There’s not a lot of talking going on, even from Ted Tally, as Silence of the Lambs plays on screen gripping a room of hundreds. Personally I’d forgotten how good it is. The film is iconic, enthralling and every moment is pregnant with emotion. The fact that it still plays well and we sink into it so easily so many years later, Ted says, is down to the costume and set design that has meant the film hasn’t dated much and remains relevant. Though Ted himself hadn’t watched this film for a decade seeing it with us today he admits “It holds up very well.”
Though exceedingly violent the film, Ted illustrates to us, was not mindlessly violent. For instance when Lecter is moved to a cell and escapes, killing the guards, that’s a shocking and horrific thing. The first guard violently attacked, his tongue bitten out reveals the true cannibalistic nature of Hannibal, the second, bludgeoned to death we see only Hannibal and blood splash, not the blows hitting or the guard dying. It was the most tasteful way Ted tells us, that you can film such a violent act against a human being. Strung up like a crucified moth, echoing the butterfly motif that permeates the visuals throughout the film the second guard becomes a type of performance art for Lecter to distract from the second guard’s body on the floor, he doesn’t want them looking too closely at that barely breathing survivor who is not quite what he seems. These vistas are not there to be gratuitous or merely shock, they underpin crucial elements of the story and theme.
Ted credits much of the plot genius to the original novelist, Thomas Harris saying there are mythic underpinnings to his writing. I could never have come up with that plot twist, he admits as the ambulance scene plays out., or the one with the two houses at the end. In adapting the novel for screen though he did make some bold decisions that broke the usual rules of screenwriting, in the escape scene we’ve just seen for instance, we have broken away from our protagonist for some fourteen minutes. It was crucial to include that scene from the book, he tells us, and he told himself it was okay to leave Clarice behind for a bit because when we go back to her, we never have to leave her again for the rest of the movie. Don’t break the rules just the break them, he tells us later, you have to trust your story to lead you and if you need to break the rules to make it work, you do. The one rule never to break though is the rule that says “don’t bore the audience” he adds wisely.
Ted always assumes a very smart engaged audience for his work saying the audience is much smarter than we give them credit for, most have seen thousands of stories already and they’re way ahead of you. He makes a point to say that the screenplay was easier to write than it looks, the book was a banquet of material, far more really than was needed for a movie but with no flab in it. Writing the adaptation he was very conscious of the subtext, Clarice mourning for her father’s long ago death, Ted’s own father dying as he wrote the scenes. The ending was changed to give hope though. Rather than an original plan to have Lecter find Chiltern hiding out with personal security somewhere but director Jonathan Demme wanted to allow for the illusion that Chiltern might get away. Ted came up with the idea that maybe he would be getting on a plane to the tropics and then you could cut to a scene where Lecter, on the phone to Clarice, was already there waiting for Chiltern to arrive. You mean you and I would take Anthony and a small crew to the tropics in January to write and film this scene, and it would be paid for by the production budget? was Jonathan’s approving response. The rest of this story of course, is film history.