Secrets of The Silence of the Lambs: Inside the Making of Jonathan Demme's Killer Horror Classic
Late director Jonathan Demme’s horror masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs was only the third movie to sweep “The Big Five” at the Academy Awards when it took home trophies for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay at the 1992 ceremony.
More than a quarter-century later, the first horror movie in history to win Best Picture remains a pop culture touchstone. Theserial-killer thriller starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins earned more than $272 million worldwide, launched multiple sequels and a television series, and continues to spook new viewers — who may or may not watch with fava beans and a nice Chianti.
Demme — who died of complications from esophageal cancer at age 73 on Wednesday — beat out John Singleton for Boyz n the Hood, Barry Levinson for Bugsy, Oliver Stone for JFK and Ridley Scott for Thelma & Louise to win the coveted Best Director statue.
Read on to learn more about the making of this iconic film:
Demme, a Long Island native, thoroughly educated himself on the material before cameras rolled — spending time at the FBI’s Quantico, Virginia, training center with several cast members.
In addition to learning about serial killers like Ed Gein and Ted Bundy at the facility, the group studied the lives of other murderers to bring the eerie world of the movie to life.
“I lost a certain degree of innocence,” Scott Glenn, who played FBI Agent Jack Crawford, told PEOPLE in 1991. “To this day I find myself having unpleasant dreams about the things I found out.” ”To this day I find myself having unpleasant dreams about the things I found out.”
Getting into character
Foster modeled her character, a student at the FBI Academy named Clarice Starling, after 33-year-old Special Agent Mary Ann Krause, whom she met at Quantico. (Demme first pictured his Married to the Mob star Michelle Pfeiffer as Starling, but told The New York Times in 1991 that the actress felt “troubled” by the “darkness of the material.”)
”We went out to dinner, and my first and lasting impression was that she was very sharp and eager to learn,” Krause said of Foster. “Not just about the FBI, but about me. She really wanted to get a picture of a female agent.”
The FBI agent recalled Foster asking about her family as well as her direct work in following two serial killers.
”I always remain professional in front of people,” Krause shared. ”But when it gets to be too much, and I’m on my own, I just go and cry in my car. In that one scene when she’s crying in the car? I saw it and thought, ‘Now that’s like me.’ ”
Anthony Hopkins — who portrayed Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the psychopath whom Starling hopes will help her solve another serial killer case — also got into his character.
”Not a shooting day went by without Tony gliding up behind Jodie or myself, baring his fangs and going, ‘Good mooorning,’ ” Demme told PEOPLE in 1991. “Or he’d look round with these gigantic eyes at the whole crew and go, ‘You know Jonathan‘s the mad one. He never blinks. He’s quite insane.’ His lightness made it easy for everybody else.”
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Keeping the mood light
Despite the weight of the movie’s subject matter, Demme and his crew tried to keep the atmosphere on set upbeat.
“Everything was a joke,” Brooke Smith, who scored her first major role in The Silence of the Lambs as the abducted victim Catherine Martin, told PEOPLE in the 1991 story.
“The crew ate lamb and made the blueprint of the set into a board game called the Gumb Game [named for the psychotic killer known in the movie as Buffalo Bill],” Smith recalled of their Valentine’s Day celebration while shooting. “It had stuff like ‘liposuction, go back two spaces.’ The object was to save Catherine.”
On a different note
During breaks from filming The Silence of the Lambs, Demme also found time to make the documentary Cousin Bobby, a film following his real-life cousin, who was a priest in Harlem and trying to make a difference for the poor.
”I saw this guy who was just so passionate about the vital need for social change — a minister trying to accomplish things against incredible odds in this neighborhood,” the director said. (Demme even gave the cleric a tiny walk-on role leaving a plane at the end of Lambs).
Demme told PEOPLE in 1992 that the documentary was the ”most overproduced home movie in the history of home movies.”