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Still from I Am Heath Ledger (2017)Courtesy Spike

Celebrating the life of Heath Ledger, Hollywood's lost star

We talk to Derik Murray about his new documentary, I Am Heath Ledger, a portrait of a unique, kind and obsessive artist

In Hollywood, the word “star” gets thrown around a lot. The idea of stardom – of becoming beautiful, iconic, and unforgettable – is the ultimate dream for anyone breaking into the US film industry. But what does it actually mean? What makes one person shine brighter than everyone else? The answer, particularly with actors, seems to lie in some wild, magical mixture of talent, good looks and charisma – an alchemy that’s near impossible to stumble across or conjure up.

For most of us, Heath Ledger was the perfect Hollywood “star.” In his short but sparkling 16-year career, the actor certified himself as the most talented of his generation; switching between roles in Brokeback Mountain, The Dark Knight, Lords Of Dogtown, Candy and 10 Things I Hate About You. It’s why, when he was found dead following a prescription drug overdose in 2008, the pain felt so sharp: not just for the industry, but for the world in general.

Ledger’s legacy is explored more in a new feature-length documentary from Derik Murray. The project, titled I Am Heath Ledger, uses personal footage from the actor’s friends and family to tell his untold story. Over the course of 90-minutes, viewers see the extent of the actor’s charm, kindness and sensitivity, as well as his endless energy for artistic creation. It’s a celebration of Ledger’s life, and a look at the profound and everlasting effect he has had on the people around him. Here, we catch up with Murray to learn more about the filmmaking process, and how he managed to uncover the secrets behind the best smile in the business.

This film paints an incredibly positive picture of Heath. Was this intentional?

Derik Murray: We were celebrating his life and his art. It was really quite staggering for such a young person to be as successful as he was, and yet so authentic and so loyal and giving as a friend. We don’t say this in the film, but Matt was telling me yesterday that when Heath was making music videos, he’d be handing out snacks to the crew, running craft services. It was crazy – he was just so engaged, and he had no time or respect for anyone who put on airs. He was just a guy. He had his challenges that people spoke about; his insomnia and his unfortunate treatment in utilising prescription drugs, and that was his demise. It was so tragic, but we went into this wanting to celebrate his life and understand the depth of him as an artist. We wanted to tell that story.

“It was really quite staggering for such a young person to be as successful as (Heath) was, and yet so authentic and so loyal and giving as a friend” – Derik Murray

The film is packed with clips from Heath’s own film projects, as well as footage from his personal life. How did this affect the project? Did it feel more intimate than your other films? 

Derik Murray: Our films are really personal, in that they have the support of families and close friends, so we have access to content that is not widely seen – but this was something very, very special. It started when we came across Matt Amato, who was one of our executive producers on the film, and also very personal friends with Heath. From him, we got to see some of Heath’s music videos, which led to discussions about Heath filming his life and his journey and also using his camera as an acting tool. He would film himself, looking the way he looked from one side to the next side, with a smile, eyes closed, eyes open, one eye open, one eye closed – and he would move with the camera constantly. This was something he did over and over again. We learned about this from Matt, and saw bits of the footage and started to get an idea. From that, as we earned the trust from the family and the estate, we were provided additional footage and content. It was hours and hours of footage that we had sifted through to effectively pull forward the content that we felt gave an amazing representation of this artist.

You say that you had to earn the trust of his family – was that a difficult process? 

Derik Murray: It’s something that’s vital in each of the films we’ve done in the past. It’s a key component. In this case, the fact that we had spent time with Matt and earned his trust was an important stepping stone, because Heath’s family knew him and trusted him. From that point forward, it was a process of talking about the film we wanted to make, the films we’d done in the past and families we had worked with and successes that those films had achieved. It was a process that took a little time.

Was there anyone that you wish could have taken part? I know that you’ve previously said Michelle Williams was quite integral to the project behind the scenes – but do you wish that she would have spoken on camera?

Derik Murray: Yes. Certainly, at the beginning, we hoped an interview with Michelle would be something that over time she would be comfortable with – but she maintained that she didn’t want to go on camera and speak about Heath. Obviously, we respected that.

You don’t go into that much depth when it comes to his addiction. It’s touched on, but it seems that maybe you don’t want to explore it too much. Would you say that’s fair?

Derik Murray: I think that’s absolutely fair. As a 28-year-old individual, he made a tragic mistake. In America, 15,000 to 20,000 people die a year of a prescription overdose – like a thousand plus roll into hospitals every day with issues around prescription drugs. What we really felt was that we were celebrating his life and honouring his death. We went into that last chapter of the film and focused on those that were closest to him, to show that moment where he was gone, that realisation of him being gone, and that sorrow of losing him. That was the journey that we took you on, rather than relaying the facts – we wanted you to be right there and feel the loss. That was a conscious decision.

At the time of his death, a lot of people were saying that Heath struggled with mental health issues. This film suggests that this wasn’t the case.

Derik Murray: Absolutely not. We spent a lot of time – multiple hours – with family members and friends that were closest and spending time with him. There were rumours that The Dark Knight was this tragedy where Heath Ledger spiralled and that the role of the joker consumed him. That was certainly an area that we wanted to explore, but the reality was so diametrically opposed to that. I mean everyone, from the folks on set to friends to family, said that he loved playing that role and had a vivacious sense of humour on set. He was completely excited about the future and proud of his work. From what we understand, he thought this was a franchise that he would continue to work with, and he had all sorts of possibilities on the horizon. He had not spiralled down – that was not what happened – and he was excited about life, for good reason.

“There were rumours that The Dark Knight was this tragedy where Heath Ledger spiralled and that the role of the joker consumed him... the reality was so diametrically opposed to that” – Derik Murray

Are you happy with the reaction the film has been getting so far? Are Heath’s family happy?

Derik Murray: Yes, we’re very happy. We showed it to the family and it was an incredibly emotional experience. They called me at about one in the morning to say that they had no idea that the film would be what it was or the impact that it would have on them. They were just so emotional – they had to sit back and stop the film on a couple of occasions. The family said to us that that was who he was – that we’d captured his spirit and who he was and “that’s our boy.” That was really amazing. To have that support and that conviction from the family meant a lot to us.

You’ve previously made films on Evel Knievel, Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee. Why was Heath Ledger your next choice?

Derik Murray: In our office we have a list of the iconic personalities that we’d like to do films on, and Heath has been up there for some time. We were always so interested in him, as someone who died so young and had such an incredible talent and made such an incredible impact. He was revered as one of the greatest actors of his generation. And frankly, when we started to do a little bit of research, we were surprised and at the same time excited to discover that his talents went far beyond acting. He had an amazing passion for photography and film and art and music – and as we dug a little deeper we found out that his ultimate goal was to become a director. That was the story we wanted to dig into and tell, and we obviously felt there was very little information that supported and clearly showed that that’s who he was. And that’s how it all began.

Is there anyone else you have in mind for the next I am project? What’s next for you?

Derik Murray: Right now we’re doing an American comedian called Sam Kinison. Believe it or not, he was a Pentecostal Minister for five years, his entire family were ministers, and according to his brother Bill, he wasn’t a very good one. So he stepped from being a Pentecostal Minister to effectively a stand-up comedian – it’s a very interesting story. So we’re doing that, and then we’re also doing Martin Luther King Junior as well, which we’re just starting now. It’s exciting.

Interview has been edited and condensed for length. I Am Heath Ledger will premiere on Spike on May 17