1. Thirty-two years before he was the Machiavellian Logan Roy in Succession, Brian Cox was first to play Hannibal Lecter, in director Michael Mann's Manhunter, adapted from Thomas Harris' 1981 novel Red Dragon, the first of his books to feature the cunning, cannibalistic psychiatrist.
But that film flopped (it's achieved some cult status since, thanks to the eventual Lecter industrial complex and star William Petersen's reemergence in CSI) and that made Harris' 1988 follow-up, The Silence of the Lambs, not the hottest of properties despite its best-seller status.
In fact, prolific producer Dino De Laurentiis, who made Manhunter, already owned the character rights to Lecter, but wasn't interested in making the sequel, either.
2. Screenwriter Ted Tally, who knew Harris, read an advance copy, however, and was blown away. He figured somebody already had to be in the process of adapting it for the screen, but while the rights to the book were in the process of being purchased, it was Tally's pitch to make that he was the scribe for the job.
3. Tally had to make his pitch to Oscar winner Gene Hackman, who was also writing a treatment for it as he was reading it, he was so enraptured by the story.
"It's one of the most cinematic books I've ever read," the French Connection star said when he bought the rights with his friend Orion executive Arthur Krim, according to a story in Empire magazine's June 1991 issue. "As I read it, the movie was clicking in my mind."
Paradigm agent Robert Bookman, who brokered Harris' movie deals, told Deadline in 2016 that Hackman wanted to direct the movie and play Lecter, but Tally remembered the actor not being sure about being able to do both, thinking maybe he'd instead play FBI Agent Jack Crawford, head of the Behavioral Sciences department. "He did say, maybe Bobby will play Lecter, but I didn't have the nerve to ask, Bobby who? Bobby Duvall? Bobby Redford? Bobby De Niro?" Tally said.
According to Empire, Hackman decided to play Crawford, with John Hurt as Lecter and Michelle Pfeiffer playing FBI trainee Clarice Starling.
There are dueling recollections of why Hackman walked away from the project and let Krim at Orion buy him out. (De Laurentiis loaned the character of Lecter to Orion for free.)
"Gene Hackman's daughter read the book," Bookman told Deadline, describing the story he heard from a colleague at Paradigm. "And she called her father and said, 'Daddy, you're not making this movie.' So, Gene called Arthur, told him what happened. Arthur said, 'Don't worry Gene, I'll buy out your half.' That's how Orion got the rights."
But according to the 1991 Empire story, Hackman was so caught up in the making of 1988's Mississippi Burning, playing one of the FBI agents on a case inspired by the real 1964 murders of three civil rights activists in the segregated South, that he no longer felt like bringing a nihilistic piece of material such as Silence of the Lambs into the world.
That's reportedly why Pfeiffer walked away, too, saying, she was "unable to come to terms with the overpowering darkness of the piece."
The actress reiterated as much to The New Yorker in January, "With Silence of the Lambs, I was trepidatious. There was such evil in that film. The thing I most regret is missing the opportunity to do another film with Jonathan. It was that evil won in the end, that at the end of that film evil ruled out. I was uncomfortable with that ending. I didn't want to put that out into the world."
4. The late Jonathan Demme wasn't exactly the obvious choice as the maker of music documentaries and lighter fare such as Married to the Mob, which portrayed the FBI as a largely bumbling bunch of characters.
"I wouldn't have offered it to me," he chuckled to Empire. But he was all in and, Demme said, "I loved the idea of a female protagonist. It's more interesting with a woman, because that's a point against her from the start." He also would've been happy to direct Pfeiffer, who starred in Married to the Mob, but once he met Foster—who had zero reservations about taking the part, having never shied away in her films from confronting what lurks in the darker recesses of humanity—he knew she was perfect for the part of the tough and determined Clarice, whose vulnerability brims just below the surface.
Foster told Total Film in 2005 that she was so into the book that, knowing Pfeiffer was attached, she still flew to New York to meet with Demme just so she could explain why she should be his second choice.
"I found out that Jodie had read the book earlier and had expressed interest," Demme told Empire. "When I met Jodie, whom I had never met before, who I had seen only in films, what really excited me most is the fact that I think this is the first part Jodie's ever played in which she hasn't had to mask her intelligence—where she's been allowed to just be every bit as smart as the exceptionally bright person she actually is."
5. "There are reasons I want to make this movie," the Yale graduate told Demme when they met, per Empire. "They are very personal reasons, not just because it's a good part."
