30 Days of Screenplays, Day 25: “The Silence of the Lambs”

June 25th, 2013 by

Welcome to June and the series: 30 Days of Screenplays.

Why 30 screenplays in 30 days?

Because whether you are a novice just starting to learn the craft of screenwriting or someone who has been writing for many years, you should be reading scripts.

There is a certain type of knowledge and understanding about screenwriting you can only get from reading scripts, giving you an innate sense of pace, feel, tone, style, how to approach writing scenes, how create flow, and so forth.

So each day this month, I will provide background on and access to a notable movie script.

Today is Day 25 and the featured screenplay is for the 1991 movie The Silence of the Lambs. You may download a PDF of the script here.

Background: Screenplay by Ted Tally, novel by Thomas Harris

Plot summary: A young F.B.I. cadet must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help on catching another serial killer who skins his victims.

Tagline: To enter the mind of a killer she must challenge the mind of a madman.

Awards: Nominated for 7 Academy Awards, winning 5 including Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay.

Trivia: As revealed on the Blu-Ray documentaries, “Breaking The Silence” and “From Page To Screen”, both the film’s beginning and ending were altered. Ted Tally’s screenplay called for the film to begin with an FBI Raid not unlike the one featured in the opening sequence of Hannibal. Thomas Harris’ book ends with Lecter writing a threatening letter to Dr. Chilton. Ted Tally and Jonathan Demme decided it would be necessary for Lecter to track Chilton to a tropical island for a more dramatic and audience-pleasing closing, plus an all-expense studio-paid trip to shoot somewhere warm.

One obvious change from the script to the screen is the very beginning of the movie. This draft starts out with Clarice kicking ass in a training segment. That was changed to the credit sequence in the movie, a major point of that shift to highlight Clarice as an underdog. If she starts out all kick ass, doesn’t that MINIMIZE the distance she has to travel (experientially and psychologically) to the end? Indeed in the film version there are all sorts of visual things Demme does to hammer home Clarice out of her element:

* She’s running in the woods. Is she being chased? Then it’s revealed it’s an FBI (Quantico) training facility / obstacle course.

* She has to scale obstacles on the course. Symbolic of the complications and challenges that lie ahead of her.

* In one shot, she crosses through a windowed walkway. Everyone is heading left, she head right, the only person in that direction, as if going upstream, against the tide, opposition.

* When she gets into the elevator, she is surrounded by (A) a bunch of guys, (B) a bunch of guys in red shirts (and she’s in sweaty gray sweats), (C) a bunch of guys in red shirts who are huge compared to her. Plus they all stare down at her. Again to spotlight her being out of her element.

A structural analysis using my screenplay paradigm (Narrative Throughline) which features 10 major Plotine points:

Opening [1-4]: Crawford offers Clarice an “interesting errand” — visit Hannibal Lecter.

The Hook [8-14]: Clarice’s 1st meeting with Lecter.

The Lock [22-26]: Lecter offers Clarice a deal in exchange for help finding Buffalo Bill / [26-28]: Bill kidnaps Catherine Martin.

Deconstruction Test [36-39]: Clarice performs autopsy & discovers bug cocoon.

Transition [49-54]: Clarice agrees to ‘quid pro quo’ arrangement with Lecter.

Reconstruction Test [69-76]: Clarice tells the story of the spring slaughter of the lambs.

All Is Lost [86-89]: Lecter has escaped ["It's over."]

On The Offensive [96-100]: Clarice discovers key information about Buffalo Bill in Frederica Bimmel’s house.

Final Struggle [105-115]: Clarice vs. Buffalo Bill.

And then the Denouement [117-120]: Clarice FBI ceremony and call from Lecter.

The above really highlights a point Tally made in this interview: “We didn’t even have our heroine in physical jeopardy until almost the very end of the movie. She’s in emotional jeopardy but she’s not in physical danger.”

Almost all of the major Plotline points are tied to Clarice’s story, not Bill. They drop him in about 4 times in Act Two.

This all goes back to the choice Tally made: To tell the story through Clarice’s perspective and her experience, a superior choice because her psychological journey with Lecter as her Mentor was not only compelling, it also put her in constant emotional jeopardy, and fortunately for the story was tied directly to the solution of the Buffalo Bill-Catherine Martin case.

