'Hannibal Rising' Explores How Lecter Got So Deliciously Evil

French actor Gaspard Ulliel plays young cannibal in film that explores his origins.

BEVERLY HILLS, California — He's killed, he's maimed, he's, gulp, been known to have "an old friend for dinner." He has been the psychotic, wicked center of four movies — a brilliant evil so great he was recently named the number-one villain of all time by the American Film Institute. He's murdered, and murdered and murdered ...

And now the creative talents behind Hannibal Lecter are hoping all audiences can ask is "why?" because they're bringing the bad guy back to explore his demonic origins in "Hannibal Rising."

"Hannibal Lecter is the most charming bad guy in the world," gushed producer Dino De Laurentiis, who worked on four of the five Lecter films. "What is this movie? This is a movie about the creation of a monster who becomes a hero. A character like Hannibal Lecter is not easy to find."

For director Peter Webber, who likened Lecter to a symbolic representation of the very best and worst in all of us, Lecter's greatness springs from these very hero/villain dichotomies.

"Hannibal represents all that is good and all that is bad about humanity. On one hand, he is incredibly educated and refined, he understands art and music," Webber argued. "On the other side, he is a vicious, murdering, psychopathic bastard. I think this is a combination we have inside ourselves."

Hannibal Lecter is not the first cinematic bad guy to be given his own origin story. Darth Vader — who, incidentally, was ranked third in that AFI "Top Villains" poll — was given a whole trilogy to explain how he became evil. For Webber and De Laurentiis, avoiding the pitfalls of the "Star Wars" prequels, which many felt reduced Vader to a whiney brat, meant going to Lecter's source, author Tom Harris.

"Obviously people are going to think we're killing their imagination, they're going to say, 'Oh, he's taking away the mystery' and so forth. But it's Tom's own choice to tell the past of this very popular character," Webber explained. "I think it's good when you have the creator of the character and he wants to tell the character's past — not why he became like this, but how he became like this."

For audiences to discover how Lecter became the way he did, however, they would need to accept a different actor in the role made famous by Academy Award-winner Anthony Hopkins. Not only did De Laurentiis unequivocally state that the man to fill those shoes is Gaspard Ulliel, but he said it was evident from the very first moment he met the French actor.

"When you do so much testing and nobody comes up for the movie, at some point you are ready to abandon the project, because if you don't find the right Hannibal it is impossible to do the movie," De Laurentiis said. "One day in Paris I met Gaspard, and usually when you meet someone you say, 'Nice to meet you.' I shake his hand and I looked in his eyes and I say, 'You are born to be Hannibal.' "

According to De Laurentiis, he saw a connection between Ulliel and Hopkins that convinced him the young actor was perfect for the role. "I see the mystery in his eyes, there is some mystery in the back of his character, like Tony Hopkins," the producer remembered. "It was a connection that convinced me to do it."

Interestingly, Ulliel, who is perhaps best known stateside as Audrey Tautou's love interest in 2004's "A Very Long Engagement," insisted that he didn't take much from Hopkins' award-winning portrayal when he crafted his own Lecter performance.

"Obviously the elegant would look for similarities to Hopkins, but the idea was more to pick a few subtle details from his performance and mix it to my own recipe," the 22-year-old actor said. "It was not very interesting, and I don't think it was the point, for me to copy Anthony. I was free to create my own character."

Borrowing from the old while creating something new was a dominant philosophy on set, said Webber.

"There are similarities, some scenes in the film that will remind people of the series," the director admitted, adding, "I think this film is notable more for what it does [that's] new than what it repeats that's old."

Check out everything we've got on "Hannibal Rising."

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