“Believe me,” special agent Jack Crawford warns Clarice Starling, “You don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.”
Directed by Jonathan Demme, Silence of the Lambs (1991) deals with the complicated minds of people who committed unspeakable crimes. A surprisingly “quiet” movie, Demme didn’t need gory, blood-drenched scenes to leave a mark on his viewers. All he aimed for and managed to do so perfectly, was to unearth the array of psychological factors that drive criminals to act the way they do.
While Hannibal the Cannibal and Buffalo Bill aren’t real people, they were both inspired by a few of society’s most feared criminals. They were inspired by psychopathic, necrophiliac serial killers who slayed their victims in cold blood. But above all (and probably the scariest part of it all), they were inspired by people who used “the disguise of normalcy” to capture their prey.
Here’s a look into how Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill came to life.
The short answer is no. It’s based on Thomas Harris’s equally (if not more) gripping novel by the same name. But the longer answer is that the author based his character of Hannibal the Cannibal on a convicted murderer he met in a Mexican prison.
And FBI Agent, Clarice Starling, is based on an actual agent named Patricia Kirby, whom Thomas had met while gathering information for his novel. Likewise, Jack Crawford is based on special agent John Douglas, a man whose work in the field revolutionized the world of criminal profiling.
James Gumb, aka Buffalo Bill, is a skin-peeling, cold-hearted, kidnapping slayer. To craft such a sinister force, Thomas Harris drew inspiration from several notorious murderers. Buffalo Bill is part Ted Bundy, part Ed Gein, part Jerry Brudos and part Gary Heidnik – all of whom are responsible for ungraspable horrors.
Bundy, for example, faked being injured so he could get close to his victims and harm them when they least expected it. Killer number two, Ed Gein, in a sickly ingenious fashion, would skin his victims in order to make suits and masks. Lucky number three, Jerry Brudos, would dress up in his victims’ clothing, including shoving his feet halfway into their stilettos. And lastly, Gary Heidnik, would lure women into his home and keep them prisoners in his basement.
Writer Thomas Harris first introduced us to Hannibal Lecter in his novel Red Dragon and then expanded on the killer in The Silence of the Lambs. In the film, the manipulative psychiatrist who feasts on people resided in Baltimore, but Thomas’s inspiration for Hannibal has roots in a Mexican prison.
At the age of 23, Thomas was hired to interview an American locked up in Mexico for murder. There, he came across Dr. Salazar, the man responsible for medical treatments at the facility. The two delved into lengthy conversations about crimes, morality, and the burden of being human. It wasn’t until Thomas left the prison that he was informed that Dr. Salazar was a prisoner himself, described by the warden as “an insane murderer.”
The idea to use one criminal to catch another came from one of the most terrifying serial killer cases in history — the Green River Killer case, on which Ted Bundy served as an advisor. He was on death row when special agents Robert Keppel and Dave Reichert approached him so they could learn more about the workings of a killer’s mind.
Bundy believed that the serial killer, Gary Ridgway, was a necrophile (much like himself), so he advised them to stake out at the victims’ graves if they wanted to catch him. His little tip proved beneficial because, after at least 70 murders, Ridgway was finally arrested.
Flashback to the film:
Doing her best to hide her nerves, Clarice Starling makes her way down the prison’s corridor, passing by the facility’s most insane and dangerous inmates. When she reaches the last cell, she meets Hannibal Lecter, an unblinking, maniacal psychiatrist with a self-satisfied grin on his face.
“Good morning,” he lets out in a nonchalant air, as if he isn’t behind bars for cannibalism. As if he isn’t serving a life sentence for merciless murders. Lecter’s iconic entrance is played out brilliantly and, according to Hopkins, was all his idea. In an interview with Jim Ferguson, he revealed that waiting for Starling in such a creepy fashion “spooked him,” and he knew it would surely spook the viewers too.
In a reunion chat between Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster 30 years after the movie premiered, Hopkins told his co-star that the reason he believed Hannibal respected Starling was because of her bold, daring character. “Clarice was a woman in a man’s macho world,” he remarked.
That’s why Lecter paid her great respect, and that’s why, the second he sees her in the film, he says “Ahhh… so, Jack Crawford sent you. Hmm, interesting.” Unlike the men who came before her, Clarice Starling’s approach was way more insidious and subtle.
