How Clarice Continues Agent Starling’s Story

Clarice showrunner Elizabeth Klaviter discusses how Thomas Harris’s works, The Silence of the Lambs, and even The X-Files influence the CBS series.

Rebecca Breeds as Agent Starling in Clarice

In 1991 The Silence of the Lambs became a phenomenon; cleaning up at the box office, winning all five major Academy Awards (Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Actress, and Actor) and turning both of its lead characters into overnight icons. But while antagonist Hannibal Lecter has scarcely been away from our screens, the steely yet vulnerable hero of the film, Clarice Starling, only reappeared in the poorly received 2001 sequel Hannibal. Even Bryan Fuller’s cult classic TV adaptation of Thomas Harris’ source material novels couldn’t use Clarice due to complicated divisions of the rights.

But now Clarice is back, headlining a new CBS drama that picks up where The Silence of the Lambs left off and charts the next stages of the young agent’s career. For fans of the film it’s an enticing proposition, albeit one that has to contend with the inverse of the rights situation that plagued Fuller’s show; Clarice can use any character that originated in The Silence of the Lambs, but none from the rest of Harris’ works, meaning that Hannibal Lecter is nowhere to be seen. 

In some ways this is a blessing in disguise, allowing Clarice to chart its own path. The early episodes of the show demonstrate a commitment to Clarice’s point of view, paying tribute to what came before but never losing sight of whose story this is. We sat down with showrunner Elizabeth Klaviter to explore the genesis of the show, how she interpreted Thomas Harris’ world and characters, the challenges of reimagining a beloved icon, and what the series has in store going forward. 

Den of Geek: Seeing Clarice Starling back on screen is a real thrill. Can you talk us through the genesis and development of the series? 

Ad – content continues below

Elizabeth Klaviter: Creators Alex Kurzman and Jenny Lumet both started asking themselves the question, “Where’s Clarice Starling now? What happened to her after The Silence of the Lambs when she was no longer in Quantico? And how did she deal with the trauma of Buffalo Bill’s basement while she was still a cadet?” Jenny is the most obsessed, amazing Thomas Harris fan and has an encyclopedic knowledge of all of his books completely available to her at any moment, just through her brain. It’s incredible. She was like, “I want to know what it looks like if Clarice and Ardelia live together? I want to know if they share shoes? Who does Clarice love? What does that look like? What does she eat for breakfast? How does she go through the world being Clarice Starling?”

So the two of them were really asking themselves that question in a deep and rich way. And then we were in the middle of a feminist revolution with the #MeToo movement and those things intersected. When Jodie Foster talks about reading the script and deciding to take the role, she has said “this is the story of a woman who is saving a woman in a well.” And that was revolutionary. That is revolutionary. It goes against the stories that we’ve heard since the dawn of time, since human beings were telling stories to each other. 

It seemed like the cable space would be the most logical place for the advancement of Clarice’s journey, but David Nevins at CBS was really interested in putting it on network television, where it could shine and be unique. And he said, “if you will be our partner in putting this on network television then we’ll give you guys creative freedom.” And that has definitely been true. They’ve been our true partner; incredibly collaborative, incredibly generous, and really supportive of Alex and Jenny’s vision of the show moving forward.

Outside of The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice has previously only reappeared in the novel/film Hannibal, which is largely built around her getting kicked down again and again. How important was it to you guys to see Clarice have some genuine successes?

One of the most fascinating junctures in a person’s life, but especially a woman’s life, is moving forward from being in school to being a professional. What does that look like? How do you carry yourself? How do you answer the questions of your childhood? How do they inform who you are? And then you get pushback to be maybe a different kind of person, to work harder, or to make sacrifices that maybe you don’t want to make as a professional, let alone an FBI agent who is constantly dealing with morality, ethics, and justice. So, I think that’s a particularly exciting time for a woman’s life.

