The Last Days of River Phoenix

The actor’s final film and the Halloween he went to the Viper Room.

River Phoenix in his final film, Dark Blood.
River Phoenix in his final film, Dark Blood.

Photo courtesy of Cinemavault.

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.”

So Sluizer scoffed at the relatively mild deprivations of Dark Blood: The production booked a local motel and rented some nearby houses. The theme of Hollywood people being unable to cope with the real world is a major aspect of Dark Blood: A Hollywood couple drive their Bentley into the desert on a second honeymoon, and get in big trouble when it breaks down. The couple, Harry and Buffy, were played by British actor Jonathan Pryce and Australian Actress Judy Davis (Oscar-nominated for her work in David Lean’s A Passage to India and Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives).

River played Boy, who takes them in, but develops an infatuation with Buffy, whom he recognizes from her days as a Playboy pinup, and becomes hostile when Harry attempts to leave. It emerges that Boy is mourning the death of his Native American wife (a motif overlapping with Silent Tongue). She died from cancer, a result of the fallout from the nuclear bombs the U.S. government had tested—and while Boy may be a prophet of the desert, he is also unbalanced. The movie ends in violence and fire: Harry kills Boy with an ax and Boy’s house burns down.

River revered Pryce: He had starred in River’s favorite movie, Brazil, the absurd urban dystopia directed by Terry Gilliam (formerly of Monty Python’s Flying Circus) that River had seen 13 times. Things were tougher with Judy Davis, who was brilliant, but famously acerbic. Dark Blood producer Nik Powell said, “Since David Lean could not get Davis to do what he wanted her to do in his film, it is no surprise that George Sluizer had difficulties.”

“We were not the best of friends, Judy and me,” Sluizer said. “She made my life very tough, and I have never had to deal with a person making it so difficult.” Having agreed to the script, he said, she started demanding various changes; as Sluizer told it, some were to correct what she saw as the screenplay’s antifeminism while others were to cater to her vanity.

River, used to playing the peacemaker, tried to intercede between Davis and Sluizer, only to find himself the object of her scorn: She nicknamed him “Frat Boy.” When River, trying to be friendly, asked Davis when her family would be visiting the set, she snapped, “What is this, Frat Boy’s question time?” She also believed River was using drugs. “I thought he was doing something when I first got there,” she said. “There was one day when he came in so out of it. River said he’d had too much sodium the night before. OK, I’ve never had a sodium overdose. Maybe that’s exactly what they’re like.”

“He did not use anything during the period we were in Utah,” Sluizer insisted. “I would put my hand in the fire and swear to it.”

River’s difficulty with the script derived from the quantity of Boy’s monologues; he was having a hard time memorizing them accurately, and would sometimes flip the word order. “He had difficulty with certain lines,” Sluizer said. “He asked me a few times in rehearsal if he could change the line—it’s too complicated or too long. I was strict. I said, ‘We’ve been thinking about the story and the character for two years now—we’re not going to change it because you’re dyslexic.’ And that might hurt a little bit—I’m saying, ‘I don’t care if you’re blind. You have to see anyway.’ ” Ultimately, Sluizer said, he consented to the modification of one line.

Davis’ version was that River was having problems with the character: “In my opinion, that was made more difficult by the director constantly telling him how he should play it. Whether he should be angrier, loonier, whatever. It was a difficult part because it could so easily be absurd. He had most of the dialogue in the film, huge speeches; he kept trying to cut the lines down. Any change freaked the director out. River said to me one day, ‘Maybe I should give up acting.’ ”

For the entirety of the shoot, River ate nothing but artichokes and corn: He wanted to look as if he had been living in the desert and eating insects to survive, like a modern John the Baptist. He wasn’t alone in the wilderness, though; accompanying River to Utah were Samantha Mathis and his personal assistant, Abby Rude. 

River was delighted to discover that the area where they were filming had a reputation as a hot spot for alien visitations. He would drop the phrase “Thanks be to UFO Godmother” into casual conversation, and tried to convince friends that he had levitated over his bed. Sometimes he would lie down and shout, “Take me, I’m ready! What else is out there?”

Meanwhile the tension on the set grew. Davis refused to take direction from Sluizer. In scenes with River, she would act in ways that seemed designed to break his concentration, like moving around erratically during his dialogue. “You’re in this picture, so why do you have to make it so difficult for me?” River implored her. He never yelled at her, but between takes he would retreat to his trailer and play Fugazi, the hardcore band, at top volume.

