Universal Studios (US), 2000
The Watcher - Production Notes
The Watcher is an exciting psychological thriller that takes a unique look into the minds of both a serial killer and the man who must, reluctantly, pursue him. In an almost Hitchcockian way, the film quickly introduces us to the killer, David Allen Griffin, played by Keanu Reeves, who for many years, preyed on lonely young women in the Los Angeles area.
"It’s the first time I can remember a film where we find out who the killer is so soon," says producer Nile Niami. "It allowed us to establish the suspense in a completely different way."
The story is set up to create a taut cat-and-mouse game between Griffin and FBI agent Joel Campbell (James Spader). Griffin has pursued Campbell from Los Angeles, says director Charbanic, "because he’s bored with what he’s doing. And in his own twisted way he needs Campbell to continue."
"The killer is playing a game," continues Charbanic. "For him, the thrill is the chase. And Campbell is the one person he feels is on the same level as him. It’s sort of a perverse kind of hero worship."
But Campbell has his own personal problems. The stress of his occupation as a profiler of serial killers has taken its toll. The film accurately delves into the psychology of a profiler, says Charbanic, who worked closely with actual FBI agents and the Chicago police through the development and production of the film.
"It’s very common for FBI agents to have mental breakdowns," he explains. "One of the real agents who was a consultant on the film, had had three himself. They are highly professional on the job, but their personal lives are often a mess. By constantly having to get into the minds and methodologies of serial killers, their thought processes can become kind of warped, which takes its toll on their personal relationships. And they are always carrying such a heavy burden, knowing that if they don’t catch the killer someone else is going to die."
The FBI detective’s problems are exacerbated by the fact that there are, at any given time, multiple serial murderers at work in any large city, each with his own specific style and methodology.
"I was talking to one of the agents on the set one day," says Charbanic, "and he said that, currently, there were four serial killers at large in the Chicago area and about a dozen within the radius of 100 miles."
The Watcher utilizes this pressure cooker atmosphere to create an almost unbearable level of suspense. Each morning Griffin mails photos of his intended victims to Campbell, allowing the agent a 24-hour grace period to find the intended victim before he strikes again.
"The ticking clock aspect gives the story an immediacy, a palpable tension," says Charbanic. "And it’s very scary." Dramatically the interplay between Griffin and Campbell also offers a different and much more recognizably human interaction between the hero and his nemesis, says one of The Watcher’s screenwriters David Elliott.
"The movie is not about revenge. The killer and the FBI agent actually give a kind of weird structure to each other’s lives." The casting of James Spader for the role of Campbell was of utmost importance. Charbanic was attracted to Spader, because he had the charm and charisma to play either role. The interchangeable aspect of the two characters—one who uses his intelligence and cunning for good and the other who uses it to destroy—was mirrored in the actors who played them.
"James is the kind of actor who is adept at playing idiosyncrasies," says Naimi. "So it made sense that he play an FBI agent, who is troubled, burned out. He worked very hard on the script, dissecting it, talking with the FBI agents. He was totally committed to that character."
Charbanic was equally impressed. "I’ve never seen an actor work so hard on his character," says the director. "He brought incredible nuances to the role."
Another important character to the story is Polly (Marisa Tomei), a young psychologist who is treating Campbell. Originally, says Elliott, the character was written much older. Instead, she was reconceived as someone who is just starting out, doing public service for little pay. Making her younger and less experienced, made her a less imposing and more accessible character. It also allowed for the film to parallel a situation (which the audience witnesses in flashback) in which Campbell was defeated by the serial killer, an incident which continues to haunt him. And it gave Griffin the ammunition to twist the screws more tightly on the detective for the film’s searing climax.
"What was wonderful about Marisa," says Charbanic, "is that she brought a youthfulness and vulnerability to Polly, that makes us care for her fate as much as Campbell does."
Production on The Watcher began in Chicago in the fall of 1999 and wrapped shortly before Christmas.
"The city is another character in the film," explains screenwriter David Elliott. "We deliberately chose Chicago because it's a big city but can look very impersonal. It's totally believable that lonely young women can vanish without a trace and that a killer can hide so easily in plain sight."
"Most of the exteriors are shot at night," says producer Christopher Eberts, "when the streets are filled with people, but you can get lost in the crowd. In my opinion one of the film's underlying themes is that in large cities people are disappearing. You could live in a 6 unit apartment for several years and still not know any of your neighbors' names."
In the film when Campbell is searching for each victim before Griffin can strike, he shows the woman's picture to people. In some cases the woman had been standing right next to the person not that long ago. But no one noticed her."
First time director Charbanic was blessed, he says, by having two-time Oscar winning cinematographer Michael Chapman shooting his film, says Eberts.
"We were so fortunate to have someone with such a strong sensibility," says Eberts. "He's a real artist. And he knew Chicago so well, since he also shot The Fugitive here. It was great to have a cinematographer of that calibre working with Joe. It allowed him to concentrate on the actors."
"We were on a tight schedule," says Charbanic, "and Michael didn't come aboard until just before we started shooting. He was amazingly collaborative. He treated me like an experienced professional. The look I wanted for the film was timeless, like in an action comic book when you're not really sure when or where it's taking place, which allows you to concentrate on the story. He knows exactly what I was looking for and quickly went into motion. It was amazing."
He continues, "I learned something from working with him every day. And he was so respectful and collaborative with the crew, most of whom he was working with for the first time. They were very impressed. One crew member said to me, working with Michael is like film school times a billion."
Establishing the anonymous, impersonal look for the Chicago was a task for which Chapman, the cinematographer on such classic urban films as Taxi Driver, was an ideal choice.
He brought amazing texture to the film that reinforced the themes of isolation," says Charbanic. "Nothing is overkill. We used the same film stock for every scene. Ninety percent of the film was shot at night and Michael brought that depressing desperate quality to the exterior scenes - transporting the city into a lair where all the evil can happen. Michael can do it all. I would beg to use him again on any film I make."
"The Watcher was an ambitious shoot considering its 75-day schedule," says producer Niami. "We started production early October and had to be out by Christmas because of the weather conditions in Chicago. So we had a very large second unit, headed by Jeff Jensen. We shot every day, simultaneous with the first unit."
The second unit was responsible for most of the film's action sequences which include helicopter and car chases and blowing up a gas station in the middle of the city.
"During the day we took over half of Chicago," says Niami. "And at night, the other half. It was very ambitious. But we got it done."
With its deep pool of experience actors, Chicago also proved a fortuitous location to film The Watcher talentwise, according to Charbanic.
"There was such a reservoir of quality talent, that I was able to cast the supporting players right out of Chicago. Logistically that was a great time saver and i feel that i was able to get the best people for every role.