It translates to the year that we set the show in, in 1993, but also really to today, particularly as it affects both our Clarice storyline, but also Ardelia’s storyline, which grows and becomes much more significant, both in relation to Clarice and also in her own right as the series progresses. In The Silence of the Lambs Clarice was still a student, still studying; she was close to graduation, but she wasn’t there yet. And this is the first time we’re really getting to see the beginning of who she is as an FBI agent. 

Ad – content continues below

This is the second TV adaptation of Thomas Harris’s properties, and Hannibal did garner quite an intense cult following. Did you feel any pressure following not only that series, but also being a direct sequel to one of the greatest films of all time?

Thomas Harris created amazing characters who are complex, who have a variety of drives and nuanced motivations. So I feel like anybody who gets to play in the Thomas Harris sandbox has to A) be a fan, and B) feel the pressure and the responsibility that brings. But there’s another thing that it brings, which is pure joy and delight. 

Everybody who is involved in this show on every level, from our costume designer to our production designer, have all studied in the library of Thomas Harris. And also Jonathan Demme and his extraordinary visuals and filmic language. We really wanted to bring to life all of the textures of Thomas Harris’s work; the opulence, the extraordinary lavish visuals of his imagination, and most importantly, I think, the characters.

On that, let’s talk about Paul Krendler. In the source material Krendler is a lot more overtly slimy and antagonistic towards Clarice, particularly in the novel Hannibal. At least in the first three episodes of the show, he comes off more as a tough but fair boss who Clarice is slowly warming towards. Can you talk a little bit about the change to his character from the text to the show and what the impetus for that was?

I think a lot of it had to do with the question of who we’re spending time with. Certainly fans know where Krendler ends up; we all know his outcome in Hannibal, that his character gets progressively more awful and he ends up having a fitting demise. So we’re putting together this team on the show and have to ask if we want this awful, badly intended character in such close proximity to Clarice while she’s fighting monsters. 

We honor his history having been in the Department of Justice, but now we’ve brought him back to the FBI and given him a backstory that he was formally in that FBI before he went to the DOJ. Then we explored “what drives this man? When is he wrong-headed? And when is he right-headed?” And the answer that we all really enjoyed is, this is a man who is trying to keep his unit safe, who wants everybody to come home tonight. 

Ad – content continues below

That means that Clarice can’t explore this case in the way that she wants to; to just run off and use her intellect to solve the crime and get an audience with the bad guy in a potentially unsafe way. Now she’s in the bigger world, and she’s having to learn what the rules are and how she has to function within them. Now when we talk about Krendler and his future, we’re not certain where we’re going. We don’t know who he will become in seven seasons because we have seven years until he ends up being the man in Hannibal.

So, in the minds of the writers’ room, are the events of Hannibal still off in the future, or is this potentially a re-imagining of where Clarice might have gone next after The Silence of the Lambs?

We don’t have the answer to that question yet. Nothing is out of the realm of possibility right now. We definitely are going to honor Thomas Harris, look at the path and see how it goes. I mean, Ardelia is in the book Hannibal, and there are some really interesting details. She and Clarice end up living together in that book, or not living together, but owning condos that are like a duplex together. And so there are definitely moments of characterization that we draw from, from that book. Then we’ll see where we get. And we should be so lucky that we have seven seasons to fully answer that question.

The show so far moves between more a traditional case of the week stories and this overarching conspiracy plot. How do you work in the writers’ room to balance that? 

It’s my favorite kind of storytelling to have a balance between those two things. I’m a huge X-Files fan, and they definitely had their overarching serialized plot. But the episodes I always responded to the most were the monsters of the week. I’m a sucker for a good monster of the week story. I’m also obsessed with, not just seasons, but series-long arcs for characters; with personal growth and character relationship growth. So, putting those two things together is my personal sweet spot. I feel like as long as the story that you’re telling for your case of the week is truly compelling and you’re honoring where the character journey is, you can organically bring the audience on a journey that includes both. It just takes some attention.

Rebecca Breeds does such a fantastic job as Clarice. Her work feels of a piece with what Jodie Foster did, but also very distinct. Was there a lot of discussion about where the line should be drawn between impersonating Foster but doing something new as well? 

