Heath Ledger wasn’t one to fall by the wayside. He was constantly pushing himself to be better, learn more and grow within an industry that typically only opens its gates for a select number of artists.
In “I Am Heath Ledger,” the new documentary airing on Spike Wednesday night, viewers get a glimpse into Ledger’s personal goings-on and what he hoped to accomplish, not just as an actor, but as a “multidimensional artist,” before his tragic and untimely death at age 28 in January 2008.
“The end game, ultimately, for Heath was to produce and direct feature films, and that passion was leading to some amazing opportunities for him and would have been something incredible for him to fulfill,” director Derik Murray told HuffPost in a sit-down interview following the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of “I Am Heath Ledger” last month.
Matt Amato, Ledger’s friend who co-founded the production company The Masses with him, echoed that statement to HuffPost, explaining Ledger was ready “to flip the paradigm of this male-driven, macho bullshit culture that we’re drowning in” with his directorial debut, “The Queen’s Gambit,” which was sadly never made. The movie, based on the book of the same name, would have told the story of a woman who struggles with alcohol addiction as she works her way into the chess championships.
“Matt and many of the [’I Am Heath Ledger’] cast would talk about the fact that Heath would be as interested in what the role had to offer as he was to who the director was,” Murray said of Ledger’s decision to take on certain projects. “He would look at those directors and he would be very much present during the filming and be learning from them each step of the way. He talked about how his passion was to be a director with ‘Queen’s Gambit,’ but it wasn’t to be.”
Below, Murray, co-director Adrian Buitenhuis, and Amato talk with HuffPost about their documentary and Ledger’s craft, constantly alluding to the fact that everyone can learn a little something from the actor, who left this world far too soon.
Congratulations on the premiere. Looks like it was a wonderful night.
Derik Murray: I think what made the Tribeca premiere really special for all of us was that the family was there and many of the close friends that were interviewed for the movie. For many of them, that was the first time they saw the movie and so there was a lot of anticipation on our part as to how that would go ― not fearful, just anticipation — but it was fabulous. Everybody loved the movie.
Had Heath’s family been given the chance to see the film beforehand?
DM: We showed Heath’s family a rough cut, frankly for the purposes of talking about archive and pulling more material together and making sure we had some of the facts straight. But also, with the trust we built with them, we wanted to extend that [option], so we showed them the rough cut and that was a very emotional experience for them. They called us at 1 o’clock in the morning, very emotional about the movie and very much at the state of mind that they had no idea what it was going to be — they couldn’t really visualize it — but the message loud and clear to us was that it was Heath. It really captured his spirit.
Matt, I’m truly sorry for your loss. This couldn’t have been necessarily easy for you. What was this film process like?
Matt Amato: I’m just coming out of the end of a six-month journey, and I’m relieved. The important thing for me was the family, and they love it, and now it’s about the audience’s feelings about the movie. It exists now for the audience and I hope it’s inspiring for young people to not waste a minute of their life — to really, live, live, live.
What did you want an audience member to leave the theater or a viewing of this film thinking or feeling?
Adrian Buitenhuis: I definitely wanted people to be inspired. Inspired to see what you can do in your life and what you’re capable of. And also to show someone who, even if they gained a lot of success ― at least in Heath’s case ― [didn’t] forget about his friends or his family and kept them really close. It’s a nice testament to how to have relationships in your life. He made everyone close to him feel special in a way. He never looked down on anyone, from what I can tell making the film, and was inspiring his friends to be better and they were inspiring him. To see him as an artist and his work, and being able to work with his work, was really great.
He’s kind of like a director of the movie in a way, because it’s a lot of his photography and footage that’s shown throughout.
DM: We’ve been talking about this for quite some time, is that Heath, in many ways when making the film, would direct the storyline with all the footage that came forward to us. We’ve been calling him a director/co-director/partner all the way through.
How did you go about gathering the photos and footage Heath captured?
DM: When we first started doing the research, we realized Heath was much more than just this star of his generation or his acting ability — he was a multidimensional artist. When we learned that, we did some research on Matt’s involvement and his relationship with Heath and The Masses and, in that world, Heath was in partnership creatively with Matt, in business, and doing some amazing work with music videos and working with various artists, and that was something that Heath was very passionate about. The end game, ultimately, for Heath was to produce and direct feature films together, and that passion was leading to some amazing opportunities for him and would have been something incredible for him to fulfill.
On the footage, through Matt, we had access to these music videos and then Matt was kind enough to open the door to some of the content that Heath had filmed and also content that had been filmed of Heath through his personal journey. That then basically started a dialogue with the family about the content that they might have through the estate and then friends stepped forward and provided us with their content, as well. So it was really a community effort that brought all that content together that you now see on the screen that captures Heath in an amazing way, through his own lens.
For those who only know Heath as an actor, it really opens those doors for you to see him as a human being.
