We all honour Heath Ledger as an amazing actor, but I Am Heath Ledger goes beyond the movies and interviews to capture another dimension of the late-actor’s art. Heath’s friends and family explore a life that was cut short nine years ago in the latest of Spike TV’s I Am series. The US Network’s documentary slate has looked in on the lives of extraordinary individuals, and for the first time, they’re getting an Australian theatrical release. I Am Heath Ledger opens in select cinemas on May 11 and director Derik Murray spoke with FilmBunker’s Richard Houlihan about the challenges of accessing never-before-seen footage shot by the Perth-born Oscar winner.
Richard Houlihan: Speaking as a Heath Ledger fan, I was impressed by the film.
Derik Murray: Thank you for sharing that. We just got back from the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s a tribute and credit to Heath that it sold out all of its performances all week. They had to add another performance on Sunday; that sold out too, and there were people lining up to get a seat. So it was a real hit at Tribeca, and we got tremendous feedback from the audiences. It’s been a really exciting week.
RH: And you went to Tribeca with Heath’s sisters, Kate and Ashleigh, right? How was that experience?
DM: Incredible! Kate flew out from Perth to New York City and she attended the Tribeca film premiere with her sister Ashleigh, who lives in New York. It was really incredible to have them in the audience for the movie. Both of them participated in a Q&A on stage for 45 minutes for an audience of 500 people. Not a single person left, everyone stayed for the Q&A. It was amazing.
RH: Looking back at your other “I Am” documentaries – Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee, Chris Farley – is there a tendency to unravel artists who died young?
DM: In the case of Heath, it was such a tragic loss for his friends, family and the creative community. We got to tell of the stories of icons from different eras. In the case of Muhammad Ali, we did the Facing Ali movie, and Muhammad just passed away in 2016. We did Steve McQueen who unfortunately died from cancer at 50. Bruce Lee, who died at 32 from strange circumstances surrounding head ache pills. So we tell the stories of individuals who, in some cases, left this world too young but left an incredible mark on the world, with their work and who they were.
RH: How long ago did you and your co-director Adrian Buitenhuis starting thinking about making this film, and what was the attraction?
DM: I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to tell the stories of a number of great, iconic personalities – Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen. Heath Ledger was, without a doubt, an individual and actor that always intrigued us. He was up on my list of individuals we should learn more about and tell their story. It wasn’t until we learned that Heath was so committed to the craft of photography filmmaking, and music for that matter. That started with exploring his work with his creative partner, Matt Amato, in a company they set up together called the Masses. Once we learned about the Masses, we realised that Heath had been directing these music videos that were very artistic and beautiful. I spent a day with Matt, looking at Heath’s videos and learning more about Heath as this multi-dimensional artist. When he was a teenager in Perth, and when he came to Los Angeles, Heath was using a camera. I thought if we could get access to that footage, this would be an amazing film. That started the journey, and it was a case of building trust with his family, Michelle Williams and his close friends. That opened the door to access to more content that Heath and others close to him had filmed. We knew we had something special. In fact, in the edit suite, we use to say, “There’s no question, Heath is a co-director of this movie.”
RH: We all honour Heath as this amazing actor, but watching your film, I started to think he could’ve carved this interesting directing career.
DM: I’m with you 100%. That drove the story. If you recognise Heath’s incredible gift on the screen, the opportunity to go beyond and understand who this individual and creative spirit was was irresistible for us as filmmakers. Starting in Los Angeles last night, audiences are absolutely mesmerised by Heath’s work as a multi-dimensional artist.
RH: You have extensive home footage of Heath by himself, talking to the camera and improvising characters. Where did you get that footage, and was it surreal to watch?
