( 4UMF NEWS ) Last Days Of River Phoenix:
Excerpted from Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind by Gavin Edwards, out now from It Books/HarperCollins.
River celebrated his 23rd birthday—on Aug. 23, 1993—and then flew down to Costa Rica with all his siblings and his father. John was opening a vegan restaurant, but his real agenda was to get his children, especially River, to leave behind the corruption of the USA and live by the Phoenix family values again. John explained, “The idea was for them to spend more time here, helping with the cooking, making music, writing, harvesting the organic fruit, and living off the land like we used to.”
John implored River to get out of the movie business before it ate him up. Eventually, River acceded, either because John had convinced him or because he was tired of arguing about it. But he had to fulfill his agreements, he told his father: He had signed contracts to appear in Dark Blood and Interview with the Vampire, and he had promised William Richert that he would be in his version of The Man in the Iron Mask. After he made those three films, he could quit and move down to Costa Rica.
“As it turned out,” John said, “that was too many.”
When River left Costa Rica, he said, “I’ll see you after this movie, Dad”—a commonplace sentiment that nobody would ever have remembered if things had turned out differently.
“Well, he did,” John said, “only he was in a box.”
George Sluizer, the director of Dark Blood, had heard rumors about River’s drug use, but he didn’t worry about them. “I knew of his drug habit,” he said. “The actors in Hollywood, at the top level, all are, I would say, drug addicts in some way or another. I worked with Kiefer Sutherland: He was a whiskey addict, two bottles a day. He wanted to compete with me: ‘You drink one bottle, I drink one bottle, let’s see if you’re drunk.’ I never on set noticed that he had drunk anything—in the morning, he was sober.”
Sluizer asked River to come out to the film’s desert location five days before everyone else. “I wanted him to breathe the Utah air, to readjust, and let him remember the relationship we had to build for the next seven weeks,” Sluizer said. Those five days also provided some time for River to detox, but apparently he arrived clean and healthy.
Actor and director went hiking in the Utah mountains, bringing a few sandwiches and spending all day tramping about: Breathing the fresh air, they attuned themselves to the desert landscape. River was gradually submerging himself in his character. More than ever, he liked shedding the person he had become so he could transform into somebody else’s invention. “That’s the only time I have security, he said. “Myself is bum! Myself is nothing!”
The movie was centered on the house of Boy, ramshackle but scenically located. Sluizer had found the location he thought was ideal visually, but it was far from any vestiges of civilization: “Maybe 20 miles from the nearest village,” Sluizer said. “I’m not like Werner Herzog, saying, ‘There’s a nice tree, but it’s 30 miles away,’ when the same tree is 1 mile away. But the location was important.”
Sluizer had actually worked with Herzog, the famously uncompromising German director, on his 1982 movie Fitzcarraldo , about a European rubber baron attempting to bring a steamer ship across land in the Peruvian jungle. The movie was originally intended to star Jason Robards and Mick Jagger, but Robards dropped out when he got dysentery, and Jagger then had to depart for Rolling Stone commitments. “All the Americans left,” Sluizer said dismissively. “That’s why they lost Vietnam.”
Sluizer took pride in working on that movie, as he did in the documentary he made for National Geographic in the ’60s that required him to spend five months in Siberia at temperatures reaching 70 degrees below zero (Celsius). “Very difficult, but I loved it,” he said. “There’s something that attracts me to extreme circumstances, the opposite of the Hollywood people who are used to a swimming pool and a shower.”