'i am heath ledger' provides surprising new insights into the actor's life and death

Derik Murray, co-director of the new documentary “I Am Heath Ledger,” tells i-D what he learned from interviewing the late actor’s family and friends, including Naomi Watts and Ang Lee.

by Alice Newell-Hanson
22 May 2017, 8:10pm

Photography Karin Catt

Even before his untimely death at 28, Heath Ledger was the stuff of legend. First, his roles tended towards the mythic. He went from unknown Perth teen to the star of 10 Things I Hate About You, a box office hit based on a Shakespeare play, seemingly overnight. He jousted and danced quadrilles (while remaining a heartthrob) in medieval rock fantasy A Knight's Tale, inspired by another English literary classic. And then, within just four years, he seemed to reinvent himself again, appearing in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, with a heart-wrenching, challenging performance that won him an Oscar nomination. Later, he appeared in another modern myth, Batman, in a role that this time won him an Oscar.

All these stories are considered and reconsidered in the new documentary I Am Heath Ledger, directed by Derik Murray and Adrian Buitenhuis. And some less well-known narratives come to light. In telling Ledger's life story, the film focuses heavily on his creative projects outside of acting: his love of photography, his forays into directing music videos, and his ambition to become a feature film director. All this is illustrated through a mixture of haunting never-before-seen footage (some of it shot by Ledger himself), and on-camera interviews with the late actor's family and friends, ranging from childhood surf pals to Ben Mendelsohn, Naomi Watts, and Ang Lee. And while the film creates a vivid and moving picture of Ledger's life, perhaps its most important contribution to the Heath Ledger legacy is its reframing of the actor's death. There is a popular narrative about the actor's demise, Murray told i-D last week, but "every single person we spoke to said that couldn't have been further from the truth."

What first drew you to Heath Ledger as a subject?
I've told the stories of many incredible, iconic people over the last few years. The list includes Muhammed Ali, Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen, even some Chris Farley in there, Evel Knievel. For all these films, I've worked with the families and estates to get access to content and people who haven't been interviewed in the past. I have this vision board of all these images up on the wall and they represent iconic individuals that I've worked with or talented people whose lives I'd like to explore. Heath has been up on that board for a while. I was really wondering, What's Heath's story? We knew that he was this incredible actor who'd done amazing work at a young age but we didn't know his depth as an artist. Once we'd started to dig into his story, and were talking with people who were close to him, we began to see this pattern of him directing music videos, optioning a script, and wanting to be a [feature film] director. Once we saw that, we jumped in to explore that further. We got this real understanding of his passion for photography and film — that he had a filmmaker's heart — it became a story that we just had to make. Then, it was just a mission to make sure we could get ourselves in front of his family and closest friends and gain their support.

What was your initial fascination with him, before you found out about his directing?
I think the eclectic nature of his work. You take an actor who was 19 or 20 and played the lead in 10 Things I Hate About You and then you fast-forward six or seven years later and he's The Joker in The Dark Knight. That's quite a trajectory. Then, the real spike in the ground was Brokeback Mountain. It's hard to even relate to the fact that he was a 25-year-old heartthrob with just a handful of films stepping into that role. I rewatched Brokeback Mountain in the research process and I was just captivated again. At the end of the film as we've gone on this 20-year journey with him as a character — he ends the film as this broken man in his late 40s — and we believe him. It's amazing.

Who were the first people you approached to interview?
The first person was Matt Amato, who was one of Heath's partners in The Masses, the company Heath used for directing music videos and and potentially directing feature films. Matt was there when Heath first moved to Hollywood at 19 and Heath effectively lived in this home of artists, Matt being one of them. Matt became a friend and to some extent, a teacher. Matt told me afterwards that he'd been approached many, many times to do a film about Heath and he had to push back, so his natural inclination we reached out was to push back as well. But we said, "Just give us a couple of hours of your time and let's talk about it." That's how it started. Then Matt, because of his close relationship with Heath, gave us the opening to his family and we received the blessing of Michelle Williams.

I was going to ask about Michelle. I know she's very private.
Her blessing was vital. She's been consistent about not being interviewed, and we had no problem with that, it was just good to have her support.

How did you come across the footage Heath himself had shot?
It started with Matt. He showed us the range of music videos Heath had shot. Then Matt also was one of the custodians of footage that Heath had shot. That blew me away. Then once we got the family's approval, we got more of Heath's videos from them. Then certain cast members had footage by Heath and footage they'd shot of Heath.

There are moments that include voiceovers of Heath speaking. Where did those recordings come from?
We looked at a lot of interviews with Heath on camera. And, as you learn in the film, he really wasn't comfortable doing interviews promoting movies. But we wanted his voice, so we started exploring radio interviews and we realized he was much more conversational and at ease [in those], so it matched his own free-flowing footage much better. That allowed us to have his voice throughout his film.

What were the biggest discoveries for you, making this film?
When we embarked on this project, a number of people said, "Oh, you'll be able to tell the story of Heath going down this tunnel of despair while he was playing The Joker, and how much that contributed to his demise." And we thought we'd certainly talk to the cast about that. But what was incredible was that every single person we spoke to said that couldn't have been further from the truth. That experience with The Joker was something he was passionate about. He loved the challenge. He took it very much from a humorous perspective as well. His family could see nuances in that performance that were part of his humor. And he was inspired by the fact that the role was taking his acting career to the next level. He was pumped. He went into the next film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, riding that high. Once we discovered that part of the story, it was important to tell. Because, in the life of an inspired artist, to think that a role like that did so much damage is a tragic scenario. But as it turned out, it wasn't at all: he was absolutely playing the part. As he was his entire life, he was resilient. He took on that part of chaos, but it wasn't something that took over his persona in any way.

How do you hope the film shifts the public perception of Heath Ledger? What do you hope viewers take away from it?
I think people are really going to understand who Heath Ledger was: a committed artist. I hope that's inspiring. I think that should motivate all of us to find that creative part of ourselves and go for it. The other part is: Take every day because life can be short. It ended so quickly for Heath, with his tragic mistake of mixing prescription drugs. There was no way he was ready to leave this planet but he did. And that was such a tragic circumstance. So grab hold of every single day like it's your last.

"I Am Heath Ledger" is available for online streaming tomorrow.


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Karin Catt

Naomi Watts
Heath Ledger
Derik Murray
ang lee
I Am Heath Ledger
adrian buitenhuis