‘Silence of the Lambs’: ‘It Broke All the Rules’
I was terrified at the Academy Awards,” screenwriter Ted Tally says. “I can’t describe how nerve-racking it is. You go in the bathrooms, and people are boozing it up, smoking, doing lines of coke. You never saw so many famous people so nervous.”
On Valentine’s Day in 1991, The Silence of the Lambs opened in movie theaters. An intense, gritty crime odyssey, in which an FBI cadet (Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling) hunts down a serial killer (Ted Levine as Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb) with the help of another, more lascivious serial killer (Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter), the film was director Jonathan Demme’s masterwork in suspense, full of uncomfortable close-ups and discomfiting dialogue. Thanks to its mix of stunning performances and an claustrophobic feeling of dread, it became an instant classic.
Although Tally, a North Carolina–born playwright, had written for screen before, The Silence of the Lambs established his career. On March 30th, 1992, it became one of only three movies to win Oscars in the five major categories, with acting wins for Hopkins and Foster, a statuette for Demme, one for Tally and another for Best Picture. “I’ve never been back to the Oscars,” Tally says. “I’m thinking it would be fun to go if you didn’t have anything on the line, but you’d have to be Meryl Streep to be able to take that with some kind of measure of equanimity.”
Here, Tally goes deep on one of the most celebrated movies of all time with revealing, behind-the-scenes stories that are often as fascinating as the movie itself, from Gene Hackman’s early interest in making the film to insights into Hopkins’ eerie performance. The last time he watched it was in 2014 at the London Screenwriters Festival. “I thought, ‘Wow, this holds up pretty well,’” he says.
What do you think of first when you look back at making The Silence of the Lambs?
I had never been on a movie set before. It was in Pittsburgh in a jet turbine factory. It was, like, the single biggest building I had ever been in. You could have landed a plane in this building. Inside it was a three- or four-story set being built that was Lecter’s prison. Even though there were only one or two shots with the camera coming down through the railings and stairs, they wanted to have a scale for those two shots. When I saw it, my jaw just dropped. There were hundreds of people swarming all over this structure, literally painting dust onto fake stones. People were bustling around, caterers. I was standing there gawking. Ed Saxon [producer] looked at me and laughed and said, “What hath Ted wrought?”
How did it align with your vision?
Everything matched to an astonishing degree. I’ve had a lot of other movies made since then, but no script that I’ve written came out so much like the movie in my head as this one did. It was astonishing. Jonathan and I were on a wavelength. We just channeled each other.
Let’s talk about adapting the book. How involved was Thomas Harris in the process?
Well, I knew Tom Harris slightly, socially, in New York. He was a client of the art gallery where my wife worked. So I had met him and had dinner with him once or twice. He knew that I was a fan of his books. He said, “Well I’m working on a new one, maybe you’d like to see that.” I thought, “Yes!” but I didn’t think anything would come of it. A few weeks later, I got an advance copy of The Silence of the Lambs. I devoured it in one or two days and thought, “This is unbelievable. He’s topped himself again.”
The advance copy left an impression on you.
I was just knocked out. This was the kind of book that comes along once every 10 or 20 years. It’s like The Godfather. It’s a book that’s so smart and so well-crafted that the critics are going to admire it and it has such sheer excitement that a mass audience is going to respond to it, too. It has intricate plotting, it has incredible characters, it has great twists. I just thought, “This is a dream.” My wife actually said, “[Screenwriter] William Goldman or somebody must already be writing this. Call your agent.” She still takes credit to this day for the entire thing. I soon found out Orion Pictures was in the process of buying the rights for Gene Hackman to write, direct and star in it.
How did you come aboard?
I remember having a conversation with [Orion co-founder] Mike Medavoy. He said, “Gene thinks he’s going to write this, but don’t worry, he’ll find out how hard that is, and we’ll get back to you.” Mike later called my agent and said, “Gene’s written 50 pages of the script, and he’s only 50 pages into the book. So if you can meet with him and convince him that you’re the right guy for it, you’ll have the job.” So I had to pitch Gene Hackman to get the job.
How did that go?
He was a smart guy, very quirky. I met him at his vacation house in Santa Fe and I pitched my ass off. And he said, “Well, I’ll think about. Meet me again in Chicago,” where he was shooting a movie with Tommy Lee Jones. So I had to come back with an even more detailed pitch weeks after that in a Chicago hotel room; he lay on the floor for the entire meeting because his back was hurting. He had some strange ideas about how to visualize things in the movie that I wasn’t happy about, but I just bit my lip. Finally, he said, “OK, you’ve got the job.”
What were Gene’s strange ideas?
He had some weird image of Clarice Starling being visualized in the skies, like, “We’ll see it across the sky.” And I just thought, “OK, Gene, take some more Tylenol.” He hadn’t decided whether or not he was going to play Lecter; he was also directing it, so maybe he would play Crawford. I never spoke to him again after that. He dropped out while I was writing the first draft without a word to me. I didn’t meet Jonathan Demme until I was almost finished with the initial script.
Could you picture Hackman as Hannibal Lecter?
