12 Monkeys co-creators Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett set themselves up with a pretty difficult task for their show’s first season. Not only did they have to juggle time travel paradoxes, the post-apocalypse, and the nefarious organization behind it all, they also had to make believers out of skeptical fans of the Terry Gilliam cult classic that inspired the sci-fi series.
For all intents and purposes, Matalas and Fickett succeeded, earning strong reviews from critics and fans alike, along with a speedy renewal for Season Two, with the pair taking over as showrunners from the departing Natalie Chaidez (who left to develop her own Syfy series, Hunters). And all that heavy lifting the team did in that first season frees them up for a Season Two that’s “a little bit more fun,” according to Matalas, as Cole (Aaron Sanford) continues to play cat-and-mouse with the Army of the 12 Monkeys through time.
The show’s second season recently premiered on Syfy, and Paste spoke to Matalas about ideas for the future of the series, his Back to the Future connection, and whether time travelers have become the new zombies.
Paste Magazine: This season, you’re leaving the plague behind a bit, and there are new concerns for Cole and the rest of Project Splinter. Was that a natural evolution for you?
Terry Matalas: It was something we always knew from the beginning, what the show was going to become. The villains couldn’t just be some crazy people trying to free animals like they were in the film, that they needed to be connected to the mythology in a much larger way. If our heroes travel through time, it does make sense that our villains would have some sort of connection to time travel as well. And once you do that, you really open up [the story]. And we knew from, gosh, I mean, from before we wrote the pilot that that was the show. That it was a game of cat-and-mouse throughout the centuries between time travelers. But that’s not to say we don’t get back to the plague, because we do revisit it in this unexpected way later on in the season. But yeah, [this season] is focused on who the Army of the 12 Monkeys are, and what they want.
Paste: When you’re working on a show with an overarching central mystery like this, how far down the line do you have to have everything mapped out? It sounds like you know how this all ends.
Matalas: Oh, you have to. I know what the last scene of the series is, in my head. You definitely have to keep in mind the endgame. But at the same time, you want room to pivot, and move, and bob and weave as you’re writing these scripts and seeing it come into fruition. So when you’re shooting it, you’re like, “Hey, you know what’s working great? It’s this character, or this dynamic. I want more of this.” Or, “This didn’t work as well as I thought it was going to, let’s do this instead and it’ll be better.” But yes (laughing), you have to map. A time travel show has to be mapped out, for sure.
Paste: I picture the writers’ room looking a lot like Jones’ bunker, that giant corkboard with pictures, and diagrams and different colored string everywhere.
Matalas: It’s funny; everybody says that. It’s not! It really isn’t. We do lay out the season—we have a board that shows all the episodes and the major moves. But we don’t have timelines. Although I suspect if we have a Season Three, we might actually start really busting out a timeline (laughs). In 26 hours of television, you start to really look at things from any direction you can.
Paste: Do you have anyone keeping track to make sure that you’re not running into any paradoxes?
Matalas: That’s the job of all the writers. It’s not someone’s specific job to be the Paradox Police. But there are moments where a story is going great, and you want something specific to happen and you can’t because of the time travel, it bites you in the ass. You have to take a moment and say, how far down the rabbit hole do we go? Does it matter? And usually, it does, and you have to go back to square one.
Paste: How long does it take you to plan out a full season? Was it easier this year than it was in Season One?
Matalas: No (laughs). They’re hard. They’re really hard episodes. You need weeks of just brainstorming with a bunch of super-smart people, talking about every kind of story you can do, and they take a long, long time to get right. And to produce. You want to get as many scripts in the can as possible too, before you start shooting, because that allows you to be on set and be like, “Okay, so in episode three, we know we’re going to this time period, so let’s drop this hint here.” That’s the fun stuff.
Paste: With Season One, you were able to kind of get a base down, in terms of the story. You’ve got audiences familiar with the post-apocalyptic future, and the plague and the time travel. Do you feel like you’ve gotten a lot of the heavy lifting out of the way?
Matalas: Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons I think the second season is a little bit more fun. Season One is about saying, “Here are the characters, here’s their dynamic, here’s how they’re going to betray each other. Here are the worlds, here are the time periods, here’s the villain, here’s the mythology.” And then by Two, we get to play. In a weird way, it’s almost like Season One’s a prequel to the beginning of the show.
Paste: Were there any characters that you knew you really wanted to expand on in Season Two and give more screen time to?
