A River Runs Through Us

It’s been 20 years since I received one of the most exciting phone calls of my acting career. I had only been in Los Angeles for three years but had already had enough early success to call myself a “working actor” – ok, a “semi-working actor.” Mostly big dumb football player roles on overwritten network sitcoms, with a few residual-generating national television commercials sprinkled in (my first was a Miller Lite spot with Bob Uecker – pretty cool). I stuffed Urkel into a trash can, got tutored by Lisa Rinna, and even helped a couple of likeminded dopplegangers pound on Doogie Howser – trust me, he had it coming! That last one earned me the credit “Gorilla #2.” Life was good – I was working –  but the roles were not all that challenging.

So when my agent called and told me that legendary casting director Marion Dougherty had just phoned up and made an offer for me to play a knucklehead Marine in an exciting new Warner Brothers film to be directed by Nancy Savoca, I was on cloud nine, ten, and eleven.

I take inventory a lot. Maybe no more than anyone else, but I think it’s a strength to have a built-in perspective button that you push periodically to not only gauge progress but to connect dots and see how and why opportunities come along. I regularly look back on this gig, this role on what ultimately became not much more than “a little film” called DogfightA film the studio would ultimately bury and give minimal publicity/distribution to, but has proven to have legs, gaining steam over the years, possibly even surpassing what is known in movie vernacular as a “cult classic.” I can honestly say I’ve never met anyone that actually saw Dogfight that didn’t like it – and like it a lot.

We shot in Seattle and it was my first glimpse of the Emerald City. What a great town, so many poignant memories. My brother lives there now and recently married a lovely native so there will be many more reasons to stroll Pike Place Market and try my thumbs at salmon catching. To get out on Peuget Sound and marvel at the panorama. His wife is four months pregnant so I will soon have a little one to bounce on my knee and create a whole new batch of nostalgic iphone moments.

But what Seattle will always be for me is a glorious rush of emotionally rich visuals and anecdotes of my first real acting role on a Warner Brothers picture that would star Lili Taylor and River Phoenix.

Nancy Savoca had made a name for herself  the year before with a super sweet romantic comedy called True Love (1989), which I immediately rented and adored. She and her husband, producer Richard Guay, would be waiting for me in Seattle.

Lili Taylor had jumped off the screen in Mystic Pizza (1988) and Say Anything (1989). She was a budding star and universally praised as unusually talented and a dream to work with. I would meet her soon in Seattle.

Richard Pannebianco, Mitchell Whitfield, and Anthony Clark had been cast as three of what the script refered to as “The Four Bees,” and they were waiting for me in Seattle too, having arrived earlier for some boot camp acting preparation to be led by the go-to military expert/advisor-turned actor Dale Dye (Band of Brothers, Born on the 4th of July, Saving Private Ryan).

We all flew up to Seattle from Los Angeles, excited to work on this promising new film. We were all in Seattle for one reason. River Phoenix had agreed to be in the picture.

At age 2o, River Phoenix was not only above the title, he was on the extremely short list of actors who could get a film made by signing on the dotted line.

River splashed on the scene in Rob Reiner’s wonderful coming of age film Stand By Me (1986), and then dug in to stay with such films as The Mosquito Coast (’86), Little Nikita (’88), and an Oscar nominated performance in Running On Empty (’88), my personal favorite. What none of us knew during this meteoric and brilliant rise was just how short this talented and vulnerable young actor would stay.

Dogfight is a relatively unconventional love story, part boy meets girl, part coming of age, very somber and ambiguous in its conclusion. The setup of the tale is an apparent Marine tradition (according to screenwriter Bob Comfort) of descending upon a city on leave and commencing to compete with one another on a quest to see which private can hit the streets and persuade the “ugliest” girl to join him for a night of drinks and dancing, eventually to parade the poor girls in front of a panel of judges in what they called a “dogfight.” Sophomoric at best, misogynistic to say the least. To say, however, that the theme of this smart and sensitive film is simply “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is to undercut the lessons that Taylor’s ‘Rose’ and Phoenix’s ‘Birdlace’ learn in their night on the town.

