The Last Days of River Phoenix

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Oct. 31 2013 10:49 AM

The Last Days of River Phoenix

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

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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?”

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

Gavin Edwards is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and has written for Details, Spin, and the New York Times.