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.

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones