Mindhole Blowers: 20 Facts About The Silence of the Lambs That Might Make You Crave a Nice Chianti
Remember when Jodie Foster was good—when she was really and truly good? Her double-barreled performances in The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs won the actress consecutive Best Actress Academy Awards and Golden Globes, after which everything went to shit. But let’s remember the good old days, shall we? In this taut thriller, that filled us equally with delight and fear, Jodie went head to head with a couple of psycho killers and damned if she didn’t land on her feet. Though Foster and verbal dance partner, Anthony Hopkins weren’t first choice, clearly they were meant for their roles and Jonathan Demme knew just how to stand back and observe them doing their thing.
1. The Silence of the Lambs is based on Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel of the same name (a sequel to his 1981 outing, Red Dragon, which was also adapted to film by Michael Mann). Harris won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel and the book attracted Jodie Foster’s attention right away. The actress followed the film development process from its beginning stages, when she discovered that Gene Hackman had already optioned the novel and planned to both direct the film and play Hannibal Lecter. Hackman put up $250,000 of his own money and partnered with Orion Pictures. Foster put her name in the hat to play Clarice, right away.
2. Screenwriter Ted Tally (White Palace, All the Pretty Horses) was contacted directly by Orion head Mike Medavoy and Gene Hackman and made an offer for Tally to outline the script. Because Michael Mann’s Manhunter had done so poorly at the box office, Hollywood thought there was little market for The Silence of the Lambs, but Tally said the story was about Clarice Starling and by February 1989 ,his script was done. Meanwhile, Hackman—having just come off the controversial Mississippi Burning and convinced by his daughter that the story was too violent—dropped out. Director Jonathan Demme (Philadelphia, The Manchurian Candidate , Rachel Getting Married) was targeted by Orion to direct. Demme said it was the first film he committed to before even reading the script; he loved the book, was familiar with Tally and “knew he’d (the scriptwriter) would nail it.” Eighty to eighty-five percent of Tally’s first draft is what you see in the finished film.
3. Demme had worked with Michelle Pfeiffer on Married to the Mob and wanted the actress to play Clarice, but she turned him down due to the violence. Foster continued to go after the role but Demme wasn’t convinced she was right; he saw over 300 actresses, including Meg Ryan, Gina Davis and Melanie Griffith—all of whom took issue with the horrific subject matter. Demme’s first choice for Lecter was Sean Connery, but Connery turned him down. Jack Nicholson, who got offers for “everything,” never answered Demme. Jeremy Irons, who had just played Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune turned down the part because he didn’t want to immediately do another dark role. Orion’s Mike Medavoy suggested Robert Duvall, but Demme worried he’d be “too over the top.” Demme thought of Anthony Hopkins because after seeing the actor in The Elephant Man, the director wondered what it would be like to turn the good doctor evil. Hopkins had left the country and gone back to the London stage after a string of less than successful movies. The actor got a call from his agent about the script and started reading; he loved it so much he asked his agent if there was an offer (not yet) and said he wouldn’t finish the script unless there was an offer. While Demme wasn’t convinced about Foster and the studio unsure about Hopkins, a compromise was made and a deal struck. Demme would use Foster if he could have Hopkins.
4. Foster said she knew she was second choice when she went to see Demme. He asked her why she wanted the part so much and she went into an “unnecessary diatribe” on how it fit into her personal agenda and career, and the mythology of a female hero like Clarice Starling. Foster thought it was almost unheard of in cinematic history to have a woman saving other women. Of Clarice’s story about the lambs, the actress said everyone was expecting to hear about some big, horrific thing that had happened to her but instead, “Clarice’s story was a small event that instead of shaping her life—it told her who she already was. The idea was, the hero was the hero before he was born and it’s just a question of fate—there will be instances that will challenge the heroism and it will show itself to them. [sic] Even when the hero was eight or nine years old it was there.”
5. The original opening sequence was to have Clarice bursting into a room of terrorists…chaos, a woman being held captive and then everyone yelling, “Just kidding!” (An FBI training exercise.)
6. The director said he saw “many terrific actors” for the role of Jame Gumb, but no one was really scary. Ted Levine (Shutter Island, American Gangster) came in and he was “terrifying.”
