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Last Night at the Viper Room

An exclusive excerpt from Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind

Over a thousand miles on a motorcycle. Just before Christmas 1989, that was how Keanu Reeves went to see his friend River Phoenix, riding his motorcycle from Canada all the way down the eastern United States, until he reached Gainesville, Florida. His cargo: the treatment for a movie called My Own Private Idaho, by director Gus Van Sant. The project upped the perspiration rates of both actors’ agents, managers, and other handlers — Iris Burton [Phoenix’s agent] had refused to pass it on to the Phoenix family. The lead characters were street hustlers who sexually service male customers — subject matter that was not just outré, but taboo in mainstream moviemaking.

Gus Van Sant grew up in Darien, Connecticut, and attended the Rhode Island School of Design. After he saw Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange his freshman year, he abandoned painting in favor of film. “The camera was this little machine that could make images, like paintings, twenty-four times a second,” he said. After graduating in 1975, he failed to make it in Hollywood, and ended up in Portland, Oregon. His experimental movies eventually blossomed into 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy, starring Matt Dillon as the leader of a gang of drug addicts knocking over pharmacies; it was named the year’s best film by the National Society of Film Critics.

On New Year’s Day 1990, River and some friends watched Drugstore Cowboy and were duly impressed. Not long after, he and Reeves were both in L.A.; heading out to a club, they drove down Santa Monica Boulevard and discussed the movie, words spilling out of them at maximum speed.

“We were excited,” River said. They were also both nervous about the project, and especially scared of committing to it and then discovering that the other one had backed out: “We just forced ourselves into it.” They agreed to do it together, shaking hands on the deal.

“They probably felt the risk,” Van Sant opined later. “If there’s no risk at all, it’s not that much fun.”

A few weeks later, Van Sant flew to Florida to meet his young star; River and [friend Suzanne] Solgot picked him up at the Gainesville airport. River quizzed Van Sant about every aspect of the movie, and hit it off with the quiet, amiable director — although he told friends afterward that he thought Van Sant had a crush on him and was chasing him. Nevertheless, he was in, predicting, “This will get me off the cover of Tiger Beat.”

While Van Sant assembled financing, River made Dogfight and Reeves starred with Patrick Swayze in Point Break, Kathryn Bigelow’s loopy action movie about surfers who rob banks while wearing masks of U.S. presidents. River prepared for his role as a street kid, reading John Rechy’s novel City of Night and meeting Mike Parker, the hustler friend of Van Sant whom his character was based on. (Parker had been slated to star in the movie; when River took his part, Parker ended up with a smaller part in the ensemble.)

According to Parker, River’s preparations included dabbling with queer sex, including a dalliance with a male cast member in Dogfight. “I think maybe he had feelings that way,” Parker said. “Everybody has a level of curiosity. River struck me as real curious. Maybe not because he was gay but because he wanted to understand.”

“If he loved somebody, male or female,” Suzanne Solgot said, “he felt he should check it out.”

My Own Private Idaho fuses two plot lines. Mike Waters (River) is a narcoleptic hustler searching for his mother, while Scott Favor (Reeves) is an updated version of Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays: the wayward son of the mayor of Portland, slumming on the streets to amuse himself before he comes into his inheritance. The movie has an abundance of Shakespearean dialogue, rendered in modern language, and a Falstaff character: Bob Pigeon, the charismatic king of the street hustlers.

Daniel Day-Lewis was rumored to be playing Bob Pigeon, but he never committed to the role. River wanted the part to be played by his friend William Richert, who had directed him in Jimmy Reardon, but when Richert read the screenplay, he balked, saying, “It’s a big fat pederast.” Richert called up River and asked, “Is this what you think of me? Is this what you think I should be playing? Because I haven’t been an actor before, so this is how people are going to see me.”

“No no no, Bill, it’s the energy,” River assured him. “It doesn’t matter how big you are.” Richert turned down the part, his vanity wounded — he was dating a much younger woman and didn’t want her to think of him as even vaguely resembling Bob Pigeon.

River, however, kept wooing Richert for the role and, while visiting his house one day, invited Van Sant over to join them. When Van Sant arrived, he and River started reading the script out loud on Richert’s porch. Feeling coerced and insulted, Richert stayed inside and smoked a joint instead. But after sulking for a while, he joined them.

“Do you want me to read it, River?” he asked.

“Oh, would you, Bill? That would be so cool. Right, Gus?”

Richert read the part, and noticed that River had memorized the entire script. Afterward, he reiterated that he still didn’t want to play the role — but privately, he had a grudging respect for River’s relentlessness. “It was a total operator move,” he said. The Bob Pigeon role was filled by eighty-two-year-old character actor Lionel Stander, best known for his work as Max the chauffeur on the TV show Hart to Hart.

