I Am Heath Ledger: Reframing a Legacy

We talk with the directors of I Am Heath Ledger, as well as one of the actor's good friends, to discuss redefining his image in the culture.

There is a scene midway through I Am Heath Ledger, an intimate documentary that debuts later this week, where musician Ben Harper recalls his friendship with the late actor. Generally, Ledger is remembered for his brief and electric body of work as a performer. But Harper more specifically reminisces about a man of great sensitivity and open generosity. After all, Ledger was the one who gave him a piano as a token of friendship. What he simply asked for in return was that Harper write a lullaby on those keys that Ledger could sing to his then-unborn daughter.

“Precious” is the word Harper uses to describe the gift—the most precious of its kind he would ever receive. It is also just that in the movie because it offers one of several genuine glimpses into the interior life of a man whose impact on pop culture has only grown in the decade following his sudden and premature death. And when Harper plays the melody he’d written with its original lyrics, I Am Heath Ledger comes a little closer to its mission statement of redefining Ledger’s public image.

“It was interesting, because [we chose] to shoot it in his studio, and I didn’t know if the piano was there, the piano that Heath had given him,” says Adrian Buitenhuis, co-director of I Am Heath Ledger. “And we showed up and the piano was there, and I knew the story, but Ben hadn’t really played that [song] that much, especially the version he played us, ‘In Her Eyes,’ which is the difference between ‘In Your Eyes’ and ‘In Her Eyes;’ it’s a little different take on it.”

Indeed, Harper had never publicly played the original lullaby written for Heath’s daughter, Matilda Rose, prior to volunteering to do so for the documentary. But as Buitenhuis explains, “It was just a really—the generosity that Heath had in his life, that was one way he could put that in music and show that.” The piano is also a memento that Harper would be pleased to give to Matilda if she ever asks for it.

Since Ledger’s passing in 2008, the media narrative has been one of obvious tragedy about the actor who posthumously won an Oscar for playing the Joker in The Dark Knight. However, it has also been one of rumor and innuendo, an aspect that I Am Heath Ledger defies by focusing on a life that seemed not only full but constantly moving upward in an inexhaustibly manic manner.

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“There was something in his spirit that was at the beginning of the zeitgeist of a new generation, I think,” Buitenhuis muses. “He was like leading the charge, and he would have been the most prominent leading actor and probably one of the great directors of his time too.” While Buitenhuis and his co-director Derik Murray underscore each of these elements in their film, it’s often in service of reframing Ledger’s life through a broader portrait, one in which he’s left behind a wealth of self-directed videos and home movies.

Curiously, 20 years before social media turned the term “selfie” into an acceptable English noun, Ledger had begun the experiment of viewing his life and, eventually, the world around him with a camera always in his hand. Consequently, I Am Heath Ledger can often act as the personal journal of a hungry actor learning his craft. Sitting with Buitenhuis, Murray, and executive producer Matt Amato, who was also a longtime filmmaking friend of Ledger, it becomes clear what a major resource this footage was for the 2017 production too.

“At first, it was just teaching himself how to act, because he didn’t want any classes,” Amato says during our discussion of Ledger’s seemingly constant need to be recording something. “He was breaking down his self-consciousness of being in a camera. He filmed himself doing everything and that was what he was doing. But early on, I realized there were some powerful intimate shots.”

They also slowly transitioned this documentary into what is at times a self-made impression that a young artist might wish to project out into the world. 

“It didn’t all kind of come right away,” Buitenhuis admits. “When we did research for this film, it was obvious that Matt’s name came up in our research as someone he was making films with… So that was our sort of launching point, and Matt gave us access to a lot of the work he’d done with Heath or that Heath had done that he had kept.” In fact, it was the private collections of footage that Ledger left behind with multiple friends and loved ones, including eventually Ledger’s Australian family, that ultimately comprises much of the film.

Says Amato, “One of my favorites he ever did, and he showed this to me right after he moved in… was just a shot of his little sister Ashleigh inside a cardboard box, and he was looking straight down at her, and she was looking straight up at him, and the box itself made a frame. That was the first clue that I had that Heath had like a great connection to his subject, to people that he loved, and it was also artful and it was simple.”

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It’s evident that Amato still feels a deep kinship with Ledger. He was there the first day the Aussie thespian arrived stateside with dreams in his eyes. Amato would then also eventually go on to reinvent the art collective production company, The Masses, with Ledger in 2006. This relationship appears all the more remarkable since Ledger, for all intents and purposes, showed up to live in Amato’s house one day when he followed Amato’s then-roommate Lisa Zane (who also participated in and provided footage to the documentary) to Los Angeles in 1998.

“I met him the night he moved to town and moved in; I didn’t have a choice,” Amato says with a laugh. “And I realized he was a nice person right away, and he was unpacking his gear and he was bent down, so I couldn’t see how tall he was, I just saw this mess of frosted hair and some bad blue jeans.” Nevertheless, they bonded quickly over a love for art, filmmaking, and what Amato described as being “mama’s boys.” He also fortuitously lent Ledger a screenplay his friend wrote, 10 Things About You. Amato wanted to try to get Ledger the role that ultimately went to Joseph Gordon-Levitt; his newfound friend instead decided to audition for the lead part—and got it. 

Speaking in 2017, there is still a melancholy. As indicated in I Am Heath Ledger, The Masses was to be a production company where the pair would make their first feature films. Amato did eventually helm his The Makings of You, but the filmmaker he imagines Ledger would grow into with an adaptation of Walter Tevis’ final novel, The Queen’s Gambit, remains only glimpsed in his early work as a music video director and self-documentarian.

“I was very well aware of the movies Heath wanted to make, because we shared the same values,” Amato reflects. “We definitely wanted to make movies for smart women. I think he had his daughter in mind, as well. We hated violence in our culture. We’re very against it. We wanted to flip that paradigm and focus on women and love, and chess.”

While Ledger never helmed a feature-length film, I Am Heath Ledger depicts an artist’s sensibility frequently reforming itself. Also, intriguingly, only several close relations of celebrity appear, including Naomi Watts and Ben Mendelsohn, and directors like Ang Lee and Catherine Hardwicke. The sole talent the three filmmakers would name their disappointment of not getting is Todd Haynes—whom Ledger worked with on I’m Not There. but couldn’t appear due to a scheduling conflict—yet they seem more satisfied by keeping a smaller circle that is focused on Ledger’s Aussie family, friends, and closer ties in an independent artistic community.

“The people we ended up interviewing were all really close to Heath,” Buitenhuis says. “The people, the known actors that we have, like Naomi, they did have a significant relationship.”

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The featured cast of interviewees would seem to tie again into the film’s purpose, which is to shift the focus from how Ledger died to how he lived his life—and dispel any notions that his career made him unhappy (to the contrary, he beamed with pride over his role in The Dark Knight, even bringing dailies home to show his sisters over Christmas).

“I think we as a culture, or the media machine, is so focused on death instead of life,” Buitenhuis laments. “I hope by making this film that this deters other bad films from being made that don’t focus on his brilliance as an artist. I hope that we’ve made something that will be a real testament to who he was instead of focusing on all the stuff that’s not really important.”

Amato appears vindicated in the final product. As our discussion comes to a close, he mentions what sounds like a comfort: After the previous evening’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere for I Am Heath Ledger, the late actor’s sisters, Kate Ledger and Ashleigh Bell, expressed the relief they found in the documentary.

“They said, ‘We can stop worrying now.’ Like even if some crappy documentary comes out next week, she goes, ‘This is locked.’”

I Am Heath Ledger will open theatrically for a limited engagement on May 3. It will premiere on Spike TV on May 17.