The director talks about completing Dark Blood, which halted production following the death of lead actor River Phoenix.

In 1993 director George Sluizer was in the midst of shooting Dark Blood when production came crashing to a halt after the film’s star, River Phoenix, died of an accidental overdose. After years of sitting in an insurance company vault, the film’s director rescued the footage from a planned incineration. 

Now sales agent Cinemavault is hoping to find a US distributor at this week’s AFM. Sluizer talks to Elbert Wyche about his motivations for completing the film, the challenges of editing incomplete footage and what this film has meant to his life and career.

After almost 20 years why was it important for you to complete the film and bring it to audiences?

For every artist it’s important to finish a creative work. It depends on how strong the urge is. I compare it to painters – one painter will absolutely finish a work and the other might leave it. For me when it became a real option to be able to do something with the outlet, I chose to do so. I call it creative urge. Maybe it was accentuated by the fact that in 2008 I got an aneurism and the doctors told me I would not live much longer; they said three to six months. It was the fact that I did not want to die before finishing Dark Blood

What were some of the challenges and highlights of editing the film?

Well, obviously in the beginning I had forgotten some of the details of the material. I knew that shooting had gone well up to River’s death. I had a clause in my contract that said nothing should be edited before the shooting was finished. I had to see at first if it was responsible to try to edit it because I only had roughly 70% material, and not even that; there were some places where I had sound missing, other places there were some pictures missing. So let’s say there was 68% of the movie. To make a 100% movie out of 68% percent was a tough task. 

It had to be understandable to an audience. It needed to be clear enough story-wise, so I had to rewrite quite a lot from narration to change some things and even to delete some things that we had shot. Otherwise the story would not have been understood by an audience. So, it was tough on that side, but it was exhilarating to see how good the acting was. I had a feeling there was a movie in there. It just has to take well enough and work hard enough on it to find it and make it work. 

It was an exiting challenge to see how you can manage to tell a story, which keeps an audience interested and busy when it is only so many percent of the story. I can say from the positive audience reactions I’ve gotten from various festivals and screenings around the world that we succeeded. 

I’m sure there were many different devices that you could have used to fill in the missing scenes.  What led to the decision to use your own voice to narrate the missing pieces of the film?

Obviously, I went through all the possibilities. From silent cinema, special effects, from documentaries, from things written, animated. After about two months of thinking about it I decided I should do the most simple and the most honest thing. And that was what I felt was needed through my own need to be close to the movie. It’s something that I guess you can feel in a situation when death is waiting at your door. It gave me the wisdom to know that if you’re simple you are probably the most true to the story.

When you finished editing and you knew that was the last time you would creatively touch that film - what was that moment like for you?

Very important in my life. Dark Blood for me is the last thing that I will probably create and make. Because I’m ill and I can’t walk, things take another meaning. For me, it was realising that I can’t make another feature - that’s the end. Before I embarked on completing Dark Blood, I was busy creating a film in Canada that was close to being shot, and I realised that I couldn’t do it. It was winter and it was too much. My mind can take it, but not my body. 

This is my last picture so there is a connection between River – not directly, I don’t want to sound sentimental about it – but there is a link between [River Phoenix] and me in that film. It’s about something ending, a life ending feeling. I can very much cope with it. I’m not very sentimental about it. If you were to interview my wife she could tell you how much Dark Blood means to me for a number of things: because of River, because of the story of Dark Blood, which I was very keen on. 

What do you hope audiences gain from seeing this film?

I don’t try to pass a message. I’m trying to make a movie in such a way that people can make their own movie out of it. I was at a festival in Jerusalem with Dark Blood. A woman was shy and didn’t want to talk during the Q+A and she came up afterwards and told me, “The movie changed my life, I will think differently.” I don’t know what she meant. The film had, on her, an effect. On someone else maybe it will be another effect. Some people will pick up the more magical part of the movie, some will pick up the nuclear destruction side, some will pick up the love story side. I am a storyteller, and I hope that the audience, at least some of them, will be enriched by seeing the movie.