MIAMI — When actor Jonathan Pryce first received a copy of River Phoenix's last film "Dark Blood," it sat unwatched on his desk for months. He worried about how he would feel reliving Phoenix's death, growing nostalgic about memorable dinners the two shared after long days of filming in Utah and recalling the shocking 5 a.m. phone call telling him the young actor had died.

"It's very hard to comprehend for a while. It was a terribly sad time," said Pryce, who starred in the film alongside Phoenix and Judy Davis.

Now, 20 years later, "Dark Blood" made its U.S. premiere at the Miami International Film Festival on Wednesday, a testament to the endurance of 80-year-old director George Sluizer, who almost died before the film was completed, and a tribute to Phoenix's timeless charisma. It's uncertain whether the film will ever go to a general release. Sluizer said negotiations are ongoing with the company that owns the movie.

In the film, Pryce and Davis play a jet-set Hollywood couple who travel through the desert desperately trying to save their marriage on a second honeymoon. They seek shelter in Phoenix's shack after their car breaks down, unaware that he intends to keep them as prisoners. Phoenix played Boy, whose wife died of leukemia from nuclear testing, leaving him alone and isolated in the desert.

But the journey to complete the film is every bit as dramatic as the story itself. Phoenix, a rising star from "Stand by Me" and "My Own Private Idaho," was 23 when he died in 1993 outside The Viper Room in Los Angeles. The cause was heart failure after overdosing on heroin and cocaine.

After his death, there was talk of finding another actor to replace Phoenix or using special effects to finish "Dark Blood." The film was about 80 percent complete and most of the missing scenes were between Davis and Phoenix. But Sluizer ultimately passed on those options and the film footage sat untouched in a vault for years. In 1999, the Dutch director learned the footage was going to be burned to make space for new material, so he quickly transported it to The Netherlands, where it sat for another decade.

Sluizer was diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia in 2007 and "the doctors basically condemned me". But the director recovered and felt compelled to finish "Dark Blood" before it was too late. He sorted through the material, uncovering missing and damaged reels and narrated the voiceovers himself to fill in missing pieces of the plot. He doesn't think it is now dated, calling it a story with themes that transcend time.

When Sluizer first met Phoenix at a San Francisco hotel to discuss the film, he worried about how a hot-shot heartthrob would handle working with an older director.

But Phoenix was respectful and compassionate, abruptly running off to get an ailing Sluizer some headache medicine during their first meeting, and accompanying Sluizer on long hikes in Utah. Sluizer said he knew of Phoenix' history with substance abuse and checked in with the actor's mother to make sure he was OK before filming began.

"River was a gentle, respectful person. I must say that I was very fond of him," Sluizer said.

"Dark Blood" was not an easy production. The material was heavy, they filmed in desolate locations and Davis was difficult to work with and was often hard on Phoenix. He also had dyslexia and struggled to remember long segments of dialogue, which he occasionally asked Sluizer to shorten.

But Sluizer marveled at Phoenix's ability to embody a character with such depth.

"It's what comes out of him and the charisma he has plus the fact that he knows how to express a character when he has got hold of it," Sluizer said.

Pryce, who said he was a fan of Phoenix's work in "Stand By Me," often met the young actor and his friends for dinner, finding camaraderie in the isolated Utah desert.

"You do become incredibly close when you work together in a film ... I felt enormous empathy with him. I liked him very much," Pryce said.

The two insist Phoenix was not using drugs while filming in Utah. But something was noticeably wrong with Phoenix when the crew returned for a shoot in Los Angeles. His eyes floated, he walked differently and sat listlessly for long periods of time.

"He had been taking something. That was quite visible," Sluizer said.

The next morning the cast and crew received the news.

"It was a complete shock and to be woken at 5 o'clock in the morning and the first thing that somebody says to you is, `River's dead,'" Pryce said.

"It left us totally sad and after River's death. I nearly said I don't want to make movies anymore," Sluizer lamented.

He dismisses any notion that the film is exploiting River's death.

Sluizer said he spoke with Phoenix's mother, Arlynn "Heart" Phoenix, and invited her and other family members to attend the Berlin premiere last month where the film received a standing ovation.

"She said, `Well, good luck with the movie but we are not participating'," saying the family felt the movie was finished, Sluizer said.

R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe, who stayed with Phoenix for a few days while he was filming in Utah, also attended the Berlin premiere.

"It's a piece of work that belongs not just to River but all of us in the film and it was right that (Sluizer) completed it in the way that he did," Pryce said.