My own take on the characters in terms of their character archetypes:

Protagonist: Clarice
Nemesis: Buffalo Bill
Attractor: Catherine Martin
Mentor: Hannibal Lecter
Trickster: Jack Crawford, Dr. Alex Chilton

Buffalo Bill is the character Clarice confronts in the Final Struggle, invariably a story’s Nemesis, but here he is a specific kind of antagonist figure, the physicalization of the boogeyman. Remember, Clarice lost her father, a sheriff, when he was shot by two burglars. Presumably they were never caught, so I imagine they grew in her imagination into monstrous, almost mythic figures. So a wonderful way to round out her arc by having her confront someone who can symbolize the ‘bad guys’ who killed her father

Chilton as enemy and ally, albeit not much of an ally, but he does provide access to Lecter. And him taping Clarice and Lecter, very tricksteresque. Showing up in Nashville to stop Clarice’s last conversation with Lecter, also feels like a Trickster in action. And the latter in its own way creates a big test for Clarice: Now she no longer has access to Lecter. She will have to solve the BB case on her own.

Lecter as Mentor: His character is ranked as one of the top movie villains of all time on many lists including AFI, but that’s what makes him such a brilliant Mentor figure. He knows things, about Buffalo Bill, so right there as a conduit for vital information, he provides a Mentor function. But it is primarily in relation to Clarice’s psychological journey that he most functions as a Mentor, steering her into her Self, forcing her to confront her shadow.

In their last meeting, he says two critical pieces of wisdom: (1) The solution to the case is in the case files. That proves hugely important when Clarice and Ardelia recall the line, spurring them to dig into the case files one last time, which leads them to the vital realization: BB knew his first victim (“he covets what he sees”). That sends Clarice to Ohio and her eventual intersection with BB. (2) That Clarice believes if she can save Catherine, she can silence the lambs. This is, however, only partially true. There is another dynamic, I believe, Lecter does not tell her, but knows she has to accomplish to achieve Unity: She needs to kill BB and shed his blood. More in another comment to come.

I envision Catherine to be a projection of Clarice’s youthful self — The Victim — that 10 year-old part of who she is who lost her father when he was murdered. Catherine is being victimized, too, by a murderer. They are about the same age. They are both from the South. Easy to see that projection. And as such, I perceive Catherine as being Clarice’s Attractor. As Lecter suggests, “You think that by saving poor Catherine Martin, you can silence the lambs.” Clarice is emotionally pulled toward Catherine to save the girl… and in so doing save a part of her Self.

Crawford is a really interesting character, or at least how his character evolved. In the book and early drafts of the script, there is a strong whiff of Attractor to him, what with his wife in a coma, Clarice obviously seeing him as a substitute father figure, and some lurking sexual tension between them. But most of that got stripped out of the movie, basically all that’s left is their meaningful handshake at the end with a long look at each other, and some words left unsaid.

So it’s tempting to see Crawford as a Mentor. After all, he taught Clarice at UVA in a class. He is her superior. She has said her goal is to work with him. And he sets her on the Buffalo Bill case…

But looking at this last part more closely — and from a character = function perspective, that really is what Crawford’s role is: the conduit for Clarice into the case — I think of Crawford [finally] as a Trickster.

He tricks Clarice with his lie about why he is sending her to see Lecter.

He uses Clarice to lure Lecter into becoming a source of information re the BB case.

He creates a fake offer for Clarice to present to Lecter in exchange for his cooperation (“Anthrax Island”).

And most importantly, Crawford creates test after test for Clarice — meeting Lecter in the first place, having her do the autopsy report on the West Virginia victim, while there pulling the local sheriff aside so as not to involve a woman in their discussions and leaving Clarice surrounded by all those state troopers. That is all to help prepare Clarice for the Final Struggle against BB.

Of course, it’s ironic in the extreme that Lecter tricks Crawford by sending him to the wrong house in Illinois. And if one were to really grant Lecter genius status, you would have to think Lecter did that on purpose in large part to allow Clarice the opportunity to solve the case and confront BB directly — because he knows that is precisely what Clarice needs in terms of her personal catharsis.

One value of working with archetypes is you can do an exercise where you switch Protagonists. So how about if we look at SOTL’s story universe through Lecter’s eyes as the Protagonist?

P: Lecter
N: Chilton
A: Clarice
M: Buffalo Bill
T: Crawford

Chilton torments Lecter and it is Lecter’s goal to escape that torment. Eventually he has his own Final Struggle with Chilton (we can assume) when he “has an old friend for dinner.”

Clarice as Attractor? He has numerous sides with a sexually provocative tinge to them. He ponders what it would be like to know her outside of prison. In his last phone call, he says he won’t come after her, “the world being more interesting with you.” To seal the deal, we need look no further than the next book “Hannibal” where Lecter and Clarice become lovers.