There are so many fantastic scenes between Starling and Lecter throughout the movie. But interestingly, Demme’s continuous use of point-of-view shots during these scenes meant that Foster and Hopkins weren’t really acting in front of each other; they were talking straight to the camera.
Foster told Vanity Fair that it took two days to shoot her and Hopkins’s scenes, one day focused on her and another on Hopkins. When one actor was the center of attention, the other would act as a disembodied voice in the background. “Those scenes feel so intimate, and yet we couldn’t see each other,” she revealed.
If you were terrified of Lecter’s creepy grin and determined eyes, you’re not alone. Jodie Foster admitted that Hopkins gave her the heebie-jeebies. “I was a little scared of him during the shoot. He was always behind bars, and I was on the other side, so we didn’t get to talk a lot, and that sort of created this little suspense scenario between the two of us,” she told The Mauritian.
They rarely spoke on set. And by the time they wrapped up filming, Foster could count on just one hand the number of times they had sat down for a one-on-one conversation. Funny thing is, later on Foster revealed that on their final day at work, Hopkins came to her and admitted that he was equally frightened by her!
Probably the weirdest thing about this film (the list of bizarreries is terribly long), is the unexplainable feelings one develops towards both killers – Buffalo Bill and Hannibal the Cannibal. Bill is a troubled soul who does gruesome things like skin his victims to make a “woman suit” out of them.
And Hannibal is a seemingly heartless, psychopathic cannibal. Yet, for some reason, we loathe one (Buffalo Bill) and feel slightly more forgiving towards the other (Hannibal). We’re relieved when Buffalo Bill is killed, but we laugh when Lecter breaks out of jail. Why?
Lecter is a Bach-listening, Bon Appétit-reading intellectual, while James Gumb is seen as an animal with nothing relatable about him. In a subtle yet powerful way, the filmmakers manage to draw empathy from the viewers, but only towards one of the vicious killers.
Almost all of Buffalo Bill’s moves in his infamous dance scene were improvised, including the tucking moment. Actor Ted Levine said he was glad to have had the opportunity to dance freely like that. Especially because it was originally meant to be choreographed to Bob Seger’s song Her Strut.
Thankfully, Levine ended up swaying to Q Lazzarus’s Goodbye Horses, a heavy, dreamlike song that was a way better fit than Bob’s up-tempo track. “[The song] made [the dance] a little gentler and stranger. It wasn’t just so crass. It was a little bit more feminine, and I liked that,” Levine shared.
The film’s basement scenes were shot in an airplane turbine factory in Pittsburgh. The unused space allowed the crew to build a multilevel set that meant that actress Brooke Smith could enter her pit-based prison through a trap door at the bottom and also from the sides. Brooke admitted she struggled with being trapped down in the pit.
“I think I really messed with my own head to do those scenes,” Smith told Rolling Stone, “I literally felt it. I did a number on myself.” The movie apparently did a number on the audience too, because the property used as Buffalo Bill’s house was practically impossible to sell after the movie’s release.
Jodie Foster deliberately kept her distance from actor Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill) on set. Levine revealed that it was great working with her, even though they didn’t interact much. “We stayed away from each other,” he told Rolling Stone, “and I think that was a good choice when you’re the antagonist and you’re dealing with the protagonist.”
For Brooke Smith, though, it was a totally different case. Despite being held captive by Ted Levine’s crazy character, the two became friends and regularly hung out on the film set. Jodie used to call Smith “Patty Hearst,” because of all the time she spent with him.
The ending should have unfolded like this: Lecter calls Clarice from a fancy office while cutting himself some slices of orange. After hanging up the phone, the camera would have zoomed out to reveal that Lecter had kidnapped Dr. Chilton, the man who was in charge of him at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
But last-minute, screenwriter Ted Tally had a change of heart. He explained that it seemed a bit dramatic and not entirely reasonable. “I was a little miffed. I thought I’d been so clever to work out that ending. But I thought about it, and I said, ‘What if Chilton fled the country instead of hiding out in his house?’”
The reason Buffalo Bill went out on a killing spree stemmed from a deep desire to change himself. Unhappy with being born a man, he skinned his female victims and draped them all over his body. This little bit led viewers to infer that Bill was gay or trans, giving way to serious hate from the LGBTQ community once the film was released.
