Local Artist Scores River Phoenix’s Last Movie
James Michael Taylor is not “going Hollywood,” as the old saying goes –– he’s much too cantankerous and outspoken for anyplace other than Fort Worth –– but his music might be.
A movie for which the blue-collar folk singer-songwriter has done some original songs is about to be released. But Dark Blood isn’t just any movie. Filmed in 1993, Dutch director George Sluizer’s psychological thriller stars River Phoenix. The older brother of Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line, Gladiator), River was the Brad Pitt of the ’80s who starred in Stand By Me, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Sneakers before dying from an apparent drug overdose in 1993 at the age of 23. Dark Blood was nearing completion at the time of his death. The 80-year-old Sluizer decided several months ago after another health scare to dust off and prepare the project for release. Also starring Judy Davis, Jonathan Pryce, and Karen Black, the film is set in a dessert near a nuclear testing site, where youthful widower Boy (Phoenix) lives like a hermit, crafting dolls that he believes have magical powers while waiting for the world to end, until a Hollywood couple’s car breaks down nearby, drawing him out of his seclusion. Dark Blood will premiere on Thursday, Sept. 27, at The Netherlands Film Festival. Taylor will leave for Utrecht on Tuesday, Sept. 25, to attend the screening.
Taylor and Sluizer go way back. From an open casting call in 1984 in Dallas, the director chose Taylor for the lead role in Red Desert Penitentiary –– against type. Sluizer, Taylor said, was looking for a John Wayne-ish actor. Hulking, broad-shouldered cowboys flooded the audition. “Here I walk in, I’m shorter than everybody, and I’m no John Wayne type,” Taylor recalled.
Sluizer, though, saw something in the Fort Worthian, “a certain vulnerability hidden beneath a very rough surface,” Taylor remembered. “That’s what [Sluizer] said. As I read for him, he goes, ‘Ah, this might be more interesting.’ The reason I know that is because over the years we’ve talked about it.”
Filmed in the plains around Sweetwater and Abilene, the movie “showed at some festivals and then died the way most independent films do,” Taylor said.
What little audience the movie found was overseas. “The movie is very funny,” Taylor said. “It’s a comment on American ideas. When you make fun of Americans in a movie, it’s not all that funny to Americans, but I watched that movie in Holland, and the room was cracking up the whole time.”
Through the filmmaking process, Taylor and Sluizer became friends. “It’s been one of the most valuable friendships I’ve ever had,” Taylor said. “He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with. And he trusted me.”
The film’s small budget worked to the advantage of Taylor the singer-songwriter. For an interlude that called for a song, Sluizer planned for a Dallas woman to sing “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” –– until he realized he would have to pay royalties to the songwriter, Texas’ Ray Wylie Hubbard. The production “didn’t have a budget,” Taylor said. “Even the city of Sweetwater was providing food for us and a hotel.”
Thinking economically, Sluizer sought an original composition. Though the woman could not oblige, Taylor, a songwriting machine, was more than willing and able to. On a whim, he had already written “Danny’s Theme from Red Desert Penitentiary.” “Whatever I’m involved in, I write songs about,” Taylor said. “As soon as I had read the script, I wrote this song about my character. I never even thought about doing a song for the movie.”
Sluizer was so impressed he asked Taylor to write the music for the entire film. “I went to Holland and worked with the editor and [Sluizer] and then came home and made the music and sent it back to him so he could sync it with the film,” Taylor said.
Though Taylor and Sluizer maintained their friendship, they did not work together again until 2000, when Taylor played a small role in Sluizer’s The Stone Raft, a Spain-filmed adaptation of the 1986 novel of the same name by Portuguese Nobel Prize winner José Saramago (Blindness, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis).
Two Christmases ago, Sluizer suffered a nearly fatal heart-attack, “a Widow-maker,” Taylor said. The filmmaker “realized [Dark Blood] was a project that was unfinished, and before he died he wanted to get it finished,” Taylor said, adding that the Dutch film festival will probably mark the last time he’ll get to see his filmmaking friend.
“Every day is just another gift,” Taylor said. “He’s just very frail. If one little thing goes wrong, he’s dead. That’s one reason I’m going [to the film festival]. I’ll get to be with him.”
Taylor is contributing three songs to Dark Blood’s score: two new ones written specifically for scenes and a holdover from Red Desert Penitentiary, “an inside joke,” Taylor said –– the scene in which the song appears is like a similar scene from Red Desert.
Red Desert Penitentiary also will screen at the Netherlands festival as part of a retrospective of Sluizer’s work.
Dark Blood’s premiere will occur amid some minor controversy. Though Sluizer claims to have reached out to Joaquin, the actor said that not only has he not been in communication with the filmmaker but that he will not participate in any way. One possible source of Joaquin’s utter lack of enthusiasm is the $6 million lawsuit filed by the film’s producers against River’s mother for River’s neglect to declare his drug use for insurance purposes. The case was later dropped.
“There’s been a lot of stuff not true going back and forth, but [the controversy] has stirred up some interest” in Dark Blood, Taylor said. “As it turns out, the film’s really beautiful.”
Taylor anticipates a stateside release. “The assumption is, there is going to be a demand for this film, being the fact that it was River’s last film.”
(Jeff Prince contributed reporting to this story.)