Ad – content continues below

Rebecca had her finger on the pulse of that from, really, her audition. She was stunning. I think it was a last-minute decision for her to add an Appalachian accent. She added the accent and then she said, “I just found Clarice.” And for all of us, the reason why we’re all showing up to work every day is because we’re incredible fans of Thomas Harris’s universe. His novels, yes, but also the movie. Jodie Foster is an incredible actor who gave an incredible performance and really embodied this character. So, honoring Jodie and her performance has always been paramount in all of our minds and yet we need to move forward and fully embrace Clarice as our own. And for us; for Alex, Jenny, myself, and Rebecca, the answer to that question has always been a truthfulness in writing and then a truthfulness in acting. That if the moments are real and genuine and fully present for all of us, then it becomes its own thing. It takes on its own life.

Due to the rights situation Hannibal Lecter is a notable absence, but in some ways a bigger one is Jack Crawford, who fulfilled the mentor role to Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs. Did you feel in any way limited by not being able to use him?

It’s interesting to look at the events of The Silence of the Lambs and the relationship with Crawford purely from Clarice’s point of view. For me, that relationship became caught up in the trauma. I feel like we are honoring his presence in her life, but in a very unpredictable way. When she went to see Hannibal, I feel like she was being given, yes, one of the most exciting opportunities of her life, but also being thrown into the deep end of the pool. And that’s part of what she carries with her. One of the definitions of trauma is “too much too fast”.

Clarice got too much, too fast, and now she’s unraveling that. So to my mind Crawford is a part of that. And that is how we’re paying tribute to him in our show. That’s how we’re thinking of him. And then to your point earlier, I feel some of the more mentor pieces of Crawford have become part of the Krendler character and will grow their relationship. It’ll have a lot of ups and downs, of course. But I think there are pieces of him in her relationship with Krendler.

One of the complex things about the relationship with Crawford is the fact that it is inherently built on an act of manipulation. He sends her in without giving her an agenda so that he can try to coax information out of Lecter. 

And later when she needs back up they’re all the way across the nation. To me, that’s also part of the male gaze. They asked her to go do this thing and then they didn’t listen to her. They just missed a lot of it. The way that has translated into our world is in the exploration of bosses asking young women to do things, and then maybe not listening to all of the answers or the pieces of the answers that are inconvenient for them even though they’re honest and truthful. It’s definitely something that we explore in the series.

Ad – content continues below

Something that’s refreshing about the show is the fact that it’s a period piece but never feels like it’s hitting you over the head with the 90s setting. What kind of discussions did you have about engaging with the time period? 

We talk about it quite a bit. And of course there are all the practical conversations about making sure that the items that we’re using are accurate and the cars for those periods are correct. As we’re moving forward, there are more details that we’re drawing specifically from the FBI in 1993. We talk a lot about how our world view has and hasn’t shifted since 1993. An example would be how does the Waco siege inform the standoff at Novak’s in episode two. Who are these FBI agents, were they at Waco, were their friends at Waco, were they heard at Waco? What were their feelings from there and how did those attitudes inform this? 

In the world of the show Ruth Martin is the first female Attorney General, and that creates more pressure for her. And the FBI has a legacy that was started with J. Edgar Hoover, which is filled with white supremacy. It’s hard to succeed there if you aren’t a white man. So, those are ways that it informs it. Lucca De Oliveira (Tomas Esquivel) showed up on-set one day and he called me and he’s looking around and seeing all of our extras being white and said; “it makes me feel so other”. Those are the ways that we started really exploring what it means to be in 1993. And we’re shooting those from the perspective of the non-white characters.

Going forward, what can fans expect to see from the show? 

We will watch all of our characters get to know each other better and get to know themselves much better, particularly Clarice. Clarice goes on quite a turbulent journey of self-discovery. We really enter very deeply into Clarice’s relationship with Ardelia and what the differences in their worlds are as they’re learning. What it means to be a Black female agent, and what it means to be a white female agent, and how those two things are very different. We get to meet some more monsters and some of those monsters are vanquished quickly within an episode, and some of them will be around with us for the entire season.