Let River Rest in Peace

It was a Sunday morning, and I was making breakfast for the kids, sipping on a cup of coffee and flipping the french toast. The home phone rang (this was before everyone had a cell phone) and it was Nik Powell, the British producer.

It was surprising to hear from Nik on a weekend, even though we were in the process of working on a film together. I rested the phone on my shoulder and continued making breakfast. The conversation went something like this…

NIK
Are you sitting down?

ME
Nope. What’s up?

NIK
River’s dead.

ME
You’re kidding.

NIK
No.

Nik filled me in on the horrible details. River Phoenix, one of the stars of the film “Dark Blood,” which Nik was producing and my company, Fine Line, had co-financed, had died of a drug overdose.

The film, which was being directed by George Sluizer and co-starred Judy Davis, had just completed the first half of principal photography. The shoot had been difficult–scorching hot weather on a desert location and much discord on the set. I had heard that, in particular, Sluizer was not getting along with the actors. The desert portion of the film had wrapped and there were a couple of days off before they would start to shoot the interiors in Los Angeles. River had just arrived in L.A. and went out on the town to blow off some steam. Now he was dead.

In the office on Monday, I was besieged by reporters wanting any tidbit of information I could supply about River’s death. In particular, they were looking for footage from the unfinished film to use for their newscasts that evening. As I repeatedly insisted that we had no such footage, I stared at a pile of VHS cassettes on my desk. I actually had all the rushes right there–every foot of film that had been shot in the desert.

As the day came to a close, I put all the VHS cassettes into a Federal Express box, inserted a note and shipped them off to River’s mother. My note said something like, “I’m sending these to you just to make sure they don’t end up in the wrong hands.”

The film itself ended up as one big insurance claim. There was no way to complete it since half the film had yet to be shot.

It was therefore with great interest that I read that George Sluizer recently announced his intention to finish the film. He said that the Phoenix family was cooperating, and that Joaquin would record a voice-over. None of this made sense to me based on what I knew about the history. The next day, I was relieved to see a response from River’s mom stating that in no way would the family cooperate.

For what it’s worth, here is my opinion…

Any attempt to finish “Dark Blood” would be a travesty. It would be trading on River’s fame in the most sordid kind of way. Is this what Sluizer needs to revive his directing career? The only legitimate use I can think of for that footage would be to incorporate it in a serious documentary about River and his remarkable career. Otherwise, let him rest in peace.

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5 Responses to Let River Rest in Peace

  1. For What it's Worth says:

    Ira,
    While I can understand where you’re coming from in terms of YOUR involvement with the unfinished film, as well as River’s family, I would like to speak to you from the perspective of an unattached or uninvolved fan of the late, great, River Phoenix. There’s no way that anyone who grew up in the 80s can deny that River was an amazing talent on a multitude of levels. Aside from folks whom were brought up during the glorious years that were the 80s I think that the majority of folks simply have no idea of how remarkable an actor and true talent River actually was. Being able to be introduced to him via a “new” movie will not only rekindle his namesake, but it will also introduce a whole new youthful audience to someone whom had so much to offer and had yet to even scratch the surface as to what he could have ultimately done.

    Your personal feelings aside, and in spite of the relationships that may have previously been frayed during the production of the last film, I believe that the good of releasing this title–some 18 years after the fact would have a far more positive impact than any negative connotations that might arise. That, of course, stems from the opinion of a fan whom has no affiliation whatsoever with any of the parties involved, other than being a fan of the person all of this hoopla is about in the first place: River Phoenix.

    I do hope that the Phoenix family reconsiders their stance on the matter, if indeed they are trying to distance themselves from any possibility of supporting the release of this film, because again, the fans deserve to see the true final piece of River’s body of work. River, himself, thought enough of the project to sign on board for the role, and from all accounts was a true professional on-set, so I believe he would want the film completed. It would also be a really wonderful collaboration between two brothers that happened in an extraordinary way.

    Any way, you offered up your two cents on the matter, and I can appreciate and respect that– I wonder how you feel about mine.

    God bless.

  2. Grayson says:

    River Phoenix was more than a very talented actor. He was also a musician,
    singer, songwriter, environmental/animal rights activist, and a humanitarian.

    River wanted his life to mean something. He was a serious person with
    strong convictions. He wanted to influence people. He wanted to change things.
    The stories about his veganism and buying up hundreds of acres of rainforest
    are now the stuff of legend.

    By releasing Dark Blood all these years later, River has the opportunity once
    again to influence. An entire generation would be exposed to this great actor
    for the first time. Thousands, perhaps millions of people who are curious
    enough would also begin looking into this actors life and discover something
    quite special.

    They themselves may be inspired to think more about the role they play in the
    environment. They may also decide how we treat animals is unacceptable.
    This is the power that River had. I know this because he affected me in that way.
    The only way I could find meaning in such a senseless loss was to change myself.
    The issues that River cared about have not been resolved in the nearly twenty years
    since he left. They have only gotten more urgent.