FBI Expert and Profiler, John Douglas explained that the Buffalo Bill character was actually a composite of three (real-life) killers rolled into one: Ted Bundy, who wore a cast on his arm and waited outside a library; as soon as he saw a victim, he’d drop the books and wait for the “good samaritan,” then smack her over the head with the cast. Gary Heidnik would go on a hunt to pick up women and held several captive at a time. Heidnik had the pit, which he would fill with water. He would put a victim in the pit and touch electrified wire to her handcuffs to torture her. He also put a victim in freezer, ground up the body, mixed it with dog food and fed to the rest of his victims. Ed Gein, after his mother died, tried to dig up graves of elderly women and killed two others. Gein took the women’s bodies back to his farm, peeled off their faces and preserved the skin by putting oil on them. Gein would wear the faces and stare at himself, dressing up with wigs jewelry and fake breasts.
7. Jack Crawford (played by Scott Glenn) is based on John Douglas, as is the character in Harris’ Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. Thomas Harris did extensive research for his novels at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia—as did Jodie Foster and Scott Glenn. The FBI was interested in getting women into the bureau and allowed Foster to train with Special Agent Mary Ann Krause and filming at the Academy. Douglas noted that a third of agents are women; one woman of a dozen agents is a profiler. The signs on a tree at Quantico reading “Hurt. Agony. Pain. Love—It” were there already, not set dressing. John Douglas said that Scott Glenn was very liberal and didn’t believe in the death penalty—it really bothered the agent. Douglas played him an audio tape of two killers whose goal was to pick a teenager for every year, starting at 13, and torture the kids; they made tapes of kids screaming and yelling and begging to be killed, to put them out of their misery. Douglas said he played the audio less than one minute and Glenn had tears in his eyes. Douglas, who is “all for the death penalty,” spoke of being asked to witness executions. Before he does so, he always looks at the crime scene photos because he doesn’t want to lose sight that the victims come first. Demme, who several times spoke of his mixed feelings about the FBI (he felt the agency did as much harm as possible good) didn’t think he needed to listen to or view anything at Behavioral Sciences.
8. Brooke Smith (“Grey’s Anatomy,” In Her Shoes), who gained 25 pounds to play Catherine Martin, had only done one previous acting role. Demme said her inexperience helped. He wanted to honor real life victims by not having someone “acting.” The director said for him, Catherine begging in the pit was the hardest scene for him to do. He felt he had to “…lean on Smith a lot to dramatically honor people who have been confined thusly.”
9. To save money, extensive location scouting was done (keeping as close to Quantico as possible). The Soldiers and Sailor’s Museum in Pittsburgh, PA held Lecter in his cage, a nearby GE Turbine plant that had just closed was huge and Lecter’s cell area was built within, as was the Gumb home and pit. Demme said the cell was a challenge—in the book there was netting, but that would have been impossible to film through. Production Designer Kristi Zea came up with the plexiglass idea and each day of shooting, Anthony Hopkins had to be bolted in behind the glass. Foster said he’d stay in there and that it was strange because the two actors never got to spend time together or talk to each other (outside of filming).
10. While Demme was worried about Jodie Foster being right for Clarice, so was Foster concerned about Demme, who up to that point had been known more for his comedies. The actress thought he might make the FBI look silly, but she was quickly reassured. During Foster’s first scene, Demme said his worst fears were realized (“his heart sank”) when she spoke and all he heard was “California.” The director asked Foster where Clarice’s accent was and she told him she was doing it very subtly, so that only Lecter could hear it. Demme asked Foster to try again and he was bowled over by the change—suddenly she was Clarice. Anthony Hopkins also felt intimidated and wasn’t sure how he would be received. Hopkins said he prepared by going over the script in sections, “Twenty times, thirty times, two hundred fifty times.” It was Hopkins’ idea to have Lecter dressed all in white, because people already have a fear of dentists and doctors; people in white.
11. Demme wanted Lecter’s cell to seem like it was down in the bowels of hell; “Lecter is so dangerous, he is kept as far away from the rest of us as he can be.” The sound effects when Clarice is taken down include submarine noises. Because going to meet Lecter was done from Clarice’s point of view, a crewmember wheeled (on a dolly) cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (Gladiator, The Sixth Sense, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink, Badlands) and his handheld camera down the hallway, panning over to Lecter. Demme asked Hopkins how he saw the first scene; did he think Lecter should be sitting, reading a book, lying down? Hopkins said he’d like to be standing at attention. He thought it was terrifying that when Clarice first sees him, Lecter is staring right at her. Hopkins commented that the line when he says to Clarice, “You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube…” is what he latched his whole performance on. He didn’t think too much about the voice or the accent, rather he “concentrated on the spine of the part.” He also saw the character of Lecter as Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, locked in a brilliant, genius, evil mind. Hopkins felt the best moment from Jodie was when he finished that speech—it destroyed her. “There were five different looks on her face and she’s trying not to cry.” Foster also talked about Hopkins making fun of her accent off camera—she said it made her mad and that it added something to the mix.
