Première (US edition), january 2001

River's End: The Unfinished Film

by Sean M. Smith

When River Phoenix died of a cocaine and heroin overdose on Halloween 1993, he was 11 days shy of completing Dark Blood, a dramatic thriller directed by Dutch filmmaker George Sluizer (The Vanishing). For six and a half years the unedited footage from that film sat locked in a vault in Los Angeles, hostage to a standoff between an insurance company and a bonding company.

Now, that truckload of celluloid belongs to Sluizer. It's stored in an environmentally controlled warehouse in Amsterdam. "It's under my protective wings," Sluizer says from his offices in the Netherlands. "The insurance company said they were going to destroy it, but that's like throwing away James Dean footage."

Somewhere among the boxes upon boxes of film reels lies the last frame of Phoenix, captured hours before the 23-year-old star collapsed in front of the Viper Room on Sunset Boulevard. To most of America at the time, Phoenix, a vegan and an eco-activist, seemed an unlikely poster boy for drug abuse. But to Hollywood's inner circle, the actor's dalliance with illegal substances was common knowledge. "I spoke to him months before we started shooting to see how sober he was," Sluizer says. "During the shoot in Utah, there was no problem whatsoever." But on October 30, the first day of filming after the production had relocated to L.A., Sluizer realized the honeymoon was over. "River had taken something," he says. "He had difficulty judging distances. He'd try to put his hand on the wall and not know if it was a yard away or a foot away. He was quieter. He sat in the makeup chair for an hour without moving. It wasn't usual for him to sit for long."

In the film, Phoenix's character lives alone in a cave, embittered by nuclear bomb testing that has caused cancer rates in the Nevada desert to skyrocket. In the scene shot that last day, Phoenix's character brings Buffy (Judy Davis) and Harry (Jonathan Pryce) to his secret place. Standing amid flickering candles, he tells them: "I belong to another place. I'm in another world." Two days later, Sluizer discovered that the camera inexplicably had continued rolling after the final take. "It's a little weird," he says. "You see River standing there for about 20 seconds before he turns around and walks away into the darkness."

After Phoenix died, the film's producers determined that the movie could not be completed. The insurers, Entertainment Coalition, took possession of the footage, promptly paid out about $7 million, and then spent six years haggling with a bonding company over a low-six-figure fee and arguing about which company owned the film elements. Last spring, the storage company that had been holding the footage for free announced that it would start charging. The dispute was quickly settled, and Sluizer got his movie back, at no charge. He intends to make a film about Phoenix's acting style, but not anytime soon. "[I'll do it] when I'm old and have nothing else to do," he says, and laughs.

The text on this page © 2001 Première magazine.

Back to the Home Page