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River Phoenix's Final Film to Make U.S. Debut Despite Family Pressure

Dark Blood Still River Pheonix - H 2013
River Phoenix in "Dark Blood"

Sources tell THR that Miami festival organizers felt pressure to drop "Dark Blood," which continues to draw the ire of the late actor’s family.

MIAMI -- As Dark Blood prepares to make its North American premiere at the Miami International Film Festival on Wednesday, controversy continues to swirl around the film that marks River Phoenix’s final performance.

Sources say that festival organizers felt pressure to drop the George Sluizer-helmed drama, which continues to draw the ire of the late actor’s family. In 1993, a 23-year-old Phoenix was in the final three weeks of shooting Dark Blood when he died of a drug overdose.

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The film’s footage remained fallow for 14 years. In 2007, doctors told the Dutch director that he didn’t have long to live due to an aneurysm, prompting Sluizer to tackle his unfinished opus. MIFF marks the third festival to screen Dark Blood (the Netherlands and Berlin fests also showed the completed film).

Among the objections fielded by MIFF was an email sent Feb. 1 from a man purporting to be a confidant of the Phoenix family and Dark Blood co-stars Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce. The email, which The Hollywood Reporter obtained, took particular issue with Sluizer’s efforts to raise money via Dutch crowd-financing site Cinecrowd, which promises a limited-edition Dark Blood DVD to donors who pledge more than €50 (the site no longer accepts donations for the project, saying the goal has been met).

“I already know that selling DVD to United States citizens is a violation of a majority of film festival policies,” the email said, arguing that Sluizer is already making money from the film, which is typically a no-no for premieres on the festival circuit. “I would love to just stop hearing about it from Jonathan, Judy, Phoenix Family. As I stated to them that there really isn't much I can do -- until I saw the sale of the DVD.”

But MIFF executive director Jaie Laplante scoffed at the idea of equating Sluizer's fundraising efforts with selling a DVD and is standing firmly behind the 80-year-old helmer’s inclusion at the festival.

“It's our position that George is entitled to bring closure to a film that was meant to be a significant addition to this oeuvre and was taken out of his hands through a tragedy that was no fault of his own,” Laplante says. "He should be celebrated for his creativity in finding a way to complete an unfinished chapter in his career at a time when he is clearly reflective of the body of work he will be leaving us."

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When reached by THR, the email’s author declined to give his real name or offer specifics about his involvement with the Phoenix family, only to say he is close with Phoenix’s one-time friend and manager Sky Sworski.

Meanwhile, the family’s spokesperson said there will be no further comment beyond a statement released in 2011 that said, “Joaquin Phoenix and his family have not been in communication with the director nor will they participate in any way.” (Earlier reports said that Sluizer approached Joaquin Phoenix to dub his older brother's voice -- a claim that Sluizer denies.)

For his part, Sluizer is perplexed by the hullabaloo and stressed that neither Pryce nor Davis has voiced displeasure with him about the film (he said he did receive a letter from Phoenix’s mother, Heart Phoenix, urging him to abandon the project).

“No one seems to understand that an artist wants to finish his art, just like a painter would want to finish his unfinished painting,” Sluizer explains. “The family’s response is understandable, but it's an immature point of view.”

Email: Tatiana.Siegel@THR.com, Twitter: @TatianaSiegel27