‘Rose’ is a folk song singing anti-war innocent who learns the hard way that boys can have not only bad intentions but can be downright brutal in their objectification of the softer sex. But she’s quick on her feet when the rubber hits the road and not only stands up for herself but champions all of the young gals who have been subjected to the contest. “You are a cruel, heartless, ignorant creep. If I were a man I would beat you to a pulp. Who gave you the right to treat people like this?” Many critics thought Lili Taylor deserved an Oscar nomination for her work in Dogfight. I agreed with them.

Here’s where your trusted reviewer has to admit to being wrong those many years ago. As excited as I was to be working with River, I thought he was miscast as ‘Eddie Birdlace,’ the foul-mouthed, chainsmoking, rough around the edges Marine. I was flat-out wrong.

River was an absolute pleasure to work with and to be around. He bought a banged up Volvo wagon (his weekly per diem matched my weekly salary!) and chauffeured all his fellow “Bees” and me around town when we had days off. He picked up dinner tabs and made life at the Warwick hotel amusing and unpredictable. One night he and his younger brother, then known to all of us as Leaf (now Joaquin), showed up with motorized toy speedboats that we proceeded to take down to the hotel pool and put to the test. If my memory serves, Rob Lowe was in the vicinity (jacuzzi), dating – and eventually marrying – our makeup woman at the time – but I digress.

River was thoughtful and sweet, not an ounce of territorial actor neurosis, a rare quality. He was also pure as the driven snow, a quality that scrambles like an ant down a drain in a stiff rain in Tinseltown.

River Jude Bottom was born in Madras, Oregon to counter-culture parents who moved often, including a stay in Venezuela under the spell of the controversial Church of God cult. It was in South America that River and his younger brother, Leaf, encouraged the family to go vegan after witnessing the way local fishermen treated their prey. Pretty amazing awareness and conviction for children so young. But these were not your average children and this was not your average family.

The Bottoms moved to Los Angeles in 1979 and changed their last name to ‘Phoenix,’ as in the mythical bird that rises up from its own ashes and starts a new beginning.

River’s parents wanted their children in show biz and the family set to making it happen, dropping the kids on the asphalt of west L.A. to sing for their supper and perhaps be discovered…I guess.

I reference all of this (easily found on Wikipedia) not to point fingers, cast blame or dispersion, but to emphasize the point of my tribute to this unique and tragic fallen actor who I have such fond memories of.

River’s story is not just a cautionary tale of the trappings and hedonistic excess of Hollywood and stardom. His story is about abandoning who you are in search of someone you are not. Of peer pressure and the insanity of wanting to belong. Or maybe the gut wrenching insanity of feeling the need to numb the senses once your innocence has been shattered and idealism has taken the far back seat to cynicism.

While I may have been wrong about the choice to cast River Phoenix in Dogfight, his performance in the film is there for all to see and it is solid, I was correct in my estimation that River the young man was a far cry from ‘Birdlace,’ the rank and file soldier. As far as I could tell, although this was not ever a topic of discussion, River was not a Method actor,  meaning his acting process did not require him to actually live the experiences and emotions necessary to fill out his character. Personally speaking, the Method is a tough row to hoe, not just for the actor but for the entire crew, not to mention his or her family. Having said that, River’s approach to creating ‘Birdlace’ appeared to be rooted at least partially in the Method. He smoked a lot and at dinner drank a lot. And by “a lot” I mean a couple of glasses of red wine, the transformation so obvious to me, watching him become near cross-eyed from the alcohol while trying to maintain conversations. Never belligerent or rude in the least. Just quickly drunk and void of his usual sweet charm.

Fast forward less than a year later and imagine the same ‘technique’ applied to his character in Gus Van Sant’s disturbing My Own Private Idaho (1991), and it would not take a top flight detective to connect the dots that the amazingly sweet and talented and once ‘oh-so-pure’ River Phoenix was headed for a train wreck.

