On Sept. 27, director George Sluizer will unveil a finished version of Dark Blood, the film River Phoenix was working on when he died in 1993, at a Dutch film festival (it’s unclear whether it will ever get a theatrical or DVD release). Here’s an excerpt from our story about the movie’s tangled history.
Around 3 a.m., the phone in director George Sluizer’s hotel room rang. It was River Phoenix’s agent, sharing the news of what would become one of the saddest, most shocking pop culture milestones of the ’90s. While hanging out at the Viper Room club in Los Angeles, Phoenix had ingested a dangerous combination of cocaine and heroin. He went into convulsions on the sidewalk outside the club. The 23-year-old actor was pronounced dead at 1:51 a.m.
Sluizer and Phoenix were in the middle of filming a movie called Dark Blood, and it was now up to the director to inform his movie’s cast and crew of the tragedy. “I was devastated,” says Sluizer, now 80. “It was a terrible sadness.” Sluizer and his crew had spent about seven weeks shooting in the Utah desert, and then decamped to L.A. to film interiors. There were roughly 11 days left on the schedule when Phoenix died. Now the movie was in limbo. After the initial shock wore off, Sluizer, the film’s producers, and the company that insured the production had to figure out what to do. Was there some way to salvage the movie? Or would all of their work — and Phoenix’s final onscreen performance — be lost forever?
Convinced that there was no cost-effective way to salvage Dark Blood, the insurance company made the call to abandon the project and pay out the claim to the original investors, at which point the insurers became the owners of the film. Dark Blood sat in storage until 1999, when Sluizer heard some disturbing news. The insurance company didn’t want to pay to warehouse his film anymore — and was planning to destroy it. “That’s when I said, ‘No, no, I’m going to save it from destruction,’ ” says Sluizer. So he did, although he won’t explain exactly how he got his hands on the footage. “I have good assistants, if I can put it this way, and some people who are clever in finding the right key,” he says with a laugh. “I am an enterprising person.”
On Christmas Day, 2007, Sluizer was on vacation in eastern France, riding ATVs around the foothills of the French Alps with his family, when he suddenly collapsed. Acting fast, his son called the fire brigade, who evacuated him to a local hospital. From there an ambulance drove him five hours to a cardiovascular hospital, where he underwent surgery that saved his life. It turned out he had suffered an acute aortic dissection. “Normally within five minutes you’re dead,” says the director. “I’m in that sense a miracle.”
Sluizer spent more than a year in physical therapy, relearning how to sit and then stand and walk. During that grueling period of recovery, he finally reached a decision: He needed to complete Dark Blood. “I had the feeling that I had to finish the creative work which hundreds of people had done together,” he says, “so that it would be there for anyone who wanted to see it.” Sluizer was still in very poor health, and his doctors told him he might not have long to live. “I said, I want to finish the film before whatever happens. At least I will finish my job as best as I could.”
Read about how Sluizer finally completed Dark Blood — and why not everyone’s happy about it — in this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Sept. 21.