How did little rich boy Hannibal Lecter grow up to be a cultured serial killer with a taste for human flesh and chianti? Total Film visits the set of Hannibal Rising...
In the deep, dark recesses of Barrandov Studios, outside Prague, Hannibal Lecter is about to try on the first mask of his young life. Deliberately echoing the iconic face-muzzle Lecter wore in The Silence Of The Lambs, it’s a ghoulish Samurai mask, red on the inside, black on the outside, which teenage Hannibal, 17 going on psycho, tenderly brushes with a cloth before applying to his face. He stares straight ahead in a ceremonial trance.
“Cut!” barks director Peter Webber, as wizened Italian producer Dino DeLaurentiis moves toward his director to spark a heated debate. Something about Webber’s framing is bothering the 86-yearold legend, who looks every inch the heavyweight producer only minus an enormous cigar (he’s rationed now). Plus, he croaks, “We’ve got to fix the mask!”
“We’ve already talked about this,” counters Webber testily. “Don’t you remember the e-mail I sent you about it?”
This, apparently, is a reshoot of the mask scene with the new mask – the previous one was a bit rubbish. While Gaspard Ulliel, the 21-yearold French actor (A Very Long Engagement) plucked from hundreds of hopefuls to play the budding serial killer, waits patiently, the two men bicker before finally moving on to the next take. It’s a crucial moment in Hannibal Rising, and the pressure’s on to get it right…
Later, Webber (Girl With A Pearl Earring, although it was his work on 2001 TV drama Men Only that landed him the gig) will shrug it off as just another day at the office. “The producer-director relationship is always like a marriage. You have your good days and your bad days. I’m not going to pretend that every minute has been love and kisses; we’ve had our moments, but they make for a better film.”
“Dino’s a legend,” he continues. “He’s made some great films, he’s made some lousy films. He’s worked with some great directors. He’s fired great directors! He fired Nicolas Roeg and Robert Altman, so I’m lucky to have survived this long...”
With Hannibal Rising, DeLaurentiis and his buxom fortysomething lady-love Martha, also a producer on the film, are cashing in again on the franchise that’s bankrolled their lifestyle, pension funds and then some in the 20 years since Manhunter. After knocking a once-classy saga off its Oscar-laden perch with 2001’s Hannibal and 2002’s Red Dragon (ironically, The Silence Of The Lambs is the only Lecter movie they had nothing to do with), DeLaurentiis and partner convinced reclusive novelist Thomas Harris to trawl his Lecter net once more.
Following in the wake of Leatherface being rationalised as the product of school bullying, we now get a feature-length explanation of why Hannibal Lecter ended up relishing (human) liver with fava beans. It’s all the result of a grisly childhood trauma, apparently. Residing in Lithuania during World War Two, Lecter’s family flee their castle home for a forest hunting lodge, where his parents are killed in crossfire and, eventually, his three-year-old sister Mischa is killed, cooked and eaten by a nasty pack of Lithuanian thugs led by Rhys Ifans’ Grutas and his henchman Kolnas (Kevin McKidd).
“Their main ambition is to be accepted into the SS because they think they have great uniforms and do really mean things,” says McKidd of the bad, bad men who eat Hannibal’s baby sis. “They’re sewer rats, basically.” In other words, reprobates who deserve everything Hannibal dishes out to them later, when he seeks his revenge. It’s always been Lecter’s way: pick off the ones that no right-minded audience would think deserved any other fate than gruesome, agonising death at the hands and mouth of a cultured cannibal.
As lifestyle motivating factors go, however, it’s pretty crude and rudimentary, so we also get Hannibal’s sexy, artistic Japanese aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), his uncle’s widow who takes in little orphan Hannibal after the war. “He’s raised by this weird lady in this insane relationship,” says Ulliel. “She’s between a mother and a mistress.” Murasaki teaches him the ways of the Samurai and later, in medical school, he becomes obsessed by the workings of the human body.
When it came to casting their juvenile Hannibal, Webber insists that it was a simple decision for him after trawling through hours of screentests. “I thought, this is the only person who I’m compelled to watch for two hours. He’s got something really special about him. I felt the same way on Pearl Earring with Scarlett Johansson. And Gaspard’s a bit crazy. There’s something a little bit damaged about him, which is fantastic! You want that in an actor.”
Ulliel studied Hopkins’ performances in Lambs, Hannibal and Red Dragon. “I was free to do my own Hannibal Lecter, but I knew that the audience would look for some resemblances. So I had to feed the expectations.” He read the books and watched the films over and over again, Lambs in particular. “Sometimes it was frightening because Anthony Hopkins is so amazing in his performance and I was not feeling really confident. I tried to pick a few details and mix it to my own recipe. The major things were the blinking and his stillness.” (Hopkins was approached to shoot bookends in Hannibal Rising, but the DeLaurentiis duo claim they decided it didn’t fit; they won’t say whether he simply declined the offer.)
While Ulliel’s preparations were dark and lonely, including digesting reams of studies on and interviews with mass murderers, he says he found the shooting light relief by comparison. “You stay a little in his mind during the whole shoot, but I needed to have some fun at night,” he says. “And it was nice to have all those killing scenes. They were fun. It was like a game.”
But the final murder Hannibal commits in the film, where he bites a chunk of cheek off his only surviving adversary, was disturbing even for him. When Ulliel arrived on set, the prosthetic was already on the actor’s face, but it looked so real he couldn’t tell. He was instructed where to bite and told to be extremely precise, otherwise he might get a real flesh morsel in his mouth. “I did it and it felt so real, the texture of the prosthetic was like a real cheek. It was creepy,” he shudders. “He was yelling because I was tearing his cheek apart and there was blood spurting everywhere and then I spat out the piece of cheek. But that was cut; it was too much.”
“I can’t make the judgment about whether this film is more or less violent than the other ones,” says Webber. “It is violent. We’ve got five or six particularly grisly and inventive murders! I’m not a great one for torrents of blood and all the rest of it, but we’ve had to get a few buckets out.”
So after seeing Hannibal rise, is this the end of his on-screen antics or simply a new lease of life? The final verdict will be left up to moviegoers. As far as its makers are concerned, there’s plenty of scope for more. “With this idea we create a new franchise,” Dino wheezes to Total Film. “There’s a new actor, nothing to do with the older Hannibal Lecter and Anthony Hopkins. Here we finish when he escapes to Canada. But from Canada, he goes to America, he becomes a doctor. If this is successful, no question we do more…”
“I personally think that there’s been a dwindling in the quality of this franchise,” admits Webber. “I would never have had the nerve to do this otherwise. And I feel a personal responsibility to be not the person who buries it, but the person who revives it.”