From accounts I have heard over the past couple of decades, My Own Private Idaho was a party. How could it not be? Based loosely on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, the film centers on a pair of teen runaways turned male prostitutes (Phoenix and Keanu Reeves), and also starred Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers),  James Russo, and William Richert. The setting, the themes and subject matter, the relationships. If what I witnessed in Seattle a year earlier was any indication of how River the actor was beginning to poison River the man, then this was a project River’s reps should have perhaps had the wisdom to pass on. Easier said than done. I’m not judging here, just playing monday morning quarterback with a heavy heart.

River was so special. Not just a damn good actor, which he was, but a significantly thoughtful and introspectively poetic young man. He loved music and animals. From what I could tell in my short time spent around him, he loved people and might even have loved acting. Hard to tell sometimes if the actors you line up across from in front of the camera or on stage really love what they’re doing. I always give my fellow actors the benefit of the doubt that they enjoy what they’re doing as much as I do, not just the money or the fame, but the process and the craft. I think River loved acting. The camera sure loved him.

My first day on the set with River in the filming of Dogfight was a challenging one. It was my character’s introduction scene and it took place on a military transport bus. So all of the coverage shot within the bus, my closeup and medium shot, as well as those of the “four bees” interviewing me for the “dogfight,” were done in very close quarters as the bus made continuous loops on a remote section of a Washington state highway. Extremely time-consuming, at times painfully uncomfortable, requiring maximum patience from all involved, the camera department and actors in particular. As is always the case on a show or film, the star gets his shots accomplished first (presumably while he/she is fresh, whatever), and then there is a pecking order in terms of the shot list. Suffice it to say, turning the camera around and aiming it at my mug was last on the list and would be executed long after lunch and long after the “fun” of being on that bus had worn off.

Common courtesy among actors is to continue working the scene in character and on point even when you are off camera. Common sense tells us that the bigger star the harder this unwritten rule is to obey.

With naps and phone calls on everyone’s minds, it was pretty clear the “four bees” did not really want to climb back on to that bus to get my coverage. I heard the grumbling, it was obvious, didn’t make me that happy to know I was going to have to play the scene to stand ins, but I was prepared to take my lumps and make it work. But it didn’t go down that way and I’ve never forgotten how it did.

When the vote was put to River whether or not to get back on the bus for a dozen more freeway loops, he didn’t hesitate. Never would have crossed his mind to leave me hanging. It was the right thing to do and he knew it. We were all in it together.

River died of a drug overdose on a cold asphalt sidewalk outside of a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, Halloween night, 1993. The cocktail of narcotics found in his blood staggers the mind and are not worth mentioning here cuz it makes me so mad and still so sad.

I have teenaged sons and I am all too aware of the temptations and seductions thrust upon them by mass media, pop culture, and peer pressure. It exists everywhere but certainly is magnified in Los Angeles, a city that far too often fails to live up to its Spanish translation.

But I once knew an Angel named River who danced and sang and acted so magically. His gift was undeniable and his family’s loss unimaginable.

When I really need a River Phoenix fix I pop in Running On Empty and dial up the final scene. Some times I’m Judd Hirsch telling his son to “take your bike out of the back of the truck…and get on it. Yer on your own now, kid – go out there and make a difference.” Other times I’m young River standing speechless, both in awe of the sacrifice and generosity of his parents’ willingness to let him go and also the absolute sadness of being let go. I can’t hear James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” without thinking of that scene.

Not a day goes by when I don’t think about River Phoenix and how he insisted those guys get back on the bus and work off camera for their fellow actor. I like that expression – my fellow actor. I liked River a lot. He was my fellow actor.

40 thoughts on “A River Runs Through Us

    • Thank you, Lisa. You really have no idea how much it touches me that you took the time to read. Now do yourself a favor and rent Running on Empty if you haven’t seen it (recently?). Happy Halloween to you and your crew!

