Director: Jonathan Demme | Producer: Kenneth Utt, Edward Saxon and Ron Bozman| Screenplay: Ted Tally | Cinematographer: Tak Fujimoto | Country of Origin: USA | Year: 1991 | Running Time: 118 min
Principal Cast: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine
It’s by no mistake that The Silence of the Lambs is still considered one of the most taut, suspenseful, psychological thrillers of all time. The reason, simply, is that no other film looks or feels like it, and even though its influence is still strong today, there has still never been a strong successor to it.
The film is based on 1988’s best-selling novel of the same name by former crime and police reporter Thomas Harris, who was inspired by the real life relationship between criminology professor and profiler Robert Keppel and serial killer Ted Bundy; while incarcerated Bundy helped Keppel in his investigation of the Green River Serial Killings in Washington. Harris would also base several characters on real people such as Buffalo Bill (aka Jame Gumb) who was the combination of three real-life serial killers: Ted Bundy, who used the cast on his hand as bait to make women get into his van, Gary Heidnick, who kept women he kidnapped in a pit in his basement and Ed Gein, who skinned his victims. (Gein would also inspire the character of Psycho’s Norman Bates). The character of Jack Crawford was based on real-life FBI Special Agent John E. Douglas, an early member of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit.
The rights to The Silence of the Lambs were originally bought by Gene Hackman, (who was planning to both direct and star in the film), but he later withdrew from the project. When producers looked to cast the role of the imprisoned psychopath, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, it is rumored they considered several well-known actors including Christopher Lloyd, Patrick Stewart, Louis Gossett Jr., Robert Duvall, Jack Nicholson, and Robert De Niro. Director Jonathan Demme’s first choice for the role was Sean Connery, but he turned the part down, as did second choice Jeremy Irons. British actor Anthony Hopkins was finally cast as Lecter, based in part on his performance as the kind-hearted Dr. Frederick Treves in 1980’s The Elephant Man. When Hopkins found this out he questioned director Demme, saying “But Dr. Treves was a good man.” To which Demme replied “So is Lecter, he is a good man too. Just trapped in an insane mind.”
According to Demme, there were 300 applicants for the role of Clarice Starling, including Geena Davis, Melanie Griffith, and Meg Ryan. While writing the screenplay for the film screenwriter Ted Tally suggested Jodie Foster for role. Foster had already been lobbying hard for the part (after she had read the novel, Foster tried to buy the rights herself, only to find Gene Hackman had beaten her to it) but when Demme was hired to direct the film, he felt she was wrong for the role and wanted Michelle Pfeiffer instead. Pfeiffer turned it down, saying later, “(It was) a difficult decision, but I got nervous about the subject matter”. Demme then agreed to meet Foster and hired her after only one meeting because he said he could see her strength and determination which he felt was perfect for the character of Clarice.
The real-life FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit assisted in the making of this film. Foster, Demme and Scott Glenn, and a few other cast and crew members, did a great deal of research at the FBI training facility in Quantico, Virginia where they studied under criminal profiling agents, learned about firearms and agent training, and sat in on a number of classes. Foster spent a great deal of time with agent Mary Ann Krause and it was Krause who gave Foster the idea of Starling standing by her car crying (As Krause told Foster, at times the work just became so overbearing that this was a good way to get an emotional release). Agent John E. Douglas coached Scott Glenn on his portrayal of a member of the BSU. Douglas was still an active FBI Special Agent during production, and was in the midst of tracking Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer.
In preparation for their roles, both Hopkins and Ted Levine studied files of serial killers (Levine later said that he found the material very disturbing). Hopkins also visited prisons, studied convicted murderers and was present during some court hearings concerning serial killings while Levine went out and attended a few transvestite bars, where he began interviewing patrons, since Bill was also a cross-dresser.
Principal photography began November 15, 1989, lasting just over 3 months. Much of the shoot took place in the city of Pittsburgh, PA. It was chosen for its variety of landscapes and architecture, which was necessary to portray various parts of the country. Some of the most memorable scenes, including the Baltimore jail scene and the ballroom scene of Lecter in his cage, were shot in Soldiers and Sailors Memorial located on Fifth Avenue in the Oakland area of Pittsburgh.
The filmmakers had completely prepared to go to Montana to shoot a flashback sequence depicting Clarice’s runaway attempt, but after filming the dialogue between Foster and Hopkins, Demme realized it would be pointless to cut away from their performances and announced, “I guess we aren’t going to Montana.”
