Recently, I saw a special screening of The Silence of the Lambs with a Q&A session with Jodie Foster. The BFI were kind enough to livestream their event and you can find it on their YouTube channel. I was, however, very interested in her discussion and would like to discuss some of the points she made.
I was told that Foster hasn’t spoken very much about Lambs since it was released, so it was a great privilege to see her talk so candidly about its production. She talked about falling in love with the book and actually trying to buy the rights to direct a movie adaptation herself before finding out that Canon films had already done so and had Gene Hackman attached to direct and to play Crawford (although I feel that Chilton would have been a better fit). Hackman dropped out and Jonathan Demme stepped in, who then had to be persuaded to take her on as the lead.
During the screening of Lambs I noticed that most of the interactions between Lector and Starling are shot in extreme close ups. Foster recalled that most of her performance was directly to camera with Anthony Hopkins seeming merely a disembodied voice behind the camera. Indeed it seems she had very little interaction with her co-star during his ten days of filming. For the scenes in his plastic cell in Baltimore he had to be “screwed in” each day. She also happened to be “petrified” of Hopkins. The tension was only broken on the final day when she learned he was just as intimidated by her.
Rather sweetly Foster indicated that Hopkins was perfect for the role, and that the role really needed to be played by a British actor. She spoke of the American Stanislavski method being inappropriate for the role as it required a more Shakespearian instinct. She described Hopkins as being an unduly humble man but agreed with him that much of the quality of the film came from the script and the brilliant book. Personally on this re-watching I found myself less entranced by the serial killer puzzle aspects of the movie (which occasionally become very contrived) and much more invested in the powerful performances and masterful direction.
The production does sound difficult. The final chase sequence through Buffalo Bill’s lair was apparently captured in a 22 hour shoot in the freezing cold. She described how the crew became so tired they started making mistakes like not closing doors she needed to kick down between takes. It’s incredible that this exhaustion and frustration is in no way evident in Foster’s exhilarating performance in this sequence.
Gender politics were an important aspect of the discussion. Foster indicated that she was attracted to the role as it portrayed a typically male hero’s journey from a female perspective. She talked about having previously just played victims (such as her performance in The Accused), and she says that although that is an important part of female history, she wanted to play a protector. When asked if she felt that we had gone backwards politically since the film’s release she said we had definitely moved forward, perhaps just not as far as we should. She recalled her parents’ age as a time when these issues were not discussed and anguish would largely be internalised. She stressed that in spite of the huge divisions that exist between people, this is in fact a time of transition which, although painful, will lead to a more empathetic time. I found this perspective inspiring and hopeful.
Ultimately the discussion moved away from Silence of the Lambs and towards her more recent focus on directing. She talked about how she likes to bring a composer on late in the production process as she often doesn’t know what the film is until it’s finished and it’s then that she can start to think about score. This is an interesting contrast to directors like Christopher Nolan who like to involve composers early on to help guide the process.
Foster also talked about her own dislike for her own writing and that she loves to work with a writer. When asked what her criteria are for choosing a script she stressed the importance of becoming emotionally invested in it, which includes her science fiction roles. Foster talked about her fondness for directing and for working with other actors such as Jack O’Connell in Money Monster.
What’s interesting is that for all of Foster’s skill and powerful intuition she doesn’t seem to count herself amongst her fellow actors. She says she is their “biggest fan” and is in awe of actors and how they work. Yet she also demonstrated her superb skill as an actor by recounting her experience working on the movie Nell. She attempted to research the role in various ways but ultimately found it best just to show up and do it. The result is one of her most powerful performances.
There was perhaps a little disappointment from Foster regarding her acting career. She joked that when making Silence of the Lambs she didn’t appreciate that an opportunity like this would “never come again”. This is a melancholy statement from an actress with a long history of excellent film roles, especially as some of her finest roles came after Lambs, such as Nell and Contact. Perhaps, like Hopkins, she is too modest.
The most surprising comments that Foster made were in relation to film as an art form. When asked about the opportunities afforded to her by television series like Black Mirror (of which she has recently directed an episode) she said that television is now the true home of narrative. She said a lot of people saw it coming, but the cinema is now the place we go to see big experience movies and that actual storytelling will now be on the smaller screen.
I must respectfully disagree with Foster on this point. Whilst I agree that television is in a wonderfully vibrant stage at the moment, film will always be the truest form of narrative for me, and my recent experiences at the BFI film festival have reaffirmed this. The discipline to tell a story within a cinematic runtime and to communicate through a purely visual medium is unparalleled by other mediums. The true magic of cinema for me is in the communal experience of film. The cinema also affords an opportunity to truly abandon distractions and maybe even your own sense of self as you become immersed in the narrative. I don’t believe this can be as easily achieved in your living room, no matter how compelling the show may be.
Jodie Foster was a joy to watch talk. She’s very funny and insightful. She was incredibly candid during the interview and offered some fascinating insight into her career and what does indeed remain as her finest work. The Silence of the Lambs still holds up as the quintessential Serial Killer Thriller and is definitely worth experiencing on the big screen with an audience. The cinema will always be the home of film and The Silence of the Lambs is pure cinema.
Paul Salt is the co-host of One Good Thing.