They argued that the movie portrayed gay people as mentally deranged criminals. On the night of the Oscars, gay rights activists stood outside the event and protested. As The Silence of the Lambs snatched award after award, the angry protestors yelled out cries of disapproval and disdain.
While people from the community regarded it as “one of the most virulently and insidiously homophobic films ever made,” Jonathan Demme insisted that that couldn’t be farther than the truth. “James Gumb isn’t even gay!” he proclaimed in an interview with The Daily Beast.
The Silence of the Lambs never outright stated that Buffalo Bill was gay or trans. Rather, it explained his behavior as resulting from traumatic childhood events. The child abuse he suffered as a kid naturally led to extreme self-loathing and a lifetime of trying to escape himself. “By turning himself into a female, then surely Gumb can feel like he has escaped himself,” Demme explained.
Like Foster, Actor Scott Glenn (who played Agent Crawford) also spent time talking to FBI unit chief John E. Douglas. Eager to know what goes in a criminal’s mind, he spent weeks listening to Douglas talk. The actor also told People magazine how he secluded himself in a hotel room and listened to recordings of two real-life murderers.
The killers went into details on the tape, describing their crimes and what exactly happened to their victims. Scott Glenn said that he “lost a certain degree of innocence” listening to those tapes. He spent months having nightmares about the things he found out.
In preparation for his role of Hannibal Lecter, Hopkins studied horrific criminal files day in and day out. He also visited prisons, talked to inmates, and was present at various court hearings. Still, the actor drew most of his inspiration, and one of Lecter’s traits in particular, from his childhood.
“When I was a kid, I’d tell the girls around the street the story about Dracula, and I’d go th-th-th,” Hopkins told Radio Times, “as a result, they’d run away screaming.” Another thing that helped shaped his performance was having Demme remind him that Lecter is a “good man trapped inside an insane mind.”
Jonathan Demme didn’t want the movie to be a gory, in-your-face nasty, brutal, violent kind of film. He was determined to shy away from any on-screen violence and instead wanted the viewers to fill in the gaps. Like how Alfred Hitchcock approached Psycho.
Screenwriter Ted Tally shared: “From the time Jonathan and I met to talk about the first draft, he said ‘We have to get inside the audience’s imagination. We have to let them do the work. You can’t shove this stuff in their face.’”
If you’re going to turn someone’s novel into a movie, you better do it well. Unfortunately, that’s usually not the case. Which is exactly why Thomas Harris was super reluctant to watch the film. He even told Demme that as much he appreciated him as a director, he’d rather not see it.
Harris took the experience of fellow author John le Carré as a good enough reason not to watch the movie. After seeing an episode of the BBC adaptation of his George Smiley series, with Alec Guinness as George, Harris revealed that “Le Carré said he could never write Smiley again, because now Alec Guinness owns him.”
To prepare herself for the role of the powerless and vulnerable captive Catherine Baker Martin, Brooke Smith spent time in Tennessee, where she worked on perfecting her accent. She also decided to lock herself in her basement closet to try and capture the sense of sheer terror her character would have felt while being held hostage by Buffalo Bill.
Purposely enclosing herself worked (a little too well…). “I think I stayed longer than I wanted to,” the actress told Rolling Stone. “It was probably just a couple of hours, but I was trying to see exactly what it would feel like. I imagine he didn’t leave the light on when he left.”
Jodie Foster was thrilled to take on the role of Clarice, mainly because she had experienced her own freaky moments with stalkers and also out of appreciation for the work of the FBI. Her first stalker, John Hinckley, was obsessed with her and the movie Taxi Driver and ended up trying to murder Ronald Reagan.
The second lunatic, Michael Richardson, sent threats while the actress attended a play at Yale. In both of those incidents, the FBI played a major role in protecting the actress. “You can’t portray those FBI people as goofy Republicans,” she told Demme, “you’ve got to portray them in the correct way.”
Jodie Foster prepared for her role as an FBI agent by diving deep into the same intense, daily workouts that real trainees enrolled at the FBI Academy at Quantico go through. For weeks, she trained and sweat along with some of the most talented young people in the bureau, enduring the same tests designed to separate the good from the absolute best.
