The Hannibal Rising interviews

Film review: Hannibal Rising

The Hannibal Rising interviews
by David Ashley

Roughly eight of us sit at a roundtable in the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel, waiting for members of Hannibal Rising to drop by for a little of the old back-and-forth.  Today we’d be meeting pretty-boy and burgeoning cannibal Gaspard Ulliel, his extraordinarily attractive Japanese aunt, Chinese actress Gong Li, “How did I ever luck into this?” director Peter Webber (Girl With a Pearl Earring), and raspy old romantic Dino De Laurentiis and his lovely wife, Martha.

The novel Hannibal Rising, more or less, was penned alongside the screenplay by Thomas Harris, Lecter’s creator.  While each other film involving Lecter (Manhunter/Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal) features Lecter as more of a cameo performance, Hannibal Rising grants his youthful splendor its sole attention in telling the story of his origin as a cannibalistic killer.  We follow him from childhood in Eastern Europe to Paris, where he becomes the youngest medical student in the country.  Using this new knowledge, and despite his step-Aunt’s numerous pleas to dissuade him, Lecter enters into an exacting campaign of revenge against the war criminals at-large who murdered his younger sister during WWII, and develops his taste in the process.

Gaspard first, looking youthful and fresh and speaking “broken but good” English, one of the many languages he speaks.  Gaspard is French, this is his first English speaking role, and most certainly his greatest challenge to date.

213: Do you think that the character of Lecter is justified in the killings he performs?
GU: Well, I didn’t ask myself this question because I don’t think we’re trying to justify anything.  For some people it might be justified because he experienced some heavy things during his childhood, and so he is just seeking revenge, but I don’t think it’s the right way to take your revenge.  When someone kills one of your parents, I don’t think you should kill him to take revenge.  You can see in the film that as the character is seeking revenge, he is destroying himself little by little, and at the end he is just a monster.  I think the message is not for violence, it’s against violence.  You can very easily jump on the wrong side, in the wrong way, and just kill yourself through those killings.

Stepping into the shoes of one of cinema’s most popular characters gave young Gaspard pause and some trepidation.  But after swallowing the lump in his throat he sneers something vicious, and slice slice slices away.  Ulliel was careful not to let his performance simply become a mimicry of Hopkins, but that didn’t stop him from borrowing a few of the old man’s ticks, which he described as “eye movement,” “blinking,” and “stillness.”  Hopkins provided a template for future neuroses.

213: Are there certain things about the character of Lecter that you just can’t understand?
GU: The only thing I have difficulty understanding, precisely, is how you can go and try to bite somebody and take human flesh.  How do you go and do this the first time?  Cause I can understand…you keeping doing this, and that you really like it, you like the taste, and it can be addictive, maybe…but the first time, I don’t understand how you can just try this.

In comes energetic Peter Webber, who was ready to be questioned after a thwarted attempt at purloining one of the many tape recorders in front of him (real stitch, that Webber).  Webber explains that after Girl With a Pearl Earring he was sent countless scripts about “dead painters,” or “young women falling in love with men they couldn’t have,” but has no desire to tell the same story over and over (ironically, and quite accidentally, both dynamics actually manifest in Hannibal Rising, Lecter being a gifted artist and participating in a taboo lovey-dynamic with his Aunt.  Ha!).

213: Do you think Lecter is more a product of his environment or more “inherently evil?”
PW: It’s the Nature/Nurture question.  I would say its 75% nurture, 25% nature.  I think he has something within him, a special difference, potentially evil, but it took that particular set of circumstances to bring it out.

Eager to hash Hannibal, he explains his excitement at tackling a film of this size (“There are tanks!”), and how this piece of “pure entertainment” allowed him an opportunity to vicariously express the violence he sees in the world, get it out of his system – which, for some irreverent reason, he said was a “visceral response to the situation in the Middle East.”

213: Do you like any cannibal movies?
PW: As a genre, I can’t say that I know that many…

213: It’s not the biggest genre…
PW: [chuckle] It’s not, no.  The most interesting thing that I found about cannibalism was… Cannibalism still happens, to some extent, in Paupa New Guinea.  When they serve it up there they don’t say they’re serving you humans, they say they’re serving you “Long Pig.”  Human beings taste, apparently, like a very very sweet pork, and they’re longer than a pig.  So if anybody ever offers you Long Pig…

213: They serve this?
PW: Served to people!  It’s not legal.  It goes on out in the jungles of Paupa New Guinea.

