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The strange saga of River Phoenix's final film

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Dark Blood Phoenix
Sluizer Films

George Sluizer said goodbye to River Phoenix around 10 o’clock on the night of Oct. 30, 1993. The director, best known for his 1988 thriller The Vanishing, was shooting a movie called Dark Blood with the actor, and the plan was to meet up the next day on set. Phoenix headed to the West Hollywood hot spot the Viper Room. Sluizer went to his room at the Hotel Nikko, where he and Phoenix were staying. Phoenix was excited about a meeting with director Terry Gilliam the next morning, Sluizer says, and he didn’t get the sense that Phoenix was planning a night of hard partying. ”We said, ‘See you tomorrow,”’ Sluizer recalls. ”There was no feeling of something [about to go] wrong.”

Around 3 a.m., the phone in the director’s room rang. It was 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 with his younger brother, Joaquin, his sister Rain, and his girlfriend, Samantha Mathis, Phoenix had ingested a dangerous combination of cocaine and heroin. He went into convulsions on the sidewalk outside the club, where Joaquin and Rain tried desperately to help him. The 23-year-old actor was pronounced dead at 1:51 a.m.

Sluizer and Phoenix had grown close while filming 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.”

Dark Blood is about a young man (Phoenix) who retreats to the desert after his wife dies from radiation following nuclear tests near their home. One day he encounters two stranded vacationers, played by Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce, and the film traces the strange relationship that develops among the three characters. (You can see several rough clips of the film at darkbloodthemovie.com.) 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, which Sluizer had been prepping for years, 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?

In the early ’90s, River Phoenix was one of Hollywood’s most promising young stars, a critically praised actor with dorm-poster good looks and much-discussed roles in movies like My Own Private Idaho and Stand by Me. Sluizer too was building a reputation, mostly based on The Vanishing, which he then remade in the U.S. with Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland in the starring roles. The arty Dark Blood was Sluizer’s next movie, and though it was hardly an obvious career choice for Phoenix, the actor responded to the character’s complexity. ”I decide my projects not based on any big strategy or how Hollywood or the critics will see me,” Phoenix said in a 1992 interview. ”If you have a belief in the story, you’ll just commit. You don’t think, ‘What will people think of this?’ If you do, you’re ruined.”

Before shooting started in the late summer of 1993, Sluizer and Phoenix spent several days in Utah getting to know each other. ”I asked if he wanted to come out and walk in the mountains and see nature and have a good time — to get away from too much nightlife and clubs,” says the director. ”Obviously I was aware of, let’s call it, his youthful past. I don’t think I know anyone who has never smoked a joint. It doesn’t mean you’re not a good actor. We didn’t discuss drugs…. We spent a nice time together.”

But once the cameras rolled, things got complicated. Tension quickly developed between Sluizer and Davis, who apparently decided she just didn’t like him. (Davis declined to be interviewed for this story.) ”It was difficult because Judy Davis decided not to speak to George,” says Karen Black (Nashville), who has a small role in the film. ”If he wanted to direct her, he would have to talk to someone else.”

The atmosphere on set soon grew outright poisonous, and Phoenix found himself caught in the middle. ”[Davis] was not an easy lady, and River had problems with her just as much,” says Sluizer. ”She’s a very good actress. I can’t say that anyone was very fond of her.” The situation got so bad that one of Dark Blood‘s London-based executive producers, Nik Powell, flew to Utah to try to make peace. ”It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” says Powell. ”River was incredibly helpful in bringing everybody together…. He was full of warmth, incredibly pro fessional, knew what he was trying to achieve and how to work with a director. He was a major positive force.” Finally, the Utah portion of the production wrapped and everyone headed back to L.A. for the rest of the shoot. The end was finally in sight.

Then, suddenly, everything came apart. The production had managed just one day of work in L.A. before that unthinkable 3 a.m. phone call threw it all into chaos. Sluizer called a meeting to break the news to his cast and crew. Then, amid all of the grief, confusion, and intense media coverage, Sluizer, the producers (JoAnne Sellar, who went on to produce most of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies, plus Powell and Stephen Woolley), and the film’s investors had to hash out what to do next. Sluizer estimates that Dark Blood was 80 percent done when Phoenix died, but much of what was left consisted of crucial interior shots that required close-ups of the young actor.

The final decision would be up to the insurance company, CNA International Reinsurance, but the filmmakers needed to figure out if some kind of patchwork fix would even be possible — and how much it would cost. Could they use computer graphics? That worked with The Crow, which was completed using CGI and body doubles after star Brandon Lee died while making the movie earlier the same year. Recast Phoenix’s role and start over? That’s what happened with the next movie Phoenix had committed to, Interview With the Vampire, which was just ramping up (Christian Slater took over Phoenix’s role). ”It’s a rather intimate film, really about three characters,” says Sluizer. ”It’s not like you can cheat by showing a close-up of legs running. If you don’t see the expressions on someone’s face, you’d lose a lot. Everybody, including myself, agreed that it would make not much sense to try to either eliminate River’s part or say, ‘This is the [whole] movie.”’