  1. I’m not sure if he loved acting but clearly he was a hard working person who took care of his own. And he could bleed for the camera. With child actors I always worry about why, and how, and what fame does to you before you know who you are. Thank you for sharing your story. I wish more people would. I have Dogfight here and can picture you in the bus, and dancing at the Nitelight. You were excellent as well. One question– what happened to Richard Pannebianco? He was so amazingly strong acting with River. It’s rare someone can draw the viewer’s eye away from River but he was one who could. Is he no longer acting? And one more question–what did River whisper to Lillie in the bed kissing scene? I guess that’s private between the characters but we so want to know! Finally, had he lived, I imagine River living a quiet life somewhere, maybe doing music. I saw an interview where he said he wouldn’t mind stopping at all, didn’t want to overstay his welcome. He is missed.

    • You’re welcome. It was a cathartic piece of writing for sure. Such great memories. I love your comment that River “could bleed for the camera.” He was very raw and vulnerable and the camera loves those qualities. I haven’t seen many as good as River Phoenix since his departure. As far as Richard Pannebianco, I could not agree with you more. Star power in spades. Richard and I hung out a little bit back in L.A. for a few years after Dogfight and then he literally just disappeared from the scene. He had superb representation and everything seemed lined up for him to take that next step up the ladder. Sad truth is I think he had a real hard time getting along with the types of personalities you have to embrace in Hollywood to play the game/business of acting. I really enjoyed his company and friendship during the brief time I was fortunate enough to call him a ‘friend.’ I would love to hear from him some day and get an earful on his new life and (hopefully) happiness. I wish I could shed some light for you on ‘Birdlace’s’ intimate exchange with ‘Rose’ but no such luck. They definitely had a sweet on-screen chemistry. It’s a special ‘little’ film with a very big heart. I hope that you will stick with my blog and spread the word. My mission is to continue to bring my Hollywood experiences to my analysis. It’s a fascinating industry full of daily surprises.

    • Not sure how I missed your comment, Vera. But thanks so much. I re-read it every so often, and it still gets me worked up. I’m coming up on my 100th blog post, and looking back, this has definitely been my favorite and most heartfelt. Hope you are still a reader.

  2. Thank you for writing this.. Very nice written. Everyone describe River as sensitive, caring, loved animals and so on. That makes it easy to understand how he was like. It is just terrible every time I see a movie and wish it would say “River Phoenix” in the closing credits. I quote another post that I have read: “If River had been here today, he would had been as big as Brad Pitt”
    (sorry my english, im from Sweden) 🙂
    Many hugs to you:) // Jo

    • What a beautiful story, I am a huge fan of Rivers and every story I read about him describes him as a incredibly kind and gentle soul, how the world would be a better place with more people like him.

      • Thank you, Laila. So glad you found the piece. I’m coming up on my 100th blog post, and looking back, this has been my favorite. From the heart for sure. Hope you keep reading.

  3. Pingback: 2010 in review – THANKS FOR READING LARS! « Lars Beckerman's Blog

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  5. Hello Lars,

    I hope you are doing well. Your words were beautifully spoken, and truly touched me. I found your honesty so refreshing, yet, it was nice to see that you did so in a sensitive manner.
    It was 1997, and I was a 20 yr. old college student working at Barnes and Noble in Massapequa, NY. There I was standing at the register, when Richard walked up to me and asked me where the bathroom was. He was with what looked to be his girlfriend. I got giddy and yelped “weren’t you in dogfight? I LOVED that movie!!!” He said he was and said “You saw that movie? Nobody knows about that film. I can’t believe you have seen it.” And I once again told him how much I loved it, and had seen it many times. I told him he was wonderful in it! He seemed appreciative and very kind. The only thing that turned me off was he came back over to me afterwards and asked me for a pen and piece of paper. I handed it to him, and he signed an autograph.(that I didn’t ask for) Again, I know he was being polite since he saw me as a fan, but I thought it was very cocky as well.
    I have been a fan since the early 90’s, and thought you did an amazing job. Thank you for sharing your experience on this film…. It made the film even more magical for me!

