River Phoenix's final film finished
- 8 October 2012
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Actor River Phoenix died of a drug overdose in 1993, aged 23. Now the director of his last film is hoping it will finally be released.
The last time Dutch director George Sluizer saw River Phoenix was about four hours before the actor's death in Los Angeles, on the evening of 30 October 1993.
"I was in fact staying in the same hotel - in the next room. I was driving into the hotel and he was driving out with friends. He said 'see you tomorrow' and that was it," Sluizer says.
For six weeks, the pair had been working on what history will record as Phoenix's last film, Dark Blood.
It follows the story of a loner (Phoenix) who lives in the American desert awaiting the end of the world. His existence is turned upside down after rescuing a couple whose car breaks down during a road-trip.
Primary filming in the state of Utah was complete and the cast and crew had relocated to Hollywood to shoot the interior scenes.
"We had shot 80% - but it is not continuous, it is so many little pieces here and there", Sluizer says.
Two weeks of shooting were scheduled to take place in LA, but only one day was completed when the film's lead actor collapsed outside a nightclub and died.
The director, now 80, was woken from his sleep to hear the news.
He says: "We were quite close. My son sometimes said 'you seem closer to River than to me'. He didn't say that as a sign of jealousy."
Almost all of Dark Blood's interior scenes were missing, so the project was shelved.
"After it was decided by all the people involved that the film would stop... there was a problem between the insurance [company] and the bank who did the cash flow for the film," Sluizer says.
"They didn't agree on one bill, and they did not agree about who might own the negatives. That went on for nearly seven years. And in the mean time, the film was in storage in a locked area."
But in 1999, everything changed.
"The two companies decided 'We're fed up with fighting each other'. The insurance were anxious not to pay more storage costs. So finally it was decided they would burn the material."
By this time, the director had moved back to the Netherlands. When he heard of plans to incinerate the 700kg of 35mm film, he hatched a plan to have it smuggled out of the locked facility.
"I got some friends and someone who can open locks to open the storage house and get the stuff out. I did not do it myself, but I'm responsible for... getting it on a truck and getting it away during the night and having it go to New York and then later shipped to Europe."
Despite taking the negatives, Sluizer says he is not expecting to be prosecuted.
"They were not stupid, they knew damn well who 'saved' the material. I know one of the people who was involved in the insurance and they said 'We can't do anything with film, we're insurance people. It's better that it's somewhere else.'"
For years the project went unfinished, until a health scare spurred the director into action.
"A few years ago, I had an aneurysm and was told I was going to die quite quickly," he says. "I said, well I want to finish the film and to leave not a garbage bag of film, but something decent. And that's what I did in 2011, and the post production until today."
Because the absent scenes are spread throughout the film, Sluizer bridges the gaps with still photographs and moving images from the cutting room floor, in addition to his own narration, which spells out what is missing.
While admitting the film will always feel incomplete, he is happy with the result.
"I did my best - with the material I had - to make it an understandable and plausible story. Apparently people say it works."
In September, Dark Blood received its world premiere at the Netherlands Film Festival in Utrecht. But Sluizer is now sufficiently satisfied with the results for it to be seen more widely.
"When it will have a bigger release, I cannot tell you. But I certainly think it will quite soon."
Sluizer describes Phoenix, who was tipped for a bright future, as "a slightly fragile person" because of his troubled youth and his drug use.
"But he was not in my view self destructive," he says. "From my feeling, it was absolutely an accident that night, mixing things that don't mix."
The difficult childhood refers to Phoenix's formative years in the religious cult The Children of God.
The director says the 23-year-old discussed widespread allegations of child abuse within the group. "He talked about the abuses," he says.
"Before shooting I asked him to come to Utah for four or five days with me alone, so that we would get more in touch. So obviously while walking and climbing in the mountains in Utah on our own before any crew or other people are there, he did at moments tell me something about that period.
"I'm not going into details - disclosing some things he told me privately - but obviously it was clear that it was not always very easy and he had a tough time as a kid.
"I never talked about drugs with River," he adds. "Although I knew he used drugs before and maybe even during [filming]... I don't know."
Nineteen years on, the director hopes to see the fruits of their combined labour appreciated by fans across the globe.