It wasn't easy to see between the tears after sitting through I Am Heath Ledger, a beautiful tribute to The Dark Knight and Brokeback Mountain actor who tragically passed away in 2008 at the age of 28.
Undoubtably the most intimate exploration of his life to date, this documentary, courtesy of Spike TV, is packed with video footage captured by the late #HeathLedger himself, and with interviews from the friends, family members and industry influencers who knew him best. Providing a mirror into Heath's private life, we're shown the actor not as an international superstar, which of course he was, but more as an incredibly gifted, somewhat pretentious young artist, who was struggling to find and better himself in the increasingly pressured world of fame.
Before the documentary airs on Spike, May 17, Movie Pilot sat down with #IAmHeathLedger's co-director, Derik Murray, to discuss some of the most lingering questions we had after the credits rolled.
One of the most striking things about the documentary was the amount of personal footage you managed to obtain. Was it difficult to gain access to Heath’s private film and photography collection?
"Well, it was kind of like being on an investigation; you get a clue and then follow through with it. While making the movie we, discovered that Heath was incredibly passionate about photography and filmmaking, which lead us to one of his closest friends and business partners, Matt Amato, with whom Heath and a few other friends ran a small company that made creative music videos. And once we started talking to Matt, he revealed that not only did he have behind-the-scenes footage of Heath directing these videos, but that he had a bunch of content that either he had filmed, or that Heath had filmed personally. The next thing we knew, we were talking to other friends that had content, which again had either been shot by themselves or by Heath, and that all this footage truly reflected who Heath was.
"Now, by this point, we'd gained the full support of the family, and of Michelle Williams, which opened up access to content that was with the estate and with the family members. We had hours and hours of content. From there it was really just a meticulous selection process with my co-director Adrian Buitenhuis, and before long we realized that in many ways it was kind of like Heath was directing the movie. He was taking us on this journey, just as his friends and family were.
"The experience was incredibly emotional for us, to be taken into Heath's world, which was unfolding in front of him at such a young age, you know?"
Obviously you went into this project prepared with your own experiences and background knowledge, but what was the one thing you found out about Heath that you didn't know before?
"I'm generally drawn to telling stories about what motivates iconic individuals, and what captivated me about Heath was his free spirit, that at 17 years old he just jumped in the car and went for it, with just a couple of cents in his pocket and his best friend at his side. He just took these risks and just went for it.
"Like, how many actors can you say that at 19 years old they get a role like the lead in '10 Things I Hate About You' and then say, right then and there, that no, I'm not doing any more [teen movies]? I don't think we've seen that before. Normally people do a few of these films before trying to change their direction. But Heath wanted roles that were really going to push him, and that decision moved his career forward really rapidly. He still had that crisis and that conflict, like 'Oh my God, I have this role and I wanted it and I worked for it, but can I do it and what are their expectations, do I have it inside me?' etc. Then you have to stop and think for a moment that, for goodness sake, he's like 20 years old, are you kidding? It's staggering!"
Earlier you mentioned the support of Michelle Williams, was she quite involved?
"Not so much in the film-making process, but it was certainly important to her — as it was to the family — that the film not only had a team behind it who had proved themselves (by working with a number of iconic individuals on previous projects), but that we had the support of Matt Amato. He was so close to Heath creatively and from a friendship perspective that it gave them comfort to know he was part of it. This combination put us in a position of trust, which in turn gave us access to his closest friends and then we all felt like we were on this mission together. The process became somewhat cathartic for them; they really started to express themselves and share with us these moments and nuances that made Heath who he was."
You really managed to capture the love that Heath felt for his daughter, Matilda, too — do you know if she's managed to see the documentary yet?
"I have not heard if she's watched the documentary, but she's very young — so there will be a place and a time. It's certainly important to all of us that this film is a legacy for Heath, and those who have watched it feel the same way. We could not have made this film if it wasn't for the support of the family and Michelle. Certainly, we feel like we've given something to the world and the family that will last a lifetime."
I Am Heath Ledger premieres in selected theaters via Fathom Events on May 3rd, and then on Spike TV on May 17 at 10 p.m. ET/PT. Pack your tissues, this one's a weeper.