How Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie Were Cast in Dark Thriller The Bone Collector

From Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs to David Fincher’s S7ven, the ’90s were chock full of gritty — and oftentimes disturbing — homicide investigation classics. Today, however, we’d like to draw your attention to the one that closed out the decade: Phillip Noyce’s The Bone Collector (now streaming on Peacock).

Based on the 1997 novel of the same name by Jeffrey Deaver, the film stars Denzel Washington as Lincoln Rhyme, a veteran New York detective left in an almost fully quadriplegic state following a tragic accident. As he arranges to end his own life via assisted suicide, Rhyme is asked to consult on a string of grisly murders tied to obscure Manhattan history.

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He reluctantly agrees, enlisting the help of Amelia Donaghy (Angelina Jolie) — a young beat cop racked with guilt over her father’s suicide — to scope out the various crime scenes on his behalf.

Origins of The Bone Collector

The project originated with the late Marty Bregman, who walked with a cane due to a childhood bout with polio. Nevertheless, he managed to become “a very successful Hollywood producer, despite his handicap,” Noyce explains over Zoom. “That’s why he was so attached with this screenplay about a man who overcomes a physical adversity.”

Bregman — who passed away in 2018 at the age of 92 — famously served as producer on a number of Al Pacino touchstones like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface, and Carlito’s Way. As such, it was assumed Pacino would play Rhyme and screenwriter Jeremy Iacone got to work on the script with him in mind. He began, of course, with Deaver’s source material.

“I had newborn [daughter] in the house and I’m reading this dark f-cking novel,” Iacone remembers over a phone call. “I’d sit there on the couch and my wife would bring her in and we’d take turns feeding her. Meanwhile, I’m writing notes about these heinous murders.”

For the sake of a runtime just shy of two hours, Iacone condensed the plot “down to three murders” and really honed in on the dynamic between Rhyme and  Donaghy.

“In my view, they were two wounded, crippled people,” the writer continues. “He was physically crippled and she was emotionally crippled. I thought the thematic underpinning [of] these heinous murders would bring these two people together and they would heal in some way.”

Casting Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie in Bone Collector

When Pacino decided to make The Insider with Michael Mann instead, Harrison Ford and Sean Connery were suggested by Universal Pictures. In addition, the studio floated Demi Moore and Nicole Kidman for the Amelia role.

But Noyce was adamant; he wanted Washington and a then-unknown Jolie as Rhyme and Donaghy. Despite the fact that it had already sold half the distribution rights to Columbia, Universal was still worried about making its money back. So the director presented executives with a most unusual arrangement.

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If the production went over budget, he’d pay the difference out of pocket. If they came in under budget, however, the director would get to keep half. “We came in under the figure that they nominated, almost by one-and-a-half million dollars,” he says. “So there was a nice bonus at the end of the movie, which we extracted from Universal with glee.”

One of the reasons why he stuck to his guns on casting is because he knew it would be hard to top the acclaimed serial killer thrillers of years past. “What I thought would distinguish the film would be fine acting … I felt that the basic horror beats of this film were rather mundane compared to those other movies. And so, we needed to go further in other areas.”

The director also insisted on a great amount of realism, which meant seeking input from real-world quadripalegics, New York City beat cops, and forensic experts during a rare, two-week rehearsal period. His goal was to counterbalance the “rather racy, sensational story” with “a great authenticity in the way the work of the two cops was portrayed.”

Shooting Bone Collector, a New York thriller, in Canada

For the cinematography side of things, Noyce tapped an old friend, Dean Semler (Mad Max 2). The two had previously worked together years before, shooting documentaries in their native Australia before teaming up again for 1989’s Dead Calm, which launched the career of Nicole Kidman.  

“Phillip is a great director,” Semler says on a separate Zoom call. “He loves film. He loves to shoot it, he loves to see it. I think he’s got silver halide crystals running through his blood.”

While he didn’t want to channel the aesthetic of anything that had come before, Semler did agonize over whether to shoot the movie on Kodak or Fuji stock. His dilemma was solved one day at the production office in Montreal. “A shadow crossed over in front of the road, I looked up, and it was a Fuji blimp,” he remembers. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s a sign.’ So we shot it on Fuji.”

Aside from a number of exteriors shot on location in Manhattan, the bulk of filming took place in Canada, where production designer, Nigel Phelps (World War Z), constructed Rhyme’s spacious apartment and high-tech bed setup on a soundstage. Described in Iacone’s script as “this dark environment filled with artifacts,” the set nearly gave a Universal executive a heart attack when he visited one day.

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“He said, ‘It’s so dark! Where’s the production designer?’ Nigel comes out and [the executive is still freaking out]. ‘Why is it so dark? Look at these walls!’ He looked at me and said, ‘Can I have your script?’ He took my script and opened it to the paragraph that I had described the room [that Nigel] had adapted brilliantly … [The executive said], ‘Oh, okay.’ Anyway, they hired some production people to come in and whitewash all the walls. They just brightened it up.”

The confined location meant the crew was constantly “struggling to find new angles,” Semler adds. “Phillip was great … at one stage, he said, ‘Okay, anyone who can find a new angle we haven’t shot gets a case of Foster’s beer.’”

When we probe Noyce for a memorable anecdote from production, the director gushes with praise for his two leads. “Every day was memorable. You’re watching one of the greats, an already crowned king of acting. And you’re watching a soon-to-be-acclaimed queen of acting. I had the best seat in the house.”

Like Noyce, Semler caught up with Jolie a little over a decade later as director of photography on her directorial debut, The Land of Blood and Honey. “By then, she was an iconic movie star. A wonderful actor. Very generous, very kind. She still sends me birthday gifts every year.”

Legacy of The Bone Collector

Despite the fact that 13 more Lincoln Rhyme mysteries have been published since 1997, no sequel was ever produced. NBC attempted to revive the property as a television series that ran for a single season in 2020. Noyce briefly consulted on the project, though he ultimately declined the offer to direct the first episode.

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“I spoke to the makers and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll make the pilot, but this is what I’d be looking to do.’ They made their pilot, but they made the most basic mistakes in their casting,” he says. “They [also] tried to lighten it, which was not the way to exploit that material.”

The Bone Collector is now streaming on Peacock.