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James Franco, please release this River Phoenix documentary

My Own Private River was cobbled together from unseen footage – but it will be a miracle if we ever get to see it

What should have been River Phoenix’s 45th birthday – had he not overdosed on drugs at The Viper Room on Halloween night in 1993 – falls on Sunday, August 23. More than 20 years after his tragic death, you’d think we’d seen it all. The Michael Tighe pictures, the trophy-giving interviews, his last ever film that was only 80 per cent finished – Dark Blood. Rather than the customary celebration of his too-brief career, extolling his best turns on-screen, I have a plea: give us more River.

After coming together for Milk in 2008, James Franco and director Gus Van Sant pooled resources for a never-released documentary titled My Own Private River. The documentary is comprised of footage that never made it into Van Sant’s cult mainstay, My Own Private Idaho. Franco openly admits he was “obsessed” with River Phoenix, declaring My Own Private Idaho a singular, formative experience in his teenagedom. He even rode shotgun for a personal tour from Van Sant of all of MOPI’s filming locations (which, if we’re being pedantic, are actually all in Oregon.)

While cruising around Portland, Van Sant let slip he had “hundreds of rolls of film in storage” from the film that didn’t make the cut. Franco convinced Van Sant to harvest these deleted scenes and let Franco piece them together for a new film. The result became My Own Private River, which, up until this point, has been seen only by a score of lucky ducks who caught it at LA’s Gagosian Gallery or at one of a handful of private screenings. And, I guess, James Franco whenever the hell he wants.

Having combed through Phoenix’s career – both highlights and low – what more could there be to add? Why does River endlessly hold our collective fascination? “River Phoenix really was that guy,” remembers My Own Private Idaho’s director of photography, Eric Edwards. “His acting was really delicate and unexpected and we’d never really know what he was going to do. I asked him about acting one time and he really couldn’t talk about it. He really didn’t want to dissect it, I think he was just really natural.” That effortless approach to acting is what made his performances reverberate long after the credits finished rolling.

A long-standing rumour alleges that to play drugged-up narcoleptic hustler Mike Waters in My Own Private Idaho, he and his pals went method and dabbled in drugs on set. “Obviously River was into drugs, but I wasn’t really aware of it,” says Edwards. “I remember people talking about heroin. I remember, I won’t say who, there were a few people that knew he had used heroin, but whether or not he was doing it on the set (of My Own Private Idaho) I wasn’t really aware of.”

So with the hundreds of rolls of cut footage that Van Sant provided Franco to play around with, how did he midwife his lovechild? “Since Gus likes longer takes now, I tried to match that style,” Franco said at one of the film’s rare screenings three years ago. “I edited the film as I imagined Gus might have if he made My Own Private Idaho today.”

Despite a fruitless online petition begging for VOD distribution of the companion piece to My Own Private Idaho, nothing has happened. Will it ever see a release? The only answer is buried in an article called “If You Want to See James Franco’s My Own Private River, You'll Need to Hassle New Line Cinema”. In Franco’s words: “There is the original movie and not only do I not want to compete with the original movie, but New Line also does not want us to compete with their money.”

Not only that proves troublesome, but Joaquin Phoenix could also be a potential roadblock. When Franco sought his permission to screen the film, he was initially OK with it. When a 12-hour cut became part of the Gagosian exhibition, he got wet feet, says Franco. “I assured him that there wasn't anything damaging about the new footage of River, but Joaquin was still uncomfortable.” In a Tumblr post, the London-based filmmaker who started the petition sheds more light on the situation. After sending all 1145 signatures to the producer of My Own Private Idaho, Lynsey received this in response. “I am sorry but neither Gus (Van Sant) nor I will support the release. We respect the privacy of the Phoenix family in all such matters.”

So it appears as though both Van Sant and the Phoenix family aren’t holding their breath for the film to hit digital shelves. The real battle lies with Franco, who would have to convince all parties involved that this is an important tribute to River’s life and work. A big ask, sure… but here I am asking.

For now, we’re truly running on empty. All we have is this measly one-and-a-half-minute grocery shopping clip. Following Phoenix around the shop, buying food, only makes us more hungry. Please, James Franco, satiate the River fans. Release this documentary.