For many of us, the death of Heath Ledger - before his iconic performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight had even left the editing room - still seems completely unreal. The loss of a so utterly talented young actor and father, in such tragic a way, can be almost impossibly difficult to process - something that must be doubly true for those who knew him personally, and lost a friend, a colleague, or a family member.
Many of those closest to Ledger have chosen to keep their memories of the actor private, and to remain silent in their grief. Others, though, have spoken out about the man, and his remarkable talent.
Christopher Nolan, his director on The Dark Knight, has spoken particularly eloquently on the subject over the years - and with the release of Interstellar, it seemed like an appropriate time to revisit the director's often deeply touching memories of a man he clearly considered not just a colleague, but a friend.
Here are eight of the moments that I find hardest to forget, from Ledger's initial casting through to the emotional impact of his death...
1. Nolan on Ledger...Nearly Playing Batman
Speaking in 2012 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City, Nolan spoke about how Heath Ledger came to be cast as the Joker, and how he had originally looked at him for a very different part:
"Really, in a sense, Heath chose me. I met Heath for a couple of films -- I actually met him in relation to Batman, as well, because I was meeting kind of every young actor. He very graciously came and met me for a drink and began to explain why he would never do this kind of movie. [Laughs] But he was very polite. He was really just a lovely guy, and so I thought, "Well, shame I can't convince you, but this is what we're trying to do with this thing.' I think when he saw "Batman Begins," he'd probably remembered the things I'd said about what I was going to try to do, and he felt that I'd done it, so I met with him for the Joker."
2. Nolan on Ledger...and His Determination
As Nolan went on to reveal in the same talk, Ledger's approach to the role - and his absolute determination to play the role - played a major part in his remarkable success in the role:
"I didn't know whether it was something he'd be interested in, but I sat and chatted with him in my office for a couple of hours. We didn't have a script at that point, but -- my brother was writing it at the time, and we knew kind of where that was going to go, and it was very much what Heath had in mind. And he just was determined to do it. He just had a vision for something, and the way he termed it to me at the time was, he really didn't like to work too much. He liked to do a character and then stop working then let enough time go by. He wanted to be hungry for it. And when he came to me, he was clearly in that state: Very hungry. He was ready to do something like that and just own it -- which is what he did."
3. Nolan on Ledger...Making the Role His Own
Nolan, though, has long been at pains to stress that the majority of the credit for The Joker is owed to Ledger. As he put it to Time Out in 2014:
"I feel very, very proud of being involved in that performance, and it really was a collaboration. But I hesitate to take too much credit for it because Heath really was a self-starter in that regard. We talked a lot about reference points and I tried to free him up with the tone. But he really came up with the goods on that one. I’m very proud to be involved with that."
4. Nolan on Ledger...and His First Appearance as The Joker
After his first major scene as The Joker, though, Ledger was far from confident - and, as Nolan revealed at Lincoln Center, the actor seemed to remain deeply unsure about the quality of his performance throughout shooting, despite his director's protests:
"The first sequence we shot was the IMAX prologue, where he had a mask on. I think that freed him up to just enjoy that -- not worry about it too much. Then there's the moment when he pulls his mask off, which is tremendous, but it was the first time we'd shot with the IMAX cameras, and when we looked at dailies it was all a bit out of focus. So I just rescheduled…and I got this horrified phone call from him, sort of, "What have I done?" It was the first time he'd ever shown us the voice, and he's like, "And you want to re-shoot it?" I'm like "No no no -- it's great!" But he never quite believed me, I think.
Despite Ledger's doubts, though, that shot - the first one - proved to be iconic:
He re-shot it very graciously, he was a tremendous professional, but…in the end, we actually used the out of focus one because it was just magic."
5. Nolan on Ledger...and His Incredible Exuberance
As filming went on, though, Ledger clearly didn't let any doubts get in the way of what Nolan described in Newsweek as an eager fascination with the processes of filmmaking. As the director put it:
"Those nights on the streets of Chicago were filled with stunts. These can be boring times for an actor, but Heath was fascinated, eagerly accepting our invitation to ride in the camera car as we chased vehicles through movie traffic—not just for the thrill ride, but to be a part of it. Of everything. He’d brought his laptop along in the car, and we had a high-speed screening of two of his works-in-progress: short films he’d made that were exciting and haunting. Their exuberance made me feel jaded and leaden. I’ve never felt as old as I did watching Heath explore his talents."
6. Nolan on Ledger...and His Performance
After Ledger's tragic death, though, Nolan found himself in an editing room, trying to piece together an ultimately Oscar-winning performance while dealing with his own grief. His approach, as he told About.com, was to make sure The Joker ended up on screen in exactly the way that Ledger had intended:
"I'm very confident that the performance has been edited exactly as it would've been had Heath not died...It was very important to me that his performance be put out there exactly the way that we had intended it and that he had intended it to be seen as well. Watching him come up with the characterization was a pretty exciting and pretty amazing thing because you're looking at an actor craft an iconic presence for a character, but making it human at the same time. That's an incredible thing to do and the way in which he's done it is extraordinarily complicated."
7. Nolan on Ledger...and Dealing With His Death
That same editing process was, as it turns out, a huge part of how Nolan was able to cope with the loss of the actor. As he told EW back in 2008, it was having something to work on that helped him through:
"For me, for my process, just working straight through it and wrestling through it and working was actually — I felt very lucky to have something to do. Because for most of the people who knew him far better than I did, who were around him, it was very difficult for his family and everyone. I was very fortunate: I had something very specific to be getting on with — I felt an enormous amount of responsibility to him."
8. Nolan on Ledger...and Missing His Friend
Despite how much it may have helped, though, that editing process seems to have been incredibly painful for Nolan. In the same Newsweek piece quoted earlier, which he wrote shortly after Ledger's death, the director revealed just how hard it was to sit in a room, looking at images of a friend he had so recently lost:
"When you get into the edit suite after shooting a movie, you feel a responsibility to an actor who has trusted you, and Heath gave us everything. As we started my cut, I would wonder about each take we chose, each trim we made. I would visualize the screening where we’d have to show him the finished film—sitting three or four rows behind him, watching the movements of his head for clues to what he was thinking about what we’d done with all that he’d given us. Now that screening will never be real. I see him every day in my edit suite. I study his face, his voice. And I miss him terribly."
As, I suspect, do we all.