___

Follow Kelli Kennedy on Twitter at: . https://twitter.com/kkennedyAP

Loading Slideshow...
  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Lady Gaga rocked some 80's style while leaving her apartment building in New York City on June 6.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Eva Longoria and Felicity Huffman had a little "Desperate Housewives" reunion at the AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute To Jane Fonda at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on June 5.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Lindsay Lohan was seen at Chiltern Firehouse in London on June 5.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Scott Disick attended the 2014 FIFA World Cup McDonald's launch party at Pillars 38 on June 5 in New York City.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Lena Dunham was seen rocking a "No Comment" sweater while out and about in New York City on June 5.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Hilary Duff was all smiles as she ran errands on June 5 in Beverly Hills, California.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Channing Tatum has some fun at the "22 Jump Street" premiere at AMC Lincoln Square Theater on June 4 in New York City.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban attended the 2014 CMT Music Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on June 4 in Nashville, Tennessee.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Carrie Underwood attended the 2014 CMT Music Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on June 4 in Nashville, Tennessee.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Kendall and Kylie Jenner were seen stepping out in New York City on June 4.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Bradley Cooper got whipped into shape by military personnel while filming scenes for his upcoming movie "American Sniper" in Los Angeles, California on June 4.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Sarah Jessica Parker went for a walk on June 4 in New York City.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Emma Roberts and Evan Peters enjoyed a romantic stroll on the beach together while vacationing in Maui, Hawaii on June 3.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Kim Kardashian stopped by Craig's in West Hollywood, California to have lunch with her mom Kris Jenner on June 3.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Taylor Schilling attended the Glamour Women of the Year Awards at Berkeley Square Gardens on June 3 in London, England.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Miranda Lambert stopped by ABC studios for an appearance on "Good Morning America" in New York Cit on June 3.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Angelina Jolie attended the "Maleficent" photo call at The Bund on June 3 in Shanghai, China.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    John Mayer enjoyed dinner out at Madeo Restaurant on June 2 in West Hollywood, California.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Blake Lively left her hotel with designer Michael Kors and headed to the 2014 CDFA Awards on June 2 in New York City.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Gwen Stefani spotted leaving a skin care clinic while out and about in Beverly Hills, California on June 2.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Katie Holmes spotted picking up Jergens Natural Glow Daily Moisturizer in New York City on June 2.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Pete Wentz took a test drive of the new Mario Kart 8 for Wii U in Los Angeles, California on June 2.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Halle Berry attended the Huading Film Awards on June 1 at Ricardo Montalban Theatre in Los Angeles, California.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Kim Kardashian was seen at LAX on June 1 in Los Angeles, California.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Shailene Woodley was seen leaving the Bowery Hotel in New York City on June 1.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Marion Cotillard spotted out and about with a friend in New York City on June 1.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Khloe Kardashian chatted away on her cell phone as she arrived on a red eye flight at JFK airport in New York on May 31.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Naomi Watts headed to the gym for a morning workout on May 30 in Brentwood, California

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Jane Lynch signed copies of her book "Marlene, Marlene, Queen of Mean" at the 2014 Bookexpo America at The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on May 29 in New York City.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Taylor Schilling, Jason Biggs and Laura Prepon attended a photo call to launch season 2 of Netflix exclusive series "Orange Is The New Black" on May 29 in London.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Peter Facinelli and Jaimie Alexander shared a kiss after their work out at a gym in West Hollywood, California on May 29.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Mariah Carey at the 2014 Fresh Air Fund Honoring Our American Hero at Pier Sixty in New York City on May 29.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Farrah Abraham spotted posing for cameras in New York City on May 29.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Prince William and Kate Middleton visited Strathearn Community Campus in Crieff, Scotland on May 29.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    "The Bachelorette" Season 1 couple Trista and Ryan Sutter stopped to pose for the cameras while out and about in New York City on May 29.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at the Los Angeles premiere of "Maleficent" at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, California on May 28.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Chris Martin and his band Coldplay perform live at the Casino de Paris on May 28 in Paris.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Hilary Duff stopped by a nail salon in Los Angeles, California on May 28.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Scott Disick spotted out and about with a friend in New York City on May 28.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Emily Blunt attended the premiere of "Edge Of Tomorrow" on May 28 in London.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Nina Dobrev wowed at the World Music Awards 2014 at Sporting Monte-Carlo on May 27.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Kristen Stewart departed on a flight at LAX airport in Los Angeles, California with her bodyguard on May 27.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Amanda Seyfried, Charlize Theron and Seth MacFarlane attended a photo call to promote "A Million Ways To Die In The West" on May 27 in London, England.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Jennifer Garner met a friend for lunch at Larchmont Bungalow in Los Angeles, California on May 27.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Tom Cruise attended "Edge Of Tomorrow" photocall at Terrazza Civita on May 27 in Rome, Italy.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Kaley Cuoco and her husband Ryan Sweeting attended Joel Silver's Annual Memorial Day Party at his home in Malibu, California on May 26.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Kris Jenner and baby North West left Florence Airport after Kim Kardashian And Kanye West's wedding on May 25 in Florence, Italy.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Emma Watson, in a cap and gown, attending Brown University’s 2014 Graduation Ceremony in Providence, Rhode Island on May 25.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Eva Longoria had a busy morning in Los Angeles, California on May 25.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Iggy Azalea arrived at The Bank nightclub at the Bellagio on May 24 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Supermodel Hilary Rhoda and her fiance former "DWTS" contestant Sean Avery celebrated Memorial Day with Tequila Don Julio cocktails from the Airstream speakeasy in the Hampton's on May 24.