Today, science fiction filmmakers are armed with miles of green screen, an army of computer animators, and a budget equal to the GDP of a modestly sized country. With these means, they can create entire worlds or touch up aging actors to look like living waxworks of their younger selves.
But Terry Gilliam decided to forego the trappings of science fiction filmmaking and go old-school to make 12 Monkeys. For this film, he shot on location in Philadelphia and utilized abandoned buildings to craft wonderfully detailed sets. Everything you see in the film was there, adding a realistic element to the story's fantastical time-traveling plot.
Bright Lights, Dim City
Real-life locations in Baltimore included the Westport Power Plant and the Garrett Jacobs Mansion. Meanwhile, Philadelphia offered up the Met Theater, the Ridgeway Library, the Richmond Power Station, and the Convention Center (which served as the film's airport). Philly's Eastern State Penitentiary, an abandoned 19th-century prison designed by Quakers and visited by Charles Dickens, served as the film's mental hospital (source).
Shooting on location also allowed Gilliam to add his own unique style to the film's representation of the city. Case in point: during the scene where Railly and Cole drive into Philadelphia, the film cleverly subverts the clichés typically employed by filmmakers. This subversion helps Gilliam show the Philadelphia he wants to show, the grim and dirty version.
In a typical film, establishing shots of a city are done from a helicopter on a sunny day. The city is bright, almost radiant as the sunshine reflects off the buildings' windows. A cheerful tune plays, and we're invited to enjoy the city with our characters. You know the stuff we're talking about.
Contrast that with 12 Monkeys. The shots aren't done from a helicopter but from ground level. The skyscrapers and office buildings dominate and intimidate as they tower over the camera, and the windows don't reflect the sunshine but rather provide us with a funhouse-mirror distortion of the cityscape. This is followed not by a collection of well-manicured tourist destinations, but by alleys and construction sites where the homeless congregate and trash piles up.
Also, the song choice is Tom Waits' "When the Earth Died Screaming." Yeah…hardly upbeat and cheerful. But that's the point. That's the side of the modern-day cityscape Gilliam was trying to capture, and by filming on location, he managed to do just that.
The Future from Scratch
Of course, some of the movie takes place in the year 2035, and it's not like Gilliam could jump in a time machine and shoot on location in that desolate place. As a result, he and his set director, Crispian Sallis, had to give some of these locations a makeover.
Or would that technically be a makeunder?
According to Sallis,
We agreed that…everything in the future world would be pre-1996 materials. The trick was to find things that had a kind of everyday quality and yet adapt and turn them into something that maybe the audience would also recognize. Like taking an old sander and making it a doorknob in the future, or taking a vacuum cleaner and turning it into a flashlight.
A defunct turbine at the Westport Power Plant, for example, was doctored to look like a time machine, albeit one made from junk. The crew built the capsule from materials like clear plastic sheets, a dental x-ray machine, and rings for jet engines, and then created a contraption to lift the "chrysalis" to a hole in the turbine. (Source)
By combining real locations with exquisitely designed sets, the film offers a future that feels lived in to the point of being broken down. It's a wonderful way to build a truly awful world.