George Sluizer said goodbye to River Phoenix around 10 o’clock on the night of Oct. 30, 1993. The director, best known for his 1988 thriller The Vanishing, was shooting a movie called Dark Blood with the actor, and the plan was to meet up the next day on set. Phoenix headed to the West Hollywood hot spot the Viper Room. Sluizer went to his room at the Hotel Nikko, where he and Phoenix were staying. Phoenix was excited about a meeting with director Terry Gilliam the next morning, Sluizer says, and he didn’t get the sense that Phoenix was planning a night of hard partying. ”We said, ‘See you tomorrow,”’ Sluizer recalls. ”There was no feeling of something [about to go] wrong.”
Around 3 a.m., the phone in the director’s room rang. It was Phoenix’s agent, sharing the news of what would become one of the saddest, most shocking pop culture milestones of the ’90s. While hanging out at the Viper Room with his younger brother, Joaquin, his sister Rain, and his girlfriend, Samantha Mathis, Phoenix had ingested a dangerous combination of cocaine and heroin. He went into convulsions on the sidewalk outside the club, where Joaquin and Rain tried desperately to help him. The 23-year-old actor was pronounced dead at 1:51 a.m.
Sluizer and Phoenix had grown close while filming 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.”
Dark Blood is about a young man (Phoenix) who retreats to the desert after his wife dies from radiation following nuclear tests near their home. One day he encounters two stranded vacationers, played by Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce, and the film traces the strange relationship that develops among the three characters. (You can see several rough clips of the film at darkbloodthemovie.com.) 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, which Sluizer had been prepping for years, 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?