20 Mind-Bending Facts About 90s Sci-Fi Classic 12 Monkeys

Back in the 80s and 90s, we were able to be completely surprised by the latest blockbuster releases at our local cinema, and today we’re focusing on a film that completely took our breath away when we sat down to watch it for the first time at our local multiplex. Directed by ex-Python Terry Gilliam and starring Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt and Madeleine Stowe, 12 Monkeys tells the time-hopping tale of James Cole, a prisoner from the 2030s who is sent back to the 90s to gather vital information about an apocalyptic plague. Below are 20 mind-bending facts about this science fiction classic.


20. Bruce Willis agreed to take a pay cut so he could star in it

12 Monkeys was created on a budget of $29.5 million. The modest funding from Universal Pictures owed partly to the studio having recently parted ways with a whopping $175 million for Kevin Costner’s Waterworld. However, Bruce Willis – originally an off-Broadway actor – was determined to star in this American science fiction movie.

As a result, Terry Gilliam managed to persuade him to take a lower salary than normal. In his book Gilliam on Gilliam, the director wrote, “Bruce and Brad were working for their version of no money, certainly a lot less than they’d usually get.” Gilliam also cut down the budget by filming in various disused and crumbling buildings around Philadelphia and Baltimore, plus a department store called Wanamakers.

19. It almost starred Nick Nolte

Terry Gilliam was initially keen to cast Nick Nolte in the role of James Cole. Nolte had already starred in 29 movies and was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Prince of Tides in 1991. But Universal was not supportive of Gilliam’s choice. Gilliam was eventually won over by Bruce Willis, who he thought played the role as “somebody who is strong and dangerous but also vulnerable.”

Fourteen years Nolte’s junior, Willis nevertheless brought major Hollywood experience to this role. Reportedly Gilliam was particularly impressed by a scene from Die Hard in which Willis’ character John McClane pulls glass from his wounded feet while talking about his wife. The third Die Hard movie, Die Hard with a Vengeance, came out in the same year as 12 Monkeys.

18. Brad Pitt prepared for his role by spending time with real psychiatric patients

Brad Pitt was relatively unknown when he was cast in 12 Monkeys, but by the time the film saw a release, his films Interview with the Vampire, Legends of the Fall and Se7en had all hit cinemas, thrusting him onto Hollywood’s A-list. But plenty of critics didn’t think much of his acting. Writing for the Dallas Observer, Matt Seitz wrote of Pitt in Interview with the Vampire, “There’s nothing about him that suggests inner torment or even self-awareness, which makes him a boring Louis.”

Determined to succeed in Gilliam’s movie, Pitt prepared for this role by spending time with real patients on the psychiatric ward at Philadelphia’s Temple University Hospital. This carefully-studied role helped Pitt to win critics’ approval. He may have been hired on a relatively small wage, but Pitt certainly impressed as Jeffrey Goines.

17. Terry Gilliam was thrown from a horse during the film’s production

Whilst 12 Monkeys was in production, the movie’s director Terry Gilliam took time away from the stresses of filming to enjoy some horse riding. However, he suffered an accident and narrowly avoided being trampled, escaping with bruises. Fortunately, the director was quickly able to return to work and complete the film, despite his personal concerns that the accident might affect his ability to see out his creative vision.

He finished the movie only one week late, despite technical setbacks and his injuries. Speaking in 2021, Gilliam noted that his partnership with Willis came as a surprise before they commenced filming. “I had never been a great fan of Bruce’s before, but I liked talking to him [at the audition] and I thought, ‘Ok, this guy’s smart, he’s funny,’” he said.

Credit: Che via Wikimedia Commons

16. Scenes were shot at a prison that once housed Al Capone

The perturbing insane asylum scenes in 12 Monkeys were filmed at a decommissioned and derelict prison in Philadelphia called the Eastern State Penitentiary. This proved a cheap option for the filmmakers, who were restricted by a tight budget. But this decaying prison was once a particularly important American landmark.

When it was constructed a century ago, the fortress of the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) was the biggest and most expensive public structure ever built. 300 other prisons around the world were later designed in its likeness. In 1929 it even housed notorious gangster Al Capone and the serial bank robber (and ESP escapee) Willie Sutton.

15. It’s the first film in which a Bruce Willis character is shot dead

It may be the 25th entry in Bruce Willis’ impressive filmography, but 12 Monkeys was the first film in which one of his characters gets shot dead. This fact was proudly revealed in the film’s ‘making of’ documentary, The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of 12 Monkeys, by the actor who played the airport policeman who shoots and kills Willis’ character James Cole.

Since then, Bruce Willis has played 14 more characters who perish from gunshot wounds. But 12 Monkeys is by no means Willis’ first movie fatality. In previous movies, from the crime mystery Sunset to the satirical black comedy Death Becomes Her, Bruce Willis’ characters had already perished four times: by a lethal accident, drowning, box-cutter attack and old age.

