MIAMI – When actor Jonathan Pryce first received a copy of River Phoenix’s last film “Dark Blood,” it sat unwatched on his desk for months. He worried about how he would feel reliving Phoenix’s death, growing nostalgic about memorable dinners the two shared after long days of filming in Utah and recalling the shocking 5 a.m. phone call telling him the young actor had died.
“It’s very hard to comprehend for a while. It was a terribly sad time,” said Pryce, who starred in the film alongside Phoenix and Judy Davis.
Now, 20 years later, “Dark Blood” made its U.S. premiere at the Miami International Film Festival on Wednesday, a testament to the endurance of 80-year-old director George Sluizer, who almost died before the film was completed, and a tribute to Phoenix’s timeless charisma. It’s uncertain whether the film will ever go to a general release. Sluizer said negotiations are ongoing with the company that owns the movie.
In the film, Pryce and Davis play a jet-set Hollywood couple who travel through the desert desperately trying to save their marriage on a second honeymoon. They seek shelter in Phoenix’s shack after their car breaks down, unaware that he intends to keep them as prisoners. Phoenix played Boy, whose wife died of leukemia from nuclear testing, leaving him alone and isolated in the desert.
But the journey to complete the film is every bit as dramatic as the story itself. Phoenix, a rising star from “Stand by Me” and “My Own Private Idaho,” was 23 when he died in 1993 outside The Viper Room in Los Angeles. The cause was heart failure after overdosing on heroin and cocaine.
After his death, there was talk of finding another actor to replace Phoenix or using special effects to finish “Dark Blood.” The film was about 80 per cent complete and most of the missing scenes were between Davis and Phoenix. But Sluizer ultimately passed on those options and the film footage sat untouched in a vault for years. In 1999, the Dutch director learned the footage was going to be burned to make space for new material, so he quickly transported it to The Netherlands, where it sat for another decade.
Sluizer was diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia in 2007 and “the doctors basically condemned me”. But the director recovered and felt compelled to finish “Dark Blood” before it was too late. He sorted through the material, uncovering missing and damaged reels and narrated the voiceovers himself to fill in missing pieces of the plot. He doesn’t think it is now dated, calling it a story with themes that transcend time.
When Sluizer first met Phoenix at a San Francisco hotel to discuss the film, he worried about how a hot-shot heartthrob would handle working with an older director.
But Phoenix was respectful and compassionate, abruptly running off to get an ailing Sluizer some headache medicine during their first meeting, and accompanying Sluizer on long hikes in Utah. Sluizer said he knew of Phoenix’ history with substance abuse and checked in with the actor’s mother to make sure he was OK before filming began.
“River was a gentle, respectful person. I must say that I was very fond of him,” Sluizer said.
“Dark Blood” was not an easy production. The material was heavy, they filmed in desolate locations and Davis was difficult to work with and was often hard on Phoenix. He also had dyslexia and struggled to remember long segments of dialogue, which he occasionally asked Sluizer to shorten.
But Sluizer marveled at Phoenix’s ability to embody a character with such depth.
“It’s what comes out of him and the charisma he has plus the fact that he knows how to express a character when he has got hold of it,” Sluizer said.
Pryce, who said he was a fan of Phoenix’s work in “Stand By Me,” often met the young actor and his friends for dinner, finding camaraderie in the isolated Utah desert.
“You do become incredibly close when you work together in a film … I felt enormous empathy with him. I liked him very much,” Pryce said.
The two insist Phoenix was not using drugs while filming in Utah. But something was noticeably wrong with Phoenix when the crew returned for a shoot in Los Angeles. His eyes floated, he walked differently and sat listlessly for long periods of time.
“He had been taking something. That was quite visible,” Sluizer said.
The next morning the cast and crew received the news.
“It was a complete shock and to be woken at 5 o’clock in the morning and the first thing that somebody says to you is, ‘River’s dead,'” Pryce said.
“It left us totally sad and after River’s death. I nearly said I don’t want to make movies anymore,” Sluizer lamented.
He dismisses any notion that the film is exploiting River’s death.
Sluizer said he spoke with Phoenix’s mother, Arlynn “Heart” Phoenix, and invited her and other family members to attend the Berlin premiere last month where the film received a standing ovation.
“She said, ‘Well, good luck with the movie but we are not participating’,” saying the family felt the movie was finished, Sluizer said.
R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe, who stayed with Phoenix for a few days while he was filming in Utah, also attended the Berlin premiere.
“It’s a piece of work that belongs not just to River but all of us in the film and it was right that (Sluizer) completed it in the way that he did,” Pryce said.
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