Nearly 20 years after the death of River Phoenix, the actor's final film, "Dark Blood," screened before an international audience last week at the Berlin International Film Festival. Perhaps the only thing more surprising than the film's tumultuous two-decade journey to completion is the fact that Dutch director George Sluizer, now 80, was able to finish it at all.
"Dark Blood," which began production in 1993, survived not only the loss of its leading actor, who died of an accidental drug overdose at age 23 outside a West Hollywood nightclub, but also the near-destruction of the original footage and a life-threatening ailment that struck its director.
The film hasn't come out completely unscathed — Sluizer had to restructure the story and add narration to account for missing scenes — and the precise ownership status of the original footage remains murky. But Sluizer has succeeded in giving "Dark Blood" form.
"I did my best to keep all the creative work which everybody had done, cast and crew," the filmmaker said by phone from Amsterdam, where his company, Sluizer Films, is based. (His official residence is in France.) "The only thing I was doing was to save it the best I could and put it together so that at least it was something watchable."
A psychological thriller set in the Utah desert, "Dark Blood" tells the story of a Hollywood couple, played by Jonathan Pryce and Judy Davis, whose second honeymoon goes awry when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, forcing them to seek refuge at the shack of a disaffected young widower (Phoenix).
At the time of filming, Sluizer was coming off "The Vanishing," a modest hit, and Phoenix was a rising talent in Hollywood, having starred in such films as "Running on Empty," for which he earned an Academy Award nomination in 1989, and "My Own Private Idaho." He was Sluizer's first choice for the role of Boy in "Dark Blood," and the director enjoyed working with him.
"It's an old word, the word 'polite,' but he was a polite young man and had respect for people who were older than he was," Sluizer said.
"I was aware that [Phoenix] used drugs or had used drugs," Sluizer added. "He could have a joint or something when he came to see me," the director recalled, but it didn't affect production during six weeks of shooting in Utah.
British executive producer Nik Powell was also on location in Utah. "The chemistry between the cast members was very good," he said by phone from Berlin, though he added that Sluizer and Davis' personalities clashed at times. Phoenix, Powell said, was "a very sort of healing, inclusive person."
The cast and crew moved on for two weeks of filming in Los Angeles, a place Phoenix called "the bad, bad town," Sluizer said. "I would say that he feared [Los Angeles] in a way, because he knew that would mean nightclubs, drugs, friends."
At the time of Phoenix's death on Oct. 31, 1993, the production had completed one day of shooting in Los Angeles.
"It was a real shock," Sluizer said. "Obviously you have to go on, but I felt like I'm not sure I care about making films anymore, with actors dying under me. I was obviously very sad, and to a certain extent underneath the terrible sadness of losing … a young, kind of a son-friend … I also was, in a way, angry that we lost the movie."
Production was shut down with about 75% of the film in the can. Alternatives such as recasting Phoenix's role or salvaging the film with special effects were deemed unfeasible. The insurance company backing the film, CNA International Reinsurance, paid out $5.7 million under its policy. "When the insurers paid out the insurance money," Powell said, "they took over the rights and the materials to the film."
The footage ended up in storage in Los Angeles, and CNA sued Phoenix's estate for breach of contract. Sluizer said he contacted the claims adjuster, Graham Hill International, about acquiring the footage, but the lawsuit precluded the possibility. The case was dismissed in 1997, and in 1999 Sluizer learned the footage was to be destroyed.
Before that could happen, Sluizer had the film removed from the storage facility, he said, with the cooperation of the claims adjuster. (Sluizer said the adjuster initially offered him a key to the facility, but when it couldn't be located, Sluizer and his associates had to break a lock open. The undertaking was otherwise without incident, he said.)
"I call it saving, not stealing," Sluizer said. "Morally, I was saving important material. If you go to the Guggenheim and it's on fire and you save a painting, you're not stealing a painting — you're saving it."
Sluizer added that he was never contacted by the studio (New Line Cinema, now part of Warner Bros.), the insurers (since acquired by Tawa PLC, a specialized investor in the insurance industry) or the authorities after obtaining the footage.