by Christina Banks, and Michael Bliss
Although some of The Silence of the Lambs was shot on location - for example, the scenes at the FBI training center in Quantico, Virginia - its central sequences, those involving the Baltimore interviews between Lecter and Starling and the basement pursuit of Jame Gumb, were shot by Demme on the third floor of a warehouse on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. In March 1990, we visited the film's set.
After reaching the third floor and passing through a temporary wooden doorway, you emerge into a large, high-ceilinged room in which set flats have been constructed; to the side, an oubliette has been sunk into the floor. At the bottom of the oubliette there's a stuffed toy dog - obviously the stand-in for Gumb's poodle, Precious.
The set for Gumb's basement is laid out just as it is described in Thomas Harris's book. It's a series of narrow, dark, low-ceilinged, interconnected rooms. One room contains a stainless steel dissecting table, fish tanks with neon green fluid in them in which "skin" is curing, rows of surgical instruments, and glass cases filled with moths. There's a dingy passageway leading to the bathroom, in which a plaster corpse of a dead old woman with stringy gray hair and wrinkled skin is lying submerged in the tub. In order to shoot Clarice's point of view of the room's corpse, the Steadicam operator has to squeeze his way into the bathroom. To give him more leeway for another shot of the room, the bathtub, corpse and all, is removed. Ten minutes later, a lit cigarette appears in the corpse's outstretched hand, a crew member's idea of a grim joke.
On one of the walls, Gumb has tacked up a map of the United States, probably to determine the drop sites for the victims' bodies. Another hallway leads to Gumb's living room, which contains a sewing machine and dressmaker dummies with "leather" fittings hanging off them. One of the room's walls features shots of Gumb posing with strippers and garishly dressed prostitutes (the photos are just barely visible in the film). The feeling here is one of claustrophobia and clutter.
The set has been made to look dirty, and when you're in it, there's not much room to maneuver. On the other side of the flats, technicians are carrying props, or setting up and adjusting sound equipment. A camera operator is rehearsing the point-of-view shot of Starling looking down the steps to Gumb's basement before she begins the descent into his private hell.
Jonathan Demme is a very gracious man; he makes you feel like he's glad you're here, that this isn't merely some duty of cordiality he is carrying out. Everyone on set refers to him as either Jonathan or JD. The crew is one big accessible group. When we remark on the set's relaxed atmosphere, Demme responds that his people are all handpicked, not only for their expertise but for their affability as well.
In accordance with union rules, cinematographer Tak Fujimoto never handles the camera; operators manipulate it, constantly lining up shots, trying new angles, and watching the playback on a video monitor. Orders for retakes come from the assistant director Ron Bozman; Demme watches and makes comments. Production coordination has been handled by Kenneth Utt (who plays the dour FBI agent in Married to the Mob and the rural doctor in Lambs) and Edward Saxon, who had a bit part in Something Wild and played the Hare Krishna whose finger is broken by Alec Baldwin's Junior Frenger in Miami Blues. Saxon says that when they were shooting the scene with the moths flying around Gumb's basement, some couldn't be captured and for days were loose on set. We try to convince Saxon that there's one crawling on his back, but he doesn't fall for the joke. "Too many people have tried that one on me already," he says.
It takes Demme about fourteen hours to shoot two minutes worth of action today. By dinner, which occurs at seven o'clock, everyone is looking a bit ragged, so Demme breaks out some surprises: The Silence of the Lambs shorts and tee shirts emblazoned with moths, one of which is bright red. To relieve the inevitable tension of working on a film like this one, Tak Fujimoto puts his shorts on over his pants, after which it's back to work. Three months later we talked to Demme in New York, where he was finishing the film's final sound mix.
BANKS & BLISS: How did you get involved with The Silence of the Lambs?
JONATHAN DEMME: The screenplay was already in the works when I read the book. Gene Hackman had wanted to direct it and be in it so Orion bought the book for him. As I understand it he had reservations about the violence in the material and withdrew from the project. Ted Tally had been working on the screenplay for many weeks by then; Orion gave me the book to read and I loved it. I knew enough about Ted Tally to know that the script was going to be very good so I committed to do it before even reading the script, which turned out to be great. I'm always looking for a good script. They're so hard to find. That's why many movies are so bad nowadays.
You've said that you don't write good scripts.
No. I can come up with the occasional idea or scene but that's all. I'm not a good writer - alas. It would make things so much easier.
