If you've never seen Dino De Laurentiis in person, you're really missing something. The legendary 87-year old producer commanded the stage at this week's junket for Hannibal Rising, arriving at the table with his younger, blonde wife beside him, and eventually getting as many questions from the press as the stars of the film. When he told the assembled journalists that this film was his idea, and that he called author Thomas Harris and wore him down until Harris agreed to write it, it seemed entirely believable. This is the fourth Hannibal Lecter adventure, and instead of being sheepish about that, De Laurentiis went on at length about how this is only the beginning. He views the Lecter franchise as one that can be as durable as James Bond, with new actors taking over as it goes on from year to year. Whether that happens, of course, will depend entirely on how Hannibal Rising does at the box office.
Also on hand for the press day were director Peter Webber, of Girl With the Pearl Earring, and the film's stars, French newcomer Gaspar Ulliel, who plays the young Hannibal Lecter, and Chinese star Gong Li, who listened to and answered questions entirely through a Chinese-English translator who sat beside her. Here's a sampling of what went on during the brief press conference:
Dino De Laurentiis
Cinematical: Dino, did this project begin with Anthony Hopkins saying no to doing a fourth Hannibal film? "Not at all. I can tell you the story. When I did the promotion all around the world for Hannibal and Red Dragon, everybody asked me 'Dino, we need to know when and where Hannibal Lecter started.' I don't give it much attention. But then I receive so much mail in a few years, with the same question, and I come to the conclusion that the audience wants to see the beginning of life for Hannibal Lecter. Anthony Hopkins, seventeen years old? We need a boy, nineteen years old. Ha! Now, I start to say 'maybe this is an idea, to create a new franchise, with a new story, and tell the audience how Hannibal Lecter started. It was not so easy a problem. My first call to Tom Harris, he said 'Dino, really, I don't know...' To make the story short, little by little, I convinced Tom Harris to create a new story. He says 'okay, Dino, I can put down a twenty page outline. If you like it and we are in sync, then I do a book and a script.' He sends me the twenty page outline and it was fantastic. I said 'Tom, let's proceed.' Then he started to do the book and the script -- sometimes he had to stop the book and go to the script, because of priorities and vice-versa -- this is the way the picture started.
I want to say something else. Let's take James Bond. When Sean Connery was out of James Bond, they said 'James Bond is over.' Look how many times they've changed James Bond. The audience will love an actor -- of course they love them if it's somebody good -- but they like to see Hannibal Lecter, in the past and the future, because Hannibal Lecter is a fantastic character. What is this picture about? This is a picture about the creation of a monster. But he's a monster who becomes a hero. A monster who kills only the people the audience wants to kill too. He's very charming and somebody the audience can love. We are lucky, because during the preparation of the movie, we did so many tests -- American actor, well-known, unknown, English, around the world -- I said to Peter 'maybe we abandon the project because we don't find Hannibal. We need somebody special.'
One day in Paris, my partner shows me a French movie where, at some point there is a 17-year old that impresses me. I said 'I want to meet this boy. He's fantastic.' We invite Gaspar to my house, and when I see this boy, I shake hands -- usually when you shake hands with somebody, you say 'nice to meet you' -- I shake hands with Gaspar and I look in his eyes and I say 'You're born to be Hannibal.' Now, at the beginning he didn't know if he was sure to do it or not. I said 'let's make a test, and if the test is convincing, we do.' We did the test and what impressed me in Gaspar, not sex appeal, not only was he a good actor, but there was some mystery in his face. This is what Hannibal Lecter needs -- mystery in his eyes."
Non-Cinematical Question: The previous entries in the series have each had a different genre flavor; Hannibal was more of a romance. Is this a revenge story? "Sure, it's a revenge story, but like I said before, what we want to show to the audience is the beginning of life for Hannibal Lecter. We show Lecter at eight years old. We see the war. Maybe the monster comes from the war. Maybe the young Lecter sees the family destroyed, his sister eaten by these bad guys, maybe he becomes a fantastic doctor and a killer, but it's hard for him to kill in those situations after he sees the tragedy with his sister. But little by little, he starts to see what he can do for his sister [kill the evil soldiers who captured and ate her], and then it becomes a revenge movie."
Non-Cinematical Question: Talk about the joy that you get out of making a movie like this -- do you love introducing a character to a new audience? "Yes, because when I work, I have to love what I do. If I don't love what I do, I'd never do anything. I'm 87 years old and I just finished three movies. I loved each one of these three. I must confess that Hannibal was my baby, because I say 'Here is a chance to create a new franchise. Here is a chance to create a new character that can go forever. If I'm right and the picture is successful, Mr. Gaspar can come back to work and maybe explore the relations between Lady Murasaki and Gaspar. But above all, any movie -- in our industry, if you don't love to do it very much -- you have to change to a different job."
