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THROUGH THE COVID LENS: Reassessing “The Silence of the Lambs” in the Age of Coronavirus
Thirty years ago, one of cinema’s greatest hero/villain movie pairings arrived in theatres. Clarice Starling ranks number six on AFI’s list of the 50 greatest movie heroes, and Hannibal Lecter is #1 on AFI’s list of the 50 Greatest Movie Villains. Played by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins respectively, these two characters grounded one of the greatest crime thrillers ever filmed.
“The Silence of the Lambs” is one of only three movies in Hollywood history to win the Academy Award in all five of the top categories: best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, best actor, and best actress. It is also the only horror movie to ever win the best picture Oscar. Released on February 14, 1991, “The Silence of the Lambs” grossed $272.7 million worldwide, making it the fifth-highest-grossing film of 1991.
“The Silence of the Lambs” has many memorable scenes. But few movies in history have a scene as iconic as the glass-walled first meeting between Foster’s Clarice Starling and Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter.
In this article, we will take a closer look at this haunting scene with an eye toward COVID-19 safety. We will break it down into two sections:
- Elements that are COVID-19 Safe
- Elements that are COVID-19 Risks
After looking at several unsafe scenes— from “Goodfellas” to “It’s a Wonderful Life”— we wanted to take a look at a scene that was already safe in order to look at a different aspect of COVID-19 safety.
This article is designed to help you better understand COVID-19 safety by illustrating how pandemic guidelines would have affected one of the most famous villain introductions in film history. Let’s look at the first meeting between Starling and Lector in “The Silence of the Lambs” and see, first, what elements are already COVID-19 ready.
Elements That Are COVID-19 Safe
When director Jonathan Demme and crew were filming this scene in the winter of 1990, no one had to think about pandemic safety on set. And yet, this one of the safest scenes anyone could possibly shoot in the COVID-19 era.
Two things make this scene safe:
- Cast Size
- Cast Separation
As we’ve said before, one of the safest ways to shoot any scene during a pandemic is to minimize the number of characters in it. This scene from “The Silence of the Lambs” has only two. And they are the most important two: our hero and our villain.
One reason this scene is iconic is because it is impregnated with so much tension before we ever lay eyes on Hannibal Lecter. When we think about limiting our leads’ exposure to COVID-19 by limiting their time on set, we often incorrectly think that this means diluting their impact on the story.
What writer Ted Tally and director Jonathan Demme do that we can all learn from is they build up Lecter before he appears. We learn to fear him—and so does Clarice—before we see the dungeon-like cell area. This patient build-up is vital to making the scene itself feel so menacing.
Adding to the menace is a brilliant bit of camera work and direction. Hannibal Lecter looks directly at the camera in tight close-ups several times during the scene. His frightening, penetrating gaze puts everyone on edge.
This is not simply a trick for trick’s sake. It is something the director uses many times throughout the movie to put us in Clarice’s shoes. This scene, in particular, allows us to empathize with Clarice even more by making us feel as uneasy as she does.
By building up the villain before he appears and by using effective eye-lines, the creative team not only increases on-set safety, but it maximizes the impact of the scene. They transformed a simple scene into a seminal hero/villain encounter and one of the most famous villain introductions ever.
In our last Through the Covid Lens article, we looked at how the cast spacing in the restaurant scene from “The Godfather” brought added safety to that scene. Well, in this scene from “The Silence of the Lambs,” we are not only looking at terrific cast spacing but also cast separation.
By keeping our hero outside of the cell and the villain inside, we already establish safe filming circumstances. “The Silence of the Lambs,” however, goes even further.
In the book, Hannibal Lecter’s cell has bars on it and, as an added layer of protection, it has mesh netting around it. Director Jonathan Demme didn’t like looking through bars and felt it was ruining the scene’s intimacy. So production designer Kristi Zea came up with the idea of using thick glass instead.
This is a wonderful example of how seeking to maximize the effect of a scene can, in turn, maximize its safety. Bars would not have been as safe from a COVID-19 perspective. Virus particles could easily pass between the bars and infect either actor. The glass keeps our actors safe from contamination and allows for the intimacy the director needed from the scene.
While this scene is by far the safest scene we have looked at in this series, it is not without its dangers.
Elements That Are COVID-19 Risks
One of the most common issues our COVID-19 Safety Officers encounter on set is a collective relaxation around scenes that already appear to be safe. Just because a scene looks safe doesn’t mean that we can drop our guard.
Yes, this scene only involves two people. Yes, those two people have several inches of glass between them. But, no, this doesn’t mean we can let our safety standards slip.
This safe scene from “The Silence of the Lambs” is actually sneaky-dangerous because of the location itself.
- It is indoors. This means that we must ensure that there are proper ventilation and air filtration systems in place. Indoors is the most dangerous place to be right now. Without proper ventilation, this can easily lead to an outbreak.
- It is a cramped cell. We must remember that no scene is ever just a two-person scene. It takes anywhere from one to five people to operate the camera equipment and dollies, one to three people to run sound, and a handful of grips and gaffers for lights and electric. Most of those people are going to be crammed inside the cell with Anthony Hopkins. This was a built set and not an actual location, so the walls were most likely moveable. But maximizing the space between actors and crew must remain a high priority.
- The props are shared. Clarice passes the survey to Lecter through the security drawer, then Lecter handles the paperwork too. When props are passed between actors, it becomes a transmission opportunity.
All of these issues can easily be made safe. All that is required is that we remain vigilant during the pandemic. We spend so much time making sure that the big, complex scenes are safe that we often lose focus during the scenes that appear safe already.
We must always wear multiple PPE. We must sanitize our hands and high contact surfaces. We must keep actors off set until they are absolutely required for the shot. We must follow regular testing procedures. We must cut to a minimum the number of crew members allowed inside the set’s innermost bubble.
Safe scenes sometimes require more focus than complex scenes because the cast and crew think they can relax. This is especially true now that some of us are vaccinated, and some of us are not. It is important to remember that we do not yet know if vaccinated people can still carry the virus. This means that we need to make sure that even those who are vaccinated are still wearing masks, social distancing, and sanitizing, especially when around people who are not yet vaccinated. Relaxing our safety standards is the easiest way to kick off an outbreak.
“The Silence of the Lambs” is one of the greatest horror films ever made with two of the most iconic characters in movie history. Thanks to the creative work of Taddy, Demme, Zea, Hopkins, and Foster, this two-person scene remains a fixture of our nightmares.
By magnifying the essence of the scene and allowing it to dictate the design of the set and the shots, the team behind “The Silence of the Lambs” gives us a shining example of how to maximize safety without sacrificing artistic impact.
When we go into production during a pandemic, we must remember not to let our guard down on the small, safe-seeming scenes. They are just as capable of contaminating our sets as any other seen.
“The Silence of the Lambs” is thirty years old. While aspects of the movie have not aged well, the dynamics of this scene are evergreen. It is a classic example of how creativity and safety can work together to craft an unforgettable first meeting between hero and villain.
Join us next time when we look through the COVID lens at “Top Gun.”
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
COVID-19 has affected every aspect of the film and television industry from pre-production through production, post-production, and distribution. This article is part of an on-going series designed to help you understand how the pandemic has changed the process of making movies and television by evaluating Hollywood classics. In this series — Through the COVID Lens — we consider how movies and television shows might change if they were filmed during this pandemic.
DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.