Even with Something Wild in mind, this film seems to be quite a departure in tone for you.
This is the most serious film I've ever done. It's about a social problem, serial killers, who are a product of a society that tolerates epidemic child abuse. We don't get into the child abuse dimension very much in the film, but it's part of the film's feel, part of Clarice's background although she's suppressed it. Now, I love comedy, and it's very challenging to make comedy work and I like that challenge. The mood I'm in at this moment in my life, though, is that there are so many other subjects that urgently need creative examination. This isn't a time for laughing; this is a time for digging into some of these issues and putting them in people's faces. Although if a script came along that was a hilarious comedy...
What kind of visual mood were you searching for with this film?
My big concern was to avoid the typical great shadowy thriller look because stories like this in which the lonely law enforcement person is tracking the terrifying killer can overuse effects like long shadows. I really didn't want to employ the traditional prose of the thriller, which I was trying to get away from. I was fascinated by Rosemary's Baby, which I look at a lot. It's a very very bright movie. I said to Tak, let's make this film bright. Of course there are times when we won't be able to make it bright, the basement scenes for example, but as much as possible, let's allow the audience to see everything. That will emphasize the dread of the dark when it happens. And let's not feel that we have to visually juice up the film with ominous shadows. We'll let the story and the characters be ominous.
Tak took that one step further. He said, Okay, let's not go the strong, righteous, traditional thriller look, but let's not just brighten everything up either. He wanted to bring a certain kind of light to the scenes, a kind of Vittorio Storaro type of lighting, which pleases Tak.
Yet audiences still react to traditional visual cues, feeling that dark is ominous
and light is safe.
Well, it works in life; if you come home and it's dark in your house and you turn all the lights on, you cheer up the mood.
Does the Hitchcock camera style enter in here, something you used in The Last Embrace?
Yes. You've already seen enough of this movie to appreciate to what an overwhelming degree I steal Hitchcock's style. In The Last Embrace, which I can't watch, I was kind of wallowing in style. I went into that movie thinking, Okay, here's a Hitchcockian thriller, and a lot of energy went into style more than into content. In some scenes where the camera should have been in the actors' faces, when they were really communicating what they had to say to the audience, the camera was in an extremely wide position drinking in the environment. I put too much emphasis into the character of the locations and not enough into the characters.
Now, though, I understand the Hitchcock style. I'm not trying to copy it; I'm using it in a fashion that I understand. I understand the style's strengths, I know when to employ it, and I've embraced it more and more in my own quiet way, not necessarily in terms of visual flamboyance but more in the use of subjective camera and how to photograph actors to communicate story and character points.
I also wanted a distinctive sound texture to this film. I'm always trying to do the best sound track of all time. Sound is a very important factor, one that audiences always feel, which is why I work so closely with the sound designer. The film's music enters in here, too. We're surrounded by music in our everyday lives, whether we program it or someone else does. It affects our mood, so I like to play with that element. Something Wild represents my most compulsive involvement with the music track. But it's not just a question of stringing together popular songs on the sound track. It's the idea that music affects us so strongly on an emotional level that fascinates me.
Married to the Mob's violence seemed distanced somehow, an effect that we assumed was
Well, I did do it intentionally and there's the cineaste in me but as the critic of violent movies I sit back and think, hmmm.
How do you resolve that dilemma, especially with The Silence of the Lambs, which
almost seems to revel in violence?
I think it's important ot show that violence is truly awful. The struggle I have, which I don't think is present in this movie at all but is in Married to the Mob, is that even with my aversion to violence, the cineaste in me can't, for example, resist having Dean Stockwell come tumbling out of his car using a two-gun style to decimate guys in a scene that I hope looks like it's out of some Raoul Walsh movie from the forties. I also understand that in a sheer pleasure movie like Married to the Mob, it's important to entertain the audience. There I'm trying to walk a tightrope between making it exciting and not making it fun. I think I failed there; I fell into fun. In that Burger World scene, the shot of Chris Isaak shooting his guns off gets away from the discipline of trying to show violence as awful and falls into the male fantasy of how thrilling gunplay is. I'm not pleased with that, although I still enjoy those scenes. I'm very schizo on the subject. It's easier for me to enjoy that kind of material in other movies than it is in my own.
I have similar problems with sex and nudity in movies. I enjoy sex and nudity if they're presented in a - I want to try to be honest and say in a provocative way, in a compelling way. However, more and more I see the nudity and sex in movies as exploitative, especially of women, and I'm trying very much to fight against that. I think that it's fine to have nudity and sex in movies where that's truly the subject matter but I think it's important to have male nudity as well as female nudity just to be democratic and egalitarian.
