by Hans ten Cate
Monday, 10 June 1996


Of all the bizarre and apocalyptic visions that were present in Terry Gilliam's "12 Monkeys," the futuristic scenes containing an ascending/descending prisoner's chair ALMOST became part of the cutting room floor. This past March, artist and futuristic architect Lebbeus Woods successfully got a court ordered preliminary injunction barring Universal Studios from distributing, exhibiting or otherwise showing those mobile prisoner chair scenes in "12 Monkeys." Woods' injunction alleged that the set mirrored an architectural sketch he created in 1987 and that Universal Studios did not ask his permission to use it, thereby making it a copyright infringement.

The judge hearing the case ruled that Universal could not seriously contend that Woods' original sketch, entitled "Upper Chamber, Neomechanical Tower," was not copied during the filming of "12 Monkeys." The judge also originally ruled that Universal Studios must pull all copies of the movie from world-wide circulation and edit out the scenes in which the "drawing" is visible on-screen. This would have created an enormous expense for the studio, which was just then in the process of distributing the film outside of the United States. The artist and his attorney later let the studio off the hook by agreeing to accept a sizable six-figure cash settlement in lieu of the editing-out. Given the fact that "12 Monkeys" has, to date, brought in over $120 million worldwide (and was produced with a VERY low $30 million budget), this will probably not hurt the studio... much.

As you can tell, Gilliam's version (left) does not depart much at all from Woods' original design (pictured right). Woods' drawing, "Upper Chamber, Neomechanical Tower," appeared as a sketch in an architectural project entitled "Centricity" (1987).


In a recent interview with British magazine "Sight and Sound," Terry Gilliam discussed how he and production designer Jeffrey Beecroft came to create this particular scene. "We used three power stations, two in Philadelphia and one in Baltimore. Here in Baltimore we built two walls and dressed it for the interrogation room. An existing place has a lot of structure and a lot of detail to begin with. I always enjoy that more. We were never going to get to Jeffrey Beecroft's design or my sketches. While walking around this power station, I said, 'This is what we're going to use.' It was too small with many things wrong, but 'end of hunt!' I said 'We work it within that, do what I've sketched out and stick it in and make it work.' And this came out of it." Gilliam explained why he used Lebbeus Woods' concepts, describing Woods as "an architectural visionary." "The sense of what he was doing intrigued me."

Production designer Beecroft explained how, during preproduction, he and Gilliam compared images from photographers and painters whose influence they wanted to inject into the film. "I brought in Robert Frank and Josef Sudek, and Terry brought the illustrator Lebbeus Woods into it," said Beecroft. At the time, there did not seem to be any indication of the kind of trouble the studio would receive for including Woods' concepts.

In the film, the chair is outfitted with a globe of video monitors. Jeffrey Beecroft explains, "I got this idea for an eyeball from a Lebbeus Woods picture Terry gave me. I said, 'What if we have all this information on the eyeball, all these different screens?' Because the movie is all about information and getting so much that you can't decipher it. Then Terry said, 'Why don't we put bits and pieces of the scientists on it?'" Set dresser and electrical engineer John Martin Schmid constructed the ball, video assist operator Ian Kelly created the images, and special effects engineer Vincent Montefusco was in charge of spinning it.

Says Gilliam, "I got obsessed that we seem only to communicate via televisions and phones." The mixing of isolation, interrogation, and technology seems somewhat reminiscent of Gilliam's movie, "Brazil," as well. "I love the idea of being interrogated in a room with all this technology between you and the interrogator. It's that nightmarish intervention of technology. You try to see the faces on the screens in front of you, but the real faces and voices are down there and you have these tinny voices in your ear. To me that's the world we live in, the way we communicate these days, through technical devices that pretend to be about communication but may not be."

And what is to be learned from all of this? Los Angeles-based entertainment attorney, Mark Kane said, "The lesson of this case is that the copyright laws apply equally to everyone. Movie makers aren't exempt because of their power, glamour or the enormous sums of money invested in their product. If and when this happens again, a precedent has been established."

Well, at least Terry Gilliam is setting precedents again...


So who IS Lebbeus Woods? Here's what we dug up. Woods, born in 1940 in Lansing, Michigan, studied engineering at Purdue University and architecture at the University of Illinois and has been an architect/artist ever since. Since the 1970s, Woods has captured an enormous following due to his radical architectural style. Many of his futuristic designs defy convention and are immediately captivating, both for their awe-inspiring shapes and their impressive engineering complexity. He has written science-fiction and has designed movie sets. After working for Eero Saarinen and Associates and in private practice, Woods turned to theory and experimental projects in 1976. He co-founded the New York-based Research Institute for Experimental Architecture. He has been a Visiting Professor at Harvard, Columbia, and The Cooper Union.

  • "Making 'Monkeys' Shine" in Entertainment Weekly, October 20, 1995, pp. 36-37.
  • Nick James, "Time and the Machine: Terry Gilliam Reflects on the Strange Visual World of '12 Monkeys'" in Sight and Sound, April 1996, pp. 14-16.
  • John Calhoun, "'12 Monkeys:' Jeffrey Beecroft Builds a Maze Through Time for Terry gilliam's Bizarre New Film" in Theatre Crafts International (TCI), March 1996, pp. 34-37.