Cannes: River Phoenix's Final Film Scores U.S. Release After 20-Year Odyssey

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River Phoenix

“When River died, the movie was totally cancelled and everyone went away. It was declared impossible to finish,” Dutch director George Sluizer says, adding that the late actor's family won't see the film.

Dutch director George Sluizer’s 20-year quest to complete River Phoenix’s final movie -- including rescuing rolls of film from a London warehouse before they were burned -- has culminated with Lionsgate buying North American rights to Dark Blood.

“When River died, the movie was totally halted and everyone went away. It was over. It was declared impossible to finish,” Sluizer recalls in an interview with THR.

Lionsgate is planning a VOD release.

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Indeed, after Phoenix died in 1993 of a drug overdose at Los Angeles’ Viper Room, his family and a lawyer for the movie sued to stop its completion. In 1999, the case finally settled, and soon after, “the insurance company decided to destroy the film,” says Sluizer, 82, who was in the middle of shooting the psychological thriller in the U.S. Southwest when Phoenix died.

Sluizer was tipped off by another insurance company involved with Dark Blood that the film rolls were languishing in a London warehouse. After rescuing the rolls in the middle of the night, “we got all the equipment on a truck and I gave the order to send the film to New York, and then later to a cinema museum in Holland,” he says.

Another decade elapsed before Sluizer tried to finish Dark Blood, also starring Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce. “The negatives were still good but part of the sound needed to be rebuilt and re-recorded,” he says. “And only 65 percent of the story was shot…so I had to rewrite the story.”

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Sluizer’s troubles weren’t over. In 2011, the Phoenix family indicated they wanted nothing to do with the film. However, Sluizer continues to maintain that Arlyn Phoenix, River’s mother, has been in touch with him. “All I know is that two years ago when the movie was achieved, we contacted River’s mother, who wished us good luck.” He doesn’t expect she will see the movie.

Dark Blood premiered in Berlin in February 2013 and played at the Miami Film Festival a month later. Cinemavault, the sales company that struck the deal with Lionsgate, also has sold the movie in Japan, where it is currently in release, as well as in a number other countries.