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?
In the early ’90s, River Phoenix was one of Hollywood’s most promising young stars, a critically praised actor with dorm-poster good looks and much-discussed roles in movies like My Own Private Idaho and Stand by Me. Sluizer too was building a reputation, mostly based on The Vanishing, which he then remade in the U.S. with Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland in the starring roles. The arty Dark Blood was Sluizer’s next movie, and though it was hardly an obvious career choice for Phoenix, the actor responded to the character’s complexity. ”I decide my projects not based on any big strategy or how Hollywood or the critics will see me,” Phoenix said in a 1992 interview. ”If you have a belief in the story, you’ll just commit. You don’t think, ‘What will people think of this?’ If you do, you’re ruined.”
Before shooting started in the late summer of 1993, Sluizer and Phoenix spent several days in Utah getting to know each other. ”I asked if he wanted to come out and walk in the mountains and see nature and have a good time — to get away from too much nightlife and clubs,” says the director. ”Obviously I was aware of, let’s call it, his youthful past. I don’t think I know anyone who has never smoked a joint. It doesn’t mean you’re not a good actor. We didn’t discuss drugs…. We spent a nice time together.”
But once the cameras rolled, things got complicated. Tension quickly developed between Sluizer and Davis, who apparently decided she just didn’t like him. (Davis declined to be interviewed for this story.) ”It was difficult because Judy Davis decided not to speak to George,” says Karen Black (Nashville), who has a small role in the film. ”If he wanted to direct her, he would have to talk to someone else.”
The atmosphere on set soon grew outright poisonous, and Phoenix found himself caught in the middle. ”[Davis] was not an easy lady, and River had problems with her just as much,” says Sluizer. ”She’s a very good actress. I can’t say that anyone was very fond of her.” The situation got so bad that one of Dark Blood’s London-based executive producers, Nik Powell, flew to Utah to try to make peace. ”It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” says Powell. ”River was incredibly helpful in bringing everybody together…. He was full of warmth, incredibly pro fessional, knew what he was trying to achieve and how to work with a director. He was a major positive force.” Finally, the Utah portion of the production wrapped and everyone headed back to L.A. for the rest of the shoot. The end was finally in sight.
Then, suddenly, everything came apart. The production had managed just one day of work in L.A. before that unthinkable 3 a.m. phone call threw it all into chaos. Sluizer called a meeting to break the news to his cast and crew. Then, amid all of the grief, confusion, and intense media coverage, Sluizer, the producers (JoAnne Sellar, who went on to produce most of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies, plus Powell and Stephen Woolley), and the film’s investors had to hash out what to do next. Sluizer estimates that Dark Blood was 80 percent done when Phoenix died, but much of what was left consisted of crucial interior shots that required close-ups of the young actor.
The final decision would be up to the insurance company, CNA International Reinsurance, but the filmmakers needed to figure out if some kind of patchwork fix would even be possible — and how much it would cost. Could they use computer graphics? That worked with The Crow, which was completed using CGI and body doubles after star Brandon Lee died while making the movie earlier the same year. Recast Phoenix’s role and start over? That’s what happened with the next movie Phoenix had committed to, Interview With the Vampire, which was just ramping up (Christian Slater took over Phoenix’s role). ”It’s a rather intimate film, really about three characters,” says Sluizer. ”It’s not like you can cheat by showing a close-up of legs running. If you don’t see the expressions on someone’s face, you’d lose a lot. Everybody, including myself, agreed that it would make not much sense to try to either eliminate River’s part or say, ‘This is the [whole] movie.”’
Convinced that there was no cost-effective way to salvage Dark Blood, the insurance company made the call to abandon the project and pay out the claim to the original investors, at which point the insurers themselves owned the film. It was a financial decision, but for some of the film makers, it also seemed like the appropriate one. ”For me, the most respectful thing was to close it, not attempt to finish it, and let bygones be bygones,” says Powell. ”George always wanted to finish the movie. He’s a director. I can understand that.” The insurance company then took the roughly 1,500 pounds of 35mm film that had been shot and stashed it in storage. Sluizer, distraught over Phoenix’s death and unsure if he even wanted to keep making movies, had already moved back to Holland.