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NOYCE, PHIL: Bone Collector

 Yes it's formula, says Phil Noyce of his latest thriller, The Bone Collector, but that's the genre - and what appeals to him is not the serial killer but the unique relationship between a thoroughly disabled 'Professor Higgins' character and his vibrant protégé, he tells ANDREW L. URBAN in this conversation on the eve of the film's Australian release (November 18, 1999).

ALU: The Bone Collector opened very well in the United States and you've had critical acclaim…

PN: It's been mixed, actually. . . we got mixed reviews.

ALU: Does critical acclaim matter?

PN: It matters to a degree because you need enough critics to say nice things about your movie so that the audience feels a certain reassurance. But even more importantly are those exit polls they conduct in America on that first weekend with about 8,000 cinema goers. They tell you more. Because the movie-goer is not jaded – not by watching movies only by life – and they have a different relationship to what's up on the screen. They invest differently than critics do. Naturally because critics are force-fed movies. This is not to belittle or deny the position of the critic. I'm just saying audiences have a different relationship. Critics are most important in helping an audience find a film.

ALU: What about personally?

PN: Well it varies from film to film. You can't hope that every critic is going to love every one of your films. You wish they would but it's not possible. And there's another thing. I remember how critics wrote about a film called Raging Bull – it was not well received with it first came out – so extreme was the film. I'm just saying that even criticism changes with time and sometimes movies that are not critically acclaimed find their critical audience much later. (Not to make any comparisons between Raging Bull and The Bone Collector!)

ALU: One of our critics says the film is a bit formulaic; and that he picked the killer straight away….

PN: Other people have complained that they didn't see the killer coming and they ought to have been given more clues! You can't win! In terms of formula, yes, it is a formula, but that's the point. You're dealing with a genre that has been well examined in the cinema and brilliantly done in things like Silence of the Lambs, Seven – you're dealing with a detective genre that's always been well trodden, going back to Agatha Christie and beyond (the whodunnits), those aspects are familiar, but what's not familiar and what attracted me are the characters and their relationships. So it's a genre piece but how does the director and the actors move the pieces to breathe life into it. Of course it's a formula, but the trick can you make the familiar unfamiliar and entertaining? For me, what made the film worth while is the relationship. I find Lincoln Ryme's character extraordinarily uplifting; sure he's close to suicide in the beginning, but there is something remarkably life affirming about the way that despite his disabilities he's able to function.

ALU: Did that come directly from the book, or did Denzel bring something else?

PN: Denzel brought something else. He's an actor who has such dignity and remember the task that he had here; if this film belittled the predicament of being a quadraplegic, the whole movie would be over. No one would take it seriously. At the same time, the bottom line is that it's an entertainment and Denzel, I believe, gets it right. His performance does not belittle being a quadraplegic, and at the same time he has such enormous charisma and such charm.

ALU: Okay, we can see you casting Denzel Washington. What about Angelina Jolie? Why her? Because of her lips? (laughs)

PN: (laughs) Well who could resist being arrested by that police officer? I saw her in a telemovie about a supermodel in the 70s who through her addiction to drugs and other things, died of AIDS. It's a real story and it was a knockout performance – a fearless performance by Angelina. When I saw that, I knew I didn’t have to look any further. The other thing, is when you’re casting, on behalf of the audience – and hoping to get it right – you're making a coupling. Putting two people together. In this case the requirements were very particular. We needed an actor who could convincingly be a master detective, a Henry Higgins, a professor of forensics. And we needed an actress who could convincingly be an Eliza Dolittle as his protegee an up-and-coming someone, pregnant with possibilities. It seemed to me when I met Angelina, that she in real life, was that person. Also this is the story that describes the ultimate romance - the mind-copulation. The best relationships are in the mind, and ultimately the most sexual. Because as a quadraplegic who (during research I once asked the embarassing question what's you're sex life like? Said 'great. Never been better.' I said 'what do you mean?' you're paralyzed from the neck down. He said 'do you think that sexual excitement starts with the genitals? No sir, it's starts right here in the brain. And it ends here, now that it's got nowhere else to go. My head has become (his words) 'a giant, swollen prick'.

ALU: Are the characters in the book and the novel identical?

PN: No, Denzel's Rhymer is more likeable than Jeffery Deaver's character in the novel. Because a novel and a movie are entirely different. In the novel we are able to make allowances for character foibles in ways that the screen with its ten times bigger reality doesn't allow us to. A cranky black cripple might have been too much, I think. (laughs) He's cranky enough as it is but of course Denzel softens that with an enormous charm. Angelina's character is very similar to Amelia in the novel – perhaps not as extreme.

