10 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 10 mind-bending facts about this science fiction classic.


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

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Based on La Jetée, a 1962 French short film made up almost entirely of photographs, 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, but Bruce Willis was so keen to star in 12 Monkeys that director Terry Gilliam managed to persuade him to take a lower salary than normal.

9. It almost starred Nick Nolte alongside Jeff Bridges

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Terry Gilliam was initially keen to cast Nick Nolte in the role of James Cole, alongside Jeff Bridges as Jeffrey Goines, but Universal was not supportive of his choices.

Gilliam was eventually won over by Bruce Willis, who he thought played the role as “somebody who is strong and dangerous but also vulnerable.”

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

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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.

He may have been hired on a relatively small wage, but Pitt certainly impressed as Jeffrey Goines, a role he prepared for by spending time with real patients on the psychiatric ward at Philadelphia’s Temple University Hospital.

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

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Credit: Che via Wikimedia Commons

Whilst 12 Monkeys was in production, its director Terry Gilliam was injured after being thrown from a horse.

Despite suffering from a number of wounds and bruises, 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.

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

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The insane asylum scenes in 12 Monkeys were filmed at a derelict prison in Philadelphia called the Eastern State Penitentiary.

When it was constructed, a century ago, the ESP was the biggest and most expensive public structure ever built, and in 1929 it even housed notorious gangster Al Capone.

5. It’s the first film in which a Bruce Willis character is killed

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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 killed.

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.

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

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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.

3. It earned Brad Pitt his first Academy Award nomination

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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 America, Brad Pitt had received three Oscar nominations.

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.

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

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After Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem was released in 2013, 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 himself has given conflicting opinions on the matter, but in 2014 he was quoted as saying that “this trilogy was never something I ever said, but it’s been repeated so often it’s clearly true.”

1. It was adapted into a TV show

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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.