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River Phoenix’s last film premieres in Miami

  • In this undated photo provided by the Miami International Film Festival, actor River Phoenix is shown while filming the movie “Dark Blood.” After his death, there was talk of finding another actor to replace Phoenix or using special effects to finish the film which was about 80 percent complete, but director George Sluizer ultimately passed on those options and the film footage sat untouched in a vault for years. Sluizer was diagnosed with an arrhythmia in 2007, but the director made a miraculous recovery and felt compelled to finish “Dark Blood” before it was too late. The film had its U.S. premiere at the Miami International Film Festival on Wednesday, March 6, 2013 in Miami. (AP Photo/Miami International Film Festival)

    In this undated photo provided by the Miami International Film Festival, actor River Phoenix is shown while filming the movie “Dark Blood.” After his death, there was talk of finding another actor to replace Phoenix or using special effects to finish the film which was about 80 percent complete, but director George Sluizer ultimately passed on those options and the film footage sat untouched in a vault for years. Sluizer was diagnosed with an arrhythmia in 2007, but the director made a miraculous recovery and felt compelled to finish “Dark Blood” before it was too late. The film had its U.S. premiere at the Miami International Film Festival on Wednesday, March 6, 2013 in Miami. (AP Photo/Miami International Film Festival)

  • This March 6, 2013 photo shows director George Sluizer, seated left, speaking with Florencia Di Concilio as James Michael Taylor, rear, looks on during a reception before the U.S. premiere of Sluizer's film, "Dark Blood," starring the late River Phoenix, at the Miami International Film Festival in Miami. Di Concilio wrote the score for the film and Taylor has three of his songs included in the film. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

    This March 6, 2013 photo shows director George Sluizer, seated left, speaking with Florencia Di Concilio as James Michael Taylor, rear, looks on during a reception before the U.S. premiere of Sluizer's film, "Dark Blood," starring the late River Phoenix, at the Miami International Film Festival in Miami. Di Concilio wrote the score for the film and Taylor has three of his songs included in the film. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

  • This March 6, 2013 photo shows director George Sluizer, seated left, speaking with Florencia Di Concilio as James Michael Taylor, rear, looks on during a reception before the U.S. premiere of Sluizer's film, "Dark Blood," starring the late River Phoenix, at the Miami International Film Festival in Miami. Di Concilio wrote the score for the film and Taylor has three of his songs included in the film. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

    This March 6, 2013 photo shows director George Sluizer, seated left, speaking with Florencia Di Concilio as James Michael Taylor, rear, looks on during a reception before the U.S. premiere of Sluizer's film, "Dark Blood," starring the late River Phoenix, at the Miami International Film Festival in Miami. Di Concilio wrote the score for the film and Taylor has three of his songs included in the film. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

  • This March 6, 2013 photo shows director George Sluizer gesturing during a reception before the U.S. premiere of his film, “Dark Blood,” starring River Phoenix, at the Miami International Film Festival in Miami. Phoenix, a rising star from "Stand by Me" and "My Own Private Idaho" was 23 when he died of heart failure after overdosing on heroin and cocaine in 1993 while working on the film. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

    This March 6, 2013 photo shows director George Sluizer gesturing during a reception before the U.S. premiere of his film, “Dark Blood,” starring River Phoenix, at the Miami International Film Festival in Miami. Phoenix, a rising star from "Stand by Me" and "My Own Private Idaho" was 23 when he died of heart failure after overdosing on heroin and cocaine in 1993 while working on the film. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

  • This March 6, 2013 photo shows director George Sluizer gesturing during a reception before the U.S. premiere of his film, “Dark Blood,” starring River Phoenix, at the Miami International Film Festival in Miami. Phoenix, a rising star from "Stand by Me" and "My Own Private Idaho" was 23 when he died of heart failure after overdosing on heroin and cocaine in 1993 while working on the film. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

    This March 6, 2013 photo shows director George Sluizer gesturing during a reception before the U.S. premiere of his film, “Dark Blood,” starring River Phoenix, at the Miami International Film Festival in Miami. Phoenix, a rising star from "Stand by Me" and "My Own Private Idaho" was 23 when he died of heart failure after overdosing on heroin and cocaine in 1993 while working on the film. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

  • Tiger Woods, right, stretches as he and Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, talk while waiting to hit on the 17th fairway during the second round of the Cadillac Championship golf tournament on Friday, March 8, 2013 in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

    Tiger Woods, right, stretches as he and Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, talk while waiting to hit on the 17th fairway during the second round of the Cadillac Championship golf tournament on Friday, March 8, 2013 in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

  • Tiger Woods, right, stretches as he and Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, talk while waiting to hit on the 17th fairway during the second round of the Cadillac Championship golf tournament on Friday, March 8, 2013 in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

