River Phoenix’s death from a drug overdose in October left Hollywood grief-stricken in an unusually public way. But while the mourning of friends and family made front-page news, one drama was quickly stifled — that which surrounded the panicked director and producers of Dark Blood, the movie Phoenix was making at the time of his death. Barely halfway through production, they suddenly found themselves without a star.
The $8 million movie — an intended Fine Line Features release about a love triangle involving an estranged married couple (Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce) and a drifter played by Phoenix — had completed five weeks of filming in remote Torrey, Utah, and director George Sluizer (The Vanishing) had reassembled the cast and crew in Los Angeles for interior shots. On Oct. 31, with three weeks of production remaining, Phoenix died. The next morning, Dark Blood‘s producers and director told the cast and crew they were being let go.
On Nov. 18, Dark Blood was officially abandoned. Now the film’s insurance company (which has asked everyone associated with the project not to release its name) finds itself the somewhat surprised owner of the movie, which sits locked away in a lab’s vault. The producers and director are no longer speaking about the film, and in all likelihood, it will never be seen by the public.
The filmmakers’ decision to shut down their movie is nearly unprecedented. ”In 99 percent of the cases, it is best to finish the film,” says one insurer. ”And I can’t think of what that one other case would be.” That case just might be Dark Blood. Recasting Phoenix was unfeasible: The cost of starting over would have been prohibitive, and cast members had already scheduled other projects. Trying to finish the film without Phoenix, says a source close to the production, ”would have been like doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Richard Burton dies. You can’t have an argument between Judy and River and only show him from the back. Technology’s not at the point where you can computer-generate him.”
Still, at least one party has explored getting Dark Blood completed and released. Writer-director Larry Cohen (It’s Alive, The Ambulance) says that Steven Ransohoff, vice president of Film Finances, which issued the completion-bond guarantee for Dark Blood (and thus backed the production’s bank loan), approached him. ”I got a call from him to see if I might be interested in talking,” says Cohen. ”[We agreed] I would have to see the picture and see what the story is about, to see if we can manipulate it.” Cohen’s previous experience with 11th-hour retooling made him a logical candidate; he had previously worked with Film Finances to rewrite Wicked Stepmother after star Bette Davis dropped out of the 1989 comedy 10 days into production.
”I just told him I had given his name to someone,” Ransohoff says. ”There’s no plan at this point to do anything.”
Phoenix isn’t the first star to die in the middle of making a movie; films from Gone With the Wind to Plan Nine From Outer Space have continued shooting after a cast member’s death, often by simply recasting. In fact, this is the second time in less than a year that a production has had to deal with the accidental death of a young star. And as the producers of Dark Blood found themselves frantically seeking a solution, they may have looked to the frenzy surrounding The Crow last spring.
The Crow halted production for seven weeks last March when actor Brandon Lee was killed by a stunt gun’s dummy bullet while filming his character’s death scene. Within a week, the cast and crew had made the decision that they wanted to complete the movie. ”We looked at the material,” says a source close to the production, ”and we saw that what was not [yet] photographed were the more important emotional underpinnings to the story.” First-time director Alex Proyas and producer Edward Pressman (Hoffa) rewrote the script; for one scene they went so far as to employ a look-alike for Lee, whose resemblance was heightened by colored contact lenses and a latex mask cast from Lee’s face. ”It was the eyes that really threw me,” says actor Ernie Hudson, who shared a scene with the double.
Upon its completion, however, The Crow was rejected by Paramount (its original distributor) and Columbia and is now being shopped to Miramax. But Hudson says that completing the film was crucial, since ”we were all committed to Brandon.” The source agrees, adding, ”Who gives a shit if the producers and insurance companies take a loss?”
In the case of Dark Blood, there are ways for the insurance company to recoup some of its losses: The wardrobe and props may be sold, and exterior shots can be converted to stock footage. In the future, a producer could also buy the script from the insurance company and attempt to start from scratch. But more likely, Dark Blood will simply stay on the shelf, maybe someday going the way of two other uncompleted movies — Orson Welles’ It’s All True (1941) and Marilyn Monroe’s Something’s Got to Give (1962), which have been the subjects of documentaries about the makings of the films.
Even people close to the production can’t imagine a happy ending. ”We’ve all been asking these questions,” says ICM agent Martha Luttrell, who represents Judy Davis. ”None of us knows what will happen. It’s so unusual. I would think that people would want to see the footage since it’s River’s last movie, but I don’t know how comfortable we would be with the footage going out, since it’s uncut and we haven’t seen it.” Even if a director were able to finish the project, ”what the original editor and director would have done with it remains the unanswered question,” says New York University film professor Robert Sklar. For now, Phoenix’s last effort remains, in the words of the insurance company executive, ”an unfinished piece, like half a painting.” But, he adds quickly, ”if you paid a lot of money for it, why not own it?”