Apart from her rigorous training, she also met with John E. Douglas, the man in charge of the FBI’s Investigative Support services. An expert on criminals, Douglas gave Foster an inside look into the minds of the people who inspired Buffalo Bill. Conversations with him were enlightening, informative and absolutely hair-raising.
Initially, filmmaker Jonathan Demme had different actors in mind for the roles of Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling – he wanted Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer. “I went straight to Michelle because we’d had such a great experience on Mob [1988’s Married to the Mob], and I felt that she could do anything,” the director told The Daily Beast.
Pfeiffer turned his offer down, mainly because of the film’s dark themes. And Connery? He called the piece “repugnant.” I, for one, am glad Connery rejected Demme’s offer. Anthony Hopkins embodied Hannibal Lecter like a true madman, and without him, I doubt the film would have done as well.
When Jodie Foster heard Jonathan Demme would be working on the film, she began to panic. Not because she questioned his directing skills, but because she knew who his first choice for Clarice Starling was – Michelle Pfeiffer. Desperately eager to play the part, Foster wasn’t willing to go down without a fight.
She called Demme and even flew to visit him in New York, so she could push to be his second choice. Even though people told her she was humiliating herself, she didn’t see it that way at all. And her determination paid off big time! We all know how things turned out for her. Moral of the story – fight for your dreams!
If Clarice Starling had been Clark Starling, Jonathan Demme may never have agreed to make The Silence of the Lambs in the first place. The director admitted that, both as a viewer and as a filmmaker, he was a sucker for a film that featured a leading lady. He explained:
“For women to achieve what they want is harder than for men to achieve what they want. That brings a touch of the underdog to them, and I respond to that.” Demme said he focused on shooting everything from Starling’s perspective so that viewers would be able to get in her shoes and “constantly feel this sense of challenge that she is encountering.”
While Foster and Hopkins are usually the ones being flooded with praise for their spectacular performances, it’s worth noting that the whole cast of the movie did an incredible job. Demme managed to cast a host of creative and fun people to fit the different roles required.
Actor Charles Napier starred as one of the guards murdered by Lecter. Demme considered him to be his “lucky charm.” The actor has collaborated with Demme on a total of nine of his films, including 1977’s Citizens Band and the 1988 comedy Married to the Mob.
Anthony Hopkins is such a good actor that all he needed to win an Oscar for his performance was 24 minutes and 52 seconds of screen time. He’s often cited as the actor with the shortest on-screen time to win a lead acting Oscar. But that’s only partly correct.
While he holds the record for shortest performance to earn a Best Actor award, the record for a lead performance actor belongs to Patricia Neal for her part in 1963’s Hud, in which she appears for only 21 minutes and 51 seconds.
In 1991, the film stunned the entertainment industry by winning an unprecedented five Oscars across the evening’s most prestigious categories – Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and finally, Best Picture. It was an achievement that took everyone by surprise because The Silence of the Lambs was a horror movie.
Horror films never seem to be taken as seriously as other genres. So, for the movie to have reached such impressive heights was an honor to all those who participated in making it happen. The only two horror movies that have come close to such praise are Jaws (Steven Spielberg) and The Exorcist (William Friedkin).
When Orion Pictures first snatched the rights to Harris’s novel, they planned on hiring Gene Hackman to write, direct and also star as Hannibal Lecter. But by the time screenwriter Ted Tally began working on a script, Hackman had regretted his decision to play the crazy psychiatrist.
He ultimately backed out from the project altogether after his daughter talked him out of it. Apparently, she read the book, was too spooked by it, and convinced her dad it would be a bad decision to take on such a project (surely, he regrets listening to her).
Brooke Smith, who played Buffalo Bill’s helpless victim Catherine Baker Martin, had to put on 25 pounds for the role. She found out she got the part during one of her acting classes. Vincent D’Onofrio was present in the room and jokingly told her:
“You gotta ask the producers to give you a credit card. They gotta pay for your food.” So, she did. And the two of them would always laugh that that’s why she went over budget – because of her food.
Thing is, gaining the weight was the easy part. Losing it was the real challenge!
