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The untold truth of Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs opened in cinemas on Valentine's Day, 1991. It was not the first time Dr. Hannibal Lecter had appeared in a movie — that honor goes to 1986's Manhunter – But Sir Anthony Hopkins' terrifying performance enchanted and horrified audiences like never before. Moreover, Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling is one of the most three-dimensional female characters ever put to screen. Her chemistry with Hopkins makes The Silence of the Lambs one of the greatest films of the 1990s.

The film follows Starling, an FBI trainee, as she's tasked with getting information from Dr. Lecter that might help solve a recent spate of serial killings, attributed to the fiendish Buffalo Bill. Director Jonathan Demme's now-iconic use of close-ups in the movie not only forces us to identify with almost every character on screen (even the disturbed ones) — it also makes The Silence of the Lambs as much a character study as it is a thriller. No wonder it's the only horror film in movie history to ever win an Oscar for Best Picture. You already know what sort of beans Lecter likes accompanying his liver — here's some of what you might not know about The Silence of the Lambs.

A wide variety of possible actors

Even though Dino de Laurentiis bought the rights to the name Hannibal Lecter when his studio made Manhunter, the very nature of this beast kept other filmmakers away for years. It makes sense: A cannibal psychiatrist is a tough sell. That is, until Gene Hackman and Arthur Krim of Orion Pictures teamed up to buy the rights. Hackman was originally interested in directing, and also wanted to play Lecter. He later dropped out after his daughter read the book and objected to the violent story. Krim bought Hackman's half of the rights, and Jonathan Demme, intrigued by the unusual story, signed on as director.

Demme initially considered Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan, and Laura Dern for the role of Clarice Starling. But Jodie Foster herself (who'd just won an Oscar for The Accused) lobbied hard for the part. Her grit, talent, and intelligence shone through, and ultimately landed her the role.

For Hannibal Lecter, almost every single prestige actor was on the table. Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman, along with Sir Anthony Hopkins, were under consideration. But by now, it's impossible to picture anyone but Hopkins wearing that infamous muzzle.

A dark alternate ending

By the end of The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling has taken down Buffalo Bill and saved Catherine Martin. As she officially receives her FBI credentials as her proud boss Jack Crawford watches, she gets a phone call. It's an escaped Dr. Lecter, telling her not to expect him, and to return the courtesy by leaving him alone. "The world is more interesting with you in it," he says fondly. The camera switches to Lecter, clad in a linen suit fit for for his tropical surroundings. "I'm having an old friend for dinner," Lecter tells Clarice as she begs for his location. He ambles off down the road, following his former abuser Dr. Chilton, who has no idea he's next on the menu.

Originally, screenwriter Ted Tally had planned a much more elaborate and disturbing closing shot. In Tally's ending, Lecter comments on Clarice's outfit, indicating he'd been stalking her earlier that day. The camera pulls back to show Dr. Chilton, trussed up and ready to be slaughtered. "Shall we begin?" Lecter asks, knife in hand, as the screen goes black. Ultimately, the filmmakers decided to rework the ending, much to Tally's chagrin. Chilton's fate is merely implied — but still as horrific.

Hannibal Lecter's iconic mask

When you think of The Silence of the Lambs, one of the first images that likely pops to mind is Dr. Lecter in his iconic mask, strapped to an upright stretcher. He's been restrained to meet Catherine Martin's mother, so he can pass on the information he's been withholding about Catherine's kidnapper. The grille over the mouth allows him to speak and be heard, but not bite, as he's often wont to do. It creates a truly indelible image as well: Dr. Lecter as a caged animal, all focus drawn to his mouth, which speaks with eloquence as often as it consumes human flesh.

The Criterion Collection has released some terrifying behind-the-scenes footage of Hopkins trying on a number of different masks before settling on the one that appears on screen. One example is modeled after a baseball umpire mask, which has no menace at all. Another is a full knight's helmet that makes Lecter look like a Monty Python character, rather than one of the most chilling killers of all time. Yet another makes him look like a beekeeper. The choice that ended up on screen is perfectly horrible, and gives the audience more time to stare into Lecter's hypnotic peepers, but it's fascinating to see every other option once in the running.