  6. Such a nice note, Colleen. I’m so glad you found the tribute, and even more glad that it touched you. Probably pretty easy to detect from it that my Dogfight experience has stuck with me in a very profound way. Good ol’ ‘Fector,’ not my brightest character, but definitely a memorable one. I both love your story about Richard Pannebianco and lament it. I wish I could put my finger on just why he wasn’t cut out for the ups and downs of our business; but your story points to an ego that may have gotten in his way and possibly made it difficult for him in his relationships with agents, etc. Heavy sigh. He was very talented and had all the makings of a legitimate and lasting film actor. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.

    Dogfight is a gem. Very proud to have been a part of it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  7. This was one of my mom`s favorite movies when she was young. She recently showed it to me. It`s now one of my all time favorite films. It`s so well acted, directed and written. I can`t believe it wasn`t a huge hit. I guess it has staying power though. I`m a teenager and I relate to it. I`m sure generations to come will continue discovering it`s charm.

    • You and your mom have excellent taste in films, Freddie. So glad she turned you on to Dogfight; also glad you came upon my tribute to River. Hope it gave you a little insight in to our experience and to how special an actor he was. Such a big loss. Thanks for reaching out.

  8. Dear Lars,

    I found this gem a couple of days ago and have read it over and over again. Every time it makes me cry. Tears of happiness reading these beautiful impressions of yours about an incredible person and tears of sadness over the loss, the world suffered, the day River left it. Thank you, thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing these beautiful memories! It is so hard to find real stories from real people about River and even harder to find any that are concentrating on the life of this amazing actor and human being without being tainted by the way he died. It just proves to me what I already knew in my heart, that he was an incredible kind, conscious and caring person, who lived his convictions.The first time I saw River was when I was barely a teenager and I immediately was drawn into his magical spell. He had such a huge impact on me growing up and becoming the person I am today and he still is my inspiration. Like you there is not one day going by that I don’t think of him and where he would be if he was still with us. I would have loved to see him rising beyond himself, having a family of his own. I have to admit, that I envy you and everyone else who had the honor to work with him. What would I give to be able to work with him, to learn from him. His emotional availability and vulnerability stuns me everytime I watch him on screen. He was so intense, so willing to give that I sometimes wonder if he was too present, if that makes sense. Dogfight is in the top of my list of River’s movies, such an underrated piece that I simply love. Congratulations to you for your performance! I hope that one day my kids will love the movie as much as I do. Thanks for making my day brighter!

    • Hello Julia. What a pleasant surprise to open up my email on my phone and ready your beautiful message. Really really touched me. I’m always so happy when someone finds their way to one of my pieces – especially my tributes – especially my tribute to River. Thank you for taking the time to express yourself so thoughtfully. I participated in a BBC ‘At the Movies’ feature a couple of years ago on Dogfight; if you would be interested I could send you my dvd of it? I was very pleased with how it turned out, you might really enjoy it.

      • I can’t even tell you how much it means to me, that you took the time to reply to my post, thank you so much for that! I really appreciate it! I did not expect an answer – I hoped for it, but certainly was astonished to actually receive one- and to receive it so quickly is for a lack of better words outstanding! I think sometimes faith just takes over and people in search of something are being led into the right direction and some people are just meant to “meet” in one or the other way! So I am really grateful to have “met” you!
        I would love to take you up on your offer, it sounds fantastic! As I am a bit sceptical of putting my address on the web like this, would you be willing to maybe send me an email to and then I could reply with my address? If that is too much to ask, I totally understand and will gladly write down my address here, as your offer is simply too tempting and wonderful to pass on it!

  9. Just a tiny correction, I meant sometimes fate takes over…please excuse me, if I write something not perfectly correct, I am not a native speaker, but trying my best to express myself.

  10. Hi. I liked your in memoriam highlighting your experience with River on the set of Dogfight. I scoured the credits and your name is no where to be found in the film, its IMDb page, or even IMDb’s database. What character did you portray? I just fell in love with this movie and want to look for you. Also, based on countless stories from past scene partners, friends, etc., I believe River was a beautiful and great talent with a universe locked inside him, but cleaning up his family history as simply a “counter-culture” environment does a disservice to the person he became. The Children of God cult facilitated routine molestations amongst its followers, encouraging adults and children to engage in sexual relationships with each other–abuse. This is no longer a speculative statement, but one proven and repeatedly underscored by the members who’ve escaped the church and publicly shared their story. I mean, Children of God/TFI even had an illustrated manual on how an adult should engage in sexual interactions with a child: The Story of Davidito. The fact that River was such a bright, warm light for others is a testament to the strength of character he had, despite being raised in such an environment. I’m sure you didn’t want to turn the article into a COG expose, but I don’t think glossing over it with a word like “controversial” painted a solid picture. It also let them off the hook a little. Anyway, I did enjoy your story, that part just struck me.

