces on the screens in front of you, but the real faces and voices are down there and you have these tinny voices in your ear. To me that's the world we live in, the way we communicate these days, through technical devices that pretend to be about communication but may not be.

The Asylum Interview Room
This other interrogation room couldn't exist in a modern mental hospital. But we found it in a neo-classical college built for white orphan boys. I held myself back because there are rooms upstairs - just fantastic, with huge arches all around, just too much. But this had clinical blue wall colours and a graceful arch, so it was not a playroom. It had a wonderful floor. The table is phenomenal. It's steel and cost a fortune. We worried it tipped the scene overboard because it's not about a real interrogation room, but what it fells like to be interrogated. I tend to work from a subjective level more than anything.

Cole in the present
I chose that wall as opposed to another because the film was so much about overkill of information. The walls are covered in graffiti, posters and everything, information, you don't know what it is anymore, where are the clues? Because Cole keeps saying he's trying to work his way through. I feel it's like that with life, and all of this technology is trying to help us to understand what is going on, and it usually doesn't because half of it is not applicable, the other half is wrong, or distorted. Every time I read an article about me, all the facts that are wrong astound me.

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