'12 Monkeys' at 25: How the Eccentric Sci-Fi Film Went From Disastrous Test Screenings to Cult Phenomenon

©MCA/Courtesy Everett Collection
Director Terry Gilliam, star Madeleine Stowe, producer Charles Roven and more look back at the creative battles that made the film great: "I wasn't sure it was going to work."

"Science ain't an exact science."

That line from Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys describes the nature of time travel, but it also describes the exhilarating, inexact, creative environment that birthed the film. From the outside, 12 Monkeys is an elegant, thought-provoking piece of work, yet the team behind it experienced levels of self-doubt nearly every step of the way. There were heated discussions over the ending, disastrous test screenings, and attempts to ensure leading man Bruce Willis did not bring any hint of his Die Hard stardom to the production. There was also a lot of love and mutual respect among the team.

12 Monkeys, inspired by Chris Marker's 1962 short La Jetée, tells the story of Cole (Willis), a man who claims to be from a future in which a deadly virus has killed most of the world's population, sending survivors underground.

The film has taken on tragic new relevance as the world copes with a real-life pandemic that has killed 1.9 million people globally. One of its victims was French actor Hélène Châtelain, the co-lead of La Jetée, who died of COVID-19 on April 11, 2020 at age 84.

The Univeral-released film, which also starred Brad Pitt as a troubled environmental activist and Madeleine Stowe as a psychiatrist who treats Cole, rolled out in limited release during Christmas 1995, and began a wide release 25 years ago this week in 1996. It went on to rake in $168.8 million globally and earned Pitt his first Oscar nomination. More recently it spawned a Syfy TV series that ran for four seasons from 2015-2018.

But before all that, it was just a kernel of an idea that needed two screenwriters to bring it to life on the page. Here, The Hollywood Reporter catches up with seven people who made it all happen.

DAVID PEOPLES, screenwriter At the request of (producer) Chuck Roven and (executive producer) Robert Kosberg, we watched La Jetée. It's a wonderful movie, but it had to do with a nuclear holocaust and going back and forth in time. We thought, "Well, Jim Cameron, with Terminator 1 and Terminator 2,  made two great masterpieces that totally took care of that." So we said, "There's no need to make this movie." Then Chuck Roven nudged us. He said, "Come on you guys! You can come up with a story and make a new movie out of this." So Jan and I said, "OK, we'll spend a weekend."

JANET PEOPLES, screenwriter We live around the corner from the University of California [Berkeley]. The micro labs are right there. People protesting. David and I had both worked at the state hospital when we were very young, so we had that in our background too. We used everything that we could think of.

DAVID PEOPLES One of the early images in our minds was a lion up on a skyscraper. There are wild animals roaming, but no people.

JANET PEOPLES I had written a [previous] script about an inept ecoterrorist [Pitt's Jeffrey Goynes], who goes is going to save the forest from the people who are cutting them down, but he inadvertently kills one of the cutters. The script went nowhere. I'm not even sure it was a very good script, but David said at a certain point, "I think Jeffrey is in our movie."

DAVID PEOPLES Living in Berkeley, it's very possible to walk down the street and have some guy come up to you and say he's just come back from the future.

CHARLES ROVEN, producer Christopher (Marker) was a documentary filmmaker. He had never done anything like a studio deal. ... Universal sent him a document that was 20 pages long as a rights acquisition document and he called me up and he said, "I have no idea what this is. I'm just letting you know, if you want to acquire this, the document can't be longer than two pages."

JANET PEOPLES: We go down to Los Angeles where we are supposed to have a big meeting. They flew Chris Marker in, too. We talked to Chris and it became very clear that nobody had the rights to this, and he wasn't interested in a Hollywood movie.

DAVID PEOPLES: Chris had a huge contempt for lawyers, and he said there would be no lawyers involved, which of course, how can that happen in Hollywood?

JANET PEOPLES: We were at the Chateau Marmont, we go downstairs and we ran into a friend of ours, Tom Luddy, who knows everybody. He said, "Chris is a friend of mine ... Francis (Ford) Coppola is in town and Chris loves Francis. Let's do a dinner." So they arranged a dinner for that night in a Chinese restaurant. Francis and the cook got together to order this wonderful feast. And there was a lot of wine. Chris sat very quietly at one end of this long table, and Francis was at the other. As we are eating, Francis says, "Chris: Dave and Jan want to make this movie. They are good people. You should let them do it." "OK," said Chris.

ROVEN There was a business affairs guy at Universal, Jeffrey Korchek. He was a terrific business affairs guy. I called him up and said, "We're going to lose this deal if we can't get the document down to two pages." He said, "Let me work on it." And he sent it to Marker and it was two-and-a-half pages.

