Di­rec­tor, co-star re­mem­ber Phoenix fondly

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Kelli Kennedy

MI­AMI — When ac­tor Jonathan Pryce first re­ceived a copy of River Phoenix’s last film, Dark Blood, it sat un­watched on his desk for months. He wor­ried about how he would feel re­liv­ing Phoenix’s death, grow­ing nos­tal­gic about mem­o­rable din­ners the two shared af­ter long days of film­ing in Utah and re­call­ing the shock­ing 5 a.m. phone call telling him the young ac­tor had died.

“It’s very hard to com­pre­hend for a while. It was a ter­ri­bly sad time,” said Pryce, who starred in the film along­side Phoenix and Judy Davis.

Now, 20 years later, Dark Blood made its U.S. pre­mière at the Mi­ami In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val on Wed­nes­day, a tes­ta­ment to the en­durance of 80-year-old di­rec­tor Ge­orge Sluizer, who al­most died be­fore the film was com­pleted, and a trib­ute to Phoenix’s time­less charisma. (It’s un­cer­tain whether the film will ever go to a gen­eral re­lease.)

In the film, Pryce and Davis play a Hol­ly­wood cou­ple who travel through the desert, des­per­ately try­ing to save their mar­riage on a sec­ond hon­ey­moon. They seek shel­ter in Phoenix’s shack af­ter their car breaks down, un­aware that he in­tends to keep them as pris­on­ers. Phoenix played Boy, whose wife died of leukemia from nu­clear test­ing, leav­ing him alone and iso­lated in the desert.

But the jour­ney to com­plete the film is ev­ery bit as dra­matic as the story it­self. Phoenix, a ris­ing star from Stand by Me and My Own Pri­vate Idaho, was 23 when he died in 1993 out­side The Viper Room in Los An­ge­les. The cause was heart fail­ure af­ter over­dos­ing on heroin and co­caine.

Af­ter his death, there was talk of find­ing an­other ac­tor to re­place Phoenix or us­ing spe­cial ef­fects to fin­ish Dark Blood. The film was about 80 per cent com­plete and most of the miss­ing scenes were be­tween Davis and Phoenix. But Sluizer ul­ti­mately passed on those op­tions and the film footage sat un­touched in a vault for years. In 1999, the Dutch di­rec­tor learned the footage was go­ing to be burned to make space for new ma­te­rial, so he quickly trans­ported it to The Nether­lands, where it sat for an­other decade.

Sluizer was di­ag­nosed with a heart ar­rhyth­mia in 2007 and “the doc­tors ba­si­cally con­demned me.” But the di­rec­tor re­cov­ered and felt com­pelled to fin­ish Dark Blood be­fore it was too late. He sorted through the ma­te­rial, un­cov­er­ing miss­ing and dam­aged reels, and nar­rated the voiceovers to fill in miss­ing pieces of the plot.

When Sluizer first met Phoenix at a San Fran­cisco ho­tel to dis­cuss the film, he wor­ried about how a hot-shot heart­throb would han­dle work­ing with an older di­rec­tor.

But Phoenix was re­spect­ful and com­pas­sion­ate, abruptly run­ning off to get Sluizer some headache medicine dur­ing their first meet­ing, and ac­com­pa­ny­ing Sluizer on long hikes in Utah.

“River was a gen­tle, re­spect­ful per­son. I must say that I was very fond of him,” Sluizer said.

Dark Blood was not an easy pro­duc­tion. The ma­te­rial was heavy, they filmed in des­o­late lo­ca­tions and Davis was dif­fi­cult to work with. Phoenix also had dyslexia and strug­gled to re­mem­ber long seg­ments of di­a­logue.

But Sluizer mar­veled at Phoenix’s abil­ity to em­body a char­ac­ter with such depth.

“It’s what comes out of him and the charisma he has, plus the fact that he knows how to ex­press a char­ac­ter when he has got hold of it,” he said.

Pryce of­ten met the young ac­tor and his friends for din­ner, find­ing ca­ma­raderie in the desert.

“You do be­come in­cred­i­bly close when you work to­gether in a film… I felt enor­mous em­pa­thy with him. I liked him very much,” Pryce said.

The two in­sist Phoenix was not us­ing drugs while film­ing in Utah. But some­thing was no­tice­ably wrong with Phoenix when the crew re­turned for a shoot in Los An­ge­les. His eyes floated, he walked dif­fer­ently and sat list­lessly for long pe­ri­ods of time. The next morn­ing, cast and crew got the news. “It left us to­tally sad and af­ter River’s death, I nearly said I don’t want to make movies any­more,” Sluizer lamented.

He dis­misses any no­tion that the film is ex­ploit­ing the ac­tor’s death.

“It’s a piece of work that be­longs not just to River but all of us in the film and it was right that (Sluizer) com­pleted it in the way that he did,” Pryce said.

MI­AMI IN­TER­NA­TIONAL FILM FES­TI­VAL

River Phoenix in Dark Blood, his last role be­fore his death in 1993.

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