There's no nudity in Lambs but the film certainly is violent. What's your attitude
towards the film's bloody scenes?
In this movie the violence is horrifying, the buildups are exciting. I hope they put people on edge. But the payoffs aren't fun. There's not some orgasmic spray of machine gun bullets. Even in our climax, where the heroine is finally squared off with the bad guy, she shoots him and it's awful. The audience isn't invited to cheer. I didn't want ot boil this film down to a "and then she got her gun and blew the bad guy away" story. The camera never sees relief on Clarice's face after she shoots Gumb; there's not a cut to her which lets you go "Yay!" You see Gumb's awful, slow death and she's appalled by it.
Are you pleased with the film's casting?
I've had the good fortune to work with terrific actresses time and time again. Coming off of any given movie, especially a recent one, you want to work with all the gifted people you've worked with before. Michelle Pfeiffer and I had a superb time making Married to the Mob and we were both trying to find something so we could continue working together because we thought we had just scratched the surface of our potential in that film. Exceptional actress that she is, Michelle was my first choice for Clarice but the material proved too strong for her.
I'm not sure that she could have been as assertive as Clarice should be.
Had she played this part she would have become that for you. Michelle agreed to do the film but she couldn't deal with the violence, which is the same thing that Gene Hackman had experienced. It was just too violent for Michelle, too dark. I thought that was unfortunate because I think it is a misconception of the material, that in fact the light of the Clarice character is ultimately more powerful than the darkness of the story. Jodie was already familiar with the material and loved it. She's very strong in the part, which proves that if you don't get your first choice it doesn't mean you're not going to get a 10.
From the outset did you want Anthony Hopkins for the part of Lecter?
Yes, he was the first person I felt really strong about, although every actor age thirty and up wanted to play Hannibal Lecter. There was such competition for that part; it was unbelievable. The thing that's so exciting about working with these great actors, and with a man like Tak Fujimoto, is that they are gifted artists, so you know that what they're going to do will be extraordinary but you don't know what it's going to be like. It's endlessly thrilling. You see a similar split later on. The movie on the screen never bears the faintest resemblance to the movie in your head. Starting out, you always think you know what the film's going to look like, what it's going to feel like, but you really haven't a clue. It's terrifying but true. It took me a couple of movies to get used to that. I was disappointed for a while; I couldn't tell the qualitative difference between that "perfect vision" I had in my head and the reality of trying to make a movie until I realized that the one I carried around in my head is just like some kind of tool you have until the real thing comes along.
I found myself liking the Lecter character in the film and the book.
That's one of the aspects of this movie, one of the things that disturbed me up front, the idea that Lecter's so likable. One of the wonderful things about the art of telling a great yarn - I'm talking about Thomas Harris here - is that you can still break the rules, you can have a character so complicated that he's kind of lovable, and you will experience him doing horrific things that truly repel you, but at the end of the day you may still like him. I've given up trying to rationalize all of that. Yet it wasn't a problem in the film; it was only a problem on paper.
It seems to me that it's still a problem for the film, because you wind up
liking Lecter despite what he does. In fact, I think a lot of people will tend
to cheer him on when he begins planning revenge for the wrongs that have been
done to him.
Well, you're going a little too far for me. I don't want to condone people wanting to see an innocent get killed. Yet at our last preview, when the audience simply roared its approval at the cut that showed what Lecter was about to do to Chilton, I was thrilled.
It's not clear to me why Lecter became such a homicidal person to begin with.
My belief, as a fan of the book, and as someone who's carefully watched Tony's portrayal of Lecter, is that here's a person who is so much smarter than everybody else that over the course of time he's been bored to repulsion by people's limitations and has finally turned on everyone in a uniquely dreadful yet, for him, kind of fun way.
The editing on the movie reminds me of the editing on Married to the Mob;
both films are extremely lean, to the extent that there's really no point in the film
during which you can leave the theater, even for a moment, without missing something
interesting. Is this an important quality for you?
Sure. If the movie doesn't have a pace that works, all of the good characters in the world won't do you any good. Actually, Melvin and Howard was the last film that I had difficulty taking material out of.
Difficult in the sense that you ultimately didn't take the material out?
