A Dark Day: Producer JoAnne Sellar on River Phoenix and Dark Blood
15 years after the tragic and untimely death of River Phoenix, producer JoAnne Sellars looks back at the events surrounding his last film, Dark Blood, which was never completed because of his death.
English-born JoAnne Sellar has built her reputation in film as the Oscar-nominated producer of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1998), Magnolia (1999), Punch Drunk Love (2002) and There Will Be Blood (2007). She first found her way into the business in the UK through some edgy, offbeat productions, including two – Hardware (1990) and Dust Devil (1992) – with director Richard Stanley for Palace Pictures. But no prior experience could have prepared Sellar for what befell her 1993 production of George Sluizer’s Dark Blood, in which River Phoenix was cast as the lead. In this extract from What I Really Want to Do is Produce: Top Producers Talk Movies and Money by Helen de Winter (Faber and Faber, 2006), Sellar describes the nightmare that unfolded.
HELEN DE WINTER: In the wake of your first films with Richard Stanley were you also developing your own material?
JOANNE SELLAR: I had optioned a script that I loved called Dark Blood by Jim Barton – interestingly, [like Dust Devil], it was another film set in the desert. Richard Stanley went off to do The Island of Dr Moreau but I wanted to make Dark Blood and we got George Sluizer attached to direct. George had directed The Vanishing and at that point he was directing a remake of it in America, which I never quite understood...
HELEN DE WINTER: Was Dark Blood a horror film?
JOANNE SELLAR: No, it sounds like a horror movie, but it was a story about a couple who are on a second honeymoon, and the wife gets lost in the desert and ends up coming across a strange young kid living in the desert. The wife and the kid start to have a weird sexual thing going on. Then the husband turns up, and it becomes like a bizarre ménage-a-trois.
The script was set in south-west America, and at that point it was going to be a US production, so it made sense for me to come to LA, raise the finance, set up the production, and put the cast together – rather than trying to do it all from England. Palace Pictures had offices in LA, so I suggested I went over, and they were fine. And for me it was just like changing offices. So I moved to the US and I spent about a year putting it all together. I developed the script further, and then we got Jonathan Pryce, Judy Davis, and River Phoenix attached. Then at Cannes in 1992 we put the money together, and got New Line to finance the film.
So we went off to Utah, and shot there for six weeks, all of the location stuff. Then we came back to LA to spend three weeks shooting interiors that we had built on a stage. We had shot one day in LA, and then on the first night River Phoenix died.
It was a terrible, terrible tragedy…the most dreadful thing. He was such a lovely human being. River’s death wasn’t anything to do with the production – he had gone out and partied and stuff. But it was just an awful, awful thing to go through. It had been a fraught production, which it shouldn’t have been as it was a simple script to shoot. But we had been in the middle of nowhere in Utah, and that kind of brings its own production nightmares – there had been a lot of flooding, and then some other fraught stuff that shouldn’t have happened. But River was such a great human being throughout the whole thing.
I remember River’s agent called me at 4 o’clock in the morning to tell me that he had died. And then, literally, within hours – I think by noon the following day – the insurance companies were calling me and saying, ‘What are we going to do?’
HELEN DE WINTER: Does production insurance cover a situation like that?
JOANNE SELLAR: Yes, it does. There is a particular liability cover, one that not everybody takes it out – and I had taken it as an additional liability, which was weird, a bit freaky. But we were completely covered.
I had to go to a lot of meetings, make decisions, be in complete business mode and keep all the emotion in check. We dealt with the situation as best we could, we went through different scenarios and conversations about re-shooting, keeping the stuff with Judy and Jonathan, but re-shooting the River scenes – which would have meant re-casting River’s character and going back to Utah and starting again. What was so weird was there were mothers calling the production saying, ‘If you’re looking for someone, I have a son who looks just like River Phoenix’…these were pretty freaky phone calls, it was surreal .
So I was having to re-budget and work on all these different scenarios. Financially it seemed that the best thing to do was to abandon the film at that point, which was pretty awful.
Then the publicity was so intense and everyone wanted to talk about it all the time…and I just wanted people to go away. I went back to England for a while and, even there, people were still talking about it. So then I went off to Vietnam and Thailand for a while. At least if they were talking about it there then I didn’t understand...
HELEN DE WINTER: What happened to the rushes of Dark Blood?
JOANNE SELLAR: The insurance company own the rights to the film, and I think George tried a few times to get the rushes back – but to do so he would have had to buy them back. For a time, George was trying to make a documentary, and then he asked me if I would like to try making the film again. Actually, other people have asked me several times if I would get hold of the rights and remake the film. But I just don’t want to go there again.
Much later, people would tell me about the nightmares they’d had on different productions. Or I would get to the end of a shoot and think, ‘Well, no one’s died, so…’ But I think the experience strengthened me in many ways, as a producer and as a person.