DAVID PEOPLES We very quickly made a shortlist of three to four directors we thought of as visionary people, who were able to create another world. Tony [Scott] was a friend and a wonderful filmmaker and we really wanted him to do it, but in the end, Universal wouldn't go with him at that time. Curiously, Gilliam who had had huge battles with Universal [over 1985's Brazil] was acceptable to them.

ROVEN My wife at that time, who has since passed away, was quite a legendary character in our business, a woman by the name of Dawn Steel. She was just at that point made the president of Columbia Pictures. And she succeeded the guy who had actually bought the U.S. rights for Baron Munchausen. Baron Munchausen had gone wildly over budget and the director was Terry Gilliam.

TERRY GILLIAM, director Chuck turned out to be a real pain ... and a really good producer. He's one of the best I ever worked with. He was so annoying because he is such a nitpicker. He is into everything. And so you have to be able to justify why you are doing what you are doing.

MICK AUDSLEY, editor Terry had a reputation for being sort of — how should I put it? —irresponsible with productions. The minute we started talking about the film I found absolutely the reverse. He was terribly concerned about the logistics, the practicalities.

ROVEN My wife had to deal with Terry on the release of Baron Munchausen and depending on which side of the elephant you are looking at, Terry's or my wife Dawn's, it was the other one's fault. The relationship did not go well.  When I called Terry, and asked if he wanted to read the script and that it was based on La Jetée, he said he did, but before I got off the phone with him, I wanted him to know that my wife was Dawn Steel. And he just started to laugh and laugh and laugh. He said, "It just goes to show you, there is no bridge you can burn in Hollywood."

GILLIAM I had met Bruce before, when we were shooting Fisher King. He turned up on set one day and we just started talking about the Die Hard scene where he's running around and shooting and there's glass on his feet and he's weeping. I'd never seen that in an action movie star.

MADELEINE STOWE, Dr. Kathryn Railly  [The script] was fantastic. It had everything. It had a strong narrative, it played with your sense of reality, with your mind. At the same time, this particular character is trying to create a sanity and a construct of the world that of course gets shattered. She's really trying to hold it all together and I thought she was very sweet that way.

GILLIAM I put (Pitt) with a guy named Stephen Bridgewater, (a drama coach and actor) who had worked with Jeff Bridges on Fisher King. He was getting Jeff to be a motormouth DJ and that's what Brad needed because he had never spoken that quickly. Stephen really got Brad working his ass off. With Brad, I could spend time walking around on the streets before we started shooting. People didn't necessarily recognize him. And then Legend of the Fall opened on the first weekend of the shoot. And bang! The world had changed. We had to have so many security people around because he had become the hottest thing on the planet.

STOWE You would have thought the Beatles had arrived (on set in Philadelphia). The hysteria over him. I thought, "Oh my god, this poor man. Look what's about to happen." There were radio reports, people trying to track him. Then he came and gave that incredible performance, that took Terry by surprise. He had no idea what was coming.

GILLIAM He came up with the funny eye in Goynes' character. He's wearing a contact lens that shows his eye out the wrong way, because he was really working hard to get away from being a pretty face and be something interesting. It was good to see. I just love when you see people pushing their own limits. ... Both (Pitt and Willis) wanted to prove something about themselves. It was great to watch them both become what they needed to become. It also scared the shit out of me. Because I wasn't sure it was going to work.

STOWE It kind of hurt Brad a little bit that Terry didn't know what was in him. But what Brad didn't understand is Terry was literally saying, "I don't know what he's going to do, but I can't wait to see it."

JEFFREY BEECROFTproduction designer I was working in the prison one night, late. That prison is thought to be haunted. Al Capone was there. It has trees growing in the halls, because it has been abandoned for so long. Brad comes walking in. He started running his lines in this abandoned asylum at 10 o'clock at night. He was trying to be Jeffrey Goines and speak as fast as he could and get that insanity there.

GILLIAM Brad was stealing all the scenes. Brad is out there firing on all cylinders. Brad had worked so hard that on his first day of shooting he pulled out all the stops and by the end of the day he could barely move. He was so drained. It was great to see it. Bruce was a superstar — superstars don't normally hang around the set when you are resetting things. They go back to their trailer. But once Brad turned up, it was like the new gun in town. And Brad loved hanging around the set. And the crew loved Brad hanging around the set, so suddenly Bruce is in there hanging around the set. Which is great for us. It helped everybody, but he was not going to let Brad win the hearts and minds of the entire crew.

AUDSLEY We used to get rushes from a day's shoot. We'd screen it in the evening and the key people would all get together and talk it through. Bruce didn't come, but we use to see Brad a lot. He was very committed to that film. I did a film (with Pitt) right before this, which was Interview with a Vampire. So I had seen him a lot. This was completely different.