“I had to sometimes say hey, a little less, because it’s loud,” Sluizer remembered.

“We were on this kind of inexorable journey to some disaster,” Pryce said. “Every day there was some kind of difficulty.” After some unreasonable rain, the remote location became muddy, with vehicles careening on the dirt roads. Once, Sluizer’s director’s chair went over the side of a cliff minutes after he had vacated it.

River told Pryce, “Somebody’s going to die on this film.”

The production moved briefly to New Mexico, and then headed to Los Angeles for its final two weeks, to shoot interiors and close-ups in a studio. River caught a cold and wasn’t needed for a night shoot in New Mexico; Sluizer gave him permission to head back to LA a day early. Bidding Sluizer farewell, River told him, “I’m going back to the bad, bad town.”

River came to Los Angeles for the last time on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 1993. He didn’t stay at his usual hotel, the St. James’s Club—the Dark Blood production booked him a room at the elegant, Japanese-themed Hotel Nikko. After two months of staying straight on a stressful movie, River took the opportunity to cut loose and promptly started a drug binge.

*  *  *

Saturday, Oct. 30: River showed up on time for work, but looked exhausted, as if he had pulled an all-nighter. He had taken a Valium to bring himself down for work. “He was not 100 percent in control of his body movements,” Sluizer said. “But there was no problem with his acting and so there was no reason for me to interfere.”

The scenes that day were set in Boy’s underground fallout shelter, which he had decorated like a religious shrine, with candles, used paperbacks, and handcrafted wooden dolls. Boy gives his visitors a tour; he and Buffy have both consumed datura (an herb with hallucinogenic effects similar to peyote.) “Magic’s just a question of focusing the will,” Boy tells her while Harry’s out of the room. “You don’t get what you want because you’re lucky. You get it because you will it.” And they kiss by flickering candlelight.

In their second scene, Boy explains how he has created an archive of human knowledge that can be passed down after a nuclear holocaust: “Took a few thousand years just to invent the alphabet! All gonna be flushed down the john. An entire civilization.”

When they finished the scene, Sluizer called “cut,” but cinematographer Ed Lachman accidentally kept the camera running until the film ran out. Power was cut to the klieg lights, but there was just enough illumination from the candles that the final feet of film in the reel captured River in silhouette.

“He came up to the camera and became total blackness, because he covered up the lens,” Lachman said. “It was like he created an image of his nonexistence.”

7 p.m.: River took a limousine back to the Hotel Nikko, where Rain (now 20) and Joaquin (who had turned 19 two days earlier) were waiting in his room. They had flown into town so they could audition to play River’s on-screen siblings in [Robert Allan Ackerman’s] Safe Passage.

Mathis was also there, soon joined by River’s assistant Abby Rude and her husband, Dickie. They ordered room service, cranked up the music, and started to party. Abby Rude went down the street to buy a bottle of Moët Champagne. When a room-service waiter arrived with some vegetarian snacks, the music was so loud, they almost didn’t hear him knocking. The waiter wheeled in the food and saw a room in disarray. River was dancing by himself, spinning in the middle of his room.

10 p.m.: After a long day, River was exhausted. River was ready to collapse, but Joaquin and Rain had just arrived: They wanted to go out and enjoy a Saturday night in Los Angeles.

Prince had recently opened an outpost of his Glam Slam nightclub in downtown LA, while the Auditorium on Hollywood Boulevard was hosting a “ska-lloween skankfest.” But Joaquin wanted to check out the Viper Room, where Flea and Johnny Depp were going to be playing together in a version of Depp’s band P. The club had been open for two and a half months.

The hitch: Joaquin and Rain were underage, meaning they couldn’t get in without an adult escort—ideally a celebrity, so that whoever was working the door would turn a blind eye. Mathis agreed to take them, and they called downstairs for a car. River would stay behind, as would the Rudes.

While Mathis, Rain, and Joaquin were waiting at the elevator, River changed his mind—either because he wanted to keep partying or because he was falling into his usual paternal role, taking care of his younger siblings. He ran down the hall, shouting, “I’m coming, I’m coming!” River grabbed his guitar, planning to get onstage with his old friend Flea, and they rode the elevator down.

As Mathis and the three Phoenixes left the Hotel Nikko, Sluizer was arriving in his car. He saw them and called out to them, “Have a good time,” but he didn’t think they heard him.

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.