River flew up to Portland, Oregon, for filming, but then one night he called up Richert. “Hey, Bill, I’m here with Keanu. We’re shooting scenes with Bob Pigeon tomorrow and we want you to come, because we fired the actor.”

“You fired the actor? You and Keanu?” asked an astonished Richert.

“No no no no no — Gus. But we all agreed that he just doesn’t have the energy. Maybe you can come up on Thursday?”

River put Reeves on the line to persuade Richert. “Where are you?” Richert asked.

“We’re in the hall at Gus’s house,” Reeves told him.

“Why are you in the hall?”

“He doesn’t have any furniture yet.”

After receiving assurances that the move had Van Sant’s blessing, a worn-down Richert succumbed. Van Sant picked him up at the Portland airport in his Volvo.

“I met the costume designer and she put me in a fat suit and put enormous red things all over me. I started getting into the character because I could feel my roly-poly, Falstaffian, larcenist nature,” Richert said. “River would visit me every night — he became my second director.”

Rather than check into a hotel, River stayed at Van Sant’s house during the shoot. Soon, much of the young male cast, including Reeves and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, had joined him, turning the house into a crash pad littered with futons and musical instruments. Overwhelmed by the number of guests, Van Sant moved out of his own home for the duration of the shoot.

Late-night parties and jam sessions became the rule. Reeves and Flea had brought their basses; River bought a handmade Irish guitar from a Portland music store. They were joined by Mike Parker, actor Scott Green (formerly a Portland street kid), editor Wade Evans, and sometimes Van Sant himself. They would get drunk and stoned in Van Sant’s garage, next to his BMWs, and then play what River called “sort of a fusion-funk Latin-jazz thing.”

Parker, who typically manned a drum machine in the garage band, said, “River would just start playing these tribal rhythms on guitar and he’d go into a trance. We’d play these amazing jams that would last for three hours without stopping.” River and Flea were the stalwarts, and their love of music became the cornerstone of their friendship.

Blissed out, River would close his eyes while he played, and block out the rest of the world. He delighted in playing to the point of exhaustion, when he would fall asleep holding his guitar.

As it happened, River had learned about inappropriate slumber for the movie: his character suffered from narcolepsy, meaning that he would fall asleep abruptly, especially in stressful situations. River spent some time with a narcoleptic friend of Van Sant’s, discussing how and why his “fits” happened, and the lucid-dreaming hyperreal quality of the ensuing sleep. River never saw an actual fit, but Van Sant declared his simulations of them to be just like the genuine article.

River also spent a lot of time on the Portland streets to prepare for the role, learning tricks of the trade: for example, giggling nervously can entice older guys on a power trip. According to Parker, there were two basic types of hustler: the glamorous ones and the unbathed grunge boys. River opted for the latter: “a definite pickup on the street,” opined Parker.

Green served as tour guide to River and Reeves in the “Vaseline Alley” district, where they watched boys as young as twelve get into cars for forty-dollar “dates.” Green would even get into johns’ cars to haggle out a deal, with River following him to see how it was done. Sometimes, River would enter the negotiation himself, Green said. “But after we agreed to the deal, I’d say, ‘I’m sorry. We can’t do this.’ And we’d jump out of the car leaving these guys wondering what the hell was going on.”

One potential customer didn’t take the rejection well. He kept circling the block, yelling at them, “But I’m so lonely!”

To immerse himself further in the role, River started experimenting with hard drugs. He was friendly with Matt Ebert, a former street kid who acted as a production assistant on both Dogfight and My Own Private Idaho. Before they did heroin together for the first time, River assured Ebert that he had done it before. “I remember thinking, ‘He’s lying,'” Ebert said. According to Ebert, there was “rampant heroin use” going on among the cast and crew of Idaho. “He would come up to visit me, and we would do drugs together,” Ebert said of River. “Let me tell you, it did not take him long to go from, you know, a casual user to having an intense drug problem.”

Early in the shoot, River got busted for drunk driving. The film company confiscated his car so it wouldn’t happen again, and kept the incident under wraps. Word got to River’s agent, Iris Burton, who exploded, more out of embarrassment than concern for River. “Imagine, I had to find out from the movie’s fucking accountant,” she complained. “I never liked that fucking My Own Private Idaho. It should have stayed in the trash where it belonged.”

Going deeper into his role than ever before, River was vanishing in plain sight. His hair was greasy; his skin was sallow; his body was clad in second-hand clothes. He looked like a mournful street kid, not a Hollywood star. When he went to do research at Portland’s City Nightclub, the owner threw him out for looking like a bum.

“I’m River Phoenix,” he objected, but when challenged, couldn’t produce any ID. “Well, if you’re River Phoenix, you can certainly afford to pay the six-dollar cover charge,” club owner Lannie Swerdlow told him. But River didn’t have any money either. “Stop putting me on,” Swerdlow said, and had the bouncers escort him out the door.