GILLIAM Bruce was used to being a superstar, pushing the limits of the way the organization works and when you turn up on set, all those things. I made the point in my first meeting with Bruce that I didn’t want him to do certain things. And he went along with it.

STOWE  I'm being very frank about this. We worked very differently. What he brought to that role was a real childlike innocence that I didn't see on the page. I saw another kind of character altogether. So I prepared myself to respond to a different kind of man. That took an adjustment on my part. What I thought was deliberate in terms of the love story on the page — and I saw it very, very clearly — became more accidental. Their coming together felt more of an accident than a purposeful thing.

GILLIAM The only time it really went wrong was there was a weekend where he had to reshoot some stuff for another Die Hard movie and he left us for four days. And he came back. “Oh fuck. The superstar! Fuck off, Bruce!” (Laughs.)

STOWE Bruce is remarkable in the movie, but for Terry there were a lot of takes that were very, he would say, Die Hard. That Bruce Willis. He focused so hard on honing that performance in the editing room and finding the moments where Bruce had that childlike quality, where he was very different from anything you'd seen before.

GILLIAM There were certain things he resisted. There is a moment when he has kidnapped Madeleine and they are out in the woods and he’s been running away from Christopher Plummer’s house and escaping the cops. And he opens the trunk and she kicks him in the face with her high-heeled shoes and he said, “I wouldn’t go down.” I said, “Fuck off, Bruce!” (Laughs.) “You’d go down!” He said, “No!” That was one of the funnier moments. The stunt guy said, “Yeah, Bruce, you’d go down.” And he said, “No, I wouldn’t.” I said, “You’re not John McClane, fuck off!”  He just went off and sulked by a tree and I just carried on shooting on without him and finally he came back. “OK. Yeah I’ll do it. It’s bullshit.” That was really the only difficult moment. The rest of the time, I just thought he was on fire. He was just so good. And surprising all the time.

AUDSLEY Bruce has terrific craft skills, of getting into the right place. Repeating things, which we had done at 6 in the morning and then nine o'clock at night three weeks later, to be able to match it and all that stuff. He's got all of those wonderful skills that are less visible outside of the cutting room. But you get to appreciate them in my job because it reduces the work of bringing things together and making a performance shape.

BEECROFT "It's not an exact science" is one of the great lines. That left the door open to almost anything. ... My major goal was to try and keep you off balance. W did a lot of forced perspective and mirrors and all kinds of old trickery because we didn't have the money.

ROVEN Terry read and tested these young boys [to play young Cole]. And I felt one was a much better actor than the other. Terry is so visual. He loved the eyes of one of the boys, and he felt he could get the performance. And I really felt he was not going to get the performance and I went to the casting director and I said, "We have enough money in the budget, let's hire both of them."

GILLIAM Chuck's neurosis made him such a good producer. He didn't trust me. (Laughs.) The kid that I had chosen, he did a great little screen test. On the day of the shoot he completely lost it. It was horrible, that moment.

ROVEN We were in this convention center, which we had dressed to be the inside of the airport ... We literally had 48 hours to be there. Near the end of the first day, Terry comes up to me and goes, "Oh my god. We're hosed! You were right. I'm never going to get the performance! I'm never going to get the performance! Can you possibly find that kid? The one you wanted?" And I said, "You're never going to believe this Terry, but he's downstairs in the dressing room waiting to come up."

DAVID PEOPLES We turned in a draft to Chuck and Bruce Willis didn’t come back [to the past] that last time to resolve it. Chuck said, "He's got to come back again." In theory, we agreed with Chuck. We felt, "Yeah, but why would he come back, and why would the scientists send him back?" He was giving us an assignment that we didn't feel we could fulfill. But we also felt that he was kind of right from a dramatic point of view.

JANET PEOPLES The reason we are making Chuck out to be a hero is that there were a couple of times where Chuck said, "You guys, you are wrong. You have to do this. You have to try this." That was one of them.

DAVID PEOPLES We struggled for like six weeks. The funny thing is, once we had it, it looked so obvious that nobody would ever understand why it was so hard for us to get there. But we had to have Bruce convinced that he was crazy and then he had to try to con the scientists, whom he was convinced were in his mind.

GILLIAM  I really felt we didn't need the boy at the end (in the airport parking lot). There was something about it that seemed sentimental to me. But then Chuck said, "No, no, no, we got to do the script." I just said, "Well, I'll make a shot that is so expensive that he'll say 'OK, we got to stay on budget.'" I put a crane on top of another crane. I thought he would back off, which he didn't. We made the shot, and it works and it's perfect.

DAVID PEOPLES We had an argument (with Roven during the writing process) about seeing the scientist played by David Morse on the plane with the scientist from the future. We didn't want that scene in. We didn't think it helped. We didn't think it was any good. We were against it. 

JANET PEOPLES We didn't think the movie needed it. We were wrong. 

