Anyone who’s seen “The Silence of the Lambs” (and many who haven’t) remember Hannibal Lecter’s most delicious line: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” What you may not remember is that the man responsible for bringing that and other equally quotable lines (“It puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again”) to the big screen is Ted Tally ’74 DRA ’77, who won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay 15 years ago.
“It was an unreal evening — an out of body experience,” Tally said of the event.
“Unreal” not only because “The Silence of the Lambs” defied all expectations by winning the “big five” awards, but also “unreal” because Tally got to see what went on when the cameras weren’t rolling.
“One of the things you can’t tell from watching it on television is the frantic, sheer nervousness in the room,” he said. “The tension in the air is so thick you can cut it. Any time there’s a commercial break, which they do quite frequently, everyone gets out of their seat and heads to bar, or runs out and smokes half a pack of cigarettes. You can’t forget that four-fifths of the people in the room are going home losers — and they’re not used to that.”
As it turned out, of course, “The Silence of the Lambs” was not one of those losers.
“I could see it coming that night,” Tally said of the landmark sweep. “I figured that the key was Tony Hopkins. When he won — just after I’d gotten my award — I knew we were going to sweep it. You can sort of feel it building.”
What made the whole thing even more shocking were the stacked odds against “Silence” from the very beginning — the film was released in February, indicating that the studio had effectively “dumped” it beyond the reach of the Academy members’ short memory, Tally said. Tally attributes much of the film’s unexpected success to Thomas Harris’s novel, which he calls “the greatest piece of pop fiction to come along since ‘The Godfather,’ ” with the character of Hannibal and the relationship between Clarisse and Lecter, a blend of the sexual and the father-daughter. But though both lent the movie an intrigue and urgency that would stand it in good stead, other elements of the script, Tally thought, might handicap it.
“The leading character [in a detective mystery] is not supposed to be a woman,” he said. “There’s also very little action — no big explosions or car chase scenes. Not until the end is there any kind of thing like that. It was a challenge [to make a movie like that], but really interesting.”
Tally admitted that not all of Harris’s Hannibal books ought to be made into movies. He wrote the screenplay for neither this year’s “Hannibal Rising” nor 2000’s “Hannibal,” though he penned 2002’s “Red Dragon,” yet another film, starring Edward Norton ’91, that was based on one of Thomas Harris’s Lecter novels. He has worked with at least three famous Yalies on various films and says that his alumni status has come in handy a few times.
“It helped that I knew Meryl Streep,” he said, referring to approaching her for a role in the film “Before and After.” “I had acted with her in a play at Yale when I was an undergrad and she was a drama student. I had never met Jodie, but I think [our Yale connection] made it easier to talk to her. The same thing with Ed Norton.”
When it comes to this year’s awards, Tally, an Academy member who votes for nominees, is looking forward to watching the ceremony from home, just to see who wins.
“This year was a tough year,” he said. “There were a lot of very good films on the ballot.” When asked about how things stand in the screenplay category, Tally said he was very impressed by many of the nominees, naming “Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Departed” and “The Queen” among his favorites. “Overall, a very strong year for screenplays,” he said.
So what are the coming attractions from our own Oscar-winning screenwriter? Tally said he just finished polishing a script for “Shrek the Third.” “They [the “Shrek” movies] are a hoot,” he said. “I find them so funny.” The film is due to be released this May.