The last film that River Phoenix ever made, Dark Blood, screened today out of competition at the Berlin Film Festival. The existential Western, originally shot in 1993 but uncompleted at the time of Phoenix’s death in October that year, is still tangled up in a rights conundrum, but sources close to the project believe it will eventually see a commercial release.
The film has a storied history. About 80% of it was shot before Phoenix died of a drug overdose outside the Viper Room in West Hollywood. At the time, the unfinished product reverted to the film’s insurance company before director George Sluizer (The Vanishing) recovered it and sequestered it away. At a press conference in Berlin today, Sluizer explained that in 1999 he learned the footage was going to be destroyed and within two days was able to save it and take it back to Holland. Sluizer said the material “laid in my care for many years waiting for something to happen with it. I was making other films at the time and it was safe.” But when he learned he had a life-threatening aneurism in 2007, he decided, “Before I die I want to put Dark Blood together as best I can.” For the scenes that were not completed at the time of Phoenix’s death, Sluizer provides his own voice-over.
Dark Blood sees Phoenix play Boy, a hermit living in the desert and awaiting the end of the world, who offers to help a couple (Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce) after their Bentley breaks down while trying to rekindle their marriage. The film has yet to screen outside of Europe — it first appeared at the Netherlands Film Festival in Utrecht in September; the Berlin screening is its second official festival berth. It will next premiere in the U.S. at the Miami Film Festival.
Whether Dark Blood will ever have a commercial release remains up in the air. “There will not be an agreement today or the day after today, but I can’t say because they are very tough,” said Sluizer, referring to the holding company that now owns the original insurance company on the film. An interesting aspect of this is that the name of the insurance company in question has never been revealed. Back in 1993, it was reported the company asked for its name not to be mentioned. Today, a person involved from the outset tells me the company was “one of the big ones” but was dealt with via brokers and has since been taken over several times. Another person involved feels it shouldn’t be a problem clearing rights. However, Sluizer noted today that the folks he’s dealing with “are billionaires and money market people who by mistake have in their stock of hospitals, buildings and hotels or whatever, a film, and they don’t care about movies.” But, he added, “The problem is not a difference of opinion, it’s you have to come to terms on another level.” Another person once close to the picture says, “You just have to have people who will spend the time to do the deal and the producers and George are trying to get to that.”
Is it a good idea that this film sees the commercial light of day? Maybe, “as a kind of tribute to the people involved,” says someone who worked on it. Another says they “would want the Phoenix family to be involved.” Sluizer himself said today that he has “had correspondence” with the actor’s mother but that “the Phoenix family does not participate at festivals with our film.” Back in October of 2011, a spokesperson for the family said the family had “not been in communication with the director nor will they participate in any way.”