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Syfy's '12 Monkeys' changes the rules of the movie

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12 MONKEYS
Ken Woroner/Syfy

Syfy’s new time-traveling thriller 12 Monkeys will quickly differentiate itself from the 1995 film on which it is based by actually giving hope for the future.

The series stars Nikita’s Aaron Stanford as time traveler James Cole, who hails from a decimated future and journeys back to present day in a bid to locate and eradicate the source of a deadly plague that will pretty much annihilate the human race in 2017.

The catalyst for heading to the past comes after a team of scientists uncovers a message from virologist Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull) seemingly warning them that Dr. Leland Goines (Željko Ivanek) is to blame for their dystopian future. Of course, not all is what it seems when it comes to time traveling, so Cole is forced to team up with Railly and seek the help of mental patient Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire)—yes, she’s related to the seemingly bad guy, and yes, she’s crazy because of events connecting to the eventual end of the world—who believes a group called the Army of the 12 Monkeys are to blame for the virus that goes on to claim most of humanity.

How does this all differ from the film? Well, when Bruce Willis attempted to change the past, he was always destined to fail as the movie explored themes of being unable to change your fate. On the series, however, things can and will change, which offers up a glimmer of hope that Cole’s mission isn’t all for naught. To get the scoop on the new series, EW sat down with executive producer Natalie Chaidez:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How similar will the show be to the movie?

NATALIE CHAIDEZ: They share a similar premise of a man coming back from the future to save the world from a plague. They share similar ideas about love, about an epic romance, about time and fate and asking those big questions. Where they depart: Terry Gilliam’s film was brilliant, but my partners Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett, who wrote the pilot, really thought of it as a reimagining of the story as opposed to a retelling. 12 Monkeys itself was a remake of [the 1962 short film] La Jetee, so just going back to those original ideas of time and of revisiting an idea of your childhood. Can you change time? Can you jump back in time? If you can jump back in time, is it the right thing to do? All of those ideas have influenced the series, which were in the original movie.

Talk about the dynamic between Cole and Railly, who are basically tasked with saving the world.

CHAIDEZ: The guys and I talked about this a lot in the early stages of breaking the first season and their journeys for the first and second season. She’s an innocent. She’s a wholesome, straight-living doctor, who is visited by this supernatural guy and faced with the choice of: What do you do if you know the world is going to end? The moral choices you have to make are not always pretty. She takes a journey into some dark places over the course of season one. They start out as strangers, they become comrades, they’re friends, they love each other, I think. Their relationship is a lot more complicated than just a simple romance.

What can you tell us about Jennifer Goines and why you decided to go with a female version of the character that was portrayed in the film by Brad Pitt?

CHAIDEZ: That’s an idea that Terry and Travis came into the pilot with. They thought that the role of Brad Pitt as Goines in the movie was too iconic. It was a daunting thing as an actor to come in and face living up to that part. The idea of making it a female gave the actor freedom to come in and make the part their own, like Emily has. The moment that Emily walked in for the audition, there was a looseness, a playfulness, an unexpected quality, a danger—you think you could lose Emily at any moment, you don’t know what’s coming next and that’s the same as Jennifer Goines. It’s that unexpected wildcard quality. But also a vulnerability, which was kind of there with the Brad Pitt character, but I think you feel it even more with Jennifer and her relationship with her father, Leland Goines. Yes, she’s dangerous, but she’s also a broken girl that very much wants to please her father.

What’s the dynamic like between Cole, Railly, and Jennifer as they look to her to uncover this conspiracy?

CHAIDEZ: They’re trying to capture mercury. They can’t get a straight answer out of her. Everything she says, she speaks sideways, if not flat out runs out of the room sideways. It’s like working with the least reliable witness in the world, who may or may not have her own agenda. She’s got a bit of a thing for Cole, so you’ve got a bit of a twisted love triangle there. They have a very special bond. Maybe not so much of a thing for Cassie, though. She can see that Cole may be sweet on Cassie, so it’s that twisted, fun love triangle dynamic.

12 MONKEYS
Ken Woroner/Syfy

Can you talk about the rules of time travel when it comes to 12 Monkeys?

CHAIDEZ: In the movie, the idea is that fate cannot be changed. You can go back and unmake it, try to make time go a different way and you simply can’t. We are prisoners of fate, we are prisoners of our own destiny. Terry and Travis did a really brilliant thing and changed the idea that you can change time—at least that’s our premise in the pilot. The really cool thing about the show is that our scientists don’t know how time travel works. They start out with the premise that if we take out Leland Goines, that will stop the plague. Indeed that quickly proves not to be true. So what will change the future? Is it one act? Is it two? Is it three? How do you redirect the river that seems to be leading towards the plague? So we the audience are discovering the rules as our scientists are. Time travel is messy, it’s complicated. We don’t know how it works. It’s not the healthiest thing for Cole’s body. It’s taking a deep toll on him. The rules are being discovered as the series goes on.

That’s great storytelling for one season, but how long can you really sustain continued jumping through time before the audience gets frustrated that you haven’t actually changed the future? What’s the series-long arc look like?

CHAIDEZ: With 12 Monkeys, we do have a road map. The ideas are bigger than just stopping the plague. Who the [Army of the] 12 Monkeys are, what they actually want, what time travel actually is, what the real enemy of mankind is are bigger questions that the series will address. It will take a major and exciting turn in season two that will thrust the show into a different direction and a different mystery and we will move past that. There is a certain Lucy and the football quality when audiences are watching and going, “Oh yeah, now we’re going to stop the plague again!” The cool thing about this show is that there’s a bigger mythology behind it. Over the course of the second season, it opens up into a different mystery of who the 12 Monkeys are and what their actual end goal is.

In the film, the Army of the 12 Monkeys weren’t really behind the plague. It sounds like you are going in a different direction.

CHAIDEZ: The 12 Monkeys are the bad guys in our show. They are, in season one, the people who are behind the plague. Are they as bad as they seem? Are there end goals? Are there twists and turns to what their motives are and what they’re really trying to accomplish? I think there are discoveries about what they’re really trying to do along the course of the series that will surprise the audience. It’s true that they are not a red herring and are behind the plague, at least in season one.

How do you think the show is topical right now?

CHAIDEZ: It’s extremely topical, not just because of the Ebola outbreak. Ironically, when we shot an episode in Macedonia, there was actually an outbreak and an Ebola scare there. There were real signs alongside our set signs. It’s the sense of the world being in jeopardy and that we long to be able to go back to a time [where we could fix it]. If we could just go back and fix it, if we could just go back and stop global warming, if we could just go back and stop any of the threads that we see leading to the threats that we have now, I think people long for that idea. As scary as those things are, this show is hopeful because it’s the idea that you could do something, you could try, you could stop some of the things that we fear so much in 2015.

In the film, Cole actually witnesses his own death when he’s a child due to time travel. Is that something you might explore?

CHAIDEZ: This idea that Cole witnesses his own death is something that harkens back to La Jetee. It is definitely something we revisit in season one, but in an unexpected way. We do take a bit of a departure. But we do want to honor the power of Chris Marker’s idea.

12 Monkeys premieres Friday at 9 p.m. ET on Syfy.