Director Ridley Scott and cinematographer John Mathieson, BSC sink their teeth into Hannibal , a murderous tale of revenge by author Thomas Harris.
It took 10 years for author Thomas Harris to pen the sequel to his bestseller The Silence of the Lambs, and when he completed Hannibal he immediately sent a copy to producer Dino De Laurentiis. The producer had passed on making The Silence of the Lambs after his 1986 film Manhunter, which was based on Harriss Red Dragon, fared poorly at the box office. Manhunter was directed by Michael Mann and introduced film audiences to Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter, who was a peripheral character.
Director Jonathan Demmes 1991 adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs was not only a critical and financial success, but also went on to sweep the Academy Awards, thereby launching the careers of Demme, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster into the stratosphere. When he received the Hannibal manuscript, De Laurentiis vowed that he would not make the same mistake twice.
The producer read Hannibal while on location in Malta during production of U-571. When he received word that Demme was not interested in directing the sequel, De Laurentiis marched up the road to the Gladiator set and offered the project to Ridley Scott, who consumed the manuscript quickly and was instantly hooked. Scott segued from Gladiator (see AC May 00) directly to Hannibal without so much as a short vacation, and he tapped Gladiator cinematographer John Mathieson, BSC to capture Harriss thriller on film. "We knew wed do it sometime before Gladiator was even finished," Mathieson recalls. "Ridley didnt have any time off, but he kind of likes that."
Hannibal finds Hopkins reprising his chilling role as the cannibalistic serial killer, who had escaped to a tropical island at the end of The Silence of the Lambs; FBI Agent Clarice Starling is played by Julianne Moore, who stepped in when Jodie Fosters fee was deemed to be too high.
Hannibal chronicles the lives of several characters whose actions and self-centered aspirations make them appear as monstrous and depraved as Lecter himself. Several years after catching serial killer Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb, Agent Starling finds that her career has plateaued, thanks to sexist bureaucracy and Agent Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), who felt that he should have been the one to nab Gumb and receive all the glory. Sharpshooter Starling, dubbed the "FBIs Killing Machine" by one tabloid, has soullessly thrown herself deeper into her work, racking up a hefty body count in the process.
Meanwhile, the wealthy, perverted Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), who is missing lips, eyelids and most facial features thanks to a long-ago encounter with Lecter, lives only with the aid of a respirator. Verger lies bedridden in his mansion and uses his fortune to plot an elaborate revenge against Lecter specifically, he wants to watch the doctor being eaten alive by voracious wild pigs.
Overseas in Florence, Italy, Lecter is living a life of luxury on the lam by posing as a scholarly museum curator. But Italys chief investigator, Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), who is trying to recover from the past disgrace of a botched investigation, is hot on Lecters trail. Though catching the notorious killer would save his name, Pazzi decides to collect Vergers substantial reward for Lecters capture.
While in Los Angeles shooting the drama K-PAX, Mathieson dropped by the ASC Clubhouse to help unravel the intricacies of Hannibals production over a pleasant, un-Lecter-like Italian dinner.
One of the first points Mathieson made was that the decade-old style of The Silence of the Lambs did not factor into the filmmakers approach to its sequel. "We disregarded it, to be honest, and just did our own thing," says the cinematographer. "Its a fantastically chilling film, but it feels dated. Maybe its the techniques the directing, the editing, the camerawork [but] its far more deliberate and almost naïve in places. That doesnt take away from its power, but there are filmmaking procedures in it that people wouldnt do now. In this age of MTV, you just suggest a couple of things with a few chaotic frames, and people know what youre talking about."
Though the filmmakers had just shot Gladiator in Super 35, they opted for standard 1.85:1 for Hannibal. "The film didnt have the size of Gladiator and therefore didnt have the ease of lighting a big room using one large source," Mathieson explains between bites. "The film has a lot of dull locations, such as little rooms with people tapping away on computers or on telephones. Its a little more fidgety, and lets face it: that kind of thing can be quite boring to shoot.
"Editor Pietro Scalia and I had originally wanted to shoot in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio on Gladiator, but it wasnt right for that film. Ridley was unconvinced about how Hannibal would look [in that ratio], but I think he liked it because it is a more intimate format that gives you more top and bottom, which is especially important in the Florence sequences. There were a lot of long tracking shots in this film, and we used a lot of wide lenses. It was quite surprising to see Ridley use wide lenses and get more and more wide on us; thats unusual for him."
Another key aspect of Hannibals visual style was that except for two sequences, the film was shot entirely on location in Florence and Virginia. In most places, the production team was not allowed to set up any complex lighting rigs, disturb surroundings, or even fully redress interiors. "I tried to follow whatever element the characters happened to be in," says Mathieson. "It was difficult to light because it was impractical. We were in little places where everyone gets on top of everyone else. Youve got to move here, go there and light this, but we couldnt do certain things because we were filming in someones house it was quite frustrating."
Hannibal is essentially a character-driven film, and its intense psychological mood had to be created through lighting namely, the appropriate placement of highlight and shadow that the filmmakers would compare to the paintings of William Blake, which reveal the form of objects but not the detail. In addition to creating mood, shadows also helped to hide limitations either in dress or in light placement. "Thats what I like: bright things and black things," the cinematographer affirms. "Dino [De Laurentiis] didnt always like what I was up to, but I suppose Ridley protected me.
"Florence has narrow buildings with old, faded but glorious interiors, where the sunlight barely penetrates," he continues. "That was a dilemma. It would be nice to see everything in these wonderful palaces, but you dont really want to. Its almost criminal for us to go in and say, This room has a nice atmosphere throughout, but we cant let the audience see all of the room. You have to work at keeping the drama and a sense of distance in small rooms because they feel small; you have to keep the light controlled, or it will bounce everywhere. I didnt want to overlight those rooms, but I still wanted the sources coming through the windows. To keep that feeling, I used fast stocks and fast lenses. I pulled back as much as possible and used the edges of objects to separate things.
"In America," he continues, "we were stuck with those interiors, and because they werent our sets I was thinking, Oh my God, I dont want to see any of this. How do we make this a bit more exciting? I tried to make it moody, but not scary moody. That portion of the film has a colder, grayer palette and a lot more contrast to create a dirtier, more miserable look." Mathieson adds that shooting in Virginia during the summer made achieving the "miserable" American look complicated; the Virginia winter offers the bare trees and gray skies the production needed, but it was impossible to schedule the shoot accordingly.
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