She had already turned in her share of haunting performances, starting with her Oscar-nominated turn in Taxi Driver as a 12-year-old (her actual age) prostitute, and then victims of gang rape in both The Hotel New Hampshire and The Accused. Off-camera Foster was named by John Hinckley Jr. as the inspiration behind his attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, after which another stalker targeted her at school. When she won her Best Actress Oscar for The Accused in 1989, she noted in her acceptance speech, "Cruelty might be very human and it might be very cultural. But it is not acceptable." (Hackman, nominated for Best Actor for Mississippi Burning, was in the audience.)
Demme explained in 1991, "For me more than anything, Silence of the Lambs is a story about one person trying desperately hard to save the life of another person."
And Foster reportedly told him, "I know I don't need to say this to you, but I just need to say in all responsibility to women being victimized all around the world that you can't portray those FBI people as goofy Republicans. If you want me to be your hero, you've got to portray them in the correct way." (There's a sneeze-and-you-miss-it line when Crawford recalls Clarice "grilling [him] pretty hard" during a college seminar about the FBI's record of civil rights abuses during J. Edgar Hoover's tenure as director.)
6. Anthony Hopkins was already 53 when he took on the role that he'll be known for forever and ever, one he's reprised twice, in the 2001 sequel Hannibal and 2002 prequel Red Dragon (which hewed more toward Harris' book than Manhunter did). And being a classically trained veteran of stage and screen, he got inside Dr. Hannibal Lecter's head right away.
"I read the script," Hopkins told Empire. "And—boom! I knew intuitively how to play him. I knew how he looked and how he sounded. There were two, maybe three voices that I heard. I thought of him as a combination of Katharine Hepburn, Truman Capote and HAL from 2001. I don't know why the sound came to my head. In terms of his physical appearance, it was Jonathan's idea that he be pale and he convinced me to stay out of the sun. It was my idea to give him dark, slicked-back hair. I also wanted him to wear a very tight prison uniform. That would suggest total control. After my first makeup session, I went to the mirror and thought [Ta-da!] this is it."
7. However, before he read the script, he asked his agent if it was a children's story. Lambs, and all.
The agent replied, "'No, it's with Jodie Foster,'" Hopkins recalled to his co-star in a Variety "Actors on Actors" conversation with Foster in January. And she would not be playing Mary.
8. John E. Douglas, the now-retired FBI Special Agent who has written numerous books about profiling (including Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, the inspiration for the Netflix series Mindhunter) and personally interviewed some of history's most notorious serial killers, consulted with Harris on his books and the filmmakers sought his expertise as well.
Talking about the creation of Jame Gumb, the serial killer dubbed "Buffalo Bill" whom authorities are hunting throughout The Silence of the Lambs, Douglas explained in a behind-the-scenes featurette, "It'll be a bizarre character to the public, thinking that someone like this can't possibly exist. But we know in the [National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime] this person does exist. He is a composite of several serial killers." That amalgam of horror included Ted Bundy, who'd put a cast on his hand and pretend he needed help while terrorizing women in the Pacific Northwest; Gary Heidnik, who had a torture chamber set up in his basement in Philadelphia; and Ed Gein from Plainfield, Wisc., who killed at least two women but also dug up graves and made trophies out of bones and skin from the corpses.
9. Harris, however, shared in his introduction for the book's 25th anniversary, that he first got the seed of an idea for Dr. Lecter when he was 23 and on assignment for a magazine to write about an American on death row in Mexico for murder. While there, he struck up a conversation with the prison doctor, Dr. Salazar (a pseudonym), in his sparse office after watching him treat the condemned man. The doctor asked Harris for his observations about other prisoners' behavior, and if he thought the inmate he was writing about was ugly, or if he'd seen photos of the man's victims.
It was only later that Harris found out that the personable Salazar was also a prisoner, a murderer who as a surgeon was able to fit his victims into very small boxes. He was released after 20 years and moved to a very poor neighborhood to treat the needy.
10. Scott Glenn, who played Jack Crawford, the head of the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit who recruits Starling to pick Lecter's brain, recalled spending four days at Quantico with Douglas, "who in fact does what I pretend to do in this movie. He specializes in hunting for, prosecuting sexual killers."
Foster visited Quantico as well and sat in on behavioral science courses, but, while she looked at crime scene photographs ("I wanted her to experience some of the stress of this job," Douglas said), unlike Glenn she did not listen to a recording of a pair of serial killers torturing a victim that the FBI had on file.
