Hello, Clarice

Hello, Clarice

By Michael Pickard
February 5, 2021

The Writers Room

Clarice co-creators Jenny Lumet and Alex Kurtzman reveal all about this follow-up to The Silence of the Lambs, discussing how they got into the mind of the titular FBI agent and why the character has influenced a generation of screen heroines.

In the two decades since Clarice Starling and cannibal serial killer Hannibal Lecter last shared the big screen, only the latter has gone on to headline their own television series. Hannibal, which had the same title as that 2001 film, saw Mads Mikkelsen take up the role made famous by Anthony Hopkins and ran for three seasons, following the forensic psychiatrist in the years before he meets the FBI agent.

But with the launch of Clarice on US network CBS, it’s finally Starling’s time. The series is set one year after the events of The Silence of the Lambs, the 1991 film in which Clarice sought the incarcerated Lecter’s help to track down another serial killer, known as Buffalo Bill.

Jenny Lumet

Described as a deep dive into the titular character’s untold personal story, the show sees Clarice return to the field amid the discovery of two mutilated bodies and suspicions that a new killer is at work. Brilliant and vulnerable, she must also face up to her difficult past and escape the secrets that have haunted her throughout her life.

“She’s one of my heroes, and one of the things I’m so fascinated by is how mysterious she is,” co-creator and executive producer Jenny Lumet tells DQ. “How does she go into hearts of darkness, pull out the light and then just disappear? I was like, ‘What are her secrets? Does she go home for holidays?’ How are you a hero and an icon and a mystery all at the same time?”

With that premise, Lumet and co-creator and fellow EP Alex Kurtzman knew Clarice couldn’t follow the structure of a traditional procedural, with the eponymous character solving a difference case in each episode.

“That’s not her. She’s an extraordinarily complex person,” Lumet continues. “All that said, The Silence of the Lambs is indeed a procedural – the best one ever. It’s the FBI and there’s a case and she solves it because she’s badass. We have a ‘big bad’ [in the series], it’s certainly emotionally serialised and we have one ongoing case that makes sense for who this woman is and what that time in America was like, so you get the best of both worlds. If you’re a procedural person, you get agents running with guns and doing terrifying stuff. And if you’re a person who is really interested in doing a deep dive into the psyche of human awareness, it’s like Christmas.”

Produced by MGM Television and CBS Studios in association with Secret Hideout, Clarice could have been set in the present, perhaps with Starling now an FBI veteran still continuing to deal with the spotlight thrown on her after the events of The Silence of the Lambs. Instead, Lumet and Kurtzman decided to set the story in the wake of the Oscar-winning movie, adamant that Clarice – played by Pretty Little Liars’ Rebecca Breeds with a familiar Southern accent – should not be afforded the increased technological aids FBI agents have at their disposal today. That’s means there’s no internet, she has to use pay phones and must carry out plenty of legwork to do her job. Lumet also jokes that they didn’t want her to have access to an HR department.

Clarice stars Rebecca Breeds as the character made famous by Jodie Foster

“We also thought it was most powerful if she was fresh from the trauma of Buffalo Bill,” she continues. “We’re interested in characters who are raw, and thought, ‘Let’s load them up with as many obstacles as possible.’”

The way the events of The Silence of the Lambs have left their mark on Clarice stand in stark contrast to their impact on another character dealing with the same experience. In the film, Buffalo Bill abducts senator’s daughter Catherine Martin, who is later rescued by Clarice at the film’s climax. In the series, Catherine (Marnee Carpenter) is facing up to the trauma she faced, while Clarice is still shutting it away.

“Catherine has emerged from that experience almost as a funhouse mirror to Clarice,” Kurtzman explains. “Catherine has no filter anymore. She was dragged through hell and she’s so deeply raw. Everything she thought she was, everything she thought she knew, the relationships she had to people and the future that she thought she had, it all got obliterated. It’s left her like a living razor blade in a lot of ways.”

Alex Kurtzman

Meanwhile, Clarice is carrying the scars of not just dealing with Bill and Lecter but also her family history – the murder of her father and her recurring nightmares that recall a childhood memory of hearing lambs screaming as they are being slaughtered.

