I was terrified at the Academy Awards,” screenwriter Ted Tally says. “I can’t describe how nerve-racking it is. You go in the bathrooms, and people are boozing it up, smoking, doing lines of coke. You never saw so many famous people so nervous.”
On Valentine’s Day in 1991, The Silence of the Lambs opened in movie theaters. An intense, gritty crime odyssey, in which an FBI cadet (Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling) hunts down a serial killer (Ted Levine as Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb) with the help of another, more lascivious serial killer (Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter), the film was director Jonathan Demme’s masterwork in suspense, full of uncomfortable close-ups and discomfiting dialogue. Thanks to its mix of stunning performances and an claustrophobic feeling of dread, it became an instant classic.
Although Tally, a North Carolina–born playwright, had written for screen before, The Silence of the Lambs established his career. On March 30th, 1992, it became one of only three movies to win Oscars in the five major categories, with acting wins for Hopkins and Foster, a statuette for Demme, one for Tally and another for Best Picture. “I’ve never been back to the Oscars,” Tally says. “I’m thinking it would be fun to go if you didn’t have anything on the line, but you’d have to be Meryl Streep to be able to take that with some kind of measure of equanimity.”
Here, Tally goes deep on one of the most celebrated movies of all time with revealing, behind-the-scenes stories that are often as fascinating as the movie itself, from Gene Hackman’s early interest in making the film to insights into Hopkins’ eerie performance. The last time he watched it was in 2014 at the London Screenwriters Festival. “I thought, ‘Wow, this holds up pretty well,'” he says.
What do you think of first when you look back at making The Silence of the Lambs?
I had never been on a movie set before. It was in Pittsburgh in a jet turbine factory. It was, like, the single biggest building I had ever been in. You could have landed a plane in this building. Inside it was a three- or four-story set being built that was Lecter’s prison. Even though there were only one or two shots with the camera coming down through the railings and stairs, they wanted to have a scale for those two shots. When I saw it, my jaw just dropped. There were hundreds of people swarming all over this structure, literally painting dust onto fake stones. People were bustling around, caterers. I was standing there gawking. Ed Saxon [producer] looked at me and laughed and said, “What hath Ted wrought?”
How did it align with your vision?
Everything matched to an astonishing degree. I’ve had a lot of other movies made since then, but no script that I’ve written came out so much like the movie in my head as this one did. It was astonishing. Jonathan and I were on a wavelength. We just channeled each other.