The Well Scenes In Silence Of The Lambs Sometimes Got A Little Too Real

There are plenty of unsettling scenes in "Silence of the Lambs" — though it's probably to be expected that a film containing Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) would be bursting at its visceral seems with disturbing moments. For myself, Buffalo Bill's nightmarish basement pit takes first place for horrific imagery in the feature. The gruelling experiences of Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith) are made disconcertingly intimate, and are some of the tensest moments in the movie. It also doesn't help that the film waits until the last absolute second to save Martin. 

Though it wasn't just audiences who found themselves affected. Even Jodie Foster, who plays FBI trainee Clarice Starling, described her own terror over filming her first scene opposite Hopkins. But what about Smith? She's the one who spends the entirety of "Silence of the Lambs" inside a hole, something absolutely horrendous to witness. Turns out the experience on set was brutal, both emotionally and psychologically (who'd of thought?) — though, it's also what helped Smith get into the mindset of her character, the abducted Martin.

Smith risked claustrophobia prepping for the part

The massive Rolling Stone feature "Silence of the Lambs: The Complete Buffalo Bill Story" is a deep dive into the enigmatic and controversial character of Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). Bill keeps the kidnapped Martin in a hole in his basement — him shouting at her to put lotion on her skin is one of the film's more memorably ridiculous and terrifying moments — which is where Smith spends most of the movie. The Rolling Stone article offers the complete story of the lengths Smith went to in preparation for filming those iconic scenes opposite Levine:

"Smith prepared for her role by visiting Tennessee, where the Martin character lives, to work on her accent. She also locked herself in a closet in her parents' basement. 'I think I stayed longer than I wanted to,' she says. 'It was probably just a couple of hours, but it was trying to see exactly what it would feel like. I imagine he didn't leave the light on when he left.'"

You have to applaud Smith for her commitment. Why wait until she was onset to feel the horror of her character's predicament? Especially when she had a perfectly good basement of her own at her disposal — and she doesn't just stay in there for a few minutes with the lights off, but spends hours. Imagine spending all that time locked in a dark, cramped space — that's a far cry longer than I think most people would last by choice. 

Though, I do wonder if Smith even needed that claustrophobic experience to get into her character's mindset, given just how realistic the actual basement location was. Based on her statements, the hours she'd spend filming inside the pit were destined to be far more vividly distressing than the ones she'd spent inside her parent's basement closet.

The pit in Bill's basement was realistic

"Silence of the Lambs" found the perfect staging spot for its basement scenes: inside a colossal airplane turbine factory. The crew built the multi-level structure of the pit in the old industrial building, completely with hidden doors through which Smith entered: one in the floor and on the sides. For all intents and purposes, it was a real pit — and felt that way on set. As per Rolling Stone:

"Smith remembers seeing a 'mysterious man,' possibly an FBI consultant working on the film, approaching her on the set and telling her it seemed real, that he'd seen it in real life.

Despite how horrifically accurate the pit was, however, that wasn't really what bothered Smith:

"People always ask me if I had bad dreams when we were shooting, but I had them beforehand ... On set, I was very relaxed. It was some primal scream therapy or something."

The nightmares she had leading up to filming probably had something to do with all that time she spent in a closet, imagining being Bill's victim. Going to that dark place — really becoming Martin in those scenes — would prove to have a lasting effect on the actor. 

Filming in the pit bordered on the macabre

Likely, the realistic construction of the pit helped Smith get inside her role, living through Martin's trauma. All she could do was look up to see Levine fully engrossed as Bill and cameras rolling. The experience clearly took a toll on Smith, who — to her credit — used it to delve even deeper into the mind of the abducted Martin (if only at great cost to her mental health at the time). As she told Rolling Stone, she inflicted a lot of that on herself:

"I think I really messed with my own head to do those scenes ... I remember being aware that the camera was there and thinking, 'I'm in all this agony and not only is no one helping me, but they're actually filming me.' I literally felt it. I did a number on myself."

Smith gave it her all to portray Martin. Not only did she lock herself for hours in a basement closet in preparation for the role, but she also managed to wring every drop of possible trauma from filming her scenes for the benefit of her character. 

But Smith wasn't the only one on set who had a trying experience shooting those basement scenes — it also took its toll on those filming it. Director Demme, who was also included in the Rolling Stone piece, explained that he struggled with those scenes as well; however, because the story took inspiration from real incidences, he felt it was important to deal with the content faithfully. Per Rolling Stone:

"Demme [described] the scenes of Martin in the pit as the hardest ones he had to film. 'You've got to show just how horrible it is or you're doing a disservice to the [real victims'] families,' he's explained. 'I told her she needed to be prepared to do anything to get out of that pit.'"

Even through a camera lens, Smith's faux-terror was lent a certain grisly immersion by the surroundings, which no doubt also gave the filming experience a macabre and voyeuristic feel. For Smith, that manifested in different ways — including making her think about her survival instincts finding herself in the shoes of someone like Martin:

"She really wanted to survive ... I don't know if I would have thought up all that stuff with the dog and the bone."

Unfortunately, there was plenty realistic about the basement pit. We're just glad she was able to walk away from the film with some stories — even if she's unable to watch movies with similar premises to the one her character Martin endures.