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It's been 20 years since 23-year-old River Phoenix died of a drug overdose outside a West Hollywood club on Halloween morning. He left behind a collection of indelible on-screen performances — including one that remained unfinished and unseen for two decades. Dark Blood sat on a shelf until director George Sluizer, now 81, recovered it and pieced together a version that debuted at the Netherlands Film Festival in 2012. It has its L.A. premiere on Tuesday, Oct. 29, in Santa Monica. Sluizer recently spoke to EW about Phoenix's last movie.
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''I spent a few days with him in Utah before, and that was partly to talk to him without any interference. I wanted to know what kind of person he was,'' said Sluizer. ''I was a little apprehensive of drugs because I knew he had used. You know, he didn't lie to me about using something sometime. He was very easy going and pleasant. And I must tell you that regarding drugs, I never thought of drugs during the six or seven weeks we filmed in Utah.''
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''He was very young, but I think everybody was impressed by River, just by his very strong charisma,'' Sluizer recalled. ''My wife, who was already 70 or something, fell in love with him. He was so kind when he looked at her — eyes into eyes. She said to me the first time she met him, 'You chose well. He's a very nice person.'''
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According to Sluizer, ''He preferred music to film. I really felt that playing the guitar was more important [to him] than being in a movie. Every time he came with a guitar, you could feel that he was shining. That was what he really liked: to have a band and play. He even wrote two songs — he came with a piece of paper and said, 'This is a song for you.' And he sang it.''
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''I chose him partly because I wanted a very nice boy on one side, but I knew that the part he had to play was someone who was a little bit disturbed, and not exactly like the blue-eyed blonde, sweet-looking boy — the combination of the two. He understood that, what it means when you decide to leave society and go on your own doing something crazy. You had to be able to do that or to feel that, and I think that was a strength of River,'' said Sluizer.
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''It's difficult to say'' which scene is Sluizer's favorite, the director admits, ''because he plays his own dying in the film. I was extremely moved when I saw it [back then]. A death scene is not always easy because it can very fake-y, very false, very sentimental. And I think he really got the message of that scene, and I think he did it absurdly great. Obviously, later, it turns out that he did really die.''
For more on the making of Dark Blood, check out The Strange Saga of River Phoenix's Final Film from the EW archives (Sept. 21, 2012)