Will Hannibal the Cannibal eat Hollywood?

Demme's out on "Silence of the Lambs" sequel; Universal may pass, too; Dino De Laurentiis stands rampant; and what do you suppose the chances are that Jodie Foster will play a cannibal?

Published June 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Even as the long-awaited sequel to "The Silence of the Lambs" is being published, one of Hollywood's most carnivorous dealmakers is carving up the movie version so horribly that it could turn even the novel's famous cannibal into a vegetarian. Delacorte will have 1.3 million copies of Thomas Harris' "Hannibal" in bookstores Tuesday, ready for a nation's summer beach reading. But the big-screen version is in big trouble -- and not just because it's hard to imagine Jodie Foster eating an FBI lawyer's brains.

A movie sequel would seem to be a slam dunk. After all, "The Silence of the Lambs" won the best picture Academy Award in 1991; just about everyone involved in the film -- stars Foster and Anthony Hopkins, director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally -- took home an Oscar as well. Not to mention the fact that the film made three times its cost. Put that amazing team of talent back together and voil` -- another box office blockbuster, and more Golden Boys to sit on everyone's mantle.

But that doesn't take into account the bad behavior that rears its ugly head in Hollywood whenever the words "major money" are uttered. Mix in the apocalyptic ingredients of greed, ego and a book plot so horrific that it's hard to imagine anyone sitting through it ever, and everything starts going to hell in a film canister. The result? The very real possibility that "Hannibal" the movie won't bear much resemblance to the original. Informed sources say Universal, which controls the property, is seriously considering passing on the project.

The news is stunning. Yet Universal has its reasons.

Several reasons, in fact, many of them caused by the incessant wheeling and dealing of that catastrophic catalyst Dino De Laurentiis, a man canny enough to send his personal pasta chef to Miami to cook for Harris, presumably so the writer would finish "Hannibal" faster. He's also a mogul more interested in making a mint off "Silence II" than in making a mint movie. A Byzantine series of back-room maneuvers dating back years means that De Laurentiis retains the rights to the character Hannibal Lecter, the murderous cannibal played in the film by Anthony Hopkins. (Harris first created the character in the novel "Red Dragon," which was turned into the De Laurentiis-produced, Michael Mann-directed motion picture "Manhunter." A tortuous history of the rights to the "Silence of the Lambs" sequel, drafted this winter by Century City law firm Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger, took 10 pages to sum up. Even so, the confidential document was incomprehensible even to those people involved from the very beginning.)

Meanwhile, Universal leveraged first negotiation and last refusal rights from De Laurentiis for any "Silence of the Lambs" sequel written by Harris. That didn't stop both sides from going to court on the matter until a settlement was reached. Then, last month, a $10 million payment put De Laurentiis first in line for the "Hannibal" film rights. Now it's Universal's turn to say yea or nay.

But if anyone can ruin a hot property before the screenwriter is even hired, it's De Laurentiis. Do "Ragtime," "Flash Gordon" or the 1976 version of "King Kong" ring a bell?

Hollywood dealmakers say negotiating with De Laurentiis ranks right up there with having a root canal. According to sources, his refusal to give Demme creative control over the sequel demoralized the director to the point where he left the project. Incredibly, De Laurentiis has also been lobbying for weeks to drop Foster from the project; the producer, who insists on calling the double Oscar-winner "Judy" in his conversations, kvetches that the sequel can't afford both her and Hopkins, particularly if they both want their expected $20 million paydays.

Harris delivered his manuscript March 23. Since then, De Laurentiis has been on the phone daily with agents, monitoring the progress of the book-into-film project from, of all places, the Mediterranean island of Malta, where he has been on location producing the World War II submarine drama "U-571." Now, the wily and whiny Italian has arrived at his home in Los Angeles to begin negotiating with Universal Pictures.

"Dino isn't stupid. He's heard that he's on shaky ground with Universal," one source maintained. In a gambit to save the project, De Laurentiis is trying to convince director Ridley Scott to come on board. Scott, oddly enough, had been filming his own movie on Malta as well; that's where De Laurentiis handed him a copy of Harris' 10-years-in-the-making novel. But this plan is still in its "embryonic" stages, one source contends. "It's just an idea right now. It hasn't even given birth to a baby deal."

Universal's hesitation at this point is more directly related to Demme's departure and less about "Hannibal's" unwieldy and unbelievable plot. Though Delacorte has kept the novel under wraps even from reviewers, a six-page encapsulation of the complex plot made available to this writer seems to indicate that it will not be easy reading -- nor will any movie made from it be easy viewing. Humans and human parts are fed to eels and swine. Hannibal Lecter devours his enemies with incredible regularity. And -- gasp! -- even that nice FBI agent Clarice Starling turns cannibal. Given the country's moralistic climate, it's hard to imagine a movie where the public is expected to root for two killers who fall in love after dining on the brains of one of the FBI's lawyers, even if the attorney is a nasty dude.

Even supposing that the story itself is not the main obstacle to a green light, sources say that Universal is looking hard at the bottom line, despite the fact both Demme and De Laurentiis have deals at the studio. Without Demme's budget-conscious involvement ("Silence of the Lambs" was made for a mere $22 million and grossed more than $60 million), no one is sure that "Hannibal" won't develop fiscal flatulence. For one thing, Hollywood was anticipating that Demme would use his personal relationships with Tally, Foster and Hopkins to keep their front-end money demands within reason. All involved would gamble on big back-end profits in order to get the sequel made. Absent that, the price tag of the movie could be astronomical for a film without significant special effects: It's been estimated that above-the-line costs could easily top $80 million before a frame of film is shot. "The studio hopes Jonathan changes his mind," said an informed source about the behind-the-scenes talks going on.

