Casting news circulates the internet like clockwork each week, but one story last month stood out from the rest because it involved a dead man: A brief item in The Hollywood Reporter set off a media frenzy with the report that director George Sluizer plans on completing his unfinished 1993 feature "Dark Blood," which came to an abrupt halt following the tragic passing of leading man River Phoenix from a drug overdose that year.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Sluizer has teamed with the Dutch production company Eyeworks to re-edit the film, which starred Phoenix as a young man living in the middle of a nuclear testing site who forms a relationship with a marooned couple played by Jonathan Price and Judy Davis. To compensate for the missing star, the story alleged that Sluizer planned on asking the actor's brother, Joaquin Phoenix, to provide voiceover material. The story also asserted that Sluizer felt confident he could release the film in 2012.
But it's not that simple.
Reached on his cell phone in Abu Dhabi last week, where he was participating in a film festival jury, Sluizer denied having spoken with anyone from the Hollywood Reporter for the piece (although he was quoted in it) but confirmed that he wanted to finish "Dark Blood," if not anytime in the near future. "Nothing has been done yet," Sluizer told indieWIRE. "A release in 2012 would be really fast. Very simply, when you work and care about something very much, you want to try to finalize it."
After the production of "Dark Blood" collapsed in the immediate aftermath of Phoenix's death, the rights to the materials were ceded to the insurance company. Sluizer said that he heard the company wanted to destroy the remaining materials around a decade ago, but explained that he "took care that it was not destroyed," but declined to go into details. He also said that the company had tried to sell the materials to archives at UCLA, although a rep for the university could find no record of such an exchange. While it's possible that Sluizer could license the footage (some of which has popped up on YouTube) from the insurance company, he said that he has been relying on Eyeworks to sort out the challenges surrounding the rights.
Anne Visschedjik, an Eyeworks representative involved in that process, told indieWIRE via e-mail that it was too early for the company to discuss the project. "We share George's passion for the project and we are researching the possibilities," she said.
Sluizer also offered only scant details about how he might finish the film, noting that he had only mentioned the possibility of a Joaquin Phoenix voiceover to a colleague in passing. However, he explained his motive for wanting to complete the film at great length, pointing to his own near-death experience–a close call with an aneurysm–three years ago that led him to consider his unfinished work. "I didn't die, but I started to think, 'Can I finish this before it's too late?'" he said. "That's basically the way it started."
He added that Ted Turner had offered to use the footage for a documentary about Phoenix after his death, but the director turned him down. "I was the only one interested in the movie," he said, but the sudden end to the production seven days before the scheduled completion of the shoot left him in an emotionally uneasy state.
Before the film began, Sluizer said he spent time alone with Phoenix in the mountains of Utah a week prior to the production, helping the actor prepare for the role. "I wouldn't say I was a father figure to River, but on that film we had a relationship that was very strong," he said. He received a call from Phoenix's agent on the night of the actor's death on October 31, 1993. "I thought I was having a nightmare," he recalled. He left the country shortly afterward. "I was not sure I wanted to make any more films," he said, noting that pre-production on "Dark Blood" lasted three years.
If Sluizer does work out a deal with the insurance company to complete the production, he may need a different strategy. Soon after news of the new project came out, Phoenix's estate offered a swift reaction. "Despite George Sluizer's claim that he has been communicating with River Phoenix's family in regard to releasing River's last film, Joaquin Phoenix and his family have not been in communication with the director nor will they participate in any way," read a statement from the family's rep.
Sluizer, however, said that he had spoken to the family in the past, just not about the possibility of finishing the project. He seemed unfazed about their stance. "I need to find the time and then think about how to fill in the gaps," he said.
He may have a lot of work to do, but that alone won't stop his efforts. Colleagues describe Sluizer as an intensely driven man, pointing to his insistence on directing the English-language remake of his acclaimed 1988 thriller "The Vanishing" just before working on "Dark Blood." "George is an artist with a persistent vision and he doesn't give up easily," said Ruth Vitale, who was an executive at Fine Line when the now-defunct company was producing the movie. "When he digs his teeth into something creatively, really believes in it, he doesn't want to give up."
But she and others think he should at least consider that option. "I understand why he would want to do it," she said, "but I can't imagine why anyone else would want to revisit it." Emerging Pictures managing partner Ira Deutchman, the head of production at Fine Line at that time, condemned Sluizer's attempts in a blog post over the weekend. "Any attempt to finish 'Dark Blood' would be a travesty," Deutchman wrote. "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?"
But Sluizer pled his case to indieWIRE. "Its like a painting with one corner that's not painted," he said. "I think it's quite normal for any artist to wish the work can survive in some way."
So far, none of the original producers have signed on to this tentative effort, although one of them, Nik Powell, said he had been contacted by Eyeworks. "Our point of view is that it was tragic but we don't really see how anyone could complete it," the UK-based producer explained. "River, god bless him, was in pretty much every scene. Honestly, a performance is a whole experience, and if you only have half of it, it doesn't really do it justice."
Nevertheless, Powell didn't completely rule out his willingness to get involved in a new release. "I can't even think about it yet because I don't know how one can make a film out of it," he said, "I'm not really interested in being part of it, but I wouldn't say that as an absolute thing." Still, Powell said that those seeking to study Phoenix's legacy should look elsewhere. "We know he's fantastic in those scenes," he said. "But the public and the fans should watch the wonderful films he's made that are complete."
Sluizer himself said that he didn't want to finish "Dark Blood" primarily as a ode to the actor. "If something happens, it will be a tribute to River," he said, "but there are three main actors are they're all very good." He emphasized the personal nature of the material. "Let's put it this way," he said. "My intention is to try and finish the film. The main goal is that the work is finalized. Other people can care about the distribution and the money, but that's my reason."