After attending an early screening, William Goldman called Jonathan Demme and convinced him to re-edit part of the film. The scene in question was a 12-minute sequence that came right after Dr. Lecter took off and saw both Clarice and Jack getting kicked off the case before Clarice’s meeting with Buffalo Bill.
Goldman told Demme that the scene “was holding [the movie] back from its full potential power” and that he was better off without it. Surprised and reluctant, Demme argued that that was one of the biggest scenes in the film. Ultimately, he took a leap of faith and listened to him, which proved to be effective.
The film’s tense basement finale, in which Starling is stalked by Buffalo Bill and his night vision goggles, remains one of the most memorable scenes in the history of horror movies. A well-deserved status considering the blood, sweat, and tears that went into shooting it.
The entire night-vision goggle scene, shot entirely from Buffalo Bill’s perspective, was “filmed in a 22-hour, punch-drunk marathon.” This surely added to the scene’s already tense environment. Levine once said he believes that, at that point in the film, Buffalo Bill is resigned to his fate.
Despite the movie’s grim storyline, director Jonathan Demme and his crew did their best to keep the atmosphere on set light and upbeat by regularly joking around and pulling pranks between takes. “Everything was a joke,” Brooke Smith told People magazine.
It was completely liberating to be able to joke about life’s dark moments. “There was a pervasive sense of humor around all of it. Jonathan is a really intense dude, but for the most part, he’s a beautiful spirit, real beautiful spirit,” Smith added.
Jonathan Demme and production designer Kristi Zea drew inspiration from artist Francis Bacon when they worked on the unforgettable shot of the violent chaos Lecter left behind after he escaped from his cell. Demme struggled with how to paint the scene, but Zea came to the rescue and showed him Bacon’s art.
“I get creeped out by Francis Bacon’s paintings,” Demme confessed, “There is an almost nimbus-like quality behind some of his frightening characters and stuff. There was a little bit of the archangel, a bit of the butterfly, definitely, in that shot.”
Ray Mendez served as the movie’s moth wrangler and stylist. He’s considered one of Hollywood’s go-to professionals for all things bugs. His meticulous work ensured that Buffalo Bill’s moth-related stuff in his house appeared as real as possible, including, of course, the death’s head hawkmoth.
It wasn’t easy finding that specific type of moth. Because, at the time, the only colony of moths available had contracted a virus. Mendez successfully worked around the issue, settling on another species and making them look like a death’s-head hawkmoth.
Somehow, during downtime on the filmset, Jonathan Demme managed to make his own documentary titled Cousin Bobby. It centered around the exploits of the director’s actual cousin, a priest from Harlem. The film highlighted the troubles of spreading the word of God in a poverty-stricken area.
“I saw this guy who was just so passionate about the vital need for social change — a minister trying to accomplish things against incredible odds in this neighborhood,” Demme told People magazine. His cousin was even given a small role in The Silence of the Lambs – he’s one of the extras disembarking the plane Chilton gets off at the end of the film.
When Jodie Foster first began training at Quantico, she came across Special Agent Mary Ann Krause, a skilled agent who ended up being Foster’s role model. Krause had worked on two major criminal cases like the ones in The Silence of the Lambs and shared everything she had learned with her newfound buddy, Foster.
“We went out to dinner, and my first and lasting impression was that she was very sharp and eager to learn,” Krause revealed, “Not just about the FBI, but about me. She really wanted to get a picture of a female agent.”
Clarice, a TV spin-off of The Silence of the Lambs, stars Rebecca Breeds in the lead role and is set one year after meeting with Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter. An exciting premise but a not-so-exciting outcome. The show has received average reviews, with The Daily Beast’s TV critic, Nick Schager saying:
“Designed for maximum uninventiveness and lack of surprise, it’s formulaic comfort food that, in almost every respect, fails to satisfy.”
After giving it a chance and watching a few episodes, I must say, Schager’s comment is spot on.
“The real serial killers I looked into are nothing like Hannibal Lecter,” Glenn (Jack Crawford) told IGN. “The real ones use what I would call ‘the disguise of normalcy.’ They’re not aggressive or confrontational. They feel safe.”
He gives the example of Edmund Kemper, a serial killer who murdered nine people (including his mom) and looked like “some insignificant computer nerd.” And Ted Bundy who was a “pretty boy” Republican who looked nothing like what we assume a killer might “look like.”