A famous scene not in the script

The majority of The Silence of the Lambs is seen from Clarice Starling's perspective. One of the most haunting moments of the film, however, is seen through a very different pair of eyes. We briefly join Catherine Martin, trapped in Buffalo Bill's well, and get a glimpse into his disturbing world. We see a mannequin draped in bright clothing, a disco ball, and his collection of exotic insects. For a moment, we see through Buffalo Bill's own eyes as he applies makeup and dances around his dressing room. He goes so far as to tuck his genitals between his legs and admire himself before the camera cuts away. 

However, this dance was not scripted, nor were some of Bill's adornments like the tattoo on his chest and the nipple ring. Screenwriter Ted Tally got a shock when he finally saw these moments on screen. Buffalo Bill actor Ted Levine, who had done copious research to develop the character, was so nervous to film this scene that he actually took shots of tequila to get through it. Producer Edward Saxon said about Levine's performance, "The scene took a lot of courage. It wasn't in the script, and for me it's a very moving scene, it identifies the pain and twisted psychology of this character."

Real world inspiration

Jame Gumb, aka Buffalo Bill, is a doozy of a serial killer. He kidnaps women, starves them, and eventually murders them, all in the effort to create a "woman suit" out of their skin. Real life Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, upon whom Psycho is also based, served as inspiration for Buffalo Bill's particular obsessions. Ted Bundy's infamous methods were incorporated into Bill's kidnapping technique: He too wore a fake cast to feign disability, then used said cast to knock his victims out. The third source of dark inspiration for Buffalo Bill was Gary Michael Heidnik, a Philadelphia nurse who had a penchant for kidnapping women and shackling them in his basement. These three real killers, alongside a few others, contribute to the terrifying composite that is Buffalo Bill.

But he's not the only character rooted in real-world people. Jack Crawford is based on real-life criminal profiler John Douglas, who is also the inspiration behind the Netflix series MindhunterJodie Foster worked with FBI agent Mary Ann Krause, who provided invaluable insight into Clarice Starling's circumstances. The moment when Clarice cries in the privacy of her car after her first encounter with Dr. Lecter rang particularly true to Krause: "I saw it and though, 'Now that's like me.'"

Countering darkness on set

The Silence of the Lambs is pretty much as dark and suspenseful as a film can get. To keep spirits up in the midst of such intensity, games and pranks were the norm on set. As Brooke Smith, who portrays kidnapped Catherine Martin, told People Magazine, "Everything was a joke." Even though she and Hopkins had no scenes together, he would come up to her in character as the fearsome Hannibal Lecter ... and give her flowers and chocolates. The crew made a board game based on a blueprint of the set that they called "Gumb's Game," the aim of which was to save Catherine. "When we filmed it was like a cloud came over us," Smith recalled, which made moments of levity absolutely necessary.

Jonathan Demme also liked to play pranks on his actors, including leading lady Jodie Foster. One memorable gag took place as Foster filmed a scene of Clarice picking up her rental car. Demme had the car rental agent really test Clarice about who she was before giving her the keys, demanding ID Foster could not, of course, provide. Being the consummate professional she is, Foster didn't break character ... until she realized that she was never going to get the car in that particular take, and cracked up laughing.

The skull on the poster isn't what you think

The movie poster for The Silence of the Lambs prominently features Clarice Starling's face with her mouth covered by the death's head moth that Buffalo Bill breeds and inserts into his victim's throats. But only the most eagle-eyed fans might have noticed the skull on the moth isn't actually a skull at all. The image is lifted from surrealist painter Salvador Dalí's 1951 photo, "In Voluptas Mors." "In Voluptas Mors", or "Voluptuous Death," portrays a human skull formed out of naked women's bodies. Dalí, posed to the left of the women wearing a top hat and an intense expression, rounds out the piece.

For The Silence of the Lambs' posterDali was removed. Only the women remain, in an artful nod to Buffalo Bill's modus operandi. While there isn't a whole lot of Dalí's characteristic surrealism in The Silence of the Lambs, in many ways, Buffalo Bill's project is a horrible exercise in absurdity of Dalí-esque proportions.

Author Thomas Harris has never seen the adaptation of his book

You'd think that writing a bestselling novel that gets turned into a widely beloved film would make any author ecstatic. You'd be really hard pressed to find an author in that position who hasn't even seen the film question. But The Silence of the Lambs' author Thomas Harris has never, and will never, watch The Silence of the Lambs – or any of the many other adaptations of his work that have graced the big and small screens.