Q. You've made a number of thrillers. Is this a genre you'd like to stick to?

A. It is some facility that I discovered when making the mini-series The Cowra Breakout, for Kennedy Miller. In that 10 hour series, there was a sequence in the second hour where an Australian soldier and a Japanese soldier found themselves caught in a clearing in New Guinea. Neither of them could move without risking death from the bullet of the other. It turned out as the story developed, to be an exercise in sustaining tension. And sustaining tension on television is even harder than in the cinema, because people can always change channels. Anyway, I sort of found some delight in sustaining that tension while telling that story. When I was given the novel of Dead Calm by Tony Bill the American producer and director who was trying to buy the rights at the time from Orson Welles estate, I responded to the story, because I could see it was like that episode of Cowra Breakout; an exercise is sustaining tension using very few elements. Since then, I've made a number of other films and the sequences I've enjoyed the most and the ones that may be audiences enjoyed the most, were those that, whether action based or not, involved playing with cinematic tension. It's something I enjoy. I enjoy the relationship with the audience during those sequences and its something where I've learned some truisms. The one I learnt on Dead Calm was that the greatest tension will come from the audiences' identification with the fragility of the characters. If they've invested in the characters and believe that the characters are in danger – not necessarily in physical danger, could be psychological.

Q. How much of this is pre-determined and how much instinctive?

A. It's mainly instinctive; but again the same so-called truism applies in this film because the real tension comes from the characters. We're always worried about Lincoln Ryme's physical and mental frailty, quite apart from whether he's going to fall prey to this serial killer – which for me is not that interesting anyway as a storyteller (but it may be for some members of the audience). For me the interesting question is will he survive the predicament which has nothing to do with this murderer on the loose in Manhattan. The same goes for Angelina Jolie's character, who as we know from things revealed about her past, has a particular aversion and sensitivity to death. Yet as Rhyme recognises, she has a natural ability to explore it. So it's mostly instinct and the way you choreograph the elements in editing. It's an exercise in montage; he's just lying in bed for most of the film and she's out there and you're just cutting between the two shots. It wasn't that expensive a movie to make – expensive by Australian standards at $US44 – it's well below the average cost of studio pictures at the moment. After all, it's a very simple situation; he keeps talking to this woman who walks alone through these very creepy places. There is a tension that comes from the fact that the cripple is now walking – a man who cannot walk and move most of his body, is now inside the body of this woman and she has become his legs and he's out there watching, smelling, touching the crime scenes. There's something marvellously sexual about that idea as well.

ALU. When talking to the novelist Jeffery Deaver, we discussed the tone of the film and how accurately it captured the tone of the book, especially through production design and the marvellous score.

PN. That's really important – you're the first person that's even mentioned that. The music was by Craig Armstrong who has done a solo album called The Space Between Us on Virgin. He's Glaswegian; Glasgow is a pretty melancholy city – it's mainly shrouded in fog and rain. He works in the basement of an old church next to a brothel –

ALU: so he actually lives in the sort of place where some of the film is set …(laughs)

PN: (laughs) Sort of. It's sort of like that. It's this cramped subterranean space and his music is orchestral and lush and romantic but incredibly melancholy. Sad. Really sad. He's a working class kid from the wrong side of the tracks, so there is a real sadness in his work. His music and his instincts are absolutely right for this movie. Incidentally he did the strings work on Baz Luhrmann's work Romeo and Juliet. And actually when he did the music – although he recorded it in London, I didn't let him leave Glasgow. He came to America once for a preview of the film in New Jersey, so he could see how an audience was responding to the movie and then I went to Glasgow about nine times to work with him. I didn't want him to be polluted, as it happens unfortunately when you go to Hollywood. There's a danger of becoming homogenised.

ALU: Do you feel that you have?

PN: Well I've tried to stay out of the place; I've been living in London for the last three years and I've just got a little apartment in New York. Coming to that film culture as an outsider, you have a distinct advantage as an outsider in that you look at things differently. As soon as you start to look at things through Hollywood eyes, you're fucked.

ALU: Do you have any plans to make a movie in Australia?

PN: At the moment I haven't got any specific Australian projects that I'm working on but I'm always on the lookout for potential stories. I must say that after almost a decade living outside the country that I would feel ill-equipped to make a contemporary Australian story so inevitably the projects that I have been considering are period pieces.

ALU: Can you talk a bit about what's coming up for you?

PN: Well there are a couple of projects – who knows which one will actually make it to the screen. The Sum of all Fears is a novel that Tom Clancy wrote in 1991 and it's what happens when a nuclear bomb is exploded in a major American city. (Screenwriter – Paul Attanazio, who wrote Quiz Show and Donnie Brasco, is working on The Sum of all Fears as we speak) While this is still a possibility today, the problem has been updating the global politics. The other is an adaptation of Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American that I've been working on for a number of years with Sydney Pollack as producer. And Christopher Hampton is about to hand in a script for this. So it will depend on which screen play turns out to work.

ALU: Is The Sum of All Fears an effects movie?

PN: No it's more like Clear and Present Danger – and we wouldn't do it without Harrison Ford. And he's the third card that has to be right for us to do the movie. We all agreed that we'd do it if we could make a screenplay that breathes life into a genre… when we did Patriot Games it was very new. When we did Clear & Present Danger, we still were able to make a reasonably involving and inventive story but now there have been so many similar movies, that none of us want to revisit it for the last time, unless it's really worth our dwindling energies - and our dwindling years!

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