DAVID PEOPLES Chuck kept insisting on it. Janet and I kept beating our heads against a wall. "Well, what's supposed to happen?" Jan and I  would each go off to our separate space and we would write the scene and we would show it to the other person. It went back and forth between us and it was just a dog. Then Jan hands me this piece of paper and I look at it, and it just says, "I'm insurance." That blew my mind. It was so wonderful.

GILLIAM I've got a friend called Ray Cooper. He is the percussionist with Elton John and Eric Clapton. Somewhere at the beginning of this whole process, he put me onto a very famous Argentinian Tango guy. I listened to it and I didn't like it. I was in a shop buying CDs, and I bumped onto this other one. There's another guy called Astor Piazzolla. I just fell in love with Piazzolla's music. When (composer) Paul Buckmaster came on, I said, "This is what I want." And he had to write something that was as good as Piazzolla's music.  

STOWE We were discussing who he wanted to score it. I said, "Please, please look at this fellow named Thomas Newman." I was a huge Thomas Newman fan. Terry said, "Well I've already kind of committed (to Paul Buckmaster)" but he met him (Newman.) They flew him to London and he fell in love with Thomas. So he didn't know what to do. The way he had to choose between the two men, was he flipped a coin.

GILLIAM Mick Audsley and I are at the (test) screenings and it's in Washington, D.C. You feel the audience. I'm sitting there, listening to audience. "That's working really well." "I think we're losing it." It's just listening to them. And then I remember Mick and I said "Great, it really works." Then Mick and I and David and Jan and Chuck get the results the next day. It's like, "What the fuck?"

ROVEN I was concerned after that first screening in Washington, D.C. about how we were going to navigate.

AUDSLEY Let me see if I can find some of the worst ones. (Audsley pulls out stack of test screening cards he has kept for 25 years.)

How would you rate this motion picture? Check one. Excellent. Very Good. Average. Fair. Poor.

It says, "One of the worst movies I've seen. Herky, jerky, eratic, badly photographed."

If you were to tell a friend about this movie, what would you say?

"Bad character study in science fiction setting. It was totally irrational. No clear explanation. The scenes with Brad Pitt were ridiculous. It was confusing overall and would have been artistic and creative but each scene was too disconnected. It was just stupid."

There was one I remember which said "shoot the writers," which I sent to David and Jan.

DAVID PEOPLES Comments can be crazy, and the idea that people have to listen to them – it's a political game, the screenings.

AUDSLEY It was an issue to do with the ending, where we had them get in the plane, and David Morse meets one of the psychiatrists on the plane after he's gone away. And we screened the film with and without that sequence. There was a big debate in the cutting room whether we needed to go in the plane. As it turned out, there was no difference in the reaction from the audience.

ROVEN Just putting a little underline at the beginning of the movie, and talking about the plague – everybody understood what was going on after that. [Roven and Gilliam added a note to start the film, which begins "…5 billlion people will die from a deadly virus in 1997…"]. It was so interesting and such a great lesson about how a little can go a long way.

GILLIAM There's only one thing that I changed as a result of those screenings. That's the scene with Madeleine and Bruce in the wood after he's been knocked out by her kicking him in the face. The only thing we changed was the music. Because the music in that scene was becoming too positive. It was becoming like a romance is beginning to grow here. The audience didn't buy it. you could feel that. So I changed it to something more ambiguous.

ROVEN I would say that the international partners, felt stronger about its commercial appeal than the domestic. But [Universal, which distributed domestically] really liked the movie, and felt that the best way to release the movie in the United States was on a platform basis [i.e. a limited release] and not a wide release. The movie got incredible reviews in the United States and it did extremely well on the platform and it did extremely well in the United States.

GILLIAM For once the marketing people listened to me, and I had these stencils made of the logo of the Monkeys in the circle. We had people stenciling all around cities in America for a month or two before the campaign started, saying, "They're coming. They're coming."

ROVEN 12 Monkeys was a huge, huge hit over the world, and particularly in the U.K., in Germany, in France and in Japan. It's one of my biggest movies in Japan. In fact, there's a bar in a suburb of Tokyo that's called La Jetée, but it has pictures of 12 Monkeys all over the wall.

GILLIAM I'm glad [Pitt] was nominated [for the best supporting actor Oscar]. He won [the supporting actor Golden Globe]. Bruce was probably really pissed off. Bruce had said to me at the wrap party that he was pissed off over Pulp Fiction. He is the reason the movie got made, and he wanted to be nominated for something. And Harvey [Weinstein] and Quentin [Tarantino] put it to Travolta and [Samuel L. Jackson]. Bruce was the one that wasn't nominated. So there must have been a twinge of piss-offedness when Brad got the nomination and he didn't. I think Bruce should have been nominated. It's a great performance. It's why the movie works.