Jonathan Demme has said this is because Harris heard an anecdote about spy thriller author John Le Carré seeing an episode of the BBC's adaptation of his George Smiley book featuring Sir Alec Guinness as his leading man. Le Carré was so astounded by Guinness' performance that he came to consider Smiley as belonging to the actor instead of him. Harris feared that seeing Hopkins as Lecter would produce the same effect, loosening the character from his grasp as an author. This is despite the fact that the Lecter of the books is Lithuanian and has red eyes and a sixth finger on his left hand. Such is Hopkins' skill, and Harris' trepidation.

Jonathan Demme and Ted Levine address LGBTQ criticism

The Silence of the Lambs commands a great deal of respect. But it has also come under fire consistently over the years for its presentation of members of the LGBTQ community. Critics decry Buffalo Bill as a twisted caricature of gay and transgender people, capable of doing real damage to a vulnerable population. Jonathan Demme has addressed these criticisms, saying Buffalo Bill, "wasn't a gay character. He was a tormented man who hated himself and wished he was a woman because that would have made him as far away from himself as he possibly could be." Unfortunately, this doesn't necessarily come across as clearly as Demme would have liked in the film, especially considering some of the problematic language the movie uses to talk about transgender people.

Ted Levine agrees with Demme: "Here's a guy who imagines himself with this kind of feminine power, you know, this spiritual kind of mother power. Mick Jagger, Bowie, all these guys have this androgyny that makes them attractive to men and women. Serial killers all pursue that feminine energy, that female persona. They get both [masculinity and femininity] wrapped into someone, and that's like perfection, real power, and that's what Gumb is after."

Scott Glenn changed his position on capital punishment researching his role

Like his colleagues, Scott Glenn did a great deal of research when working on his character, FBI agent Jack Crawford. He spent a lot of time with John Douglas, the profiler on whom his character had been based, and Douglas did not pull any punches when it came time to show Glenn the kinds of things he'd done and seen in his long career. Douglas showed Glenn some of the worst crime scene photos he'd been present for, and played horrifying FBI tapes of a pair of serial rapists torturing women in their van. 

As Glenn told People Magazine, "I lost a certain degree of innocence. To this day I find myself having unpleasant dreams about the things I found out." In fact, Glenn's time at Quantico was so intense and profoundly upsetting that he changed his political stance from being against capital punishment to agreeing with it. "The experience in Quantico changed my mind about that for all time."

Nobody wanted to buy Buffalo Bill's house

Even though the bulk of The Silence of the Lambs takes place from Clarice Starling's perspective, we do get a creepy peek into Buffalo Bill's torture basement before Clarice shows up at his door. The upstairs, we go on to discover, is as chaotic as the downstairs, with piles of trash and dirty dishes everywhere. Patterns and colors clash sickeningly, while death's head moths fly around willy-nilly. It is this final detail that alerts Clarice to the fact that she's alone with a terrifying serial killer, and that nobody else knows where she is.

The basement scenes were filmed on a sound stage created for the movie, but the upstairs scenes and the porch were filmed at a real house an hour outside Pittsburgh. Owned by Scott and Barbara Lloyd for decades, the couple got a huge wake-up call when they put their house on the market ... and nobody wanted to buy it, because of its association with the fictional serial killer. To be fair, it also could have been the fact that it's a four bedroom house with only one bathroom, even though it also boasts nearly two acres of property and an in-ground pool. They ended up having to significantly decrease the price, and the house eventually sold to a Silence of the Lambs fan for $195,000, a huge markdown from the $300,000 it was originally listed as.

A CBS show about Clarice Starling is in the works

A disgraced Clarice Starling makes her second appearance in the 2001 The Silence of the Lamb follow-up, Hannibal. But Jodie Foster elected not to return for the role, and Julianne Moore was cast instead. It was a smart move on Foster's part as Hannibal ended up being one of the weakest links in the Hannibal Lecter franchise.

However, in early 2020, CBS announced its series commitment to a dedicated Clarice Starling show entitled Clarice, that will take place one year after the events of The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice is said to be a "deep dive" into Starling's career as a profiler of serial killers and rapists, as she simultaneously navigates the sexism of the FBI and Washington DC. This news shocked fans of Bryan Fuller's arthouse horror series Hannibal, abruptly cancelled after just three seasons. Hopefully, Clarice will satisfy fans of the franchise with a searing look into the life of The Silence of the Lambs' unforgettable heroine.