The Silence Of The Lambs retrospective

CANNIBALS, CROSS-DRESSERS AND AN OSCAR COUP DE GRAS…
A whisker shy of its twentieth anniversary, the people who produced the most influential horror of the ‘90s sit down with Total Film and a nice Chianti…

October 1989, Quantico, Virginia. Frost trembles in the air, lacing about the remote wooded landscape. Deep in training at the prestigious FBI facility, Jodie Foster is having doubts. In a matter of weeks she will begin filming psycho-thriller The Silence of the Lambs. But she’s unhappy with the film’s opening – a dramatic shoot-out that wrong-foots audience expectations when it’s revealed to be nothing more than a heated training session. Taking matters into her own hands, Foster grabs the phone and dials director Jonathan Demme.

“Why start the movie telling people you’re going to manipulate them?” the headstrong actor reasons. “Look, the grounds here are beautiful in the fall, there are all these crusty leaves. And this is what you have to do to be ready; it’s almost like samurai training. But what’s cool is when you’re running through these woods it’s almost as if someone’s following you, like in a horror movie. I think that would be a really cool way to open the movie – asking, Is Clarice the victim, or is she the saviour?”

‘She’s glorious, isn’t she? Remote and glorious. A winter sunset of a girl, that’s the way I think of her’ – pg. 201

March 1990. Pitch black. A woman pants in the darkness, stumbles, scared. There comes the hum of technology, and suddenly everything’s strained through sickening green. Sporting night vision goggles, Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill stalks his female prey from behind, prowling the labyrinthine basement with infinite care. Then the woman turns: it’s Michelle Pfeiffer as Clarice Starling. She stares into the camera lens with big, blind eyes, gun outstretched, just a heartbeat away…

At least, that’s what would have happened had Jonathan Demme had his way. “He was clearly interested in another actress,” shrugs Jodie Foster, ever pragmatic. “I basically offered myself up as his second choice. You know, every movie that I’ve made in my life that has been very successful for me has been something that I had to knock down the door for.”

As it is, Foster is the one being stalked on this freezing March morning. It’s 5am, and the five month shoot for The Silence of the Lambs is about to wrap. Devilishly dark and cerebral like its source material, Thomas Harris’s acclaimed novel, the film throws thriller clichés to the wind while posing riveting moral questions. The plot revolves around irrepressibly acerbic monster Dr Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter, who acts as an informant-cum-tormentor to Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee attempting to snare serial killer ‘Buffalo Bill’ (so-called because he “skins his humps”).

Hidden away in an abandoned, subzero warehouse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the cast and crew have been toiling tirelessly for almost 18 hours. The South African moths, specially flown in for the film, are perishing in the temperature. But another, far more pressing concern is holding up the shoot.

“Everything went wrong in that sequence. We all realised that the film was supposed to be shot in the dark because there’s no light and Gumb has on the x-ray glasses,” Foster recalls. “And we were, like, ‘Well, if it’s no longer being shot from his point of view and it’s still dark, we won’t be able to see anything. What do we do?’. I said to Jonathan, ‘Remember during the occupation in Germany and France, and in all those old movies, they painted all the windows dark blue. If you shot out the window, light would come streaming through. What if there was a bullet that went through the window?’

Intelligent, opinionated and resourceful? It’s no wonder Foster fought tooth and nail for the part. The uniquely vulnerable heroine of Thomas Harris’s 1988 literary follow up to Red Dragon, Clarice is the kind of Y chromosome character that Hollywood rarely propagates. Frail yet iron willed, she’s a young woman – as Hannibal Lecter notes, we’ll get to him later – desperate for advancement; to progress, to better herself, to prove herself. “She’s a very delicate character; it’s not a showy part,” Foster notes. “I loved Clarice’s delicacy and her kind of destiny as a classically heroic figure.”

A huge fan of Harris’s novel, Foster famously lobbied hard for the role. She first attempted to procure the film rights herself, only to find pre-production in full swing. With Ted Tally inking his grisly, reverent script adaptation, Gene Hackman was lined up to direct. But Hackman, who had also considered taking on the role of Lecter, became wary of dabbling in such dark material after Mississippi Burning. In his place, Orion appointed Jonathan Demme who, fresh from Married to the Mob, wanted Michelle Pfeiffer to play Clarice. “I did like that Lambs was a woman’s picture,” Demme reveals. “For women to achieve what they want is harder than for men. That brings a touch of the underdog to them, and I respond to that. So I’m partial to women in that sense. I think they are better people, by and large.”

When Pfeiffer declined the offer (“the material proved too strong for her,” posits Demme), Foster finally secured the role. “Jonathan called me up and he had a conversation with me. He started going on about how I should change my hair colour and I was like, ‘Does that mean that I’m doing the movie?’” Foster laughs.

Going at the character with typically trenchant enthusiasm, Foster spent time with FBI agent Mary Ann Krause. She learned “how to do fingerprints, look at dead bodies, forensic stuff, crime scene photos”, as well as how to handle a firearm. The Quantico facilities were opened up to the film crew, who were given almost unlimited access to the grounds. Foster began to build an image of who Clarice was – how she would move, talk, interact. Time to throw her to the wolves.