    Tiger Woods, right, stretches as he and Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, talk while waiting to hit on the 17th fairway during the second round of the Cadillac Championship golf tournament on Friday, March 8, 2013 in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

  • Matt Kuchar, left, signs autographs for fans after finishing the second round of the Cadillac Championship golf tournament, Friday, March 8, 2013, in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

    Matt Kuchar, left, signs autographs for fans after finishing the second round of the Cadillac Championship golf tournament, Friday, March 8, 2013, in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

  • Matt Kuchar, left, signs autographs for fans after finishing the second round of the Cadillac Championship golf tournament, Friday, March 8, 2013, in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

    Matt Kuchar, left, signs autographs for fans after finishing the second round of the Cadillac Championship golf tournament, Friday, March 8, 2013, in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

  • Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, watches his shot from the 18th fairway during the second round of the Cadillac Championship golf tournament, Friday, March 8, 2013 in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

    Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, watches his shot from the 18th fairway during the second round of the Cadillac Championship golf tournament, Friday, March 8, 2013 in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

  • Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, watches his shot from the 18th fairway during the second round of the Cadillac Championship golf tournament, Friday, March 8, 2013 in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

    Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, watches his shot from the 18th fairway during the second round of the Cadillac Championship golf tournament, Friday, March 8, 2013 in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

  • In this undated photo provided by the Miami International Film Festival, actor River Phoenix is shown while filming the movie “Dark Blood.” After his death, there was talk of finding another actor to replace Phoenix or using special effects to finish the film which was about 80 percent complete, but director George Sluizer ultimately passed on those options and the film footage sat untouched in a vault for years. Sluizer was diagnosed with an arrhythmia in 2007, but the director made a miraculous recovery and felt compelled to finish “Dark Blood” before it was too late. The film had its U.S. premiere at the Miami International Film Festival on Wednesday, March 6, 2013 in Miami. (AP Photo/Miami International Film Festival)

    In this undated photo provided by the Miami International Film Festival, actor River Phoenix is shown while filming the movie “Dark Blood.” After his death, there was talk of finding another actor to replace Phoenix or using special effects to finish the film which was about 80 percent complete, but director George Sluizer ultimately passed on those options and the film footage sat untouched in a vault for years. Sluizer was diagnosed with an arrhythmia in 2007, but the director made a miraculous recovery and felt compelled to finish “Dark Blood” before it was too late. The film had its U.S. premiere at the Miami International Film Festival on Wednesday, March 6, 2013 in Miami. (AP Photo/Miami International Film Festival)

  • In this undated photo provided by the Miami International Film Festival, actor River Phoenix is shown while filming the movie “Dark Blood.” After his death, there was talk of finding another actor to replace Phoenix or using special effects to finish the film which was about 80 percent complete, but director George Sluizer ultimately passed on those options and the film footage sat untouched in a vault for years. Sluizer was diagnosed with an arrhythmia in 2007, but the director made a miraculous recovery and felt compelled to finish “Dark Blood” before it was too late. The film had its U.S. premiere at the Miami International Film Festival on Wednesday, March 6, 2013 in Miami. (AP Photo/Miami International Film Festival)
  • This March 6, 2013 photo shows director George Sluizer, seated left, speaking with Florencia Di Concilio as James Michael Taylor, rear, looks on during a reception before the U.S. premiere of Sluizer's film, "Dark Blood," starring the late River Phoenix, at the Miami International Film Festival in Miami. Di Concilio wrote the score for the film and Taylor has three of his songs included in the film. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
  • This March 6, 2013 photo shows director George Sluizer, seated left, speaking with Florencia Di Concilio as James Michael Taylor, rear, looks on during a reception before the U.S. premiere of Sluizer's film, "Dark Blood," starring the late River Phoenix, at the Miami International Film Festival in Miami. Di Concilio wrote the score for the film and Taylor has three of his songs included in the film. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
  • This March 6, 2013 photo shows director George Sluizer gesturing during a reception before the U.S. premiere of his film, “Dark Blood,” starring River Phoenix, at the Miami International Film Festival in Miami. Phoenix, a rising star from "Stand by Me" and "My Own Private Idaho" was 23 when he died of heart failure after overdosing on heroin and cocaine in 1993 while working on the film. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
  • This March 6, 2013 photo shows director George Sluizer gesturing during a reception before the U.S. premiere of his film, “Dark Blood,” starring River Phoenix, at the Miami International Film Festival in Miami. Phoenix, a rising star from "Stand by Me" and "My Own Private Idaho" was 23 when he died of heart failure after overdosing on heroin and cocaine in 1993 while working on the film. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
  • Tiger Woods, right, stretches as he and Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, talk while waiting to hit on the 17th fairway during the second round of the Cadillac Championship golf tournament on Friday, March 8, 2013 in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
  • Tiger Woods, right, stretches as he and Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, talk while waiting to hit on the 17th fairway during the second round of the Cadillac Championship golf tournament on Friday, March 8, 2013 in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
  • Matt Kuchar, left, signs autographs for fans after finishing the second round of the Cadillac Championship golf tournament, Friday, March 8, 2013, in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
  • Matt Kuchar, left, signs autographs for fans after finishing the second round of the Cadillac Championship golf tournament, Friday, March 8, 2013, in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
  • Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, watches his shot from the 18th fairway during the second round of the Cadillac Championship golf tournament, Friday, March 8, 2013 in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
  • Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, watches his shot from the 18th fairway during the second round of the Cadillac Championship golf tournament, Friday, March 8, 2013 in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
  • In this undated photo provided by the Miami International Film Festival, actor River Phoenix is shown while filming the movie “Dark Blood.” After his death, there was talk of finding another actor to replace Phoenix or using special effects to finish the film which was about 80 percent complete, but director George Sluizer ultimately passed on those options and the film footage sat untouched in a vault for years. Sluizer was diagnosed with an arrhythmia in 2007, but the director made a miraculous recovery and felt compelled to finish “Dark Blood” before it was too late. The film had its U.S. premiere at the Miami International Film Festival on Wednesday, March 6, 2013 in Miami. (AP Photo/Miami International Film Festival)