No, but he would have been a good Crawford. The weird thing about this movie is that I pictured Anthony Hopkins from the start, and I pictured Jodie Foster, too.
“I couldn’t think of an American actor who could do Hannibal Lecter without us seeing quotation marks around everything he said.”
Harris’ vision of Hannibal Lecter is pretty different from Anthony Hopkins. The character is supposed to be Lithuanian.
Well, he also describes him as having red eyes and six fingers on one hand in The Silence of the Lambs. But it’s a brilliant book. When I think about the success of the movie, we started out with one of the best thrillers ever written. We just managed not to screw it up.
Why did you always picture Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal?
I always admired him as an actor. His speech is so theatrical. I couldn’t think of an American actor who could really do it without us seeing quotation marks around everything he said. There was some talk of Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, De Niro, but I just thought, Anthony Hopkins is sexy in the way that the character is weirdly sexual. And he’s very, very smart. You can’t fake that smartness on a big screen.
When it came to casting, there was some back and forth with the studio. Jonathan actually flew to London to offer the part to Anthony Hopkins preemptively and said, “You’ve got the part.” That’s Jonathan’s version. Mike Medavoy’s version is different. In his, he said, “OK, you can have Anthony Hopkins if I can have Jodie Foster.” But one way or another it worked out.
Michelle Pfeiffer was in the running for Clarice Starling, right?
Yeah, Demme wanted her because directors often want the last actress they worked with. [The two had worked together on Married to the Mob in 1988.] Michelle, who’s a wonderful actress, decided it was too violent for her. It’s the same thing Gene Hackman decided. And I always thought, “It’s not violent on screen. It’s psychologically upsetting and disturbing, but there’s very little actual violence in this movie.” It has horrific elements, but we don’t really see them. [But] it is deeply disturbing, so I have to give them that.
How did Jodie Foster come into the picture?
She called me up while I was writing the first draft. We’d never met. She had just won an Oscar for The Accused and had tracked me down to a borrowed office where I was working, and somebody said, “Jodie Foster is on the phone.” We chatted a little bit. She said, “Maybe someday you’ll write a good part for me.” said, “I think I’m already writing a great part for you.” To which she replied, “I know you are.” She was campaigning that far in advance.
Jonathan initially turned her down. We talked about her in the first meeting and luckily he came around. She contacted him, apparently, and said, “I know I’m not your first choice but I’m going to play this part.” She’s tough.
With Hopkins, how did you feel when you actually heard him saying Hannibal’s words?
It was thrilling. It’s funny, I asked him one time how he came up with his voice, and he had some bizarre answer that makes sense to him. He said, “Well, I thought it was a cross between Katharine Hepburn and the computer Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey.” I mean, actors … What’re you gonna say?
Did you like his portrayal?
Yes. I was worried he might be hammy. When filming began, I ran into him when he was having dinner in the hotel in Pittsburgh, all by himself. I actually had the temerity to ask him how he was going to play the part: “Do you think you’ll choose moments where his madness shows through?” He looked at me and said, “Oh, no. I think if you’re mad, you’re mad all the time.” I didn’t find it reassuring, performance wise. But he’s right. You don’t get to choose when you’re mad and sane.
Ultimately, it’s an incredible performance. I don’t know if you would notice this even, but he blinks only one time in the entire movie, and he does it very slowly and dramatically when he evokes some incredibly painful memory in her about the death of her father or something. It’s like sipping a glass of wine. Otherwise, his eyes are completely wide open. He trained himself to do that.
When you adapted the book into the script, you made it a point to tell the story mostly from Clarice Starling’s perspective. Why?
I had to do something. It’s a 370-page book, and there’s nothing in it that you couldn’t stage excitingly. But it goes inside all of the characters’ heads separately. The book has a whole subplot with Crawford and his dying wife, which I tried to hang on to through the first draft or two, but I just realized the only way to trim this down and focus it was just to concentrate entirely on the Clarice character and her point of view. You can’t do that completely, because you have to cut away for Catherine Martin’s kidnapping and you have to leave Clarice Starling for Lecter’s escape. But it seemed to work as a guiding principle. It certainly helped me to organize the story.
It was also different to see a strong, bold woman leading the way.
Yeah, that was unusual at the time. Since then, it’s happened more often. I had a conversation with Jonathan years ago about how this movie broke so many rules about how to make an effective Hollywood thriller. It’s very talky, it’s very intellectual. There are no car chases or explosions. The main character is a woman rather than a man. She’s never in direct physical danger until the end of the movie. It just broke all the rules.
Going back to the script, did Thomas Harris get involved?
Tom Harris was very sweet about the whole thing from the beginning. When I got the job, he said, “Congratulations, great.” He said, “If you need an additional glance into the dossier of any character, let me know.” He was extremely accommodating and generous for an author. I said “You know what? You put it all in the book. I don’t need anything else from you and I’m more comfortable if you don’t see it until it’s done.”
In fact, he never even saw the movie for 10 years. He said, “I don’t want somebody else’s vision of these characters to be in my head while I’m still trying to write about them in other work.”
“I was as shocked as everybody else when I saw him tucking his genitals between his legs.”
Did Jonathan ask you for revisions when you were working through drafts?