While River wasn’t doing so well at getting onto the dance floor, he delivered an astonishing performance on camera. In his hands, Mike Waters stumbles through his life half asleep, looking for a mother he can’t really remember but who haunts his dreams. Dressed in shades of red, Mike looks like the salmon that Van Sant periodically cuts to: a creature fighting to return home, even if the effort will kill him. Mike Waters keeps up his guard so he can survive on the streets; River Phoenix let us see the character’s tender heart.

The production rolled up I-5 for two weeks of shooting in Seattle. Journalist Dario Scardapane witnessed the filming of a scene on a ferry, where Mike Waters is in a narcoleptic trance while the hustler characters of Rodney Harvey and Keanu Reeves take in the view and suck on a pot pipe.

When River shambled onto the set, Scardapane wrote, “Quite honestly, he looks like crap: his hair’s a mess, stubble flecks his face, his grungy red pants don’t fit, and more than anything else, he appears in dire need of a good night’s rest, which the actor seems intent on getting, promptly collapsing on a bench in the ferry’s cabin.”

When Van Sant started shooting, “almost unnoticed, River lies in a puddle near his costars’ feet, a position he’ll keep for most of the day. Frankly, there’s not much difference in his performance when the camera is rolling and when it is not.”

The scene was ultimately cut from the movie.

The filmmakers all insisted that the characters Reeves and River played weren’t actually gay; they just made money by having sex with men. “It’s as much about gays as Five Easy Pieces is about oil-well diggers,” River insisted, a bit disingenuously.

Reeves put it less elegantly and more defensively when pressed by an interviewer about how he had prepared for his role: “I didn’t have to suck dick, if that’s what you mean!”

Nevertheless, they had a three-way sex scene with a German businessman played by Udo Kier, staged as a series of frozen tableaus, and they were both nervous about it. Just before shooting the scene, River tried to break the ice with a joke: “Just think, Keanu, five hundred million of your fans will be watching this one day.” This backfired, making Reeves feel intensely self-conscious. They made it through the day’s shoot, but afterward, River said, the usually gentle Van Sant severely chastised him for his ill-timed humor. “He scolded the shit out of me,” River said. “I almost cried.”

The centerpiece of River’s performance, and the film, is a campfire scene with Reeves. Scott Favor takes Mike Waters on a road trip (on a stolen motorcycle) to visit Mike’s brother. At night, sitting by a fire they’ve made, they discuss their respective childhoods: “If I had a normal family and a good upbringing, then I would have been a well-adjusted person,” Mike insists. What’s really on his mind: he’s in love with Scott, and he’s terrified of saying so.

“I only have sex with a guy for money,” a reclining Scott tells him. “Two guys can’t love each other.”

A miserable Mike says haltingly, “I could love someone even if I, you know, wasn’t paid for it. And I love you, and you don’t pay me.” Curling up in a ball, he tells Scott, “I really want to kiss you, man.” The scene ends with Scott gently holding Mike, stroking his hair.

“This is the best part in the film,” Van Sant said, “and was chosen by River to be his big scene.” At River’s request, Van Sant scheduled it for the last day of shooting. River rewrote it himself, making it more lyrical and making his love for Scott explicit (in Van Sant’s original script, the relationship was more ambiguous).

“‘I love you, and you don’t have to pay me’ — I’m so glad I wrote that line,” River said. “I think that in his private life, Mike was probably a virgin, so he only relates sex with work.” River had spent some time thinking about situational virginity, and the emotional consequences of having sex when you didn’t want to have it.

The final scene of the movie, however, is River Phoenix, all alone by the side of a lonely northwestern highway (filmed just fifteen miles away from Madras, where he was born). Mike Waters is stranded, without any obvious future and without Scott Favor, who has accepted the mantle of city scion, with a hot Italian girlfriend on his arm. Mike peers into the distance and staggers into sleep, escaping from the world.

Later, a truck pulls up; two guys steal Mike’s shoes. Then, with a steel-guitar version of “America the Beautiful” quivering on the soundtrack, we see a long shot of a car stopping: the driver puts Mike into the car and speeds away. It could be his brother taking him home, a john with malicious intent, or maybe (if you’re a romantic), Scott returning to rescue him.

In 1997, Van Sant was doing a reading at a bookstore from his novel Pink. (Dedicated to River, the book starred a thinly disguised version of him.) An audience member asked him who had hoisted River Phoenix’s body into the car.

“I was hoping that viewers would project themselves into the film and decide for themselves who it was,” he told her.

“Okay, then,” she replied. “Who picked him up in your version?” Van Sant paused. “In my version … in my version, I pick him up.”

Gavin Edwards’s latest book, Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind, is available now and can be purchased online here.