DM: It was very important to have the family’s trust and involvement in the film, and that opened the door to an archive they had preserved. That led to content from Trevor DiCarlo, his childhood friend from Perth, who in fact recorded many aspects of their time together on the road, behind the scenes, and making movies. Trevor had some of the archive that Heath had filmed as well. So the combination of Trevor, the family, Matt Amato, and certain individuals gave us the full portfolio that we were able to showcase in our film. There were hours and hours of footage, but it gave us a connection to what Heath was experiencing. Watching that footage in an edit suite was cripplingly emotional. There were moments where you were transfixed, watching this incredible artist tell his story. There were goosebumps on myself and our editors. Adrian, my co-director, spent a lot of time going through material and it was just emotional for him to go through that on a daily basis. It was overpowering.
RH: The line-up of talking heads is not as star-filled as your previous documentaries. You have Ang Lee [Brokeback Mountain director] and actress Naomi Watts, but I felt that Heath’s friends played more of a substantial role in the film.
DM: You nailed it 100%. When we started to understand what motivated Heath (photography, film, art, and music), we realised we needed to have a cast that could tell that story honestly and intimately. They were first and foremost his boyhood friends – Trevor, Kane and [hip-hop artist] N’Fa Forster-Jones. These weren’t just guys he went to primary school with. They came to America to premieres; they were behind the scenes on the sets for The Dark Knight and The Patriot. They were involved in his career. Heath loved to share his success with those that he loved, and that’s a whole other dimension about Heath that comes forward in this movie – just how generous he was and how much he wanted to be a big part in his friends’ lives. So choosing our cast was absolutely vital and we carefully selected actors and directors. They were very forthcoming about Heath’s story and we were blessed to have their participation. You’re going to hear many stories by Ben Harper telling us what it was like to work with Heath as a music video director. And, of course, Naomi Watts, Ben Mendelsohn, Ang Lee, Emile Hirsch, people who had acted and performed with him as well.
RH: How did you reach out to the Ledger family? Was there any resistance?
DM: Matt introduced me to them and shared with them our vision, and the credibility we had as producers and directors was such that we were the right people to make this movie. We would go and meet the family in Perth to create that circle of trust. They were wonderful on so many accounts.
RH: What did you learn about Heath from his parents?
DM: In the movie, Sally [his mother] talks about the fact as a teenager, he was like a wild stallion. They recognised that he was that kind of person and there was no point in trying to hold him back. At 17-years-old, he ventured forward and took on the world. He jumped in a car with Trevor and in the blink of an eye, he was in Sydney snatching up roles in local productions. At 19, he’s in Los Angeles and lands the lead role in 10 Things I Hate About You which was incredible and staggering. However, many of those close to him said they weren’t surprised.
RH: Were there any aspects of Heath’s life you wanted to leave in the film but were unable to?
DM: No. The family was for the movie and there was never a situation where they had creative control of the movie. We wanted to tell a story that inspired Heath’s fans and audiences around the world. However, there were so many scenes that hit the cutting room floor. That includes interviews and the footage that Heath had shot. Still, it was exciting to put this together. We’ve had a glowing reception by those who attended the movie and the American media, which was gratifying.
RH: Did you watch the documentary with the family?
DM: When we were making the film, we showed a very rough cut to the family. We wanted them to understand that we were creating the film we said we were interested in. We also wanted to do some fact-checking with them. When they called me from Perth, I was in New York City at one o’clock in the morning. Sally, Kate and Kim [Heath’s father] told me it was emotional for them to watch and that we accomplished something they couldn’t imagine, which was that we created a film that truly represented who their son and brother was. They said this is who Heath was. That was a magical moment for us. When we saw the film at Tribeca, to have Kate and Ashleigh thank myself, Adrian and our entire team and hug all of us was a beautiful experience.
RH: Do you know if his daughter Matilda has seen it?
DM: No we don’t, but we made sure to get Michelle Williams’ support. We made sure to give her a copy of the film right away prior to Tribeca. There will be a point in time where I’m sure she’ll share it with Matilda. I’m sure it will be an emotional experience for her, but it should bring a lot of joy to have this opportunity to really find out more about this incredibly creative genius that her father was.
I Am Heath Ledger is screening in select cinemas for one week only. Find participating cinemas at https://www.iamheathledger.com.au/