Slightly delayed, here is the final part of screenwriter Ted Tally talking us through the key scenes of The Silence of the Lambs, from a live screening at the London Screenwriters’ Festival. To read part one, click here.
Buffalo Bill tricks his next victim into his van: This shows Jonathan Demme’s sensitivity as a film-maker. He’s about to knock his victim out with his fake cast, and Demme doesn’t show it, it’s off-camera. It’s partly a matter of taste, but also that an audience’s imagination is more powerful than anything you can show them.
The coroner scene: We shot this in Rural Valley, Pennsylvania. It was 10 degrees Fahrenheit, we were stood around waiting for trucks in the mist, all 100 townspeople gathered to wait for the circus to arrive, and Jonathan looked at me and said, “So you think you want to direct?” The elderly coroner was one of the producers, Kenny Utt (above right). The head in a jar was another of the producers (above left). I’m not kidding! With Jonathan it’s like family, he likes to get everyone involved. Roger Corman, Jonathan’s mentor, plays the head of the FBI.
Buffalo Bill tucks his penis between his legs and dances around the basement: It was very courageous of Ted Levine to take this part. He didn’t work for years after this. True! He was only offered slasher parts. The character of Buffalo Bill was more fleshed out in the book than in the script, unfortunately. In the movie we never get the inside into his tormented childhood, and how he was created. There was controversy because a lot of people thought it was homophobic. But he’s not meant to represent a group of anything. He’s a unique, strange specimen. A lot of the controversy was because he had a white poodle named Precious – with hindsight it should have been a different breed or a different name.
The screaming of the lambs story: Now we’re getting on to Memphis which is almost like a different movie, it starts to be an action movie. This scene about the spring lambs originally called for a flashback – it was going to be the last thing we shot, in May. But after shooting this scene, Jonathan sent me the rushes and said, “If I cut away from their faces, I’ll be drummed out of the Directors’ Union. Look at Jodie Foster – she could win an Academy Award for this scene [as indeed she did].” I said if I had known there would be no flashback, I would have written it differently. But Jonathan said “It’s all there.”
Lecter touches Clarice’s finger: It’s one of my favourite moments in the movie. You also see Jonathan and the cinematographer pushing the camera further and further through the bars, until there is no distance between them. Jonathan did challenge me on this whole scene. He said, “It’s the climactic scene, but – we’ve had dinner, I know you like a rack of lamb, and so do I. Why are we going to care?” I said, “I don’t care about the lambs, but she does, and I care about her.” Jonathan accepted that.
Lecter escapes: Again, Jonathan said to me, “How can we cut away from Clarice for so long? It breaks your own rule about focusing always on her.” I said “I know, but the escape in the book is such a great scene there is no way we could not have it in.” You can break all the rules, except for one: “Don’t bore the audience.” Jonathan used to say, “I’d rather have the audience confused for four minutes than bored for four seconds.”
Clarice and Buffalo Bill play cat-and-mouse in the dark: That sequence was shot in one continuous evening, we finished at 5am. It had to be done in one night. Jodie is as exhausted as she looks. Everything you can get out of an actress came out of her.
A change of ending, in which Lecter phones Clarice from somewhere tropical: The original ending had Chiltern hiding out in his Chesapeake home, and the camera travels over his grounds, and you see dead security guards, Chiltern taped to his desk, and Lecter’s there. Jonathan said “No, he’s a scumbag but he’s a human being; we have to give at least the illusion that he might get away.” So I said, “We can have him on some tropical island, with Chiltern on holiday.” Jonathan said, “You mean we’d have to send a production crew, including you and me, to somewhere hot and tropical, in February? This is a good idea!”
That’s my last of many posts from the London Screenwriters’ Festival. What a wonderful three days that was. For info about next year’s, click here.