I did take it out, but with great agony. You don't say, "Oh, I love that scene, I hate to lose it" so much as you realize that with that scene out of there the picture moves along in a way that will be far more agreeable to the audience.
What was edited out of Melvin and Howard?
There was a scene in which Melvin and Little Red run out of gas by the Mustang Ranch and Melvin went inside and had a funny and sweet scene with one of the hookers who makes love to him for free because he's so cute and charming. There was a wonderful four-minute scene between Paul Le Mat and Charlene Colt who was a lonely housewife on his milk route who invited him in, and there were lots of scenes between Melvin and Linda after they broke up.
How involved do you get in your films' editing?
Intimately. I work with Craig [McKay] and let him have a full whack at the footage without my telling Craig the ways that I want the footage used. I'll never tell the editor how to cut a scene because he or she may find a more exciting approach to it than I could ever dream up.
Is there a certain editing rhythm that you strive for?
I don't really have an active aesthetic about that. I just have an emotional response to the current movie and a concern that the story move fast enough and that the characters come across.
You see a lot of Married to the Mob's outtakes at the film's end. Some of them look
great, such as the one in which Michelle Pfeiffer and Carol East are talking
after hours at the beauty parlor.
It's true, that was a really sweet scene. They're talking about Michelle's upcoming date with Matthew Modine. It was really nice to see her get down and hear how nervous she was about the date, but it slowed the movie down. You could feel it as you were watching it, and at that point we hadn't provided any big events lately which you need in this type of film. After all, Married to the Mob's story is as light as a feather; you have to beware of how much time you take telling it. If I sit there and get bored watching scenes that I've worked on and loved, how on earth can I expect you guys to enjoy them? It wasn't easy, though; we had to fight to get the film down to the right length.
And that final tango between Modine and Pfeiffer?
That's a reward to the stalwarts who stayed to the very end.
Your films usually have a pronounced political stance. Was there a problem with
communicating that in The Silence of the Lambs?
No, because I'm pretty sure that over the years I've come to understand to what extent social concerns, more than political attitudes, can benefit a movie. But I know where you need to draw the line before it starts becoming intrusive and turning off the vast majority of the audience. Movies need to have a social responsibility, though, and I certainly try to have that present in the films that I do, but I'm also careful not to go overboard with it. Most of our production company energy now is directed at trying to develop films that in some way would have appeal to racially mixed audiences. We're looking for black subjects, racial subjects, interracial subjects. We want to make movies that have strong appeal to audiences other than just white people.
Are you hoping that this film is going to be an explosive financial success?
Yes, deeply. I want the people who put their choices on the line and finance the movies I direct to be rewarded for their choices. I work because of them and I want them to prosper because of my work. The money this movie makes is an index of how many people saw and, in theory, enjoyed the movie. For a while there I thought, you're sort of doing it for yourself; it's such a thrill, it's so exciting, as long as it has integrity, who cares? That's an early phase. But I do want a lot of people to see this film; I'm not just making it for the fun of it. It's still fun, but that's not why it's being made.
Do you think there's a potential contradiction between that kind of filmmaking
that you do and overt financial success?
I hope not.
It occurred to me the other day that because you're so willing to let other people
speak through what you do, as in Stop Making Sense, you may efface yourself while
you're doing that.
Well, in some cases I think you need to; in Swimming to Cambodia, that was my job.
But it may preclude success for you.
You know what? I still get profit checks on Stop Making Sense; it's the only movie I've ever had them on. Anyway, that's not likely to happen if the band is as great as Talking Heads, or if the storyteller is as gifted as Spalding. For those kinds of films, the challenge is to very literally make the movie audience get as excited about their performance as I was initially.
Then what happens to the Demme style?
Audiences don't really give a damn about that anyway. The vast majority of moviegoers want to have a good time, want ot be moved or provoked. That's why I like to do so many different kinds of things, like documentaries and music videos, because you can keep demonstrating your interest and appreciation. It's a very personal thing to make a documentary on a subject. I'm making a documentary now for Spanish TV about my cousin, who's a minister at a church in Harlem. We've been shooting it off and on for about a year. That film doesn't have to make a lot of money. There I can just wallow in what interests me about this man, not because he's my cousin but because of what he does and what he thinks. The Haiti documentary [Haiti: Dreams of Democracy] was kind of like that too. I had fallen in love with these people and this country and I was able to aim a camera at the things that I adored and film them. But the great thrill, no matter what kind of movie it is, is to have the story on film really work for people on its own merits.