The movie that Keanu Reeves felt unfairly forced into making

The Watcher
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The year after The Matrix hit big, Keanu Reeves featured in a more modest production called The Watcher – not that he wanted to be in it.


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It’s pretty well known by now that Keanu Reeves is a decent sort (although judging by headlines around the time this piece has been posted, Matthew Perry may disagree). The internet is awash with stories of his kindness towards fans, and then there’s the cases where he’s chopped his own salary so another actor can be squeezed into a movie’s budget. Few of us would have qualms about inviting him over for Christmas dinner.

But even Keanu Reeves has moments where things aren’t quite going to plan, and it’s that which brings us to the curious case of 2000’s The Watcher. This is an outlier on his CV really, but also a film that he simply didn’t want to make.

Penned by Darcy Meyers and David Eliot, and directed by Reeves’ old friend Joe Charbanic, this was in the end a $30m Universal Studios-backed thriller, and pretty standard fare for the time. For Joe Charbanic  it marked his directorial debut (and his sole feature helming credit to date), and the poster boasted of James Spader, Marisa Tomei and Keanu Reeves being in the ensemble.

Thing is, Reeves has always maintained that he didn’t want to make the film, and found himself in a potentially expensive corner that pushed him into doing so.

There are stories already out there of stars contractually obliged to make a film they didn’t want to do, with Edward Norton’s work in The Italian Job remake one notable such example. In the case of The Watcher though, Reeves said that he never signed the contract to make the movie in the first place. Instead, he alleges that a friend forged his signature instead, and the producers thought they’d got their man. Plans for the movie went ahead as investment swiftly came together.

The Watcher

In an interview with the Calgary Sun though, Reeves admitted that “I never found the script interesting”, and this is a man who’d previously turned down an eight-figure payday purely for that reason. Bottom line, the screenplay is why he thought he’d rejected The Watcher, but he faced a problem: what appeared to be his scrawl was on the dotted line, and the filmmakers were going to play hardball to get him to make the picture. Lawyers were rubbing their hands with glee, working out just how many hours they could bill just for even watching the movie in the first place.

By this stage, Universal Pictures had picked up the US distribution rights for the movie, and Reeves was a large part of the reason why.

Reeves thus decided to take the metaphorical bullet. As he admitted, he couldn’t prove that his friend has forged his signature, and he wasn’t in a rush to get sued. The role he was being expected to play was a relatively minor one on paper, and he just felt he was best doing the film and getting out of there as soon as possible. He shot his scenes, and in theory, everybody moved on.

However, the story wasn’t done.

As reported back in September 2000, it had been noticed that whilst Keanu Reeves’ name was on the poster for the film, he was third billed, behind Spader and Tomei. This was just over a year after The Matrix had made Reeves one of the most in-demand movie stars on the planet, yet his work was given low billing.

The Watcher

The poster for The Watcher. Note the prominence of Keanu Reeves’ billing.

Reeves was also absent from the press tour for the movie as well. But also, days before The Watcher arrived in American cinemas, the story of what had (allegedly) happened began to seep out.

Going to that Inside article, it reported that Reeves had a bit of a falling out with the filmmakers on this one. Before filming had even got going, he realised that his original role had been beefed up, and tried in vain, the article argues, to extricate himself from the production. Reeves was also paid a minimum scale rate for the film, which doubled his annoyance when he realised his work on it had gone up apparently without him knowing.

But then the film had changed once he was on board. It was quite the coup to land the actor in the first place, and with a genuine movie star as part of the ensemble, the budget went up and the script was reworked. Plus, the filmmakers were able to attract the funding to bring in Spader and Tomei as well.

The Watcher

James Spader in The Watcher

For its part, the filmmaker argument was that Reeves had agreed to work on a scale deal in part as a favour to Joe Charbanic, who had been part of the road crew for the actor’s band, Dogstar. Still, there’s little dissent that Reeves was on up front salary the lowest paid of the three leads, until Universal agreed to find another $2m down the back of the sofa to compensate the actor for the 11 days of work he was having to do. For the project he didn’t want to make. He’s the kind of chap who’d be circumspect about that bit, I’d suggest, but still reserving the right to being pissed off about how he got involved in the film in the first place.

That said, the story of things going awry wasn’t supposed to leak out at all for a further year. As part of the original deal that Reeves and Universal settled upon, Reeves wasn’t allowed to talk about his dissatisfaction with what had gone on for 12 months after the film had been released. When he did finally lift the lid on his frustrations with the project, a year had indeed passed.

For Universal’s part, as part of the deal the studio allegedly agreed to play down Keanu Reeves’ role in the movie as part of the marketing campaign for The Watcher. That he wasn’t to be used in more than 30% of any trailer or adverts for the movie. Given it had picked the film up as an acquisition, securing US rights, it probably pushed its luck with how much Reeves was part of the promotion. Still, his billing left his fanbase in little doubt that he wasn’t the star of this one.

Was it all worth it? Well, for Universal, it probably was. It had limited downside on the project, and pocketed a small profit when the movie grossed $28m in US cinemas, off the back of not terrific reviews (Reeves as a bad guy had several critics sharpening their pencils for a start). Given that Universal could also put the movie out on the-then fast-growing DVD format, it was very much in the black on the movie.

For Reeves, it did no lasting damage, save for the teeth marks in his tongue that he had to suffer for a year. But his friendship with Charbanic certainly took a pounding, and the latter’s yet to make his follow-up movie.

It all makes The Watcher a bit of a curio amongst Reeves’ filmography. Thing is, that’s probably how he wants it kept…

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