Jodie Foster on why The Silence of The Lambs is a perfect film

I recently wrote about why the 1990s was such an amazing time to be a young woman. Jodie Foster confirmed the sense of a breakthrough at a screening of The Silence of The Lambs on Friday night at the BFI Southbank in London. Flashing her FBI pass of authority this film holds up remarkably well. Like Contact its power is in the focussed intent of its heroine for her mission.   Here’s a write up, mainly on the film, but also with insights into her life long plan to be a director and her long term optimism about America’s culture wars.

Foster began with a remarkable observation about The Silence of the Lambs: “[It] inspired people to do probably the best work they’ll ever do in their own lives…I was 29. I didn’t realise it was never going to happen again.”

Foster revealed she wasn’t the first choice  for the role of Clarice Starling. When she read the book and tried to buy the rights, she discovered Orion already held them.  Her experience playing a rape survivor in the harrowing The Accused helped explain her passion to secure the role.

“In my whole life I’d played a lot of victims. That IS a big part of women’s history. For me there was a healing process, a growing experience, to finally play the woman who saves the women.

“If you think of the mythology the film comes from — the Prince whose country is suffering from an illness. He goes into the forest and battles monsters and trolls to bring back a panacea and realises once he’s cured his people, he can never be one of his people again. That story has never been reserved for women. Is there no such thing as female agency?”

Gene Hackman had originally planned to make his directorial debut with the film, and also playing the role of Crawford – Starling’s boss. However Foster said he dropped out “because [he thought] the script was too violent”. Once the director was fixed Foster lobbied Jonathan Demme for the part.

“I went to see Jonathan Demme. I said I would just like to be your second choice.”

Of the actors lined up as possible Hannibal Lecters, Foster says it was all the usual big names such as Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman. But that changed. “We were keen on a Brit. He’s a manipulator, he uses language” very carefully. Foster said the American Stanislavski’s method style of acting was not right for the role; where the actor seeks an emotional connection or reason. “We needed a Shakespearean monster.”

Much of the power of the film is the way Starling and Lecter’s confrontations are shot head on direct to camera and it’s interesting that Foster says she and Anthony Hopkins never got to meet in advance:

“Hopkins only shot 7-10 days on the film and never came till half way through the shoot. We  rarely saw eachother because we looked into the lens” only hearing the voice of their adversary. “We both claimed to be scared of eachother.”

“It really was a beautiful script. Almost exactly [the same as] the first draft. There was something about [playing] someone [Clarice Starling] who’d been traumatised by sound and being small and not big enough to help or care for somebody.

“Before that in The Accused I was brash and loud. I wanted to explore the challenge of someone who knows they’ll never be big enough so had to engage their heart.”

The shivering intensity of the final section of the film much of it shot in one long take as she goes through the maze of doors in the basement, is when Starling finds the killer and tries to rescue his captive. That intensity certainly seems to have been enhanced by the fact that, as Foster revealed, it was filmed on the last day of the shoot and took 22 hours. Doors kept being left open that spoiled multiple attempts at the long single take. She remembers it as “one of the coldest winters in Pittsburg. The band for the wrap party was sitting waiting. We finished the shoot at 6 or 7am.”

On being behind the camera:

Foster started acting at 3 and made her first feature at 6. “I was always fascinated by the filming process. All the technical stuff. I thought acting was just saying lines out loud that someone else had written.” Foster says the moment of epiphany came when the actor playing her screen dad suddenly began directing episodes. Wait, they let actors do this?

Being on a film set was, thinks Foster, a great film school. She gave a real sense of how she watched and learned everything, even how the film cartridges were loaded; but also the hard to define instincts of good directing:. “Understanding why something works or doesn’t work.” Of all the expertise she hoovered up just watching on set, she observes, “But a lot of actors aren’t interested.”

The major challenge she’d faced in making films was not funding. “I always found funding. It was more about getting scripts [developed] to the right level.”

The political state of America

For those expecting Foster to express grave concern about the tensions over race, sex and sexuality in Trump’s America, she was refreshingly calm. “We’re not moving backwards at all. We’re a very interesting point in our consciousness whether about violence or race. A proportion of our population, maybe the minority, does understand empathy and then there’s a huge section that doesn’t and is existing in the same era. But this is a transition.”

On the partly historic sexual abuse being exposed in Hollywood Foster said  how she felt protected by her mother in navigating her path through it. Reflecting on it, she spoke of appreciating the complex burden her mother’s generation carried: “I got so many messages from my mom. She would always be carrying around the shame and the self loathing of sexual politics of that era. She was also messed up and a lot of mixed messages came out of her.”

Greatest Challenge?

Foster said it was playing Nell – the “wild” child found in the forest in the eponymous film she also produced. Fearful of how to get into the role Foster said she did a huge amount of research, reading books, even tried acting lessons: “I had never gone to an acting class before. And then I realised I just needed to drink a little coffee and wait till they said ‘Action!'”

Further reading

The 90s were a brilliant decade to be a young woman (The Pool Sept 2017)

Chain of Command: A cultural history of the lanyard  (The New Statesman July 2017)


About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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