Will he? Demme was known to be hotly anticipating Harris' delivery of "Hannibal." Now, the word around Hollywood (for public consumption) is that Demme found the new book too violent in a post-Columbine environment. The other story going around is that, "upon reflection," he decided that having created a minor masterpiece with the first movie, he didn't feel the need to try to top himself with the sequel.

But all that is, frankly, hogwash.

The real reason is that Demme was left out in the cold when the deal for the book was struck. Harris' literary agent, Mort Janklow, and his movie agency, Creative Artists Agency, sold the sequel to De Laurentiis. (Ironically enough, CAA represents Demme as well.) At the end of the negotiating, Demme found himself without creative control -- something any director, much less one of his reputation, would have to be nuts to forgo whenever the over-the-top De Laurentiis is involved. "Jonathan didn't like the way the book was sold," said an informed source. "The truth is Jonathan is OK about moving on. If Jonathan weren't OK about it, there'd be hell to pay."

But why would a director of Ridley Scott's talent and reputation even be interested in a De Laurentiis-controlled "Hannibal"? The always-interesting force behind "Alien," "Blade Runner" and "Thelma & Louise" is in something of a slump -- he was responsible for the disasters "1492" and "White Squall." But that's expected to change with the release of "Gladiator," a big-budget actioner being made by Dreamworks SKG and overseen by Steven Spielberg and his producing team of Walter Parks and Laurie MacDonald. Scott certainly doesn't need, and surely couldn't want, to be Demme's stand-in. That's a role usually given to an up-and-comer.

Another issue unresolved is whether Demme's exit will affect Foster or Hopkins' enthusiasm for the project. In these depressed times in Hollywood, when fewer films are being made, bigger paydays are highly prized. Representatives for both stars would love to make mega-deals. And Hopkins, at least, is expected to stay. His presence is seen as essential to the continuity of the project, and the fee should bag him enough cash to see him well into retirement.

But rumblings in Hollywood insist that Foster is a definite question mark with De Laurentiis' interference and without Demme's involvement. (The actress herself is filming in Malaysia at the moment.) Already people close to the project are spinning her out of the movie, arguing that FBI inginue-turned-agent Clarice Starling doesn't really make her presence felt in the book until the three-quarter mark. But the plot synopsis clearly shows that is sheer nonsense; Starling is as important a character in the sequel as Lecter. That they don't see that Foster was as vital to the success of "Silence of the Lambs" as Hopkins and Demme were is just more evidence of what lunkheads run the movie industry. Typical of the thinking now taking place, one source commented: "By the time this sequel comes out, it will be 10 years after the original. Who's going to remember that Jodie originated the role?" But what actress in her right mind would dare to follow in those Oscar-winning footsteps?

Still, a decade is a heck of a long time. In just the past 10 years, MGM has had half a dozen different owners, Columbia Pictures half a dozen different bosses and Bruce Willis half a dozen different hair colors (all variations on bald, of course). During the same period, the reclusive Harris has been hunkered down, alternating between Miami Beach (where he lives not far from Anne Rice) and Sag Harbor, N.Y., trying to craft a sequel to "The Silence of the Lambs." It apparently wasn't easy. Harris himself provided a clue when, three years ago, at the invitation of his film agent, the writer visited the nearby Florida location shoot of the film "Striptease." On the set, he found himself being grilled by a gofer. "Gee, I'm such a fan of your books, Mr. Harris," she said. "Where's the next one?" In response, Harris, ever the polite Mississippian, drawled: "Let me tell you about my day. I get up at 8 o'clock in the morning. At 8:30 a.m., I leave the house and I arrive at my office at 8:37. I stay in the office until 2 o'clock in the afternoon. I get in my Porsche and I'm home at 2:03 because the one-way streets make it faster for me to drive. And between 8:36 a.m. and 2 p.m., I'm doing one of three things: I'm writing. I'm staring out the window. Or I'm writhing on the floor."

Meanwhile, the publishing industry and the film community were squirming as well. Carole Baron, until recently the head of Dell Publishing, had shelled out $5 million -- an unheard-of sum 10 years ago, mind you -- for the next chapter in the life of Hannibal the Cannibal. Harris steadfastly refused to talk about his work; sources close to the onetime Associated Press newsman say that while penning "Hannibal" he preferred to talk more about wine than his creative process.

An epicure described as being as gentle in person as he is ghoulish in mind, Harris rarely interrupted his practice of spending every summer in Paris. However, he made a detour to Italy in 1994 and joined hundreds of spectators on the opening day of the trial of the "Monster of Florence," Pietro Pacciani, accused of being one of Europe's worst serial killers and charged with committing eight double murders from 1968 to 1985. Harris' presence made headlines and, immediately, speculation ran wild that the sequel to "Silence of the Lambs" would be based on the Pacciani murders, or at the very least set in Italy. And, in fact, some of the plot does refer to an "Il Monstro" and some of the action does take place in Florence.

The book's convoluted plot is not easy to sum up. At the beginning, agent Starling finds herself unfairly under suspicion within the FBI after a drug raid goes bad. She's still looking for Lecter, as are a lot of people, because they want either to kill him or to collect the multimillion-dollar bounty on his head. Starling's put on administrative leave; once she finds Lecter, she eventually saves the bad doctor from an unspeakable fate -- death by pig. But soon, he's convinced her -- with the help of hypnosis, manipulative therapy and drugs -- that she loves him. Finally, away they go to Buenos Aires to live happily ever after as a couple.

In between, much mayhem and many murders transpire, most of which are totally fiendish. And then there's the part where Clarice offers Hannibal a chance to suckle on her breast. YUCK!

By Nikki Finke

Nikki Finke is Salon's Hollywood correspondent and the West Coast editor for New York magazine.

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