On Syfy’s 12 MONKEYS, Fridays at 9 PM, the world’s population has been almost wiped out by a devastating plague and most of the survivors are vicious to the point of being bestial. A small group of scientists send James Cole (Aaron Stanford) back in time to 2015, just before the plague breaks out, in the hopes that he can prevent it from spreading and thus change history.
12 MONKEYS is based on the 1995 feature film TWELVE MONKEYS, directed by Terry Gilliam from a screenplay by David Webb Peeples & Janet Peeples, which is itself based on the French film LA JETEE.
Terry Matalas & Travis Fickett developed 12 MONKEYS as a series for Syfy and serve as co-executive producers. They are poolside at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, along with 12 MONKEYS executive producer and show runner Natalie Chaidez, making themselves available for further discussion after a Syfy-sponsored Q&A session for the Television Critics Association.
The new version of MONKEYS actually has roots in an original script by Matalas and Fickett. It was read by Richard Suckle, an executive producer on 12 MONKEYS who had also been a producer on the Gilliam-directed film. At a meeting, Suckle persuaded the writing duo to incorporate some of the ideas from their piece into a new version of MONKEYS.
Fickett and Matalas are familiar with adapting films for television. The two writers previously worked on the most recent version of NIKITA. As for executive producer/show runner Chaidez, her background includes both adaptation and time travel via TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES.
AX: How much if any of your original concept has been brought into 12 MONKEYS and can you say what those elements are?
TERRY MATALAS: The difference is the fact that you can change time. It was a big concept in the movie that you couldn’t – you could only go back and discover something, you couldn’t change it.
AX: So that’s the element of your script that was brought into this?
MATALAS: Yeah. I think the element of changing time and really getting into the nitty-gritty of [what would happen]. What we brought over was testing the “great man” theory of time travel, that if you go back in time and kill Hitler, you change World War Two. That is one of the things we brought over.
TRAVIS FICKETT: Yeah. We had developed the idea of what that installation was, what these people were like in the future, and building this time travel project against all odds. That was something that we brought over, too.
AX: How do the three of you all work together?
MATALAS: It’s like family. We are so creatively on the same page, it’s kind of a little scary.
NATALIE CHAIDEZ: We collaborate, and every story, every script, every production, every set, we try to come to a consensus amongst ourselves. There are sometimes vicious arguments, but we usually manage to resolve them and it’s a tricky relationship between show runner and creator, but I think we’re doing great. We’re having a blast.
MATALAS: We keep getting told that we are atypical in the relationship, that it works a lot better than people have seen.
FICKETT: I wouldn’t do it any other way. I mean, I can’t imagine doing it without Natalie on board. One thing that made me feel pretty good about the idea of doing this was a show that Natalie worked on, SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES, the TERMINATOR series. So for me, I was very wary going into it. I was like, “It can’t be Terminator of the week,” and it ended up being I think such a fascinating, amazing show, something that Josh Friedman pulled off. And I’m like, “Well, if you can do that, and if you can [take] FARGO, which is one of my favorite films of all time, and you can make that a show …” I think it’s more about capturing a state of mind. Not just repeating the same stories and ripping off those characters – you’re just capturing that essence and you’re distilling it into a longer form of entertainment that’s worthwhile.
AX: Did you learn anything about telling stories of time travel working on TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES, where you were able to say, “Okay, the audience took this plot point this way, so we should probably explain it this way to make sure they understand it they way we want”?
CHAIDEZ: Yes. You know what it was, was that the emotional truth of the story has to be super-clear, and then people will go along with you for the mental puzzle of it. So that’s what I took away from SARAH CONNOR, that people can sometimes get lost in the time travel of it, but if the characters are strong, the relationships are real, people are in for the ride.
AX: How much do you guys deal with the Butterfly Effect, the theory that one small change early in the timeline can cause huge alterations down the road?
MATALAS: You’ll see. There is no aspect of time travel that we won’t fully explore. The consequences are very heavy on things like that. Butterfly Effect is probably going to be a longer season question.
FICKETT: Yeah. We said something in the panel which is true, that this is kind of like the Apollo program for time travel, so they’re going to be kind of testing the limits, they’re going to be figuring things out. I don’t think our time travel works the way it’s ever worked in another movie or show. It’s sort of an amalgam of several things that we’re going to discover along the way.
AX: Syfy currently makes another time-travel series, CONTINUUM. Does Syfy ever say to you something like, “Please don’t do this with the time travel, because they’re doing it that way on CONTINUUM”?
MATALAS: No. They have been amazing partners about saying, “Go for it. Brain-burners are welcome.” They’ve never compared us to anything else.
FICKETT: They’d steer us away if we were too similar. It’s something that they’ve mentioned a few times about other books or deals, so they keep us away from that.
AX: If this isn’t too spoilery, will getting thwarted in 2015 going to cause Cole to jump back further in time to see if he can stop the development of the original germ or things like that?
MATALAS: You’re asking all the right questions. This conspiracy is bigger than Cole thinks and the scientists think.
AX: You shot your pilot in Detroit and the series in Toronto. Are you shooting Toronto for Detroit specifically?
FICKETT: No. We weren’t shooting Detroit for Detroit either. It’ll be East Coast, I think, specifically Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., Maryland. We’re going on location – we’re going to go to the Dominican Republic, we’re talking about going to – where else?
CHAIDEZ: Some exciting international places [laughs].
FICKETT: Noncommittal places [laughs].
AX: Since you two are from NIKITA, are you going to go back to any of the NIKITA locations because you know broadly how they work, or are you going to try to avoid those locations?
FICKETT: There’s some good stuff that’s up there, but you know what’s weird about Toronto right now is that it’s building up so fast that some of the locations we shot in on NIKITA have been knocked down and replaced by a condo. So we’re not doing “Greatest Hits of NIKITA.”
AX: If 12 MONKEYS goes forward, do you know where it goes next season?
MATALAS: We know the last moment of this show. We’ve always known from when we wrote our initial script, we knew how the show ends, we know the rules. One of the great things about working with Natalie is, we’ve really mapped out a first, second and third season that I can’t wait to show. They’re so great.
AX: So it’s three seasons and out, or …?
MATALAS: No. We know the last moment, we know where it’s all going, but there could be multiple seasons, more than three. We definitely know how to extend it. It’s going to be complicated in ways that you can only imagine with time travel.
AX: Is there anything else any of you would like to say about 12 MONKEYS?
MATALAS: It’s going to be good.
FICKETT: It’s going to be good. You should watch.
CHAIDEZ: It’s going to be the best time-travel show in the history of time.
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Article: 12 MONKEYS showrunners give the scoop on Season 1 – exclusive interview