A behind-the-screams look at the making of the movie

By Daniel Fierman
February 09, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

One Hannibal Lecter is leaning against a barn, cigarette in his right hand, that infamous mask dangling from the other. Another Hannibal Lecter crouches in a corner, talking to a grip about the weather. A third Hannibal Lecter is sitting in a director’s chair, legs crossed, paging through a true-crime book.

Will the real Hannibal Lecter please stand up?

This dark twist of a nightmare — three cannibal serial killers? — seemed unthinkable just two years ago, when the survival chances for a Silence of the Lambs sequel seemed on par with, say, those of a census taker in Dr. Lecter’s neighborhood.

The challenges? Start with who’s not on the set — Silence director Jonathan Demme, screenwriter Ted Tally, and star Jodie Foster. Then there’s Ridley Scott’s decision to choose such a risky project to follow up Gladiator. Then there’s the trouble adapting Thomas Harris’ much-loathed — but nonetheless best-selling — book. Then there’s the casting of Julianne Moore as Clarice Starling, a role that had been indelibly Foster’s.

But shooting on, of all places, the sprawling Virginia estate of our fourth President, James Madison, things seem positively loosey-goosey. Anthony Hopkins and two stand-ins take turns waiting to be strapped to a forklift and fed to 15 man-eating pigs. A reed-thin Gary Oldman slinks onto the set for a makeup test that will transform his face into a knot of bulging eyes, twisted lips, and blistered, suppurating skin. And Julianne Moore strolls by with her 2-year-old son, Cal, nestled in her arms. Spotting his costar, Hopkins tosses aside his reading material — the JonBenet Ramsey tale Perfect Murder, Perfect Town — to coo at her obviously delighted toddler.

Catching concerned looks from her nanny, Moore just laughs: ”Cal loves Lecter. I say, ‘Do [Hannibal]!’ And he goes pft pft pft pft.”

Off to the side, director Scott surveys his pigs, rooting in the rot of decaying food and feces in their pen, and deadpans, ”Quite cute, aren’t they?” to laughter all around. Minutes later, however, the 63-year-old director — usually surrounded by a phalanx of cast and crew — has wandered below a high, heavy timber beam, home to a nest of chirping sparrows. Alone, he chews on a Montecristo No. 2. He puffs carelessly, strolling past bales of hay, pools of sawdust, and islands of curling, dry wood. Smoking is prohibited in here, of course — it is a historic landmark — but Scott ignores the signs. And watching him work, one can’t help but think: One slip and poof — it’s all gone.

”I do wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner.”

That’s all audiences were left with. The phone settled into the cradle, the music swelled, and the credits rolled on The Silence of the Lambs. And then the wait — to find out what, exactly, Hannibal ”the Cannibal” Lecter would do with his free time — began.

That wait turned out to be longer than anyone imagined. The 1991 movie eventually made $273 million worldwide and became only the third film in history to sweep the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and screenplay adaptation. Occasionally there would be murmurs from the original Silence team that yes, yes, we want to do the next movie, but we need the book. We need the book. We need the book. Clock hands swept by, pages flew off of calendars, tectonic plates shifted. Still, we need the book. We need the book. We need the book.