A Reluctant Serial Killer: Keanu Reeves Bit Off Bigger Role Than Expected in The Watcher
by Scott Collins and Chris Petrikin
On Friday, Universal Pictures will release The Watcher, a $30 million thriller about an FBI agent's pursuit of a crafty serial killer. The part of the murderer is played by Keanu Reeves, who's better-known for playing moody heroes in The Matrix and other films.
But the extensive marketing campaign for The Watcher isn't exactly trumpeting this casting coup. Reeves's name appears below the title in print advertisements and on the poster, and the actor isn't planning to do any promotional appearances on behalf of the film. In fact, a cover story about Reeves in the Aug. 31 issue of Rolling Stone doesn't even mention The Watcher, choosing instead to focus on his other current film, The Replacements.
As it happens, there may be a good reason for Reeves's reticence. People close to the production say that the actor had a major falling-out with the filmmakers, many of whom are relatively new to big-budget features. Shortly before shooting started, Reeves even tried in vain to remove himself from the project (originally titled Driven) after realizing that his role -- originally intended as a small part -- had swelled to become one of the film's lead characters. But lawyers warned Reeves that he would probably face an uphill legal battle if he left the film, a source close to the production says.
The Watcher is also raising eyebrows for its seemingly inequitable salary system. Reeves -- whose typical asking price is $15 million against 15 percent of the gross -- committed to do the film for union scale, according to people close to the production. He apparently did not realize until later that his co-stars, James Spader and Marisa Tomei, earned $1 million apiece for their work. Although some people involved in the matter insist that money was not an issue in Reeves's unhappiness with the situation -- he also worked for scale on Sam Raimi's as-yet-unreleased The Gift, they point out -- the unusual salary arrangements seem unlikely to have soothed tensions on the set.
The resulting tiff has left Universal trying to mollify a star nearing the peak of his career, while preparing to release a film that many at the studio believe has solid commercial prospects. Universal is said to have bought the North American rights for approximately $5 million, and is spending an estimated $15 million to $20 million on prints and advertising costs.
"It's fine, (a) solid adult genre thriller," says a studio insider.
Joe Charbanic, a 34-year-old former music video producer and director who is making his feature directing debut with The Watcher, concedes that as the production grew in size and budget, so too did behind-the-scenes tensions.
"The script did change," Charbanic, the son of New Line marketing executive Diane Charbanic, says in an interview. "It got bigger than (Reeves) wanted. He wanted it to be a little boutique film."
The film grew out of the friendship between Charbanic and Reeves, who met about 10 years ago and played amateur street hockey on weekends with other people in the industry, the director says. In fact, Reeves, who played hockey as a child in his native Canada, first approached him at a gas station in Hollywood because he saw hockey sticks poking from Charbanic's car window. Charbanic, who wanted to break into features, was meanwhile collaborating on a screenplay with a writing partner, Darcy Meyers. Soon he showed a copy of an early draft to Reeves, who Charbanic says was drawn to the part of the serial killer.
"He read the original script and liked it," Charbanic says, adding: "He always wanted to play a bad guy."
What happened next is somewhat unclear, but apparently Reeves agreed to play the role, and lend his name for financing efforts, without consulting his representatives at 3 Arts or CAA, a source close to the production says. By all accounts, the actor expected the part to be fairly small and probably involve just a few days of shooting. But an insider says Reeves's agreement did not give him approval of the final script, which left him with few options if the project developed in a way he did not like.
Reeves's commitment was a boon to the film's producers, including partners Patrick Choi and Nile Niami of Interlight, a little-known production/sales company that was behind Steven Seagal's The Patriot, which was never released in theaters stateside. With a major star in place, the producers found it relatively easy to raise money through foreign presales, and the budget soon swelled at least three times its original amount, to approximately $30 million. This evidently gave the filmmakers more money to attract other talent, including Spader, Tomei and Michael Chapman, a distinguished cinematographer who shot Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and The Fugitive.
Shortly before production began in Chicago last fall, Reeves was fuming and wanted out, insiders say. Script rewrites had bolstered his bit part into a major character. Instead of spending a few days on the set, he would need to be available for at least a couple weeks. But lawyers told the star he had little choice but to proceed. They pointed to a highly-publicized 1995 lawsuit involving Kim Basinger, who backed out of a verbal commitment to appear in the film Boxing Helena. A judge ordered Basinger to pay $8 million to the filmmakers, which forced the actress to file for bankruptcy (she later reached an out-of-court settlement with the producers).
The filmmakers earlier this year shopped the North American rights to major studios, many of which, insiders say, were surprised and delighted to find a movie with Reeves available for purchase. Universal clinched the deal at the American Film Market in Santa Monica after viewing a trailer and some additional footage, a studio insider says. With the studio's total stake limited to about $20 million and with little competition in the marketplace, Universal stands a very good chance of earning a return on its investment.
"It's a good business deal for them," says one person close to the production.
But the studio realized there might be some unfinished business with Reeves. In exchange for the actor's agreement not to repudiate the film publicly, Universal agreed to downplay his involvement, an insider says. His name would appear below the title, and he would not show up in more than 30 percent of the trailer or other advertisements for the film. It remains unclear whether the studio may also have offered him an enhanced profit participation or otherwise sweetened the deal.
But the star's relationship with Charbanic has not been so easily mended. The director acknowledges that he and his former hockey buddy are still trying to patch things up.
"I think we were both a little mad at each other," Charbanic says. "It's like doing business with friends. Every time friends of mine get in business together, it doesn't go well. And I went in a little naive, because it was my first film."