The Silence of the Lambs: the disturbing story that no one dared to film

Three decades ago, a successful book but so terrifying and disturbing that nobody wanted to take to the cinema managed to scare millions of viewers around the world: The Silence of the Lambs was a film that few believed could work but that, once filmed with Very low budget and almost no expectations, it became a classic of the seventh art, raised 272 million dollars and even today it continues to generate interest and profits thanks to sequels in various formats.

It all started in October 1998, when writer Thomas Harris published a novel with which he reached the top of the best-selling books in the United States. The Silence of the Lambs was the story of a young FBI agent, Clarice Starling, and her relationship with Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, a psychiatrist imprisoned for killing and eating their victims. Thanks to the help of Lecter, Starling manages to catch a serial killer of women who, after killing them, skinns them.

The natural path of a best-seller is for someone to take it to the big screen, but here was a problem: The Silence of the Lambs was the continuation of the novel Red Dragon, the rights of which had been bought by producer Dino De Laurentiis in 1984. In fact, Red Dragon had been adapted by Warner Bros as Manhunter, directed by Michael Mann and starring William Petersen and Brian Cox but had been a box office failure. With this lousy precedent, the idea of ​​a continuation did not attract anyone in Hollywood, where they believed that the audience had already turned their back on this saga.

Harris, however, believed in the potential of his ideas and obtained authorization to sell the rights to his new work if he changed the names and some details so that it did not feel like a continuation. Roberto Bookman, his agent, got producer Ned Tanen to give him a meeting and said: “I know you are not going to want to buy the book because of what happened with Warner, but please give it to someone you trust. read and we get back together ”.

“Three days later I had the second meeting and Tanen told me: ‘I did what you asked me to do and they told me I have to do this movie. I can’t believe it either. ‘ The problem was, he knew that nobody wanted to film it and, to be honest, between the failure of Manhunter and the serial killer of the protagonist… it was understandable! But he confessed to me that the sci-fi genre was as dead as a nail in a door until George Lucas made Star Wars. He believed that he could do the same but with terror. So he was convinced ”, revealed Bookman.

Scene from the movie “The Silence of the Lambs”

Enthusiastic about this idea, Tanen helped Orion Studios’ Arthur Krim and Gene Hackman buy the rights to The Silence of the Lambs, as the actor was eager to step into Hannibal Lecter’s shoes to demonstrate his talent after a series of failed papers.

Determined to regain prestige with this role, Hackman hired screenwriter Ted Tally to do the adaptation of Harris’s text. “It wasn’t easy, Hackman had very strong ideas of what he wanted to do and we discussed a lot. But I put my ideas to him, convinced him, and we made the first draft. But as soon as he read it he began to doubt playing Hannibal, sometimes he said that he would feel more comfortable playing Crawford, the head of the FBI. I remember him on a couple of occasions he said that he preferred “Bobby to play Lecter.” He said it so sure that I didn’t have the courage to ask what Bobby was talking about… Robert? Duvall? Redford? From Niro? I never knew ”, recalled the writer, who soon saw the project disappear.

And it is that, as he progressed with the writing, Hackman began to have more and more doubts until, one morning, his daughter called him to tell him that he had bought the book when he saw it in a shop window, he had read it and forbade him to take to the movies, because you found it dark and disturbing. So the actor sold his share of the rights to Orion, who went looking for a director and found it in Jonathan Demme, who had made two films for them with good critical acclaim, Something Wild and Married to. la mafia (Married to the Mob).

In Search of Lecter and Starling

“I read the original book and was hooked: a classic American story, an incredible protagonist and a lot of pacing. I immediately realized that the key had to be to frighten the audience as much as possible. We had to get everyone to the edge of their seats, “Demme said years later.

Demme asked Orion to star as Michelle Pfeiffer, with whom he had worked on Married to the Mafia. The studios accepted but the actress found the role too dark and the film too violent: “The end of the film is about evil winning, because evil is released … I was uncomfortable with that closure, I didn’t want to be part of it” , revealed the interpreter.

The Silence of the Lambs, key film about murder

Faced with this refusal, Tally proposed to speak with Jodie Foster, who had just won an Oscar for The Accused. She “She was the right age for the character. She had the right intelligence to play someone like that … she was a fabulous actress, period! ”She assured.

However, Foster was not at all amused to play a law enforcement officer who persecuted femicides if she had no guarantees of how she was going to be portrayed. And it is that in 1982 the star had been involved in an incredible episode in which a fanatic with psychiatric problems named John Hinckley Jr tried to kill Ronald Reagan to get the actress’s attention. It was her FBI’s help that rescued her from what could be a true tragedy.

“I will only accept the role if you give me your word that the FBI agents will not be portrayed as dumb Republicans, but with their lights and shadows. I feel full responsibility towards women who are victimized. If you want me to be your hero, you have to portray them in the right way, ”she said seriously to Demme. And the director gave him his word.

It only remained to find the actor for none other than Lecter, who had the potential to become one of the great movie villains of the 20th century. On the list of dance candidates were Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall and Dustin Hoffman but the one who kicked the board was Sean Connery, who sent a message through his agent to make it clear that he was interested in the role.