12. Jodie Foster said that because half the film was done with her directly in camera, it was very intense. If she moved even an inch forward, she’d be out of focus and so had to stay very still. She was exhausted by the end of every day. But the actress also said that Clarice is her most favorite character, that she admired and respected Clarice. Though she hadn’t done much theater, Foster felt she could do The Silence of the Lambs for the rest of her life because of the dialogue.
13. Demme was in awe of the sucking noise that Hopkins made when he said “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” Hopkins explained that he thought he remembered the sound from the Dracula film Bela Lugosi did—but he wasn’t sure if it actually heard Lugosi make it or if he (Hopkins) just dreamed it.
14. The severed head that Clarice discovers in the storage garage is Producer Ed Saxon, wearing a face mask. Saxon has cameos in all Demme’s films. Producer Kenny Utt played a doctor, Director Roger Corman (who told Demme the most terrifying shot is approaching a closed door— Demme incorporated several times) is the FBI Director and Director George Romero, an FBI agent. Character actor Charles Napier who played a police lieutenant has also been in every Demme movie since 1978. Napier, who most recently voiced Dr. Spelts on “Archer,” died October 5, 2011. Lauren Roselli (who plays Stacy Hubka, friend of the first victim) was part of 80s band, Book of Love and Demme’s friend—she also appeared in Philadelphia.
15. The Death’s-head Hawkmoths that were first brought in got too cold and died immediately. The moth wranglers (Leanore G. Drogin, Raymond A. Mendez) had to order lookalike moths and put them in costume, made of painted fake nails cut into shapes and crazy-glued on. Unfortunately, the moths couldn’t fly because the glue was too stiff, but eventually, a flexible glue was found. The moths were also attached with special string to sticks so they could be controlled and to make it look like the moths were flying. The skull on the moth that appears on the film poster is a copy from a photograph entitled In Voluptas Mors by Philippe Halsman. The original photo features Salvador Dalí with seven women posing to make a skull, itself inspired by a Dalí drawing—Human Skull Consisting of Seven Naked Women’s Bodies.
16. For the scene when Clarice tells Lecter about the lambs, Demme wanted visuals. Ted Tally wrote a long scene with young Clarice, the climax of which was the lambs being slaughtered by a cowboy; when he turns around to face Clarice—it’s Lecter. But in the end Demme felt “nothing could match the power of Jodie’s face as she was telling the story.
17. Ted Levine improvised Gumb’s dance—it wasn’t in the script. Demme asked Levine if he wanted to get naked and dance in front of a mirror. The director never felt Gumb was a gay character, but rather a person who hated himself so much that he just wanted to make himself as far away from what he was, as he possibly could. After the film came out, there were public protests by the gay and lesbian community, who didn’t like the portrayal of what they assumed was a gay or transsexual character. Demme said it was his one regret about the film, that the Gumb character wasn’t better clarified.
18. Demme called Thomas Harris asking him to give criticism, the director wanted the film to be pure. “Tom told him his feelings shouldn’t be hurt if he didn’t see cuts, or even see the movie for a long time.” The author was concerned that the actors would steal his characters from him, referencing John le Carré. After seeing Alec Guinness in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy,” le Carré said could no longer write Smiley because the character belonged to Guinness.
19. The last day of shooting (22 hours) was the basement scene. Foster laughed when she says everyone asks how they did the scene in the dark—which of course they didn’t. The clue to that (and goof) is that when Gumb raises his gun, its shadow can be seen on Clarice’s back. Demme remarked on how Foster had to take out the bullets and reload the pistol, while being completely terrified; he called Jodie a tremendous physical actor.
20. The film was supposed to have been released in the fall of 1990, but being a small studio, Orion Pictures was already pushing Dances with Wolves, a film they considered a good Oscar contender. Because they didn’t think it could command enough theaters for both films, The Silence of the Lambs was shelved until February, 1991. Demme chose Valentine’s Day because he thought it would be a great date movie. The movie earned the big five Academy Awards: Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture, and it earned $273 million at the box office. Nonetheless, Orion Pictures went bankrupt. Though the acting/directing team was expected to return for the sequel, both Jonathan Demme and Jodie Foster bowed out, feeling Hannibal distorted the relationship between Clarice and Dr. Lecter.
Cindy Davis prefers a sweet merlot.