Matalas: Jennifer Goines. When we introduced the character, we knew we would kind of pepper her in and make you want to see more of her throughout the first season, so that we could really bring her in full-time in the second season.
Paste: You also get to play around with the time travel a lot more this year, sending Cole to all these different decades. Did you have a favorite time period to shoot?
Matalas: We all had a really great time doing the ‘40s. Same with the ‘50s. There’s such a nostalgia that it’s impossible to ignore. And just the wardrobe—it’s a romantic place to be.
Paste: Is it safe to say you’re not making many friends in the wardrobe department, making them come up with all those different outfits for different decades, or are they enjoying the challenge?
Matalas: It’s very hard work. But Joyce Schure, who is our costume designer, she’s brilliant, in every way. She builds some of the costumes when we can’t find the real vintage thing, and she’s up for the challenge. And on the opposite side, she has post-apocalyptic stuff to do as well, so she really is an outstanding costume designer. And we’re just lucky to have her.
Paste: The question of destiny and fate is familiar territory for a lot of time travel stories, but at the end of Season One, you give a hint that this is a show where the future can be rewritten. How much does that influence where this season is going?
Matalas: It’s a great place to jump off from. I always get worried about—and this is the question of the show—is there such a thing as fate? Can you change time, and if you can, how much of it can you change? Is this whole thing one big cycle, one big causality loop with many little loops inside it? So it is the question of this show, but I think it’s important that the audience have hope. Because we are saying it can [change]. For me, there is a feeling in post-apocalyptic shows of hopelessness, that personally, it can be a little bit exhausting. So I think it’s important that we demonstrate that by changing time here and there, and having these victories.
Paste: Does the audiences’ familiarity with time travel from movies and TV make things more difficult for you, since they may come in with these expectations about how it “should” work? Or, does it make it easier because you don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining the mechanics of it all?
Matalas: I think easier. This is an audience that’s been raised on Back to the Future. I think Lost did an entire season of time travel; Star Trek has been doing it for decades. So I think it’s a little easier now to tell these stories. The audience is quicker to get the puzzle than before. I mean, there was a period of time when time travel was a forbidden pitch at studios and networks, because it was just too confusing. And very good shows, including Journeyman, which was a great show starring Kevin McKidd, didn’t survive because of it. It’s a shame because it was a great show. But I do think it’s a little easier now. There’s something like six time travel shows in the works right now. It’s bananas.
Paste: It’s true. We’re seeing a real resurgence in time travel right now, especially in TV.
Matalas: I think it’s just back in the zeitgeist. It was vampires for a while, and then it was zombies for a while, and time travel now.
Paste: Speaking of Back to the Future, I came across something interesting while I was getting ready for this interview. You actually helped restore the original Back to the Future DeLorean for the movie’s 25th anniversary in 2010.
Matalas: Yeah, that was a fun project.
Paste: Are we going to be seeing any Back to the Future Easter eggs in the show, then?
Matalas: There’s a ton. At the Emerson Hotel [Cole’s new home base in the past], there’s a clock that’s always stopped at 10:04, like the clock in Back to the Future. On our actual time machine, there’s a lot of hoses and cages that are of the same make of some of the ones that are on the DeLorean time machine. There’s a character that Jay Karnes plays who’s an FBI agent, but the character’s name is Robert Gale, which is named after Bob Gale, the creator of Back to the Future, who’s a friend of mine. So there’s many nods to perhaps the greatest time travel movie of all time.
Paste: With such a popular subgenre like time travel, what’s the balance you have to strike between paying homage to what’s come before, but also charting new ground in terms of the stories you’re telling?
Matalas: It’s something you think about constantly. In the writers’ room, a great idea can come up and then someone’s like, “Well, they did that on Doctor Who. And you have to be like, “Okay, well, let’s talk about what they did on Doctor Who,” and you see how close it comes. If it’s nothing like it, then you’re in great shape. Or if it’s kinda close, but not really. You just don’t want to do exactly the same thing. But we have some of the same time travel mechanics as others, so you are cut from the same cloth, and I think that’s okay.
Paste: Do you ever try to play off that and subvert what people think they know about time travel and how it “works?”
Matalas: In the second season, there’s an episode where you’re like, “Oh, they’re doing this kind of episode…” and then you see how we do it and you’re like, “Okay, they didn’t just do that thing, they hit me in a place that I didn’t think they were going to hit me.” It’s actually, I think, one of our best episodes of the season. We go to some places that are familiar, but unexpected.
12 Monkeys airs on Mondays at 9pm EST on Syfy.