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 themselves owned the film. It was a financial decision, but for some of the film makers, it also seemed like the appropriate one. ”For me, the most respectful thing was to close it, not attempt to finish it, and let bygones be bygones,” says Powell. ”George always wanted to finish the movie. He’s a director. I can understand that.” The insurance company then took the roughly 1,500 pounds of 35mm film that had been shot and stashed it in storage. Sluizer, distraught over Phoenix’s death and unsure if he even wanted to keep making movies, had already moved back to Holland.

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Dark Blood sat in storage until 1999, when Sluizer heard some disturbing news. The insurance company (which has since been bought by another corporation) 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.”

In other words, the director stole his own film? ”You can use the word you want to use,” says Sluizer, who never heard anything from the insurance company after he mysteriously came into possession of his movie. ”I think I was moral and not immoral, but you could say you [shouldn’t] take something you don’t own. Obviously I’m responsible for what I did. I’m not going to say I’m proud, because I think that’s silly when you do something which you think is necessary. I don’t want to make this bigger than it is, but if a cathedral or the Guggenheim Museum starts burning and you don’t put [water] on it, you can say you’ve done nothing bad — you’ve just looked at it. But you didn’t try to save it.”

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.”

To pay for the film’s completion, Sluizer solicited donations on a Dutch Kickstarter-style site called CineCrowd, raising around 15,000 euros. The rest of the $450,000 it would eventually cost to finish Dark Blood came from private donations, the Netherlands Film Fund, and his own company.

But money couldn’t solve the biggest problem: how to stitch the incomplete material into a coherent film that people might actually want to sit through. After much deliberation — Could he somehow incorporate animation? Make it a silent film? — Sluizer settled on a voice-over to fill in the narrative gaps. He thought about having an actor do it, but in the end he just chose to use his own voice. (At one time it was reported that he wanted Joaquin Phoenix to do the voice-over, but Sluizer says that was never something he seriously considered.) ”It took many months before I came to the most simple solution,” says the director, who now spends most of his time in Nice, France. ”I decided to just tell what’s missing.”

Will anyone want to hear the gruff-voiced auteur narrate his own unfinished film? Some viewers will find out how well Sluizer’s solution works when Dark Blood premieres at the Netherlands Film Festival on Sept. 27. Sluizer, for one, is pleased with how the movie turned out. ”It’s a complete film,” he says. ”It’s not pieces stuck together. It has a beginning and it goes up to the end, like it should. The film is finished.”

At this point, Dark Blood‘s future is uncertain. It could screen at more festivals (”I have at least 25 invitations,” Sluizer says), along with noncommercial venues like schools and museums. Because of the situation with the insurance company, the director doesn’t own commercial rights to the film, so any potential theatrical or DVD release would have to be negotiated down the road. And his medical situation remains precarious. ”I’m busy trying to keep alive,” he says. ”My whole body is a wreck.” In December, doctors told Sluizer that, among other issues, he has a dangerous aneurysm in his abdomen. ”I’m a dying person,” he says.

But in some ways, Sluizer’s poor health is liberating: He doesn’t really care what anyone else thinks. ”I have the advantage of being, as I call it, a man after death and before death,” he says, referring to that near-fatal aortic dissection in 2007. ”I have total freedom of doing what I think is useful, valid, and correct. That’s my motivation, and that’s good enough.”

While Sluizer is confident he’s doing the right thing, not everyone is pleased to see him digging around in the difficult past. Phoenix’s family declined to comment on the film’s completion, but a family spokesperson says that ”they want no involvement with this” and they ”have moved forward from those painfully sad days.” Sluizer hasn’t heard directly from Phoenix’s family, although he says that his daughter, who is credited as an assistant on Dark Blood, has had ”a pleasant conversation” with two of Phoenix’s sisters on Facebook.

Ira Deutchman, the former president of Fine Line Features, which cofinanced the original Dark Blood production, isn’t thrilled with Sluizer’s decision to finish the movie. ”I didn’t think it was a great idea,” he says. ”That’s still my personal feeling. My impression is that there was no way that there was a completed film there. I hate the idea of somebody trying to create something out of nothing just for the sake of having a River Phoenix film.”

For Phoenix’s fans, it’s no doubt a complicated question. Is it better to leave the tragedy-stained movie alone — to move past what might have been and let the actor’s small body of finished work forever speak to his talents? Or does the world deserve to see his final performance, however rough and imperfect it may be? Karen Black, who still tears up when talking about him, thinks the answer is easy. ”What would River have wanted?” she says. ”What would any actor want? An actor wants his performance to be seen. In my opinion, I don’t think there’s any further discussion.”