14. Terry Gilliam’s perfectionism earned him a funny nickname from the film’s crew

Despite completing Twelve Monkeys on time and under budget, Terry Gilliam’s on-set perfectionism saw him dubbed ‘The Hamster Factor’ by the film’s crew. This nickname was due to the director spending an entire day filming the shot in which the shadow of a hamster running on its wheel can be seen whilst Cole draws blood from himself.

The script’s strange demands were intense, but they only made Gilliam more determined to lead the project. “I thought, ‘Nobody’s going to make this film,’” he reflected to Yahoo! Movies in 2021. “It just didn’t fit into what Hollywood was known for doing. And I was blown away by [the script], because I thought, this is a challenge. I thought if anything’s a challenge, this is one.

13. It earned Brad Pitt his first Academy Award nomination

Prior to him finally picking up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2020 for his performance in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Brad Pitt had received three Oscar nominations. Before 12 Monkeys, he had twice been nominated for the Best Actor Award – for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2009 and Moneyball in 2012.

But his only other Best Supporting Actor nomination was for his memorable performance as Jeffrey Goines in 12 Monkeys. Speaking to New York Magazine in 2019, he expressed mixed feelings about his performance: “I nailed the first half of 12 Monkeys [but] I got the second half all wrong. That performance bothered me because there was a trap in the writing… I knew in the second half of the film I was playing the gimmick of what was real in the first half—until the last scene—and it bugged the [expletive] out of me.”

12. It’s supposedly the second film of a trilogy

Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem – a science fiction movie about a computer expert seeking the meaning of life – was released in 2013. Afterwards, many people picked up on a claim by The Guardian newspaper that the film was the third part of a ‘dystopian’ or ‘Orwellian’ trilogy that started with his 1985 film Brazil and continued with 12 Monkeys. Gilliam has at times agreed with this verdict.

But he has also noted that many critics interpreted The Zero Theorem as a comedy, when he intended it as a tragedy. What’s more,  in 2014 he told The Playlist that “this trilogy was never something I ever said, but it’s been repeated so often it’s clearly true.  I don’t know who started it but once it started it never stopped… I was aware it had a possibility of being compared to “Brazil” in a lot of ways.”

11. It was adapted into a TV show

12 Monkeys was adapted into a well-received TV show that lasted for four seasons between 2013 and 2017. Containing a plot that was only loosely based on the film, the TV version of 12 Monkeys saw James Cole and Dr Cassandra Railly embark on a time-travelling mission in an attempt to thwart the evil plans of the army of the 12 monkeys.

The first season  scored a 76% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, though critic Brian Moylan noted in The Guardian that it struggled with spinning out Gilliam’s original tale. “The biggest problem with the storytelling is that it is tremendously slow-paced, as though they’re worried that there’s not going to be enough plot for all six episodes.”

10. Brad Pitt built his jittery character by skipping cigarettes

The asylum inmate Jeffrey Goines was a completely new direction for Brad Pitt’s acting career. As well as visiting a psychiatric ward, Pitt cultivated a jittery and restless persona. Reportedly, director Terry Gilliam enhanced this persona by encouraging Pitt to skip his typically regular cigarette breaks during the production of 12 Monkeys.

But the fame this character brought, according to Gilliam, also had a transformative effect on Pitt’s own life, as it catapulted him into the public eye. Gilliam claimed that his casting choice changed Pitt “from a guy that I could walk down the streets of Philadelphia with to a guy that couldn’t move and had to be protected all the time.”

9. A whole list of Bruce Willis clichés were reportedly banned from the movie

Although he knew Willis would bring some serious star power to 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam was keen to avoid Bruce Willis’ famous clichés in this particular movie. Reportedly, he even wrote a list of signature Willis tropes that he and the other filmmakers must be on guard against. And it sounds like Gilliam pulled no punches, being brutally honest with the star.

“I explained to him my concerns about him as an actor,” Gilliam later recalled. “I hated that moue [pursed expression] he does in his films when he gets a bit nervous. I thought, ‘God, that’s horrible.’ He does a moue with his mouth; it’s a Trumpian mouth. For a moment it goes all Trumpian. Rectal. It’s like I’m looking at somebody’s a**hole.”

8. The movie’s future scenes are set in 2032

The movie begins in the year 2032, after much of humanity has been wiped out by a plague. Though the year isn’t mentioned explicitly in the movie, the script and DVD commentary confirms this time period. The film sees Cole travel back to 1990 and 1996 to discover the origins of the plague – and it hasn’t escaped the notice of today’s viewers that the movie made some insightful predictions about our own futures.

As critic Travis Johnson wrote for Blunt Magazine, “What was once exaggerated to the point of parody now seems on point; Bruce Willis squeezing himself into an elaborate, condom-like hazmat suit to venture outside seemed ridiculous in ’95, but in a world where people are punching over toilet paper and cutting water cooler bottles into makeshift face-shields, it’s not that big a leap.”

