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SYFY WIRE 12 Monkeys

How ‘The Terminator’ films influenced the screenplay for time travel classic ’12 Monkeys’

Toto, I don't think we're in La Jetée anymore...

By Josh Weiss
12 Monkeys (1995) and The Terminator (1984)

Nearly three decades after it first opened, 12 Monkeys (now available to stream via Peacock) remains an indelible cornerstone of the time travel genre, boasting wholly committed performances from its talented cast and a memorably off-kilter creative approach from Monty Python alum, Terry Gilliam. While iconic in its own right, the film is, as you probably know by now, based on the 1962 avant-garde French film, La Jetée, written and directed by Chris Marker.

But where La Jetée explored the very pressing Cold War fears of worldwide nuclear annihilation, 12 Monkeys opted for a different approach. Given the fact that two apocalyptic — and instantly beloved — blockbusters had already been produced over the previous decade, screenwriters David and Janet Peoples did not want to explore familiar genre territory.

"We thought, 'Well, Jim Cameron, with Terminator 1 and Terminator 2,  made two great masterpieces that totally took care of that,'" David noted to The Hollywood Reporter during an interview celebrating the 25th anniversary of 12 Monkeys in early 2021. "So we said, 'There’s no need to make this movie.' Then [producer] 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.'"

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"We used everything that we could think of," Janet added, stating that she and her husband drew on their shared work experience at a California state hospital when the two were both young. By the 1990s, the screenwriting couple was living near the microbiology labs at the University of California Berkeley — where protestors and colorful characters could often be found. "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," David said.

They also revisited an existing script by Janet, which told the story of "an inept ecoterrorist" (the basis for the character Jeffrey Goynes, played by Brad Pitt), who accidentally kills a lumberjack whilst trying to save a forest from being cut down. "The script went nowhere," Janet confessed to THR. "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.'"

All of these seemingly disparate elements eventually morphed into the labyrinthine tale of convict James Cole (Bruce Willis) being sent back in time to learn more about a mysterious virus that will wipe out a majority of the human population. Cole and his superiors believe the pathogen was released into the world by a revolutionary group calling itself the Twelve Monkeys, but as our bald-headed protagonist learns throughout the course of his various sojourns to the past, nothing is as it seems.

12 Monkeys is now streaming on Peacock.

Want even more apocalyptic visions? The Core and 2012 are also streaming in Peacock's stellar Sci-Fi & Fantasy section.