When actor Jonathan Pryce first received a copy of River Phoenix’s last film Dark Blood, it sat unwatched on his desk for months. He worried about how he would feel reliving Phoenix’s death, growing nostalgic about memorable dinners the two shared after long days of filming in Utah and recalling the shocking 5 a.m. phone call telling him the young actor had died.

“It’s very hard to comprehend for a while. It was a terribly sad time,” said Pryce, who starred in the film alongside Phoenix and Judy Davis.

Now, 20 years later, Dark Blood made its U.S. premiere at the Miami International Film Festival on Wednesday, a testament to the endurance of 80-year-old director George Sluizer, who almost died before the film was completed, and a tribute to Phoenix’s timeless charisma. It’s uncertain whether the film will ever go to a general release. Sluizer said negotiations are ongoing with the company that owns the movie.

In the film, Pryce and Davis play a jet-set Hollywood couple who travel through the desert desperately trying to save their marriage on a second honeymoon. They seek shelter in Phoenix’s shack after their car breaks down, unaware that he intends to keep them as prisoners. Phoenix played Boy, whose wife died of leukemia from nuclear testing, leaving him alone and isolated in the desert.

But the journey to complete the film is every bit as dramatic as the story itself. Phoenix, a rising star from Stand by Me and My Own Private Idaho, was 23 when he died in 1993 outside The Viper Room in Los Angeles. The cause was heart failure after overdosing on heroin and cocaine.

After his death, there was talk of finding another actor to replace Phoenix or using special effects to finish Dark Blood. The film was about 80 percent complete and most of the missing scenes were between Davis and Phoenix. But Sluizer ultimately passed on those options and the film footage sat untouched in a vault for years. In 1999, the Dutch director learned the footage was going to be burned to make space for new material, so he quickly transported it to The Netherlands, where it sat for another decade.

Sluizer was diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia in 2007 and “the doctors basically condemned me,” he said. But the director recovered and felt compelled to finish Dark Blood before it was too late. He sorted through the material, uncovering missing and damaged reels and narrated the voiceovers himself to fill in missing pieces of the plot. He doesn’t think it is now dated, calling it a story with themes that transcend time.

When Sluizer first met Phoenix at a San Francisco hotel to discuss the film, he worried about how a hot-shot heartthrob would handle working with an older director.

But Phoenix was respectful and compassionate, abruptly running off to get an ailing Sluizer some headache medicine during their first meeting, and accompanying Sluizer on long hikes in Utah. Sluizer said he knew of Phoenix’ history with substance abuse and checked in with the actor’s mother to make sure he was okay before filming began.

“River was a gentle, respectful person. I must say that I was very fond of him,” Sluizer said.

Pryce and Sluizer insist Phoenix was not using drugs while filming in Utah. But something was noticeably wrong with Phoenix when the crew returned for a shoot in Los Angeles. His eyes floated, he walked differently and sat listlessly for long periods of time. “He had been taking something. That was quite visible,” Sluizer said.

The next morning the cast and crew received the news.

“It was a complete shock and to be woken at 5 o’clock in the morning and the first thing that somebody says to you is, ‘River’s dead,’ ” Pryce said.

Sluizer said he spoke with Phoenix’s mother and invited her to attend the Berlin premiere last month where the film received a standing ovation. “She said, ‘Well, good luck with the movie but we are not participating,’ ” saying the family felt the movie was finished, Sluizer said.

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