The Silence of the Lambs is one of those films where everything just came together. Stars, story, direction, even publicity — the film’s success was helped rather than hindered by protests against the killer being portrayed as somewhat camp. Scary enough to be horror, twisty enough to be a thriller, intelligent enough to be mainstream, and featuring a strong female character in the lead role, it grossed more than $270 million worldwide and was only the third film to win all five major Oscars.
During a screening at the London Screenwriters’ Festival, the Oscar-winning screenwriter, Ted Tally, gave his behind-the-scenes commentary on key scenes. There’s too much good stuff for one blog, so here goes part one, including a long section about the famous first meeting between FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins):
The title sequence shows Clarice running, alone, in the FBI’s training ground: I didn’t write the title sequence. I know that directors tend to throw out any title sequences we write anyway. And when Jonathan Demme got down to the Quantico training area, he called me and said this is amazing, we’ll get lots of good footage. It works really well. The audience thinks: Why is she running? Why is she so sweaty, so intense? What is she running from, and what is she running to? She’s a warrior in training for a quest she doesn’t yet know what it will be.
Called in to see FBI boss Jack Crawford, Clarice takes the lift: There’s a real feeling of being a woman in a man’s world. There’s this great shot where she gets into an elevator and she is surrounded by these great hulking men. The Quantico interior scenes were actually shot in the cast and crew hotel in Pittsburgh.
Jack Crawford (Scott Glen) sends her off to see Hannibal: The script’s description of Crawford is “His face is a roadmap of places we would not bear to visit.” The FBI figured this film would be like a recruiting poster for the FBI. Every once in a while something would bother them, like they’d say “We’d never send a trainee out into the field by herself”, and we’d say, “Well, without that we have no movie!”
We meet Hannibal Lecter: Anthony Hopkins said he wanted to stand. In the original book and script he was lying down reading Italian Vogue. Anthony said “No, that would be rude; he knows she’s coming. He should be standing there like he’s just beamed down from a spaceship.” He never changed a syllable or punctuation mark. When he says “Go all the way to the F… B… I” that’s exactly how it was written in the script. Jodie Foster did have a line suggested to her at Quantico – “I’m a student, I’ve come here to learn from you.” She phoned me and asked it was okay to change it.
The cell is made of plexiglass: As originally written, both in the book and in the screenplay, it was heavily barred with an extra inner layer of steel mesh. But when it came to shooting time and the set was built, Jonathan said “we can’t shoot through this, there’s too much clutter, what do we do?” And the production designer, Kristi Zea, said on the spot, “we’ll put up a plexiglass shield”. The day before shooting! She was brilliant. And now the actors couldn’t hear each other, so she said “all right, ventilation holes”. This also gives the advantage of double reflection shots.
As Clarice leaves, another inmate flicks his spunk into her hair, causing Hannibal to help her: When you’re writing dialogue for a scene like that you worry because it’s terribly long, there’s semen thrown in her hair, and lines like “I can smell your c**t”. I wondered, can we really put this in the first ten minutes? But it’s a shot across the bows to the audience, saying don’t get too comfortable, we might do anything. The scene is also very theatrical: you need classically trained actors. I couldn’t think of anyone but Anthony Hopkins to cope with that artificial, brittle dialogue. And there’s a lot of close-ups, so I need really, really, really smart actors, not just actors pretending to be smart. Jodie Foster majored in Renaissance Studies at Yale, and you can’t fake that.
Jodie phoned me half-way through writing and said, “Maybe someday you’ll write a part for me.” I said, “Maybe I am right now.” She said, “I know you are.” She was campaigning to get the part, way in advance! Jonathan wanted Michelle Pfeiffer, he had made her last film [Married To The Mob] and was still a little in love with her, but she found it too dark. I kept saying, “Jodie Foster, Jodie Foster!” Jodie said to Jonathan, “I know I’m not your first choice for Clarice, but I will be your last.” I asked Jonathan what changed his mind, and he said, “When I saw that sturdy little frame walking towards me for a meeting about the role with her briefcase, I thought, that is Clarice Starling.”
To read part two, click here.