"Any movie that you do where you enter into a certain microcosm, certainly the world of the FBI, you learn things that you could go your whole life and never know about," Foster said in the 1991 featurette "The Making of The Silence of the Lambs." There's a whole part of the movie that deals with entomology and with the Smithsonian's research into insects, bugs… I'm fascinated by, and always will be fascinated by, the people that are the objects of cruelty and people that are left out
11. Ted Levine, who auditioned for the role of Gumb after John Malkovich passed, also did his research. "I read a lot of s--t," he recalled preparing for the role of a deranged serial killer, in an interview with Hunter Adams, who directed Levine in the 2014 horror movie Dig Two Graves. "I went to Quantico, I met the guys there in the Behavioral Science Unit and talked to them, and they showed me some s--t, and [I] heard some s--t—actually, they got cut off 'cause they were showing me s--t they shouldn't show me. I saw some s--t there, it wasn't good. Heard some tapes of people that did horrible, horrible f--king things, for real."
12. The actor also visited a drag club in Chicago (where he and Malkovich were both members of the storied Steppenwolf Theater Company) to probe the motivations of why men enjoyed dress up like women. "I wanted to find out a little more about the human side of [the character]," Levine explained. After talking to one of the performers for awhile, hearing him explain how fierce he felt when he was all dressed up, Levine recalled, "The insight there, it was power, you know, to possess that power that women have. So that was kind of, in the simplest of terms, was a frame of reference for that character."
13. What may stand out as being especially problematic now did register 30 years ago, a time (and, frankly, there are still miles to go) when there was hardly any representation of the trans community onscreen, and therefore far less mainstream understanding of what being transgender actually meant. It's also a term that is never used in the film, though there's an exchange in which Starling notes that Buffalo Bill's actions don't reflect the more categorically "passive" nature of transsexual people and Lecter explains that's because "our Billy isn't a real transsexual." Lecter adds, "He thinks he is," and suggests he probably applied for sex-reassignment surgery but was turned down—all of which seems intended to explain that Bill's motivation to be a woman isn't sexuality, but a product of his psychosis, end of story.
Still, the film is widely considered to be one in a long line of stereotypical portrayals of gay or trans people as somehow dangerous or deviant. In response to concerns that Gumb, whose past relationship with a man he eventually killed is discussed, would be a setback for gay representation, Demme insisted in 1991 that he wasn't supposed to be considered a gay character, and the film "in no way reinforces negative stereotypes nor in any way is an incitement towards negative feelings towards people of any kind of sexual prejudice." But he said years later that he really did take what the critics said to heart. (And the film was protested by gay rights groups from start to finish, including outside the Music Center on Oscar night.)
Demme acknowledged to The Daily Beast in 2014, that the movie didn't focus enough on Jame Gumb's motivation—self-loathing brought on by horrific childhood abuse—to escape his own skin. "We were all banking a little too much on the metaphor of the Death's-head moth—that Gumb is trying to achieve a metamorphosis through making his human suit," the director said. "We didn't fortify and clarify that enough. That said, when the film was accused of continuing a history of stereotypical negative portrayals of gay characters, that was a wake-up call for me as a filmmaker, and as a person."
In the end, Demme, who died in 2017, was glad the film had become "part of the dialogue" about LGBTQ representation onscreen.
14. While Hannibal Lecter's relentlessly quotable lines—"I ate his liver with fava beans and a nice chianti," "Love your suit," "I'm having an old friend for dinner"—have become indelible pieces of movie history, his character, smart, engaging and charming as Hopkins' portrayal may have been, is, in fact, a ruthless killer. His code of murderous ethics may be different from Buffalo Bill's, but they're ultimately different sides of the same coin.
"He feeds on pain, and that's his game," Foster said in the making-of feature, describing Lecter, "somebody who loves pain but is behind bars and is not able to inflict it, will get it anywhere he can." Recalling the exchange, during Lecter's first meeting with Starling, when he says she looks like a "rube...one generation from poor white trash," Foster said, "I can't think of anything more hurtful than someone standing there saying, 'I really feel sorry for you, you're really pathetic.'"
And then Hopkins "started imitating my accent ["pure West Virginia," he mocks her]… suddenly I just…it upset me so much, it struck a really bad cord in me. Anthony's the nicest man I've worked with in a long time and the difference between that, of course, and the fury and passion of Hannibal Lecter is very interesting."
15. Demme and Foster acknowledged that Hopkins got a little method-y on set, turning his piercing eyes on crew members ("what are you doing in my cell?") and
"It was great, every morning when we'd do a Lecter scene, Tony would come in and go, '[in a hushed voice] Good morning, Jonathan,'" Demme recalled in an on-set interview, smiling. "'You know, you're really the one that's mad.' Something in the man's face suggests tremendous decency and intelligence. It's what made him so great for the part of the doctor in The Elephant Man. And he still looks like a great, brilliant, humane doctor—except what we know about him now goes against the grain."
