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May 15, 2017

‘I Am Heath Ledger’ celebrates an artistic life


Sabrina Furminger / Westender

There’s a lot that we know about Heath Ledger, the Australian actor who died in 2008 and left behind a bounty of stirring and resonant screen performances:

Heath Ledger was a doting father. Heath Ledger was a standout in Brokeback Mountain. Heath Ledger truly deserved that posthumous Academy Award for reimagining The Joker in The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger died too young.

There’s much about Ledger that has been explored by the tabloid press, namely relating to his personal relationships and why and how he died so young.

But here’s one more item to add to the list of things we know about the celebrated star, although it is somewhat less well known than his screen work and untimely death: Heath Ledger was an artist through and through, and he was driven by an innate need to create long before he arrived in Hollywood.

I Am Heath Ledger introduces you to the artist we didn’t fully get a chance to know while he was still alive. The new documentary  – which had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 23 – uses footage Ledger shot himself, as well as interviews with his parents, closest friends, and collaborators like Ang Lee, Naomi Watts, Ben Harper, Ben Mendelsohn, and Djimon Hounsou, to paint a picture of a man who lived to tell visual stories.

The documentary is the brainchild of Vancouver director and producer Derik Murray (I Am Chris Farley, I Am Evel Knievel). It was co-directed by Adrian Buitenhuis, written and edited by Hart Snider, produced by Murray’s Network Entertainment and released by Thunderbird Entertainment.

Buitenhuis had been directing documentaries about notorious figures like Pablo Escobar and Suge Knight when he was presented with the opportunity to pull the thread on Ledger’s artistic life. Says Buitenhuis in a recent phone interview: “For me, I was like, ‘Who is this guy, and what made him special as an actor?’ I wanted to explore that, and as we moved quickly into the process of writing and developing the project, I found out that Heath was more interested in being a director all along. That was the window we were looking through.” When Ledger died, he was two months out from beginning production on his feature film directorial debut.

Art is how Ledger related to the world and the people in his life, says Buitenhuis. The documentary doesn’t just state this as fact; we see Ledger at Burning Man, training his busted-up camera on desert vistas and whatever he considered beautiful or interesting. We see Ledger turning still and video cameras on himself and his friends, a selfie innovator long before there was even a word for it. We see Ledger on set, directing his friends (including Ben Harper) in inventive music videos. In one scene, a walk from Ledger’s hotel room to the street becomes a highly charged dramatic adventure. “He knew he needed to document everything, but he didn’t know exactly why: it was just something he had to do,” marvels Buitenhuis. “I knew that Heath was an artist but to hear that from so many people and to see it was, ‘This is real, it’s not just a motif, this is actually who he was.’”

Ledger’s own words are woven into the narrative. The filmmakers received the trove of images and footage – as well as access to those nearest and dearest to Heath – because they worked hard to build a bridge of trust with Ledger’s friends and family. The key was the sincere promise they made upfront that this documentary was going to be about who Ledger was as an artist, according to Buitenhuis.

Buitenhuis traveled to the Ledger family home in Perth this past January to conduct interviews and wade into their videos and photos. His guide through the archives was Heath’s mother, Sally. “It was the first time she’d taken the time to go through all of it because it’s still so emotional, and it was amazing for her,” recalls Buitenhuis. “She felt good about it, and it was a great experience.”

That doesn’t mean that the filmmakers weren’t nervous when they sent Ledger’s family a rough cut of the documentary this past March. “We had said, ‘If they don’t like it, we’re screwed,’” says Buitenhuis. But “they saw it and called us right away, which was 1:30, 2 in the morning, and all of the family members were crying and laughing. They said, ‘You got it; you got Heath.’ They were so happy.”