The only colors in the cell were his hair and eyes and his red mouth, in a face so long out of the sun it leached into the surrounding whiteness – pg. 164

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s almost a dungeon. Bricks caked with age, bars rusted and beds rock hard. Foster steps down the dank corridor, watching a commotion down at the very end. She advances, watching crew members as they bolt a large sheet of glass to a wall. As she stops at the glass-fronted cell, she sees a man is already inside, alone behind the bolted pane. It’s Anthony Hopkins, and it’s the first time she’s seen him since their one and only read through.

“I had very little contact with him,” says Foster. “I saw him once during a table reading, and then that was it. I never saw him again. I did half the movie before he got there. I think that’s what gave our scenes their tension.”

Flown in from London, Hopkins had met with Demme while glumly treading the boards for /M. Butterfly/. Miserable after leaving Hollywood, Lambs presented just the opportunity that Hopkins had been hoping for. “I knew it was one of those parts,” the actor nods. “Lecter was that guy at the top of the stairs, the guy in the corner, the bogeyman; those things that frighten you in your nightmares.”

A brilliant psychiatrist with a cut-throat mind, the criminally insane Dr Hannibal Lecter has been long incarcerated after acquiring a taste for human flesh. And, like Clarice, he presents a fascinating internal dichotomy – just as she struggles between victim and hero, he flirts with both the diabolical and the delectable, a duality fashioned to shocking effect in his Francis Bacon-inspired cop butchering.

After watching Hopkins in The Elephant Man, Demme knew that he was his Lecter. “Anthony really knew what to do there,” the director says. “He got this joke.” A man of consummate courtesy and poise, Lecter’s cannibalistic tendencies are almost a mildly irritating character defect – mildly irritating until that defect is chewing off your face. Still, Demme wanted his despicable doctor to be a sympathetic figure; a morally sound man trapped in a maniac’s mind. “He’s been bored to repulsion by people’s limits and has finally turned on everyone in a uniquely dreadful yet, for him, kind of fun way,” the director psychoanalyses.

The byzantine relationship that Lecter strikes up with Clarice forms Lambs’ feverish nucleus. At first dismissive, and then increasingly fascinated by her, his teasing Buffalo Bill clues are offered up in exchange for the painful details of Clarice’s childhood. Unable to physically dissect his subjects any longer, Lecter instead takes pleasure from picking apart Clarice’s fragile psyche. These scenes in particular highlight Demme’s masterful decision to shoot much of Lambs through Clarice’s own point of view. So, as she faces Lecter in his underground cell, he talks direct to camera, right at the audience.

“I thought it was essential that the movie really put the viewer in Clarice’s shoes,” Demme explains. “That meant shooting a lot of subjective camera in every sequence she was in. You always had to see what Clarice was seeing.” The technique also toys with cinematic concepts of sexual objectification, expanding on the themes of the novel. As an attractive young woman, Clarice visibly struggles under the gaze of her male peers. This is never more apparent than in her teeth-achingly uneasy flirtation with the exorable Dr Chilton (“then I would have missed the pleasure of your company,” she labours during an early encounter). Demme’s underdog again.

The issues of power and gender that trickle through the film’s veins sets Lambs above the cat-and-mouse whodunits that both preceded and followed it, providing a veritable hotbed of anguish and intrigue. “I am interested in why Hannibal is such a phenomenon,” Hopkins says. “Psychologically they are archetypes; Lecter is an archetype, so is Clarice. She is the warrior who takes on the Minotaur. I won’t go much deeper than that.” The tit-for-tat fight for power between these two characters forms the narrative thrust of Lambs. He, an incarcerated man of words, and she, a ‘free’ woman of action. Together they spar and rally; each has something the other wants. It is a dazzling, emotional dance, and one that resulted in both actors receiving the highest of acclaim in the form of a Golden Baldie.

Sometimes the family of man produces, behind a human face, a mind whose pleasure is what lay on the porcelain table at Potter, West Virginia – pg. 134

Dirty fingers tease a nipple ring. A necklace is draped into place. ‘Goodbye Horses’ by Q Lazzarus plays in the background as a close up reveals lipstick being applied with all the precision of a plastic surgeon. “Would you fuck me?” the lips ask. “I’d fuck me.” Buffalo Bill dances in front of a video camera, naked but for a chiffon robe, wearing the scalp and hair of a dead woman. He moves back, arms outstretched, exultant, his manhood tucked between his legs…

“That scene was in the book, but it was not in the script,” Ted Levine recollects. “I requested that it be in the movie. I thought it was a really powerful image. For one thing it’s really disturbing to see, a man with – apparently – a vagina. The other thing that was important was that anybody can do it. It’s such a disturbing image and idea, but at the same time it makes you the least bit curious about what you would look like as a woman.”