7. Jeff Bridges was the first choice for the lead role

Before picking Bruce Willis, Gilliam was very keen on casting Jeff Bridges in the lead role of James Cole – but once again, Universal poured cold water on the idea. Gilliam previously directed Jeff Bridges as lead character Jack Lucas in The Fisher King. Funnily enough, Bruce Willis was one of the many actors Jeff Bridges had beaten to win this part.

Speaking to the Independent in 2021, Gilliam said that plenty of young stars were interested in the role of James Cole. “That was at a time when I was still a hot director, so people wanted to come near me and touch me,” he said. “So they were coming up with all these names. And I just kept saying no. Tom Cruise, Nic Cage, they were all being thrown at me.”

6. Director Terry Gilliam had a troubled past with Universal Studios

Terry Gilliam had previously clashed with Universal Studios, and only agreed to take on 12 Monkeys when the studio promised he would have full final cut privilege. Back in 1985, Gilliam directed the Universal movie Brazil, and Universal Studio re-edited the film without Gilliam’s permission. In response, Gilliam took out a full-page advert in Variety Magazine to shame Universal CEO Sid Sheinberg into releasing the director’s cut.

“If there’s going to be a mistake, I want it to be of my making, not someone else’s,” Gilliam reflected in 2009. “I have control over my films only because I’m in a position to have control, but most directors don’t… If your name is going to go on something, then you’ve got to take responsibility for it. That’s why I fight for control. If my name is not going to be on it, screw it.”

5. An artist took the filmmakers to court for copyright infringement

In the movie’s early interrogation scene, Joe Cole is raised up a metal wall by a lifting chair, in a perturbing and memorable image. As the movie became immensely popular, friends of the architect and artist Lebbeus Wood pointed out that the chair scene was very similar to his artwork entitled “Neomechanical Tower (Upper) Chamber” .

Lebbeus sued the filmmakers in 1996 and successfully got a preliminary injunction on that scene, briefly preventing Universal from distributing it. Lebbeus later dropped his copyright infringement case in exchanged for a reported six-figure settlement, and the movie’s end credits now note that his artwork “inspired” the scene.

4. The movie’s title comes from a Frank L Baum novel

According to the book Terry Gilliam by Peter Marks, the title 12 Monkeys comes from the Frank L Baum novel The Magic of Oz. In this 13th sequel to The Wizard of Oz, published a month after Baum’s death, a king and a Munchkin boy successfully persuade 12 monkeys to become test subjects in an experiment that transforms them into human soldiers.

Marks also points out that the movie makes reference to many literary works, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and the Aeneid. Another cultural reference in the movie is a wall-mounted print of the painting Isle of the Dead. This image by Swiss Symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin shows a desolate island with a ghostly white figure.

3. 12 Monkeys is based on a short French film – which Gilliam had never seen

The bizarre tale of 12 Monkeys was originally created by executive producer Robert Kosberg, who had recently enjoyed watching a short 1962 French film entitled La Jetée (The Jetty). He sought out this film’s director, Chris Marker, and got permission to create a remake of sorts with Universal. Terry Gilliam was picked as director thanks to his surreal and non-linear storytelling style.

Gilliam was drawn in by the movie’s script instantly, which in turn was created by Janet Peoples. “The story is disconcerting,” he commented in the movie’s production notes. “It deals with time, madness and a perception of what the world is or isn’t. It is a study of madness and dreams, of death and re-birth, set in a world coming apart.”

2. The giant television ball was a nightmare to operate

Early on in the movie, prisoner James Cole is interrogated by scientists for an “advanced program… an opportunity to reduce [his] sentence considerably.” As his chair is hoisted up the wall, Cole is approached by a ball-shaped matrix of television screens, bringing the scientists’ face into close view. It’s one of the movie’s most vivid images to date.

But the video ball apparently caused no end of problems behind the scenes. Its fragile hydraulic and electric system was so difficult to operate, that the prop broke in some way during almost every take. Filmmakers seriously considered taking it out of the movie altogether – though perfectionist Terry Gilliam was determined to use this futuristic artefact.

1. Terry Gilliam cast the young Cole through open call auditions

Young Cole, though his appearances are brief, was reportedly cast through extensive open call auditions in Philadelphia. The 10-year-old Joseph Melito was picked from thousands of his peers to play Bruce Willis’ young counterpart. According to author Dennis Fisher, it was Melito’s striking blue eyes that secured him this valuable role.

Gilliam even wanted to open and close the movie with a shot resting on Melito’s bright blue eyes. Melito was originally intended for these moments only, with another young actor playing the rest of the character’s scenes, but he ended up taking over the entire part when an actor was needed at short notice for the airport scenes.