Buffalo Bill as Mentor? It is the clues BB leaves behind and the facts Lecter discerns about the case that provides Lecter the ‘wisdom’ he needs in order to facilitate his eventual escape.

Trickster: Crawford. For reasons mentioned previously, pretty apparent.

But wait? What if we looked at the story through Buffalo Bill’s perspective as the Protagonist?

Buffalo Bill as Protagonist:

P: BB
N: Clarice
A: Female version of Buffalo Bill
M: Moths (‘transformation’)
T: Catherine

Do you remember that creepy scene where BB dances in front of the video camera, eventually sticking his penis between his thighs, then holding out his arms, proudly exhibiting his naked body as a ‘female’? That is what he is emotionally drawn toward, becoming that. And so that vision is his Attractor.

Remember that tiny little scene where he pulls a moth out of its cocoon. What does he say? “So powerful, so beautiful.” As Lecter deduces, the moth signifies transformation. That is the ‘wisdom’ BB needs in order to become a woman, albeit by wearing a skin-suit.

Trickster? Catherine is his ally in that she would become part of that skin-suit. But then she lures Precious down into the pit, threatening the dog with bodily harm, thus becoming an enemy. Very Trickster like.

This exercise of switching Protagonists is one of the most powerful tools a writer has when working with archetypes because it helps the writer dig into each character and experience the story universe through their eyes.

What’s your take on The Silence of the Lambs? Stop by comments and post your thoughts.

To see all of the posts in the 30 Days of Screenplays series, go here.

This series and use of screenplays is for educational purposes only!

6 thoughts on “30 Days of Screenplays, Day 25: “The Silence of the Lambs”

  1. Ken Glover says:

    This has got to be the MOST IN DEPTH breakdown of a movie/screenplay I have ever read! Thanks Scott!!

  2. Sal says:

    My goodness, this is Gold. Wow!

  3. CydM says:

    This answers a lot of questions I had about The Usual Suspects. Love it.

    When this first came out I resisted it, seeing it as gruesome and an unwelcome turn in storytelling. But once I began seeing it as a modern day monster movie (there’s even a reference to that in the voice over), it changed my perspective and appreciation.

    Love the way you’re mixing up the daily offerings. The choices present a story in and of themselves.

  4. Kalen says:

    This is such a great article. Love the idea of switching protagonists. Never heard it put this way before but it makes so much sense. Seems like writers have a hard time putting themselves in their characters’ shoes sometimes, which in turn results in dull characters. I’m definitely gonna try this. Thanks!

  5. One of my favorite posts on this site. The Michael Clayton of story analysis, if that make sense.

    I will revisit this post many times.

  6. edw1225 says:

    I’m a little late, but I love this movie and can’t resist rambling about it. Probably my favorite character entrance ever.

    “Do you spook easily?” – Implying something scary before we even hear Leceter’s name.

    Crawford mentions the serial killer profiles and the psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. – A psychiatrist serial killer? Interesting.

    “Hannibal the Cannibal” – VERY interesting.

    Then the warning and the rules. “Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.” – Now we know he’s dangerous even when he is behind bars.

    “Never forget what he is…” to Chilton, “…a monster.” – Fantastic scene transition, more information.

    The tone eases up for a bit as we move away from Crawford’s office with Buffalo Bill newspaper clippings to Chilton’s more polished office and his flirting.

    The tone starts to darken again as Chilton rattles off the rules while they go down the stairs to less pleasant surroundings.

    Chilton shows her the picture and tells her the reason for the rules. We find out exactly what Lecter is capable of doing. The script does not indicate that we get a good look at the picture, a good idea followed by the movie. Our imagination is better than any picture here. I believe Red Dragon shows a brief surveillance video clip of the attack, which as I recall, did not work as well.

    “His pulse rate never got over eighty-five, even when he ate her tongue.” – Is there a better way to reveal his character?

    Then the anteroom with all kinds of restraints and weapons to crank up the feeling of danger. Barney has placed a chair before his cell, which shows us where he is and how far she has to walk. Of course it’s the last cell, so the tension of the walk will be longer. I’m guessing Hitchcock would approve.

    The script pulls an alleged no-no and calls for a moving shot, which works great in the movie. It has her footsteps ECHO, shadowy occupants, and the obviously insane Miggs.

    Then we finally get to Lecter. Instead of the raging psychopath we are expecting, he is polite and refined. The movie wisely replaces the net with protective glass. Lecter quickly shows us his tremendous abilities by learning a shocking amount of information using his sense of smell and brief observation.

    The rest of the movie is pretty good too.

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