Film: Dark Blood: the vanishing of a Hollywood star

George Sluizer was the last man to direct River Phoenix before the actor's untimely death. He was also responsible for the creepiest thriller of the Eighties - the `disappearance' movie to end them all. Or so you'd think.
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The Independent Culture
IF YOU didn't know that George Sluizer was a film-maker, you might mistake him for a senior civil servant or a bank manager. Soberly dressed, earnest and quietly spoken, he looks as if he has spent most of his life in an office. There is an unflappable quality about him. It somehow doesn't come as a surprise that before he entered the movie business, he worked as a tram conductor and that he once wrote a prize-winning script for a documentary about railway rolling-stock.

"I'm very pragmatic and reasonably cool about things," he acknowledges, when asked about the circumstances surrounding his uncompleted 1993 film, Dark Blood, "but I must admit River had a very strong charisma. He had something special which you do not find with other actors."

Sluizer, the phlegmatic, sixtysomething Dutchman, and River Phoenix, the wild young Hollywood icon, make an unlikely combination. Nevertheless, Sluizer relished working with Phoenix. He is still haunted by the circumstances under which Dark Blood was abandoned. The 23-year-old actor died of a drugs overdose 11 days before the film was due to be completed. Sluizer, who was staying in the same LA hotel, remembers vividly his last meeting with the star.

"I saw him at about 9.30pm. I came back to the hotel and I saw him drive away. I said: `Have a good time and see you at 10am.'"

The next day, Phoenix and Sluizer were due to meet Terry Gilliam (whose work Phoenix hugely admired.) "But I was called at 4am by his agent, in tears, who told me River had died. I thought I was dreaming. I'm quite stubborn in my own way. I rejected the idea because I absolutely did not expect it."

Sluizer had been shooting with Phoenix and the rest of the cast for eight weeks in the Utah desert. They had only just arrived back in Los Angeles. "He called LA the bad, bad town," Sluizer recalls. "When we went there, he said `we're going back to the bad, bad town'."

Phoenix's character in Dark Blood, a disturbed young man living in the wilds and waiting for the apocalypse, was difficult to play, but Sluizer saw no signs that the role was getting under the actor's skin. As far as he was concerned, Phoenix was a model professional.

"I can't guarantee that he never took anything, but I never noticed. I tell you, if people are really stoned, I'm not totally blind."

The only tension on set was caused by the bad feeling between the director and the film's co-star, Judy Davis. "Our relationship was not the best you can imagine," Sluizer says, with what sounds like understatement.

Although most of Dark Blood was already in the can before Phoenix died, Sluizer realised he would never be able to finish it. Not only were there several crucial scenes that couldn't be shot without the star; if he had attempted to cobble together a new version of the film, he would have been stepping into a legal minefield. The negative is locked away in a safe somewhere. "Until everything is settled between the lawyers and bankers, nobody will see it." Sluizer originally wanted to use the film as part of a documentary about River: "About his acting; the way he changed from take to take. That, I think, would be of interest to all the acting schools of the world, quite apart from its historic and archival value. Who knows, maybe some day it will happen."

After the abandonment of Dark Blood, Sluizer came back to Europe. In the UK in 1996, he made Crimetime, a satire about television and media violence starring Sadie Frost and Stephen Baldwin. Sluizer also recently completed The Commissioner, a thriller set in London, Brussels and Cologne in which John Hurt plays an English politician investigating industrial espionage. Sluizer himself describes it as a "Euro-pudding", but insists his use of the term has more to do with the subject matter (skulduggery in the EC) than with any aesthetic shortcomings. He seems glad to be out of Hollywood, where he completed only one film. Ask him why he went there in the first place and he says, without any hint of embarrassment, that he was extremely well paid. He agrees that the version of The Vanishing that he made in Hollywood in 1993 was inferior to the original which he himself had directed in Europe back in 1988.

"For me, it was a chance to do a luxury workshop of more or less the same story but with a totally different cast - a star cast opposed to my original anonymous cast. Obviously the first one was more consistent and coherent. There's no doubt about it. But the remake was very watchable."

Dustin Hoffman wanted to be in the movie, but Sluizer turned him down after hearing how petulantly the star had behaved on the set of Stephen Frears' Accidental Hero. Instead, Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland took the leading roles. Unfortunately, the Fox executive who originally hired Sluizer had left the studio by the time the film was completed. The new regime allowed the film to be re-edited against the director's will. Even so, Sluizer bears no bitterness against the studio bosses and says he enjoyed working with American technicians.

"When I said I needed new lamps, they'd say: `Sure'. They didn't say: `No, it's too expensive', which was all I ever heard in Holland."

Besides, with the money he made in Hollywood he was able to kick-start two new European projects. He now has a pet formula for success. "Make a European film, make the Hollywood remake, then, with they money you get, you'll be able to make another European film."

Sluizer is used to working in adverse conditions. At the start of his directing career, he made Stamping Ground (1970), a documentary about a music festival at which Pink Floyd, Santana and The Byrds all appeared. Jan De Bont (later to direct Speed) was the cameraman. Sluizer talks darkly about interviewing music stars who refused to speak to him unless he was as stoned as they were.

That was nothing compared to his experiences as production manager deep in the Amazon jungle on Werner Herzog's folie de grandeur, Fitzcarraldo (1982). "It was very, very difficult. I still think it was the toughest film in film history, tougher than Apocalypse Now. We had starvation - and no money," he says. He was responsible for co-ordinating the extraordinary sequence in which a boat was dragged over a mountain. "There was no question of asking myself if the boat should go up the mountain. That was a given fact. It was only how the bloody hell we got the bloody thing up there."

The work was often soul-destroying. He recalls being made to walk 30 miles through the jungle in search of a particular kind of leaf when there was one that looked well-nigh identical just round the corner. Sluizer, who has made several films in Brazil, was originally hired for two months. He ended up staying with Herzog for 10.

"The experience was worth it but I wouldn't repeat it. There was madness, arrogance and danger. Werner goes to the absolute limit."

George Sluizer's original version of The Vanishing is released on video on 21 September

Missing Persons

`THE VANISHING' was not the first movie to make folks disappear...

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave are the thrown-together couple determined to track down a dear old lady sharing their train. It's propaganda, but so beautifully sophisticated it barely matters.

The Third Man (1949)

Carol Reed's classic Vienna-set noir, with gentle Joseph Cotten on the trail of his old friend Harry Lime. The shadows tell you everything - now you see him, now you don't.

The Wicker Man (1973)

Repressed, honourable cop Edward Woodward is sent to a sinister Scottish isle following the reported disappearance of a young girl. As in The Vanishing, the hunter becomes the hunted. Truly haunting.

Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975)

Three adolescent girls disappear with their teacher on a school outing. Peter Weir's floaty, sun-drenched thriller milks the sexual tension but never provides answers.

Missing (1981)

Costa-Gavras' first American movie. A US writer goes missing in Chile during a coup and his wife and father (Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon) discover the limits of truth, justice and the American way.

Charlotte O'Sullivan