After they had wrapped, Demme told Empire of Hopkins, "He just showed up with Dr. Lecter. As a matter of fact, I've spoken to him a few times recently, and... he's still Dr. Lecter. I'm a little distressed about that, but that's Tony. I like to think that Tony just got the joke about Dr. Lecter in a way that nobody, save perhaps Tom Harris, may have gotten."
16. Foster did more compartmentalizing, Demme telling Empire, "Working with Jodie is like that—you'd be sitting around, shooting the breeze about current events or hair styles with Jodie, and then the shot's ready, she'd go in front of the camera and [snap] there's Clarice. I had this moment constantly all the way through the movie, when the camera would roll, there's this metamorphosis that would happen that was so exciting. I would fall in love all over again with Clarice at the drop of a hat."
As everyone seems to do, from the repellant Dr. Chilton at the asylum and the geeky sweet entomologist at the museum who helps identify the Death's-head moth to possibly her boss and mentor Crawford (in the book he has a dying wife and his intentions are more vague) and, of course, in his own way, Dr. Lecter (who of course asks Clarice if she thinks Crawford is lusting after her).
17. And yes, after playing so many characters who were preyed upon by men, Foster wanted to do the hunting and rescuing for a change.
"Having played a lot of victims in my life and wondering why that pattern had happened in my career, I sat back and looked at this piece and felt like it was a departure for me," she explained in the documentary Jonathan Demme & Jodie Foster. "Instead of being the one who was trapped in the pit, I was the character who was compelled by her destiny in some ways. She knew some place in her heart that she had to save women. So it was a departure for me in terms of the work I had done, but it was also some kind of psychological completion for me."
18. The cell where Lecter resides appears to be in a dank (albeit fitted with state-of-the-art plexiglass instead of bars), dim basement, not the concrete-and-steel sort of prison or fluorescent-lit, white-walled psychiatric facility we're used to seeing in most movies. The façade of the building itself—the fictitious Baltimore State Forensic Hospital, actually the Western Center in Canonsburg, Pa.—is more Shutter Island gothic than sterile state hospital. And that was on purpose, of course.
"An idea that appealed to all of us was the idea of the stone, clinical, kind of lifeless reality of Quantico," Demme said. "The FBI situations contrasted with the rest of the film, especially the situations Lecter was in. With him, we could have gone for a more modern clinical, mental-institution penitentiary kind of feel, but we wanted to push the emotional potential of the more Gothic look."
19. Foster practiced on the actual Bureau obstacle course—nicknamed "the Yellow Brick Road"—with a new agent class at Quantico to prepare for the opening sequence of Starling jogging swiftly through the woods, pausing a few times to deftly handle a rope course and haul herself over a climbing net.
"I don't know whether I was surprised but I sure was impressed," commented one FBI official in "The Making of The Silence of the Lambs."
20. While the whole film is creepy as hell, there isn't the gratuitous violence that was so popular in the 1990s. The more graphic images were mostly relegated to postmortem images, such as when Starling and Crawford observe the autopsy of one of Buffalo Bill's victims. The movie overall is much less gory than Harris' book.
"Jonathan Demme made it a point to cut away from the really horrible scenes," Hopkins told Empire. "He didn't focus on a scene where my character slices off somebody's face. He did show in detail an autopsy scene, because that was an important reality. But for the most part, Jonathan just shows you glimpses of violence. He likes to deal much more with psychological terror. Now this I find truly frightening."
Demme concurred. "Violence was not that necessary an element within the film," he said. "The terror is represented through characterization." The director further explained, "My basic struggle is that I wanted to be very responsible and show violence, when it's called for in a piece, as something horrifying, demeaning, something which must be prevented by any means whenever possible."
21. Foster revealed to Vanity Fair that the conversations between Starling and Lecter were shot over two days, one from her perspective and the other from his, so there was a lot of looking into a camera instead of into each other's eyes.
"Those scenes feel so intimate, and yet we couldn't see each other," she said.
22. The first we see of Brooke Smith as Catherine Martin, she's happily singing along to Tom Petty's "American Girl" in the car, a deceptively upbeat and now classic scene. But the song was almost Chaka Khan's "Tell Me Something Good." Smith thinks of the movie any time she hears either.
But, she told Vulture in November, if it had been up to her, Catherine would've been listening to the hard core punk rockers Bad Brains, that genre being more what the 23-year-old actress was into in those days.