    We’ll never know just how much he would have achieved had he made it out of that
    ‘experimental stage’ so many of us go through at a young age. He is often remembered
    simply as a child actor who overdosed on drugs. He was much more than that and his
    memory deserves better.

    Dark Blood has value. A kind of value that goes far beyond what a small minority of
    dissenters can understand. River wanted this film to be seen. He cared about it enough
    to devote his time to it. There is a strong environmental message in the film – the kind of
    truth that can give film a timelessness.

    It was also his most adult role to date. Given the perception that many people retain of him
    from early films like Stand By Me, Dark Blood would very likely educate the public to his
    potential as a leading man, which would add a new and more complex layer to his legacy.

    The director himself has stated that the film is 90% completed and only seven to eleven days
    of filming remained. The art and magic of filmmaking could take care of the rest, and under the
    circumstances any imperfections would be understood by the public.

    Artists dream of having something to leave behind. It doesn’t matter if they are actors or
    musicians. Speaking from the grave with a final work has always been a romantic notion
    of the artist. River was a true artist. And this is what he left behind for us. It is time to
    welcome it with open arms.

    He wanted to have a positive impact. He wanted to inform and enlighten people.
    With the release of Dark Blood there is an opportunity here to help him help us.
    We should not impede that in any way.

    Let the world discover River Phoenix again.

    Grayson Matthews
    New York City

  3. Ira says:

    Believe me, if there was a way to finish the film with any integrity, the insurance company would have figured that out many years ago. It was determined that too much of the film was missing, and that it could not be finished to anyone’s satisfaction. I don’t believe that it was 90% done.

  4. Grayson says:

    Sorry Ira, nothing personal but I don’t believe you.
    The vast majority of sources on this issue have stated numerous times
    over the past eighteen years that the production was almost completed,
    and that there were just a few vital scenes left to film.

    After River’s death the entire issue was a hot potato and a P.R. nightmare.
    Hell, even Silent Tongue’s release got pushed back and then was only
    released in THREE theaters. Nobody wanted to give the appearance of
    ‘cashing in’.

    If Sluizer can figure out a way to get Dark Blood into a releasable state I
    fully support that endeavor. You say it was half completed. The director
    says it was 90% completed. Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle.
    I doubt Sluizer would be pursuing this if he only had 50% in the can. Until
    we know for certain, this is a he said/he said issue. If you can provide some
    proof for your claim however, I would be more than happy to make a
    re-evaluation.

    Richard Donner shot about 70% of Superman II before being fired and was
    able to release a modified version of his film after almost 29 years of that footage
    wasting away in a vault. Granted, he had the crutch of relying on another directors
    work to complete that project. Is it perfect? No. Far from it. But it is greatly
    appreciated for what it is… an unfinished work that shows a great deal of potential.
    It remains a valuable, interesting, and historic film artifact. As would Dark Blood.

    Film fans are an intelligent lot. They can understand what is involved with
    releasing an unfinished film. There are a number of options for bridging gaps.
    Voice-overs, title cards, storyboards, and a host of other solutions that can
    only be achieved through the art of filmmaking. The good in releasing Dark Blood
    far outweighs any bad. There’s just not much to lose here and so much to gain.

    Thankfully there are more people who want this film released than there are those
    who would be content with the film elements degrading into dust. If I were a betting
    man I’d say some time in the future, if not next year then soon after, Dark Blood will
    be released in some form. And I’ll be quite happy that any effort to prevent that
    would have failed.

    It’s a part of history now.

    Grayson
    NYC

  5. Grayson says:

    One final thought here.

    I just re-read the script.
    I think there may be some confusion between
    location shooting and exterior/interior shots.

    Here’s what is known…

    All location shooting in Utah was completed
    (and a brief scene in New Mexico as well).
    All exterior scenes were completed.
    River’s character was seen in basically three
    locations: Utah Exteriors, the Shack (his home),
    and the Shelter (underground bunker).

    The Shack was an exterior/interior set.
    They filmed the Shack interior shots on location.
    There has been some video released supporting
    this, with a quick clip of him carving the Kachina
    doll at night, and another on his bed in the daytime.

    Most of this film is exteriors. I’d say maybe 60%.
    And there’s quite a bit of story going on in the
    exterior scenes. Another 20% is probably Shack
    interiors. The one location we know wasn’t filmed
    in Utah was the Shelter interior, which was
    created in a studio in Los Angeles.

    River did complete at least part of one Shelter
    scene in LA. There are a few scenes in the
    Shelter and one of the unfilmed scenes is kind
    of important – although wouldn’t be difficult to
    recreate with stand-in actors lit by candlelight
    (maybe it’s time for Mr. Sluizer to give James
    Franco a call).

    After reading the script and knowing that all Utah
    filming was completed, it’s easy to see where the
    90% number came from.

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