River Phoenix died of a drug overdose nearly two decades ago, but his final film is just being released now after a difficult journey to completion.
Dark Blood, the movie River Phoenix was working on when he died in 1993, is set to debut at a Dutch film festival later this month. Entertainment Weekly published a report about the long journey the movie made before director George Sluzier finally finished it.
The release of Dark Blood comes at a time when River Phoenix has seen more attention. His younger brother, Joaquin Phoenix, is earning rave reviews for his performance in the Paul Thomas Anderson movie The Master, leading many news outlets to focus on the unusual upbringing of the Phoenix clan.
When they were younger the parents of Joaquin and River Phoenix belonged to a cult-like organization known as Children of God, and even after leaving the organization they maintained a hippie-like lifestyle, The Hollywood Reporter noted.
One day, as the family sang at a local mall, they were discovered by a talent agent who filtered River Phoenix and brother Joaquin into acting.
The Entertainment Weekly account goes into detail of the confusion that set in after Sluzier got the call that River Phoenix had overdosed on a mixture of cocaine and heroin while he waited outside the Viper Room in Los Angeles:
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?
The movie’s insurance company then made the call to abandon the movie, believing there was no way to salvage it after River’s death. It issued payments to the original investors, making the insurers owners of the film.
But the company wasn’t a particularly good steward of Dark Blood. In fact, as Sluzier learned in 1999, they planed to destroy the film itself rather than store it any longer.
“That’s when I said, ‘No, no, I’m going to save it from destruction,’ ” said Sluizer. “I have good assistants, if I can put it this way, and some people who are clever in finding the right key,” he added with a laugh. “I am an enterprising person.”
As he recovered from an acute aortic dissection suffered on Christmas Day 2007, Sluzier made the decision to finish River Phoenix’s last film once and for all. His work will pay off on September 27, when he debuts it to a Dutch film festival.