Several key changes were made from the original script such as the film was originally to open with Clarice Starling and a male FBI agent bursting into a room, making a number of arrests, and only then would the audience be let in on the fact that it was a training exercise. Foster convinced director Demme to change this scene, as she felt it had been done so many times before and it was Foster herself who came up with the idea of opening with Starling running through the assault course. In an early version of Tally’s screenplay, Lecter’s ingenious and horrific ruse to escape from captivity in the courthouse is given away by the head of SWAT team (when the top half of the body on the top of the elevator swings down), recognizing the body. In the final version the film cuts straight to the ambulance and Lecter’s unmasking.
The end of the film was also changed from Harris’ book which concludes with Lecter writing a threatening letter to Dr. Chilton. Both Tally and Demme decided that having Lecter track Chilton to a tropical island would provide a more dramatic and audience-pleasing closing (in addition to an all-expense studio-paid trip to shoot somewhere warm).
Some of Lecter’s iconic character elements were suggested by Hopkins himself such as how Lecter look directly at the camera as it panned into his line of sight during the scene where Lecter and Starling first meet. Hopkins felt Lecter should be portrayed as “knowing everything.” Hopkins was also able to convince Demme and costume designer Colleen Atwood that if they dressed Lecter in pure white, it would make the character seem more clinical and unsettling, in the scene after Lecter was moved from Baltimore (Hopkins has since said that this idea came from his fear of dentists); Lecter was originally to be dressed in a yellow or orange jumpsuit.
The fast, slurping-type sound that Lecter does was invented by Hopkins spontaneously during filming, and everyone thought it was great. Apparently Demme became annoyed with it after a while, but always denied his irritation. Foster claims that while filming the first meeting between Lecter and Starling, Hopkin’s mocking of her southern accent was not rehearsed and improvised on the spot. She felt personally attacked and so her reaction of horror was totally genuine (though she later thanked Hopkins for generating such an honest reaction).
The film sparked controversy within the gay community for its’ portrayal of the serial killer Buffalo Bill as a wannabe transsexual with stereotypical gay mannerisms. Gay rights protesters attended film screenings, complaining that making Buffalo Bill a transsexual was highly clichéd and pandered to public hostilities around the issue of sexual orientation diversity.
It has long been rumored that the novel’s author Thomas Harris had never watched the film because he was afraid it would influence his writing. According to a New York Magazine profile of Harris, Harris saw the film shortly after it came out and said
“It’s a great movie … I’ve been surrounded by it, so I wanted to see it. I admire Jonathan Demme, and we were very fortunate to have him and screenwriter Ted Tally, and we were very lucky with the cast.”‘
When The Silence of the Lambs was released on February 14, 1991, it received much critical acclaim with Hopkins, Foster and Levine especially being praised for their performances. The film won the top five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay (a feat that has only happened twice before for It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). The Silence of the Lambs placed seventh on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments for Lecter’s infamous escape scene and the American Film Institute named Hannibal Lecter (as portrayed by Hopkins) the number one film villain of all time.
Some Interesting Trivia:
Anthony Hopkins is only onscreen for little more than 16 minutes.
Hopkins described his voice for Hannibal Lecter as, “a combination of Truman Capote and Katharine Hepburn.”
The character of Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter was born as a secondary character in the Thomas Harris’ 1981 novel Red Dragon.
Brooke Smith who played Catherine Martin and Ted Levine who played Buffalo Bill were actually very close on the set, making Jodie Foster refer to Brooke Smith as Patricia Hearst (meaning a woman that is actually close with her kidnapper).
Buffalo Bill’s dance was not included in the original draft of the screenplay (although it appears in the novel). It was added later at the insistence of Levine, who felt the scene was essential in defining the character.
Like Casablanca, this movie contains a famous misquoted line: most people quote Lecter’s famous “Good evening, Clarice” as “Hello, Clarice.”
In his first meeting with Clarice Starling, Lecter describes the drawing on his cell wall as “the Duomo, seen from the Belvedere” in Florence, Italy. Lecter’s line, which in fact foreshadows Buffalo Bill’s location as Starling later finds him living in Belvedere, Ohio.
Almost all the scenes in Hannibal’s original cell have either a reflection of Hannibal or Clarice, depending on the camera’s point of view.
The first moth cocoon found in one of the victim’s throats was made from a combination of “Tootsie-Rolls” and gummy bears, so that if she swallowed it, it would be edible.
Then Secretary of Labor, Elizabeth Dole’s, Washington, D.C. office doubled for that of the F.B.I. director’s office in the movie.
This was the first film to win the Best Picture Oscar that was widely available on home video at the time of the ceremony.
The Silence of the Lambs was the last hit released by Orion Pictures before the company went bankrupt the following year.
For Further Reading:
Kapsis, Robert, E., ed. Jonathan Demme: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers Series). Jackson, Mississippi: University of Mississippi, 2009
Hoban, Phoebe (15 April 1991),”The Silence of the Writer,” New York Magazine