    • I can accept that criticism, Susan. Valid for sure. My aim was obviously to pay tribute to the artist while giving just enough back story context to explain his tragic trajectory. I write under the pseudonym, “Lars Beckerman.” I played the role of Fector. Always so happy to hear from a fan of Dogfight. A special film for sure. Thank you for reaching out.

  11. I was 11 when my mom brought home a copy of Stand By Me, igniting in me a love for all things River Phoenix. That was in 2004 and I had no idea at the time that he had died just two months after I was born. I started a quest to see every movie that he was in and next on the list was Dogfight, my mom rented it from Netflix and I watched it probably 30 times before we sent it back. As an adult I can’t watch one of his films without crying and I mean the ugly type of cry lol. I’m not one to cry at movies, so when this first happened I couldn’t figure out why I was so upset. Then it dawned on me, I’m not crying because of the movie. I’m crying because River Phoenix was a darn good actor and I can’t help but think of the tragedy that was his life’s end.

    I am so thankful to have found your post, what a wonderful tribute but also a reminder of the lives lost to the woes of Hollywood. I would love to see more movies that you have been in as well, you were awesome as Fector!

    Thank you for sharing your experience, this was beautifully written.

    • What a wonderful email to wake up to, Haley. Especially the day before Thanksgiving! Thank you. Of all the pieces I have posted since launching Lars Beckerman, my River tribute has not only elicited by far the most responses, but hands down the most emotional. Can’t thank you enough for taking the time to reach out and share your story with me. He was indeed a special talent and his death an enormous loss. I think about him every day. Just watched Running On Empty a couple of weeks ago with my 17 yr old son…gets me every time. While I am still very active and prolific in my acting career, I now teach and mentor actors (young and old) and I reference River often. His ability to care deeply for his characters and their relationships separated him from the pack in his era. And I hope it was obvious from my piece that I found him to be an utterly decent person, generous and thoughtful. I am flattered you are curious about my career. A few things coming up: I have a fun role in the new Alvin & the Chipmunks film coming out this Christmas; will be guest starring on NCIS: LosAngeles in January, and also have a big John Deere commercial that will air during March Madness basketball tournament. Such is my career, a film, a tv show, a commercial…and the the roulette wheel keeps spinning. If you are interested further in what has been happening with me this past year+, do a GOOGLE search on JOHN LACY Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and you will find a plethora of interesting reading material. Quite a pivotal event in my life as an artist and a man. An event that continues to transform my life. I hope you have a festive and rewarding holiday season. God bless.

  12. Very nice piece about a young man I always felt would have been a joy to know. I LOVE Dogfight and adore Running on Empty, as well as every other movie River was in. For some reason, I woke up today and thought about what a loss the death of River Phoenix was to the world. His thoughts on the environment, animal welfare, and his kindness are attributes to aspire to. I respected him greatly and always felt his actions backed up his convictions. He was a person I feel really made a positive difference in the world.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with River and for writing this nice tribute. Wishing you every happiness in 2016.

    • Thanks so much, Jan. Always love to learn that this tribute has found another River Phoenix fan. All you said about him was true, very rewarding to read that my piece captured his spirit for you. My memories from Seattle are rich indeed. Thankfully, watching little brother Joaquin in so many excellent films now is – I guess – our “consolation” prize. But River can never be replaced. He was special. Happy New Year to you.

