Phoenix Rises: George Sluizer on River Phoenix's final film Dark Blood

Director George Sluizer discusses his 1993 film Dark Blood, which makes its UK premiere at GFF two decades after production stoped when its young star, River Phoenix, died

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 24 Feb 2014

The history of cinema is littered with spirits. Actors long dead remain young and luminous when projected, their images ghosts that haunt the silver screen. This feeling is most palpable when the work in question relates to performers who died young, their careers in infancy.

Films like Giant, released in 1956 following the death of James Dean, and more recently The Dark Knight, where Heath Ledger is blistering as the film’s antagonist, retain a macabre power for being snapshots of young artists who will never attain their full potential. Dark Blood, the film in which River Phoenix gives his last performance before dying from a drugs overdose outside Johnny Depp's Los Angeles club, the Viper Room, in 1993, is likely to be filed with the final films of Dean and Ledger when it is finally released 21 years after his death.

Despite being only 23 when he died, Phoenix had amassed a string of great performances, from the streetwise Chris in Stand By Me, to a narcoleptic rent boy in My Own Private Idaho and, best of all, the kid on the lam with his fugitive parents in Running on Empty, for which he was Oscar nominated. His fans will be eager to see his never-completed swan song, but its director, George Sluizer, who’ll present his final edit of the film to a Glasgow audience tonight two decades after Phoenix’s death closed down production, is happy to keep us in suspense.

“It’s difficult to talk about something that’s a bit abstract,” says Sluizer by phone from his home in the South of France, when asked for details of the film he’s pieced together. “I can only say it’s a good movie,” he chuckles. What we glean from our conversation with The Vanishing director is that Phoenix’s role is by some margin the darkest in his short career. “I thought, first of all, that he had a lot of charisma,” says Sluizer when we ask why he was interested in Phoenix for the role. “But he would bring that to any film he would do. I like that he was known as the blond, blue-eyed, charming boy and in this film he’s partly mad. It’s a very different character from what he’s done before.”

“It’s unique in film: it’s like Schubert’s unfinished symphony – no one complains that it is incomplete" – George Sluizer

Sluizer describes resurrecting Dark Blood as “a gamble”. He rescued the prints in 1999 only days before they were due to be destroyed by the film’s insurance company. “I saved it from there and I kept it safe,” he explains, “but I didn’t do anything with it until 2010, because I was busy with other movies.” It was only when the 81-year-old had an aneurysm seven years ago that he got to work. “I got seriously ill and could not walk for a long time. The only thing I could do was edit, so I decided I would try to edit this material. I didn’t know if there was a story there anymore, because we only had a little more than half of it filmed.” (When Phoenix died, Dark Blood’s shoot was 11 days from completion.)

The film centres on a yuppie couple (Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce) who find themselves stuck in the desert when their car breaks down and are taken in by Phoenix’s volatile young man. Sluizer fills in the narrative gaps using voiceover played over production stills. “I’m the narrator for the little pieces that are, let’s call it, missing,” he says, “but I had to rewrite the whole story also to make it worthwhile or interesting, because obviously otherwise, when you miss so much, you can’t tell a story.” Although Sluizer suggest that Dark Blood's gaps don’t distract from its overall charm. “It’s unique [in film]: it’s like Schubert’s unfinished symphony – no one complains that it is incomplete.”

When asked if he ever considered recasting the film after Phoenix’s death, Sluizer doesn’t miss a beat. “No, I never had the intention to reshoot the picture with another actor,” he says sharply. “It would have been inelegant and I would say unwise. People said, ‘Well let’s take Johnny Depp and reshoot, or shoot the rest focused on someone’s legs or the back of the head,’ all these solutions were dismissed. It was kind of a respect for River. You cannot just change a piece of a car when it’s broken.”

24 Feb, GFT 1, 6.30pm

George Sluizer will present this UK premiere and take part in a Q&A following the film