'12 Monkeys' Showrunner Previews Syfy's Adventurous Time Travel Tale

Time travel is the name of the game when it comes to Syfy's 12 Monkeys.

Created by Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett, the series adapted from Terry Gilliam's 1995 film follows the tale of a deadly manmade virus that has decimated the planet. More than 7 billion are dead and the remaining survivors of humanity are left scrambling in a postapocalyptic world.

In the year 2043, a group of scientists led by Jones (Barbara Sukowa) has devised a plan to send James Cole (Nikita's Aaron Stanford) back to 2013 in order to stop the plague from ever being released. With the help of one of the world's top virologists in 2013, Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), Cole must piece together whatever clues he can find in order to reshape the future.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with showrunner Natalie Chaidez to talk about adapting a cult classic, major departures from the movie and what the audience can expect from the show's first season.

Almost 20 years later, why is now the time for a 12 Monkeys adaptation?

There has not been a show that has taken on time travel in the way that 12 Monkeys takes on time travel. So it is timely in that there really isn't another show on the air doing a time travel story the way we are, and it's also timely because of the sense of the end of the world is coming, the plague, the whole outbreak, the sense of a coming disaster that we yearn for someone to come back and save — if we could go back, if we could fix it, if we could stop it. So I think in that sense the show has also captured the zeitgeist, or I hope it captures the zeitgeist.

Syfy president Dave Howe stated last year that he wanted to go back to being the best science fiction channel on television by bringing back the more traditional sci-fi/fantasies. What about 12 Monkeys will attract this audience?

Terry, Travis and I really looked to Syfy's iconic series like Battlestar Galactica in doing your deep, dark character-driven storytelling on a big, epic scale with big emotion, but also at the same time, not being afraid of the big sci-fi concepts. We are obviously working on a classic sci-fi property. This is an idea that harkens back to La Jetée and Chris Marker, who has such an incredible sci-fi pedigree. To be able to bring that kind of provenance to the sci-fi audience is really exciting, and to be able to bring it to a channel that has a history of doing some really great television is really exciting.

Emily Hampshire is playing the role of Jennifer Goines, the female counterpart to Brad Pitt's Jeffrey Goines. When adapting the series, did you always have a female character in mind for this role or was it the best actor that fit the role?

Terry and Travis came in with the idea of casting a woman, and I think what they felt and what we all felt while we were casting was that the Brad Pitt role is so iconic that it would be too daunting for an actor to come in and feel like they would have to live up to that performance. The idea of re-creating that role with a female character just opened the role up to possibilities in that wouldn't leave the actor hampered by the material. Emily is a wildcard — she's unexpected, you can't take your eyes off of her, you don't know what's coming next. She's kind of dangerous. She's crazy. I think from the minute she walks in and we started the casting process, we knew she was the one.

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You worked on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Heroes. Both shows involved some aspect of time travel in their stories. Did that help prepare you for 12 Monkeys?

I think what I brought in from Heroes and Sarah Connor was two things: Even though these are all science fiction shows, to ground our science fiction in emotion and character journey and not get too lost in the details of time travel. With that said, I already spent hours talking about time paradoxes and loops and jumps. I already had a good working knowledge of what the pitfalls of time travel stories are and you do have to proceed very, very carefully. On both Sarah Connor and 12 Monkeys, I came into the season with a good roadmap because when you are dealing with time travel stories you don't want to be operating off the top because it is very easy to get lost in the details. Our show is intricately wound. It is a finely made watch. The cogs turn and things connect. Things start in one episode and show up three episodes later.

I don't think I would have been able to have plotted out a season like that with Terry and Travis without me bringing the experience of working on Heroes season one, which was a great season of television, and Sarah Connor for two seasons. It prepared me to do the storytelling that we're doing on this show.

What's the biggest change from the movie?

The change that Terry and Travis made in the pilot, which was that we can go back and change time versus time is straight, there's a destiny, it's unavoidable, we'll all return to the same stream. In terms of series storytelling, that was by far the most important change.

12 Monkeys deals heavily in time travel, but there tends to be different schools of thought behind it. Time can/can't be rewritten or traveling back and changing events results in another timeline/universe. What were the rules of time travel set in place for the show?

The big difference for the show is that the movie starts from a point that fate cannot be undone. Time is time and no matter what you do, it is futile. You may try to change it by going back in time, but time cannot be reset. Terry and Travis wrote their pilot — interesting sidebar: It was not an actual adaptation of 12 Monkeys. It was a pilot called Splinter that was then retrofitted into a 12 Monkeys pilot. They started from a very different jumping-off point, which is that you can change time. You can go back. You can reset. Our actions can change the course. You know the butterfly effect? If you drop a needle, everything changes from here on out in a thousand different ways. You can change the course of time.

The interesting thing about our show is we don't know the rules. Our heroes don't know the rules. We are watching the heroes learn the rules of time travel as the audience is learning with them. It's an inexact science, which you'll learn from the pilot. Whether the premise we start out with in the pilot of, "If I go back and shoot Leland Goines, I can stop the plague. I can change the future." That's the working premise that we start with in the pilot. We challenge that premise in season one. We have an idea of where we're moving toward in terms of time travel and it's a huge idea and a big mythology that I can't reveal. What the show starts out saying about time travel may not be where it ends. It's an exploration and it is a journey into the question.

The movie's producers are also on board. What notes did they have?

Atlas [Entertainment] have been a fantastic partner. They were particularly helpful during the filming of the pilot. The pilot was shot in Detroit. Several of their huge movies had been shot in Detroit, so bringing that experience and really pushing for a grittier, a different look helped. Richard Suckle, who was an executive producer on the show, worked on the original 12 Monkeys as a much younger producer and really carried the torch for the franchise for many years. They were integral in bringing the series to fruition and seeing it through. They know genre, they know marketing, they have great creative taste, [and] they have relationships with Chris Marker's people. Particularly the pilot they were hands-on and really helpful.

There are a ton of movie-to-TV remakes in the works right now. What's the biggest challenge in doing it?

The biggest challenge is living up to the expectations of the fans who loved those movies and not letting the fans or filmmakers themselves down. I mean you're giving yourself a great sense of responsibility trying to make a quality project that lives up to not just 12 Monkeys, because that within itself is based on another piece of material, but you got to think back to 1962 and La Jetée. Chris Marker had an idea about time travel. He had a story that was so powerful that it is now been re-created yet a different time that's captured people's imagination. I think the challenge is living up to the power of the initial creative impulse that created that movie and making it good enough for the fans who responded to it the first time.

12 Monkeys debuts Friday, Jan. 16, at 9 p.m. on Syfy.

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