“Over the course of the season, these two women are going to have a very complicated and interesting relationship where they reflect and refract each other,” continues Kurtzman, the man responsible for rebooting the Star Trek universe in film and television. “Catherine will end up forcing Clarice to reckon with some things that, at the beginning of the season, she’s really not willing to look at. Catherine will also spiral out more and more in looking for a way to heal the trauma that she’s experienced. And in a way, the hope is that they could become each other’s saviours if one doesn’t destroy the other.”

Of course, television is no stranger to stories of law enforcement officials with troubled and complicated personal lives, with shows such as Luther, The Fall, The Shield, The Killing and True Detective just a handful of examples. So why did the co-creators want to revisit Clarice’s story?

“The Thomas Harris universe presents you with so much,” Lumet says with a nod to the author of the original Hannibal Lecter novels, which include the book on which The Silence of the Lambs was based. “He gives you an arena of the psyche, and when you know where you’re starting, you can go anywhere. What we’ve discovered is she has so many secrets. She has been the most silent of the Harris characters, so her voice feels extraordinarily fresh.”

The show is set a year after the events of The Silence of the Lambs

Kurtzman believes every screen heroine from the past 30 years has been influenced by Clarice Starling, whether it’s Dana Scully from The X-Files or Emily Blunt’s character Kate Macer in action thriller Sicario. And that meant both he and Lumet – who wrote the script for Lambs director Jonathan Demme’s 2008 feature Rachel Getting Married – felt an enormous obligation to do justice to the character in the series.

“They broke the mould when Jodie [Foster] played Clarice,” he says. “But she was a paradigm that inspired so many different people. Jodie, Jonathan Demme, [screenwriter] Ted Tally and everybody involved in The Silence of the Lambs gave her the deepest respect, love and admiration in the way they told that story. We wanted to honour Thomas Harris and the world of the character Jodie played. And because of Jenny’s unique relationship to Jonathan, we thought it was essential to honour what he did as a filmmaker. They really paved the way for us, and we’re just doing everything we can to honour her.”

Lumet and Kurtzman wrote the pilot together, describing their creative process as “a lot of flailing about and laughter” as they dedicated themselves to breaking down Clarice’s character and setting up the “dark thrill ride” to follow. Showrunner Elizabeth Klaviter joined the project shortly afterwards to lead the show, which is distributed by MGM and debuts in the US on February 11.

“One of the things we’re both so proud of is that there’s a procedural element to it as much as there was a procedural element of The Silence of the Lambs, but one of the rules we implemented in the writers room was to consider how fast we could move through the procedural things to get to the meat of what we think the show is really about, which is the characters and everything going on between the lines,” Kurtzman explains.

The CBS drama also stars Kal Penn (left) and Lucca De Oliveira

“Alongside Maja Vrvilo, our director on the pilot, and DeMane Davis, our producing director, an incredible number of people – mostly women – collaborated on this. And whether people like it or they don’t like it, hopefully they understand that nobody came into this with anything less than, ‘Let’s make it something really special, really memorable and certainly very different for CBS television.’

“CBS took a huge risk because they allowed us to break the mould of what they typically do. It’s great for them, it’s great for us and it’s actually given us a framework to tell stories in a really interesting way. We don’t get lost in the navel-gazing you could sometimes get to if you were just doing this as a streaming show without a structure around you. The fact we have act breaks [for adverts] and things like that is actually really helpful because it keeps the momentum going with the story.”

One notable absence from the series is Lecter, which Kurtzman has attributed to legal issues. But he says that has afforded the writers the chance to focus on the mystery of Clarice and how she responds to being used as both a political pawn and as a mascot for the FBI while investigating fresh horrors.

“This woman, who really has little reason to trust anything, has to grow and learn who she is while saving lives and putting her life in the hands of others,” Lumet adds. “It is such an emotional tightrope that she’s walking. We’re solving the mystery of this particular woman who brings out the best in everybody just by being who she is, and yet still stands just a little bit on the outside.”

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