The table agreed that that was the most useful piece of information gleamed from the day.

Gong Li enters with her translator.  She briefly converses in Chinese to another interviewer, then the fairly awkward Q and A begins.  The translator phrases our questions and Li responds in Chinese, sometimes at length (impressively, the translator is able to keep many minutes of response all in mind), and we sit and watch her, though nothing is understood.  The translator then, sometimes at length, phrases her answers to the group while she watches us, probably slightly understanding – she does speak English in the film, after all.  Lots of courtesy and slightly formal idling in this interview… eyes wandering, half-smiles, etc.  Li is extremely cute.

213: What do you think attracted your character, Lady Murasaki, to Lecter?
GL: (translator) I think it’s a matter of fate towards the lives of these two characters.  They’re very similar.  Right when they meet they realize that they share something in common – that they suffered a lot in the war, specifically that their families have all died in the war.  They had to face a lot of dark experiences together, they have a lot of pain and suffering in their hearts.  I think that’s what attracts Murasaki to Hannibal.  She has a desire to help him and protect him, to get through this, and I think it’s quite similar to Hannibal as well.  What attracts him is this feeling of protecting and being protected.  It’s a kind of mutual dependency, as it were, to help them get through these difficult times.

Li is wearing a long blue-green skirt and a denim jacket with slightly puffy shoulder things that certain women’s garments have to look cute.  She smiles at me once or twice, but it’s only to be polite.  For a 42 year old, she looks wicked young, but that’s just an Asian thing, that’s how it is over there.  She talks about working on Miami Vice, and employing a Cuban accent, and how she doesn’t see much difference in playing a Japanese or a Chinese character since there are traits that are inherent to all women (oh come on).  Some interviewer asks, “Is it annoying that Hollywood seems to think that Chinese and Japanese are interchangeable, or are you just happy for the work?”  That made me chuckle, but what balls on that interviewer.  Still, Li grinned at that too.

Legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis enters with his wife Martha.  He captures our attention immediately, waltzing in knowing full well that we’re there to talk about him.  He wears a red suit-coat over a dark shit.  He is a short man with prickly white hair and a beard of the same.  His face is spackled with red dots and varying shades of maroon and brown, like aged leather.  His introduction is this: “So, I suppose you’ve all seen the movie?  And I suppose you liked it?”  I only now realize that Dino is 88 years old, and I’m completely blown away.  It may interest you to know that Dino has produced every Lecter film except Silence of the Lambs (perhaps that’s why his face is red.  Chuckle).  Dino expostulates as a man completely confident and quite aware of his position in the world of film, referencing, to our delight and his, the many filmmakers’ careers he’s contributed to: Bergman, Lynch, Antonioni, Fellini, De Sica, to name a meager few.

213: You originally passed on Silence of the Lambs, right?
DdL: Yes, I can tell you why.  I did Manhunter, 92%, fantastic review – I lost many many million dollars.  It was a big flop.  Then Silence of the Lambs comes up.  All my partners said, “We haven’t seen this book.  After the flop, it doesn’t make any sense to buy the rights” – and I even read the book.  And we passed.  But when we passed Orion bought the rights to the book.  Orion had no rights to use the Hannibal Lecter character.  So then they had to call me to get the authorization for Orion at once.  It was good for me because Silence of the Lambs became a success and I was able to make more.

Dino speaks for the film’s singularity amongst the other Lecter films through entertaining gesticulations.  Upon producing numerous Lecter films, he would continually be asked why Hannibal turned out the way he did.  Once the flints were sparked in Dino and Martha, Thomas Harris was approached with the idea and held at gunpoint until he agreed to pen the novel and screenplay.

213: Do you think certain people are inherently compelled to do evil?
MdL: [laugh] You mean directors, or real people?

213: Anybody, not people making movies.
DdL: [chuckle] Yeah…if I understand your question…Hannibal Lecter…If you remember, when he was a boy, to care about Mischa.  His action, for a young boy, for his younger sister…When he started to defend his sister they broke his arm!  He fell down in the snow…and said, “It’s hard to die at this moment.”  And at this moment, when young Hannibal fell down in the snow…he’s crying, with his arm broken…Something…changed…in the boy.  And the animal starts to come out.

conducted and transcribed by David Ashley