The idea that a star of the stature of Connery would join the project excited everyone involved but hopes were dashed when the Scotsman received the first version of the script and within days he rejected it outright saying that he found it ” disgusting”. After the rudeness, at a production meeting someone mentioned Anthony Hopkins, who was doing the play Equus at the time.

“It was very easy for me to realize that Anthony would make an excellent Dr. Lecter because he had been an excellent doctor in The Elephant Man. He had been as credible a doctor as you can imagine and he was good… it was obvious that he would make a great Dr. Lecter, a good doctor turned bad! Anthony was doing M. Butterfly in London. I flew there and we agreed on the most important points, it was very easy ”.

One of the problems that Tally and Demme encountered was that, by contract, they had to change the names of the protagonists that their film rights belonged to De Laurentiis. Together they thought of alternatives for Hannibal Lecter but nothing convinced them. So they decided to reach an agreement with the producer to be able to use it.

“I can’t imagine that movie without Hannibal Lecter. If it had been another name, the franchise would not have had the same value. Dino De Laurentiis was smart and he knew that if the movie was successful he could eventually make a sequel, “Bookman recalled.

Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, reunited for 30 years of The Silence of the Lambs

Tension in the air

During the first reading of the script with the entire cast, the tension that was generated between Hopkins and Foster was perfect. “It was a week before filming began. All the Orion executives were there. You felt a kind of electricity in that room, coming from what Anthony was doing and what he was doing in Jodie. When the last line was read, we were all silent for several seconds, with goose bumps. It was obvious that we had to make the scariest movie ever, ”revealed Demme.

A few days ago, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the premiere, Variety magazine organized a meeting by videoconference between the protagonists in which they remembered that moment: “I remember the voice and the metallic tone that you used in the first reading of the script. When you became Hannibal Lecter I felt a chill. After that I was too scared to chat. “

Everyone remembers that same chemistry carried over to filming. The filmmaker was obsessed with close-ups and many scenes had to be done multiple times to get different shots. However, the lead duo was never tired or worried about overworking: they knew intimately that they were playing one of the roles of their lives.

One of the successes of The Silence of the Lambs was that it leaves a lot to the imagination of the spectators: on many occasions the terror is only hinted at, as when Clarice sees a photo of a Lecter victim and the camera stays fixed on her reaction or when he finds the head of a corpse. The scriptwriter Tally, who was present on the set, used to tell the director if it was not necessary to be more explicit but fortunately he was not listened to: “In the scene at Clarice he finds a head in the warehouse I remember that I suggested to Jonathan that show it more. “Shouldn’t we zoom in on that head?” And he said to me, “A head in a jar is nothing in this movie. We don’t need to waste ammo on something like that. That’s nothing”.

Hopkins believes that these artistic decisions were key to making the film work: “The director set out not to show any really horrible scenes but to let them form in the mind of the viewer. For example, in the script Dr. Hannibal Lecter cuts someone’s face but in the film there are only very short shots. There is, of course, a very detailed autopsy scene but that is because it is a very important reality. But then there are only flashes of violence. Playing with psychological terror was undoubtedly incredible ”.

“From the moment I read the script I realized that violence was not such a necessary element in the film. That is why I decided that terror should be represented through performances. We know that Lecter has committed horrible crimes but Anthony gives him this humanity, this compassion… unique! There is a scene in the movie where Clarice opens up with him and tells him about a crisis in her past. And Lecter worries. He cares. He makes his character very complicated and somewhat unpredictable, ”the director pointed out.

In Foster’s case, moreover, it was the way in which the lead couple is shown that attracted her to the project, beyond the genre: “I never for a moment thought that this was anything other than a movie based on characters and stories. It is what distinguishes it from a horror movie. What I really love about Clarice Starling may be one of the first times I see a heroine who is not a version of Arnold Schwarzenegger on female steroids. She is not a woman running around in her underwear with a machine gun but Clarice is very competent and very human. She fights the villain with her emotionality, her intuition, her fragility, and his vulnerability. I don’t think there has ever been a heroine in the cinema like this.

And while it may be an exaggeration to say that there were no heroines like this before, in many other ways The Silence of the Lambs was a success that was never repeated. Not only because with a budget of 19 million dollars it grossed more than 270, but it is the only cataloged horror film that won an award from the Hollywood Academy of Arts and Sciences for best picture and that it won a statuette in five of the main categories.

On the night of the Oscars, nobody expected to win more than a consolation prize: Orion did not have money to campaign among the voters and the film had been released more than a year ago. In addition, his opponents were none other than JFK, The Prince of Tides, Bugsy and Beauty and the Beast.

Despite this event, writer Thomas Harris never saw the film. And it wasn’t because he didn’t trust the team, but because he once read that when John le Carré saw an episode of the BBC adaptation of his book Smiley Men, with Alec Guinness in the role of Smiley, the novelist said that I could never write Smiley again, because “now Alec Guinness owns it.” Alerted that Hopkins was a perfect Lecter, he decided not to see him.

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