23. Playing Catherine—the reason that, no, we will not help you load your chair into your van at night, Strange Man—was a huge break for Smith, who despite a prolific career is at peace with forever being known as "the girl in the pit" from The Silence of the Lambs.
But Demme, who didn't even make her read for the part, sensed that she belonged in that pit.
"Those were the days when they trusted the director enough that there wasn't a whole committee that approved me," Smith told Vulture. "He met with me, talked with me, told me what it was gonna be. I remember him asking me, 'Why do you wanna do this?' Which is a very good question. I remember it was because I thought I couldn't. I just thought, I don't think I can do this. So he gave me the part. I had to gain 25 pounds, which was really fun. I was also just coming out of my life in punk rock, and entering my life as an actress.'
Not turned off by the dark material at all, she recalled, "I was like, 'Let's go for it.' There were certain agents at the time who told me not to do it, which I think is hilarious now. I kinda did then, too. I was like, 'I'm gonna say no?!' They thought I'd be stereotyped, locked into the fat-girl category. [Though she was hardly fat, Buffalo Bill's victims were supposed to be "roomy," using Lecter's word, so that he could loosen their skin by starving them.] They said it would be very hard to get out of. Which is not completely untrue. But there was no way I wasn't going to do it."
To prepare herself for being stuck in a pit in a psychopath's dungeon, she locked herself in her parents' basement closet to mimic the close, dark confines. Before filming, she had nightmares about being in that situation and panicking over whether she'd try to escape (Catherine does put a plan into motion involving Bill's beloved dog, Precious) or just accept her fate and die.
"I'm not gonna lie," she said, "I had some issues going on, and I remember thinking that was the difference between Catherine and myself. I didn't have as much self-worth back then. It wasn't the most obvious thing for me to do. And that made me sort of examine, 'Okay, wait a minute, why don't I wanna live?' I'm making it sound a little more than it was, but, I just remember going, 'Oh, okay, so what's going on here?' And it led me into years of therapy."
24. Smith, of course, was in the most-quoted-and-parodied scene in the whole film not involving Lecter, when Gumb explains "it rubs the lotion on its skin" and demands that she "put the lotion in the basket."
"My memories were that I was doing some big mind-f--k on myself," the actress recalled. "It was in a studio, on a stage; I had to climb up a ladder to get in the pit, close it, and cover myself with dirt. And not drink a lot of water, because you can't pee. I remember using the camera—I had to do a lot of my coverage basically begging for my life, and looking right down the barrel of the camera." To look like a hunted, frightened animal, she would play mind games with herself, pretending she really did need help and wondering why all those people in the room were just standing around.
"The cameraman! The boom operator. The still photographer. Whoever was down there," she explained. "I was like, I'm in agony here and these people aren't helping me. So I guess I was really deep in something."
25. Adversarial characters aside, Smith and Levine were total buddies on set.
"And I've thought about that," she told Vulture. "Is it that thing people talk about, where you overcompensate? For the weird stuff we were shooting? Jodie nicknamed me Patty Hearst, because I was always hanging out with Ted, which people thought was a little odd. But all my scenes were with him and—I can't remember the [real] name of the dog. I knew this recently—Darla! We had to take care of each other to shoot those scenes. We had to trust each other."
And while she estimated she hadn't seen Levine for about 13 years and they had since fallen out of touch, Smith added, "But I love Ted. I just love him."
26. Count Demme among those who was stunned—stunned!—by the movie being a huge financial hit.
"I loved the book, I thought it was a good picture," he told Empire. "But it's been number one for five weeks now, for heaven's sake. I was hoping it would make its money back. This is ridiculous."
The film's reported budget was $19 million, and it made $13.8 million its first weekend on its way to making $130.7 million domestically and $272.7 million overall. It also the last hit for Orion Pictures, which went bankrupt before Oscar night. (It would emerge from bankruptcy in November 1992 to make more movies under its name, but with outside financing.)
27. Despite it becoming a pop culture touchstone and a winner of five Oscars (and a seven-time nominee, missing out on Best Sound and Best Film Editing), as of 2016 Tom Harris had never seen the big-screen adaptation of his book. And he informed Demme that he probably never would watch it.
Not because he was unhappy with the deal (very lucrative) or didn't trust the filmmakers (he gave his blessing), but according to Demme, the author simply didn't want to shuffle the characters in his head with actors onscreen.
"It turned out that he had really been struck when John Le Carré saw an episode of the BBC adaptation of his book [Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy], with Alec Guinness in the role of Smiley," Demme told Deadline in 2016. "Le Carré said he could never write Smiley again, because now Alec Guinness owns him. Tom was afraid of a great performance that would take the character away from his imagination."