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…
Are you sitting down?
Nope. What’s up?
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.