He would push me a little bit: “Do you think this adds up to a story about a woman having some lambs killed that she couldn’t save when she was young? Do you think that’s going to feel disappointing? Is it really enough that she couldn’t save a lamb?” And I said, “I don’t care about the lambs, but she does, and I care about her.” When Lecter meets the Senator at the airport terminal, Jonathan said, “I think Lecter would be far nastier. He’s got a U.S. senator in his power.” So I had to try and think of awful things for him to say that weren’t in the book.
How did you adapt the Jame Gumb–Catherine Martin part of the story?
Well, I love Catherine Martin, because she refuses to just be another victim. It’s brilliant on Thomas Harris’ part, the way she fights back and tries to save herself. She’s not just waiting around to be killed or rescued. She’s trying to save her life. And it’s beautifully played by Brooke Smith.
Jame Gumb was a tough one for me, because once I made the decision that it was going to be mostly from Clarice’s point of view, that limited how much I could show him. So it kept me from being able to dramatize him to a greater extent. If I couldn’t go inside his head, then I can’t begin to explain how he got to be the way he is. If I can’t show flashbacks to his abusive childhood, or whatever, then he’s going to turn into a cipher a little bit. And then I was rescued by Ted Levine’s performance and Jonathan Demme. They just said, “Well, we’re showing him. He’s gotta be doing something. How does he dress? What kind of jewelry does he wear? What’s his makeup? What music does he like?” They did that stuff on the set. It was very brave on Ted’s part.
Was the scene where Buffalo Bill does his naked dance in your script?
I don’t think so. I was as shocked as everybody else when I saw him tucking his genitals between his legs and posing. I thought, “Oh, my God.” When Jodie first saw it, she said, “This is really disturbing.” Which is the idea. Certainly the nipple ring and things like that were not in the script.
What was the vibe like on set?
Jonathan would play practical jokes on the actors. He loves to have the movie feel like a family movie, so he puts everybody in the movie. I’m in it as one of the SWAT cops who goes into the wrong building. Ed Saxon is in it as the head in the jar. And one of the assistants played a clerk at a car-rental place in a scene that was cut. In it, Jodie Foster’s picking up a car and says, “Clarice Starling, you have a car for me.” That was the whole scene. But Jonathan told the assistant, “Give her a really hard time,” like Candid Camera.
So Jodie comes in, in a hurry, like, “Hi, I’m Clarice Starling.” And he says, “May I see some identification?” And of course Jodie’s not going to break character if it turns into an improv. And he says, “You know, I’m going to need to see more than this. Do you have a driver’s license for this state? Do you have a hotel registration?” And finally, finally, Jodie Foster broke up laughing. It just killed everybody in the dailies. That’s how Jonathan kept the mood light on this dark movie.
How do you feel about people describing The Silence of the Lambs as a horror movie?
Well, it’s been embraced over the years by the horror community, which is fine with me. They like to say it’s the only horror movie to ever win Best Picture. But I always thought of it as a detective movie or a thriller. I have nothing against horror movies. But to me, horror movies involve the supernatural. Lecter may border on supernatural, but he’s not.
The American Film Institute did one of their survey things years ago, “Who are the greatest film villains?” and “Who are the greatest film heroes?” Their voters decided the greatest villain in film history was Hannibal Lecter, and the greatest female hero was Clarice Starling. I figured that means somebody’s always trying to find a way to spin these things off.
Why did you decide not to work on the sequel Hannibal in 2001?
We all turned it down except for Tony Hopkins, who couldn’t resist being the title character. We just thought that after years of struggling with this story, Tom had changed what we liked about his vision of the characters. We just couldn’t accept that Clarice Starling would be drawn to Hannibal Lecter in the way that she was in that book. It felt like a betrayal of his own character to us. Not that we had any right to criticize, because we all owe him so much. It was a very painful episode when we decided we just couldn’t do it. And we’d been waiting 10 years to do it, too.
But, you know, Tom struggled with that book and its ending, and we were happy for him that he made it through that journey. He didn’t have the magnanimity that we wanted in that character. It went over to the dark side too much. But Tom Harris didn’t hold a grudge and was very kind to me when we did Red Dragon later.
Did you watch the Hannibal TV series?
No. It’s the Hannibal Lecter industry now. I think, good for them and good for Thomas Harris. My feeling, though, goes back to when the late Dino De Laurentiis also tried to get me to adapt the Hannibal Rising book. And I said, “Dino, the more you explain this character, the less he is.” I don’t want to know that somebody hurt his puppy when he was 8 years old. I don’t want him to be conventionally motivated. Less is more with this character. But you can’t convince anybody when there’s profit to be made that that’s true.
What are you proudest of when you think about The Silence of the Lambs now?
The Oscars sweep, winning all the major categories is so historic. It’s only the third time it’s happened and it hasn’t happened in the 25 years since then, either. Jodie once said something to the effect of, “None of us was ever that good before and we’ve never been that good since. It just came out that way.” It just was perfect timing for everybody’s careers.
Editor’s Note: A version of this story was originally published in 2016 for the 25th anniversary of the film’s release.