Jonathan Demme got his start directing Caged Heat (1974), everyone's favorite women-in-prison film. Yes, that's a real genre, women-in-prison, and Caged Heat is the women-in-prisoniest of them all. The movie has "boobs and blood aplenty," yet also features strong female leads.
Hmm. Blood + boobs + strong female lead = the perfect combination to direct The Silence of the Lambs, a film about a man who kidnaps and skins women and the female FBI agent pursuing him. The Silence of the Lambs made Demme a household name and earned him an Academy Award for Best Director. But Demme didn't forget his roots. Roger Corman, who gave Demme his first directed role on Caged Heat, cameos as the FBI director in Lambs. (Source)
Demme had previously directed Married to the Mob (1988) starring Michelle Pfeiffer, and wanted Pfeiffer to star as Starling in Silence, but she didn't want to be in a film so violent (source). So the studio selected Foster, who soon impressed Demme with her presence and her accent.
Demme, Hopkins, Foster, and screenwriter Ted Tally made the perfect team. You'd think they'd all be back for the sequel, Hannibal, almost a decade later. But Demme read the novel and was "horrified," not in a good way. He passed on that project, which was picked up by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner).
Since then, Demme has directed many other films, but only one featuring a sadistic sociopath who just might be a cannibalistic serial killer: Rachel Getting Married (2008) starring Anne Hathaway.
Ted Tally is a Yale-educated playwright who made the jump to cinema with his 1990 adaptation of the novel White Palace into a romance starring Susan Sarandon and James Spader. But it was his next adaptation, The Silence of the Lambs, that would make him a name almost as big as Thomas Harris, the author of the book, and showed audiences that he could write material that could scare the daylights out of anyone.
The first Hannibal Lecter novel, Red Dragon, had been adapted into a lesser-known film called Manhunter in 1986, so no one was champing at the bit for another cannibalistic serial killer flick. However, screenwriter Ted Tally convinced them that this story wasn't about Lecter as much as it was about the young FBI trainee, Clarice Starling. (Source.)
Adapting a 300-page novel into a 120-page screenplay requires some tough cuts to be made. So, like Lecter fileting a security guard, Tally selected certain parts of Harris's novel to be removed, like a subplot involving Jack Crawford's wife, or a confrontation between Clarice and Senator Martin. It had to be Clarice's story, through and through (source).
Tally found Lambs sequel Hannibal "sleazy" and passed on that screenplay. But he did return with a new version of Red Dragon in 2002 and also adapted All the Pretty Horses (2000) from the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name.
We've all heard how by the time you see the light of a star, it's already dead. Well, so is Orion Pictures, a company that filed for bankruptcy in 1991, the movie studio equivalent of collapsing into a black hole, and completely folded in 1999.
Orion was one of the brightest stars for a few years, despite being a complete failure of a company. It produced the Academy Award-winning Best Pictures Amadeus, Platoon, Dances with Wolves, and The Silence of the Lambs. They were a studio that allowed actors to step behind the camera and direct, like Kevin Costner directing Wolves or Danny DeVito directing Throw Momma from the Train. (Source)
Believe it or not, Orion wasn't sure Anthony Hopkins was right for the role of Hannibal Lecter They struck a compromise with the director, Jonathan Demme, who himself wasn't sure about Jodie Foster. He could have Hopkins if he'd agree to use Foster. That worked out well in the end. (Source)
Unfortunately Orion's poor judgment took over in later years, when they produced critical and commercial failures like She-Devil and Robocop 3. Stars can't burn forever.
A film with subject matter as dark and gritty as The Silence of the Lambs appropriately receives a dark and gritty film treatment, shot in the deepest darkest locales of Pittsburgh, including a state hospital and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (because bugs). Many of the eerie interiors were shot in an abandoned warehouse chosen to make it seem as if it were the very "bowels of hell". Maybe some nice new curtains would freshen the place up. The morgue scenes are also a nice touch.
The climactic scene of Clarice and Bill in his house is shot completely in the dark, with Bill's POV from night-vision goggles. This is truly a descent into those hellish bowels. The last scene is really the only one shot in bright sunlight—ironically so, as Dr. Lecter, strolling towards the beach in a dapper light tropical suit and straw fedora, follows the unsuspecting Dr. Chilton towards what we just know will be his gleefully gruesome demise.
What do Gollum and Buffalo Bill have in common? Beyond excellent taste in jewelry, they have a film score composer linking them. Howard Shore is a prolific, award-winning composer who worked on The Silence of the Lambs and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films.
Shore composed his score to be subtle and functional. No over-dramatic bleating of lambs in the background here. Shore says Jonathan Demme was very involved in the music, wanting to create a coherent atmosphere for the movie, so that it lurks in the background without the viewer really being aware of it.
And no one did notice, unfortunately. Lambs was nominated for many Academy Awards, but Best Original Score wasn't one of them. Maybe next time, Howard.(Source)
Hannibal Lecter is an official pop culture icon.
People know him even if they haven't devoured any of the four books, four movies, Hannibal TV show, or known anyone devoured by the doctor himself. There's even a Hannibal Lecter mask for sale at Wal-Mart. You don't get much bigger than that, although we sure hope you have to show ID to buy it. And how about a Hello-Kitty-as-Hannibal- Lecter decal?
You know, for the kids.
The film doesn't have fans that watch it scores of times, shouting dialogue at the screen or organizing conventions. It's just not that kind of movie. Watching the film is work; it's not something you can do except occasionally. But there's a fan-fiction website with thousands of entries, that shows the power of the film's psychological dimensions—there's just so much to explore and imagine in the characters of Lecter and Clarice.
Because Hannibal Lecter is such a distinctive character who haunts everyone's dreams, he's been parodied on The Simpsons, The Simpsons, The Simpsons, and by funny man Dom Deluise of all people, making Lecter the most lovable flesh-eating serial killer of all time.