  13. Thank you so much for posting your memories of River! He was such a wonderful actor who brought so much life and intensity to the characters he played, it really is no surprise so many of us still miss him and continue to imagine what he might have become if he were with us now. I remember watching the “Dogfight” trailer back in the 1990s. Though I really wanted to see it then (River at his clean-cut best!), I never found it in a theater. Fast forward to a few weeks ago, I read about the film online and saw it had been released on DVD through the Warner Archive, so I ordered it right away. Of course, I loved it. (I instantly recognized you from other, more recent projects the moment you appeared onscreen!) It is a fantastic movie on so many levels! River and Lili Taylor were absolutely phenomenal in their parts. Their subtle, physical acting – the expressions, micro-reactions, etc. – are amazing to watch. My only disappointment is the way the film was handled by the studio in 1991 – that it never received the sort of distribution it so clearly deserves. I truly hope the Warner Archive release will help win new viewers to “Dogfight” the way it won me. I have a question for you about the filming of the pivotal scene in the “Nitelite” bar, when Rose confronts Eddie. On the DVD’s “Director Commentary”, Nancy Savoca and Producer Richard Guay said the scene they used in the film was actually the first take. They also remarked that the cast and crew were so impressed with the performances, everyone applauded at the cut. Do you have any recollections you can share about the preparations and the actual filming of that particular scene? Thanks again for posting this blog and keeping it alive for all of us to remember River Phoenix!

  14. Lars, thank you for that wonderful essay about River Phoenix. He was an incredibly gifted actor who brought so much dimension to every part he played, he was truly a joy to watch. I loved your story about his willingness to go back aboard the bus after filming his own scenes, just so he and the others could help you to complete yours. It really speaks to his integrity as an actor, as a team player and as a human being. It’s no wonder people still miss him after all these years. His family, friends, fans and Hollywood lost a great deal when he passed away. So much unrealized potential.

    I saw the movie “Dogfight’ for the first time about a month ago and absolutely loved it. (I wanted to see it back in the 1990s after seeing the trailer, but it never played at any local theaters.Fortunately, I recently found it on dvd.) It is a fantastic film on a lot of different levels. River was amazing, particularly his subtle, physical acting. Both he and Lili Taylor conveyed so much about their characters through minute changes of expression, micro-reactions, etc. Such skill! Sadly, too few actors these days seem to have – or employ – the same ability to fully inhabit and demonstrate a character that way.

    In any event, I’m really glad I finally saw the film and hope more people will have the opportunity to see it for its wonderful story and the outstanding performances. It truly is one of River’s best.

    If you don’t mind, I have one question about your experiences on the set of “Dogfight”, particularly the pivotal scene at the “Nitelite” (when Rose confronted Eddie). I heard that the version of the scene the Director chose to use in the movie was actually filmed on the first take, and that the crew was so impressed with the performances afterward, everyone stopped to applaud. Do you have any memories you can share about the preparations or the actual filming of that scene?

    Thank you again for posting your personal tribute to River Phoenix, and for keeping it online so that his fans, old and new, can find it and remember what a wonderful actor and what a wonderful young man he was.

    (P.S. Forgive me if this is sort-of a double post. I am brand new to wordpress and tried to post something earlier as an unregistered user, but it didn’t seem to go through. In any event, thanks again. All of my best to you.)

    • Hello, Melody. Just back from a long weekend in San Francisco. Really enjoyed reading your thoughtful commentary, analysis, and curiosity regarding Dogfight. Definitely a special film, a moment in time if you will. I want to re-read your email tomorrow morning with my coffee and then you can expect a more detailed, generous response. As of right now…my brain is kind of mushy.

      Thank you for reaching out.


  15. Hi again, John. I hope you’re feeling better after your long weekend. Thanks for the reply. I look forward to reading your more-detailed response and will watch for it. (By the way, I see my first note as a non-registered user made it through after all. A lot of it is rephrased in the second message, in part so the wordpress system wouldn’t flag a duplicate as spam, and also because, in retrospect, I thought maybe the first message sounded too much like an ad for Warner Bros! But Warner got its plug anyway!)

    Thanks again.


