On Sept. 27, Dutch 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.”
In the film, Phoenix plays Boy, a young widower living on a nuclear testing site in the desert. While he waits for the end of the world, Boy carves Katchina dolls that supposedly contain magical powers. His life is disrupted when a Hollywood jet-set couple traveling across the desert become stranded after their car breaks down. Boy rescues the couple and then takes them prisoners because he desires the woman and wants to create a better world with her. Dark Blood also stars Judy Davis, Jonathan Pryce and Karen Black.
Phoenix was a dedicated animal-rights activist, an environmentalist and a die-hard vegan—he wore no leather and cared so much about the diminishing rain forest that he bought acres and acres of it in Costa Rica to save it from development.
But by the time Phoenix had co-starred in hits such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, he was changed. Moody and restless, he had all but abandoned acting, moved back to Florida to be near his family and, with his sister Rain, formed the rock band Aleka’s Attic. But through it all, he always insisted that he believed in clean living: “I don’t see any point or any good in drugs that are as disruptive as cocaine. I never tried heroin. I tried alcohol and most of the others when I was 15, and got it out of the way—finished with the stuff.”
Sluizer is best known for his 1988 thriller Spoorloos, remade as The Vanishing (1993), starring Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland. Phoenix received an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty (1988), played the young Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and also starred in such films as Stand by Me (1986) and My Own Private Idaho (1991). He was the brother of two-time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix.
In addition to the Dark Blood premiere, the 2012 Netherlands Film Festival also will screen a retrospective of Sluizer’s work and will publish a book on the director’s life.
Dark Blood Trailer
River Phoenix and the Aleka Band
This is a song by Patty Loveless performed by
River Phoenix in “The thing called love”.
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