MA: Yes, he was pretty wonderful. We talked a lot about directing and what we’d do if we moved forward with our company together ... Heath’s vision was an authentic vision. We were going on to make “The Queen’s Gambit,” which would’ve been his first movie, and I’m sure he was going to nail that. He was going to be working with his favorite cinematographer, Ed Lachman, who does amazing work with Todd Haynes. Heath was so turned on by how Todd works with Ed and he got a lot of clues about how we should work. He was not impressed with big money movies. He really liked how Todd worked with his producer, Christine Vachon, and all the sets and locations. A lot of times when Heath would do a movie, he would just completely drop off the map, because when you’re making a movie you have to stay focused and it’s like a 24-hour day, but I knew that he’d resurface when he was done. But with “I’m Not There,” he called me every day, like, “Man, we did that! And we did this! Oh my God, we’re making art!” He was just so thrilled to be working with Todd Haynes. So, as directors, we were very against the hierarchy kind of thing. When we did our music videos together with the crew, we would be the ones to go to Home Depot and get the mops and the brooms and get food for craft service, so when the crew would arrive, they’d see us doing that stuff …
DM: Heath Ledger on craft service!
AB: That was probably a mean craft service.
MA: Yeah, he really cared about people. But then, once we got there, we would work to his max. Then, he would never really care about people’s complaints, you know, because we had set the bar. His energy and passion is something I think about all the time when I have a camera in my hands. Heath really kicks my butt.
It seems he inspires you to this day.
MA: I was working on the day he died, on a Bon Iver video in Wisconsin. I didn’t know what to do at that point — the world was just kind of turned upside down in one moment. I really thought long and hard about what I was so supposed to do — stay or go to LA or New York? And I thought to myself, “Well, what would Heath want me to do?” He wants me to shoot with a camera and create something beautiful, that’s what he wants me to do. He doesn’t want me to stop and worry and be sad. So from the moment he died, he was kicking my butt, and he still does it. He gives me the energy to work harder, to explore camera angles and shots, to push myself to make something as excellent as it could possibly be.
The whole thing about Heath’s intelligence and his growth, each movie he did he became smarter — he was really absorbing everything. And that was big for a young person to not come off as a know-it-all or be threatened. He wanted to know. And that curiosity allowed him to be open and get really, really smart. I believe that by the time he died, he was quite brilliant.
His energy and passion is something I think about all the time when I have a camera in my hands, Heath really kicks my butt. Matt Amato on Heath Ledger
It would have been nice to see what “The Queen’s Gambit” could have been.
MA: Hopefully we’ll make “Queen’s Gambit.” We’ll do it in St. Louis, with Ed Lachman. St. Louis has now become the chess capital of the world ... My little work co-op is right around the corner and there’s the world’s largest chess piece there, and it’s the Queen. It’s like right there, and I look at it and I’m like, “I’m no dummy! I can see the sign!” It’s about a young women, and we really wanted to flip the paradigm of this male-driven, macho bullshit culture that we’re drowning in. I feel like our culture really needs nurturing in this way and we need to be reflective and look at people and deal with people like this.
AB: You guys valued the fact that there was a big community of artists in LA who valued the stuff that didn’t have a place to come together.
MA: Yeah. Heath was ready to chuck LA for the next chapter. He wanted it to be in Brooklyn so he could be near [his daughter with Michelle Williams] Matilda. He was ready to leave all that behind.
I loved that the film focused on his life and his art at the end, rather than the media circus that surrounded his death.
DM: It’s interesting because we’re doing, and have been doing, a lot of work of this kind where we work with the families and estates. But this film, when the assembly was coming together, there was all sorts of media clips that were helpful in moving the story forward, but Heath’s footage really just kind of took a hold, took a different spirit, and said, “This is the path we’re going to go down.” It was clear that the media footage was completely in contrast with who Heath was. We already learned in the film that it was something he wasn’t comfortable with, so you’re really seeing the true Heath in these one-on-ones or sit-down interviews. As we started pulling those out and letting it breathe, and giving more space to Heath to tell the story, the film really became and transformed itself into the film it is today.
MA: And music was really important to me. I really wanted to flood this production with music. Music that he was responsive to. I wanted music to sail us over the sad parts ― because music can do that, it does transcend. Bon Iver is one of the greatest musicians in the world today and to have his music in our movie is such a gift.
DM: Two fabulous Ben Harper songs are in the film, we’ve got two Bon Iver songs — they’re there for a purpose and a reason, and they’re beautiful. Their compliment to the story is incredible.
MA: Mia Doi Todd, Carlos Niño, Edward Sharpe. These were all people that Heath admired, and there were more to put in, but we had to stop some place.
AB: All the artists were so generous because either Heath had a big impact on their lives or they were just inspired to be a part of it and lend their music to the project. It was a real collective. The same way people brought the footage together, musicians were coming and saying, “Yeah this is important, let’s do this.” And that was great.
DM: That’s why the cast is so eclectic, you know, it’s not just driven by actors that were working with him on films. It has that music component to a significant degree.
To see the moving documentary on Heath Ledger’s life, tune in to Spike at 10 p.m. ET on Wednesday, May 17.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.