Perhaps the most important character in Lambs to get right was that of serial killer Jame ‘Buffalo Bill’ Gumb. Staggeringly complex, Demme was painfully aware how “tremendously important it was to not have Gumb misinterpreted by the audience as being homosexual”. Cannibalised from real-life murderers Ed Gein, Ted Bundy and Gary Heidnick, Gumb kidnaps larger women in order to harvest their skins and build himself a “suit with tits”.

Behaving in a way that echoes transvestism and homosexuality, Gumb hides his true monstrous nature behind these socially acceptable veneers. “Ultimately he’s an extremely homophobic man,” divines Levine. “He wants to mock homosexual behaviour. He doesn’t know what he is.”

As Demme meticulously drew up character profiles that he submitted to the FBI Behavioural Science department for approval, Levine researched serial killers and headed out to Chicago clubs to meet transvestites.

“Some of them were freaking gorgeous,” the actor raves. “I mean, better at being a woman than a woman is. I bought this gal a drink and told her I was researching for a role. I said, ‘Why do you do this?’. And she said, ‘As a guy, I’m just a little Puerto Rican dude. But as a girl I’m a hot Latino mama.’”

All this careful, considered planning, however, failed to convince a few select groups. Queer Nation, who had already lambasted the previous year’s Oscars when activist David Lacaillade shouted out during the Best Actor presentation, united with other LA-based gay groups to point the finger of contempt. Columnist Michelangelo Signorile ignited much of the debate by protesting Lambs’ content in an article for gay periodical The Advocate, while proclaiming that homosexuals were “finally focusing on Hollywood in the way the black community did over 10 years ago”. Meanwhile, rumours circulated that a compassionate star would take to the Oscar podium in their support, and even more salacious whispers hinted that certain protestors had managed to infiltrate the Academy’s staff.

At the time, both Demme and Foster responded with equanimity. “I was happy that the film opened the door on discussing negative portrayals,” Demme said. “I welcomed that other viewpoint.” Foster stated, “Protest is good. Protest is American. It’s not against the law. Criticism is also good.” In the end, the dissent amounted to a handful of arrest, and didn’t stop Lambs scooping all five of the big awards. As well as bagging Best Picture, Hopkins set the record for the shortest lead role to be awarded an Oscar, with his screen time totalling just 17 minutes.

Upon its release in February 1991, The Silence of the Lambs rocked critics and cinemagoers alike. Made on a humble budget of $19m, it snapped up a phenomenal $130m at the US box office. The New York Times called it “pop film making of a high order”, while Rolling Stone concluded that “it proves that a movie can be mercilessly scary and mercifully humane at the same time”. On review gauge website Rotten Tomatoes, the film boasts an almost unprecedented 96% freshness rating.

Foster looks back with particularly melancholy fondness. “Oh, I think it’s a great American classic,” she enthuses. “It will stand out for years to come, there’s something very timeless about it. All of us probably did the best work of our life in that movie, and our great fear is that we will never be as good.”

CLOSE UP
Foster and Demme discuss setting the mood…
With a director at the helm best known for his oddball comedies, it was always going to be a bit of a gamble giving him something as serious as /Lambs/. “I was worried that Jonathan was going to sort of make fun of the movie in some way because he was known for doing comedies,” Foster recalls. “I remember taking Jonathan aside and going, ‘Oh God, I hope you’re not going to do a kind of black comedy thing.’”

She needn’t have worried. Working alongside his trusted cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto, Demme had a very clear vision for the look and feel of his suspense whodunit. “I didn’t want the film to look like another modish, stylish, moody, broody long-shadow catch the killer movie,” the director explains. “Because of the incredible heaviness of the subject matter it was important to aspire to a certain brightness wherever possible.”

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT…

1. COPYCATS
Horror crime procedurals of hugely varying quality exploded all over Hollywood in the wake of Lambs’ success, with notable entries including Double Jeopardy, The Bone Collector, Sigourney Weaver vehicle Copycat, Christopher Lambert stinker Resurrection and Fincher’s gloomy Se7en.

2. SILENCE! THE MUSICAL
Film and TV composers Jon and Al Kaplan produced their own stage musical parody-homage in 2005. Classic songs include ‘If I Could Smell Her Cunt’ and ‘Put the Fucking Lotion in the Basket’. Listen at http://www.jonandal.com.

3. JUGGERNAUT JODIE
Jodie Foster continues to portray tough, resourceful women, with roles in Panic Room, Flight Plan and The Brave One pitting her against robbers, conspirators and criminals. “I’m not sure I know how to play weak,” she told us back in ‘05.

4. MORE MOVIES
Ridley Scott seized the directorial reigns for Hannibal after Demme (and, more famously, Foster) turned down the opportunity to continue Lecter’s story in film form. After Hannibal, Hopkins returned for prequel Red Dragon, while Hannibal Rising completed the adaptation circuit.

5. NOVELS
Thomas Harris published his fourth Lecter novel, Hannibal Rising, in 2006, filling in the blanks of the doctor’s past (cannibals ate his sister, apparently). It also marked the first movie to be filmed while its novel counterpart was still being written.

Via Total Film