Cinematical: In your mind, was Hannibal more a good guy or a bad guy? "Well, I'm not sure if I can really say if he's just good or bad. Even if you look at the relationship between Hannibal and Murasaki, it's quite complicated. One reason why they have such a close relationship is that they have a similar background and similar feelings in their hearts, because of the experiences that they've been through. With her as well, I don't think you can really just say that Murasaki is a good person or a bad person. You really sort of have to watch the film carefully and think about it yourself."
Non-Cinematical Question: Talk about the relationship that develops between your character and Hannibal. "This character that I play is quite complicated and the relationship between Lady Murasaki and Hannibal is indeed also quite complicated. They start out having a kind of relationship between relatives -- they are family members -- and then after that, they gradually come to help each other, and by the end, their relationship has a bit of love in it as well. A lot of the things that came out in the performance involved having some times to discuss things with the director on the set -- details of the script and so on. In addition to that, it was great working with Gaspar because he's a great actor, too. He's very relaxed on the set -- maybe more relaxed than I am -- so a lot of the things that came out in the performance are the result of this kind of cooperation and coordination, with the opportunities to discuss things with the director and with Gaspar."
Non-Cinematical Question: Did your own spiritualism come into play when bringing to life this very spiritual character? "Yes, certainly. There's certainly some elements of an Asian cultural background in this, and I was very interested to understand even more about this Asian background than I already did -- especially the Japanese aspect of it -- so a lot of these things came into play as I tried to understand more and tried to convey more about why Lady Murasaki has such a strong will, such a strong will to survive, and so on. A lot of it has to do with her dedication to the spirit of Bushido."
Non-Cinematical Question: Were you intimidated by taking on such an iconic character? "It was huge, of course. I could feel a lot of pressure. That's why I was a bit hesitant, because I knew there would be a lot of expectations from the audience and it's such an iconic role and such a big series. I knew it was not just a small, easy thing to do, especially working in another language. So I was a bit intimidated and a bit worried about this. I was a bit anxious. But when I met Peter, the director here, I could see that he was very confident and I felt very confident with him. When we worked on the auditions, we worked on two hours for three scenes in the film, and I really liked it. I liked the way he worked with me, and it's also kind of addictive, when you start working on this character even for just two hours, you want to keep going. It's such an amazing role and such a great opportunity for me -- it was just amazing to be able to work on such a complex and deep character that I couldn't refuse. Even if it was a bit risky for me, in the beginning, I wanted to try and build this character."
Non-Cinematical Question: Did you have the chance to meet Tony Hopkins and talk to him about it? "No, I don't think he was available at that time, so it never happened."
Non-Cinematical Question: Talk about working with Gong Li -- how did you work on building these two characters, who have such a deep relationship? "We rented an apartment together for three months before the shooting, and just lived together and experienced that. No, I'm joking. That's just the actors job. Sometimes you have to deal with very complex situations and real deep relationships and you only have a few days to create this on the set, and you just met the actress the day before, but that's the job. That's the magic of this job -- to feel so real and so close to the other person even if you just met her the same day. So I don't know how to answer this question, it's just acting. And it's nice to be with this kind of actress, because she's so generous and welcoming. She was very open-minded and I could feel some -- how do you say this in English -- some chemistry. I think it was pretty easy to work with Gong Li because she is always very serious and concentrating on the set, and this was sometimes very helpful for me."
Non-Cinematical Question: For your first few scenes of the movie, it's a silent performance for you -- was that hard? Also, did you want Hannibal to be sympathetic? "Silence, that's true. Sometimes it's easier to express strong emotions without speaking, because everything is in the eyes. I'm kind of used to this kind of role, because in previous films I had mute roles, so that was okay. But then, as you said, there was this very important aspect of the character -- to give a sympathetic aspect, a small human aspect to the character -- and that was one of the main goals in this film, I think. But then, I had a wonderful script that was already written, in that sense, so I just had to follow the script. Then, it's just a combination of situations that makes him more sympathetic -- the relationship with Lady Murasaki and of course I had to add this charming behavior, this seducing way of speaking sometimes, but most of my harder work was to try to be more evil and dark, because this was further for me than the good aspect of the character."
Non-Cinematical: The director tells a story about sending Gaspar to watch an autopsy class, and Gaspar asking to return for more. "It's a lesson lasting for a whole month, and I came in during the last week, and the bodies at that point are completely destroyed and opened. For me, it didn't look real. I couldn't imagine the bodies were real before. They were so destroyed, they looked fake. That's why I asked to go again, on the first day of the lesson, to see the fresh bodies coming in, getting peeled and opened, because I think that's the moment when it becomes thrilling and frightening."
Non-Cinematical Question: Did you throw up when you saw those bodies? "No, it's nice. The smell is the only thing a bit hard, because it's a very strong smell. But the rest of it is nice. You have all those different colors and textures. It's like a piece of art, I think. You should try it."