The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys (1996)
Every movie has its own “making of” story, but, no matter how fascinating the account, it’s unusual for the unexpurgated truth to emerge into the public realm. 1995’s Twelve Monkeys is a rare exception. Director Terry Gilliam, intrigued by the concept of having a record of the creative process (and wanting “witnesses” in case the studio attempted to renege on a deal and wrest away control), hand-picked film makers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe to fashion a behind-the-scenes documentary. The result, The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys, is a fascinating examination of what goes on when the cameras are turned off. And, while The Hamster Factor began as a look at the making of Twelve Monkeys, it quickly became a portrait of the creative genius behind the process: ex-Monty Python member and maverick film maker, Gilliam.
Perhaps the first question that leaps to mind is: why call it The Hamster Factor? The story goes something like this: There’s a scene in Twelve Monkeys where a naked Bruce Willis is required to draw a sample of his own blood. Off to the side, a caged hamster is supposed to be running in a wheel. The take went as expected, except the hamster didn’t do anything. So there was a re-shoot, and the same thing happened. Gilliam continued to re-film this sequence until the rodent did what it was supposed to. In the director’s own words, however, this is “a bit of detail that probably doesn’t mean anything to anyone but myself.” Because this incident exemplifies Gilliam’s obsessive approach to film making, The Hamster Factor stuck.
For Twelve Monkeys admirers and destractors alike, this represents an intriguing, intimate look at what went right and wrong on and around the set. Even those who haven’t seen Gilliam’s movie will be intrigued by much of what transpires. The Hamster Factor has a different agenda than most “making of” movies — this isn’t intended as a glorified advertisement for Twelve Monkeys; it’s more along the lines of Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness, which details the behind-the-scenes trials and tribulations of Apocalypse Now. This big difference between that film and this one, however, is that for The Hamster Factor, Gilliam, producer Charles Roven, Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt approved the finished version. (Willis demanded that a two minute sequence, “Old Habits Die Hard”, be removed from the final cut. In it, Gilliam made some uncomplimentary comments about his leading man’s acting style.)
Undeniably, the most interesting aspect of The Hamster Factor is watching Gilliam’s creative crisis. From the beginning, he’s worried about coming to a project where he’s a “director for hire” (in other words, he didn’t have a hand in writing the movie). Willis at times proves to be a headache (contrast his “hands-on” approach with the quiet, introverted style of Madeleine Stowe), and the $29 million budget restricts the film maker’s vision. As filming progresses, he becomes obsessed by visual imagery and details — so much so that midway through, he confesses that he has “lost the film totally”. He worries about whether he’s selling out — whether Twelve Monkeys is his slip into “the abyss of the [Hollywood] system” or whether he’s making “a European art film” for a major studio. At one point, Gilliam becomes so exasperated that he threatens to quit. He rants about how “fear seems to permeate Hollywood film making”, and tries to inventive extravagant, expensive ways to escape shooting a scene that his producer wants, but he doesn’t (and that he later admits to liking).
The Hamster Factor is so absorbed with Gilliam that it doesn’t spend much time on technical behind-the-scenes details. There is some — the editing process is described, for example - - but, most of the traditional “making of” documentary elements are missing. Another thing that comes across is that, while Willis occasionally clashes with Gilliam, the actor’s passion is obvious, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him behind the cameras soon.
The Hamster Factor, which distilled 135 hours of footage into a 90-minute movie, follows Twelve Monkeys all the way to its release. For Gilliam and Universal Pictures (reunited here after their public war over Brazil), there is a happy ending. Twelve Monkeys set a first-weekend-of-the-year box office record, became a success in every country where it opened, and, to date, has grossed $160 million (world-wide). Given Gilliam’s occasional bouts of depression and disgust for his craft, it will be interesting to see what his next project will be, if there is one.
Currently, there are no plans to release The Hamster Factor theatrically. The documentary will play the film festival circuit (officially premiering at this year’s London Film Festival on November 14), then appear on a laser disc special edition of Twelve Monkeys. In Europe, it will receive a similar treatment, being appended to the laserdiscs and home videos of its parent film, or receiving a television broadcast. So, while The Hamster Factor will not be showing at the local multiplex, it’s not destined for obscurity, and, when it becomes available, it’s worth seeking out.
© 1996 James Berardinelli
United States, 1996
Running Length: 1:30
MPAA Classification: No MPAA Rating (Profanity)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Featuring: Terry Gilliam, Charles Roven, Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, and the cast & crew of Twelve Monkeys
Directors: Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe
Producers: Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe
Cinematography: Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe
Music: John Benskin
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures