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Hannibal Rising - Peter Webber interview

Hannibal Rising

Compiled by Jack Foley

PETER Webber, director of Hannibal Rising, about the challenge of delivering a viable prequel and the difficulty of finding the right actor to play the young serial killer.

i>Hannibal Rising is a quite different film from Girl With A Pearl Earring – what made the producers come to you with it?
Peter Webber: I think Girl With A Pearl Earring brought me to their attention, because in America we got three Oscar nominations and two Golden Globes and we won a bunch of awards in Europe. It did shockingly, but very pleasingly, well.

I think they were intrigued by that film because there is some darkness there, although it’s very much under the surface. But they still needed to be reassured. There was a piece of TV I did a few years ago for Channel 4 called Men Only, and I showed that to them and it was sufficiently shocking so that they felt Hannibal Lecter would be safe in my hands.

Both of your films start with a strong central image, whether it be Vermeer’s painting or the iconic, masked image of Hannibal, don’t they?
Peter Webber: I hadn’t thought of that but I suppose it’s true. In a way that’s a discussion you have after you’ve made something. When you start making something, there’s some intellectual work involved, there’s some brain power, but a lot of it is just about a gut feeling, your emotions. It’s about questions of taste, what you like and what you don’t.

You look at this story and think about how you bring it to the screen most effectively. How do we use the tools we have as filmmakers, whether it be the way we light it, the lenses we use, the locations we select or the actors we choose? All of that is part of the tools of filmmaking, and you respond to the script and the story. It’s only afterwards that you sit back and make that kind of analysis.

What was it about Gaspard Ulliel that made you cast him as Hannibal?
Peter Webber: I think French people might associate him with it more than English people because over here we haven’t had a chance to see him in very much. Maybe the thing he’s most famous for in this country is A Very Long Engagement. But I saw a French film from a French director called André Téchiné called Les Egares, which I think had a very small release over here under the title Strayed. If you see that I think you can begin to see the glimmer of Hannibal Lecter in Gaspard’s eyes.

It was, presumably, a long search for the right actor, was it?
Peter Webber: We looked far and wide because we had a great team working on this film. If we didn’t have the right guy in the middle we might as well have packed up and gone home. I must have seen literally hundreds of actors. We looked at some very famous American actors. I was worried not that they couldn’t do it, but they would bring some baggage to the role.

So, I wanted someone who was a bit more of a blank slate. Gaspard is very well known in France, but frankly not well known outside of the country, so he had that going for him. He’s a fantastic actor and he seems to have those Lecter-like qualities of being very charming and being very dark at the same time. He really captured that for me.

Did he look at the work of the other actors who have played the role, to base aspects of his performance upon?
Peter Webber: Gaspard and I spent a lot of time with Silence Of The Lambs in particular because that’s the definitive, classic movie of the series. We spent a lot of time trying to work out what it was that Hopkins did, and I was able to bring some forces to bear to help Gaspard. We had a very good voice coach who could help deconstruct the speech rhythms that Hopkins used, the intonation of his voice.

And then I brought in a movement coach, I’d worked with her before on Pearl Earring, because Scarlett Johansson – great actress though she is – walks like a 20th century woman, a sassy young girl. We had to teach her the body language of a 17th Century servant. In just the same way, the movement coach helped to deconstruct Anthony Hopkins’ body language for Gaspard.

Does the character of Hannibal spring directly from Thomas Harris’s imagination, or is he in large part informed by his time as a crime reporter?
Peter Webber: Tom is a very reclusive man. He doesn’t do any interviews, and he doesn’t do public appearances or anything like that. So it was very interesting to go into his “lair”. One thing I discovered was that he’d been a crime writer in the ’60s and ’70s with AP [Associated Press] and most of the killings in this film are based on specific crime scenes he attended. We’ve embellished and adorned them and tried to make them as gruesome as possible, but they do have a basis in fact. I think that’s very interesting.

What about the effect upon us, watching. What does it say about us?
Peter Webber: When I saw the finished film my first reaction was that I didn’t realise it was so violent. Where has that come from? Even though this is not a message movie I realised that every single day for the past three or four years I’ve been turning on the TV and seeing this parade of human destruction that is the Iraq War.

I think it has a drip-drip effect, so thematically it was very interesting to me, this notion of what happens when you take revenge and how revenge can destroy the person who seeks it. That poison has to come out, and looking at it I realised I’d been watching far too much BBC News 24 and CNN, because that poison has to find a way to come out.

The scenes at the beginning of the film, involving Hannibal’s younger sister Mischa, are tough to watch. How were they to shoot?
Peter Webber: The thing is you have to remember the experience of watching a film is completely different to the experience of making a film. You don’t see the girl at the moment of ultimate violence, she walks out through that door and it’s left to your imagination.

Although she’s in some quite terrifying moments beforehand, it’s play acting, it’s pretend and kids do that all that time. She was a laughing little girl before the scene, and in the key scene she was amazing, reacting to what was going on around her. I think she’s an incredible little actress. And after the scenes she would come out and would be laughing and playing again. You realise that with a child they’re in the moment, they don’t realise really what’s going on around them. It’s like a big game.”

Finally, how did you find it filming in Prague?
Peter Webber: I’ll tell you, the most terrifying thing I ever came across in Prague was not seeing Hannibal with his hands covered in blood, it was a hen party from Newcastle. I’ve never been so scared in my life.

Read our review of Hannibal Rising