  16. Hello, Melody. Sorry for the delay. As I recall, Nancy’s memory of that day and that moment is spot on. Lili was definitely locked and loaded for that scene and that entrance in particular. Once she would get in to makeup/wardrobe, she was all business. She and River were similar that way…very method in their approach to the work. Neither would engage in a lot of unnecessary small talk or distractions while on set. Same way I work. Thanks again for your support of the work. I’m working on my own film right now, a psychological thriller I wrote and am directing called Custody. Look for our first teaser on YouTube/Vimeo this upcoming week.

  17. Hello John. Many thanks! I appreciate your taking the time to respond. In the meantime, I’ve enjoyed reading other entries on your site (particularly the pieces about Philip Seymour Hoffman. Very nice.). I will definitely watch for the “Custody” trailer. Best of luck on that film and on all of your future projects. I look forward to seeing more of your work onscreen as well as what you produce from behind the camera. All good wishes to you!


  18. Dear Lars,

    Let me begin this missive off by telling you just how beautiful your tribute was to Nancy Savoka’s brilliant little film, “Dogfight.” I saw this movie for the first time just a few weeks before River Phoenix passed away and it has remained a favorite “hidden gem” every since. The acting was wonderful and quietly understated and your part, though small, was memorable and has always maintained a warm spot in my pop culture and film attic. Thank you!

    I am a writer who is attempting to write a “love letter” of sorts to you and all of the wonderful folks involved with this film. An in-depth article on the making of “Dogfight” is the ultimate goal, although I am not ruling out an actual book that will take a nostalgic look at the first real adult lead River Phoenix ever had in a film (and how I wish I could say that it was the first of many for this fine actor…). With the above being said for public record, I was in hopes that you might be up for an interview regarding your work and memories of this “little film that could.” I’m sure you probably tire of answering the same questions about the movie, but perhaps you might head once more into the breach for this project for “old times sake”?

    Let me know if this might be something you would contemplate doing and I can send along to you my writers resume and perhaps some of my published work to give you an ideal of my style of writing.

    Thanks in advance for reading this message and I hope to hear from you soon!

  19. This is so beautifully written! You still get people finding and reading this 7 years after you wrote it, so that’s a testament to how moving what you wrote still is 🙂
    Dogfight is my favorite River Phoenix movie’s my favorite movie, period. The story, the characters, the layers of meaning, all of it! I’ve watched it many times and each time I find new things in it. Actually I watched it this week after a few years hiatus and I was moved as if it were the first time I was watching it. It sent me on an online journey to find people discussing it and that’s how I found this thread. Reading your depiction of the ‘behind the scenes’ with River was so touching. He certainly was a great artist, maybe too great, too sensitive, too into the characters he portrayed. Such a loss of internal and external beauty and talent. Thanks for this little glimpse into your memories of him, it’s really priceless.

    Oh, and let’s not forget the Fector quote: “I’ll be there in dress blues, tennis shoes, and a fur lined fucking jock strap.” – makes me laugh each time :)))

    Thank you again and good luck in everything!

    • Thank you so much, Lily. Your message means the world to me. I definitely wrote that tribute with a heavy heart, get goosebumps thinking back to that entire experience in Seattle, still one of my favorite cities, full of memories. River was special for sure. Always fires me up to know that so many people value Dogfight. I guess it is now what is known as a “cult favorite.” Though we both know it is much better than that label implies.

      • Thank you so much for your reply! Wow, I’m actually ‘speaking’ to an actor from my fave movie!!! (fangirling here. I should be too old for this, haha).
        Oh, it is so much more than cult favorite, this is the kind of movie that I think would have had success in the box office had it been treated right, and so it wouldn’t have to be a ‘hidden gem’ but a real success. It’s so good. But then again, it’s not shallow enough maybe to fit the masses…
        I digress from your original post here about River Phoenix, but thought to share that in my online journey to find discussions about this movie I found a wonderful and intelligent discussion by movie critics Sheila O’Malley and Matt Zoler Seitz – I thought I had the whole movie figured out, but they make great points about the multi layers of it, and so does the long comments section. A beautiful discussion by people that LOVE this movie so so much:

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