It’s not easy to tell someone else’s life story, which is why the directors of the new documentary I Am Heath Ledger let the late actor tell his own. “Heath’s our co-director,” Derik Murray, who helmed the film along with Adrian Buitenhuis, says while sitting in a small New York office days after the film’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere. I Am Heath Ledger, which will hit hit theaters for one night only on May 3 before airing on Spike May 17, features footage Ledger himself filmed throughout his too-short life, giving fans a first-hand look at the person he was offscreen.
And through Ledger’s personal videos and interviews with family, friends, and collaborators, Murray say he was “introduced to the real Heath” — a man who was an actor, yes, but also an artist who loved photography, art, and filmmaking. The documentary gives an intimate look at Ledger throughout his life that doesn’t get hung up on every biographical detail or the questions surrounding his death. Instead, I Am Heath Ledger is a love letter to the late actor from those close to him, and who want to change the narrative surrounding his life.
Since Ledger’s unexpected death in 2008 at the age of 28, he’s been cast as a tragic figure, which those who knew the actor say in the documentary couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s why so many of them appear in the film to talk about Ledger, who preferred to keep his personal life private. The actor's friend Matt Amato, who started the film, music and art collective the Masses with Ledger, was in charge of making sure the documentary didn’t become exploitive. “There’s a whole lot of stuff that you haven’t seen and you never will. That’s for Matilda,” Amato tells me, explaining that this film was made with Ledger’s young daughter with Michelle Williams in mind. “So we just used enough to tell a story.”
Even that, Amato admits, may have been too much for Ledger, whom he says fancied himself a magician who wasn’t interested in giving away his secrets. “I don’t know if he’d even like this,” Amato says. “He probably wouldn’t.” But, Amato felt like there were corrections that needed to be made regarding Ledger's legacy, and so his doc was necessary to film. “There’s been some really awful stuff out about [Heath] recently, like some shoddy documentaries made,” Amato says. “It’s not at all close to the truth.”
I Am Heath Ledger certainly gets at the truth, but it doesn't pry too deeply into Ledger's personal life. No one involved in the project was looking to unveil the actor's deepest secrets; they just wanted to honor his memory. As Kim Ledger, Heath’s dad, says in the film, he found out about his son’s death right along with everyone else, which didn’t give him time to privately grieve. Watching Kim and others, like Ledger’s ex-girlfriend Naomi Watts and Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee, recall their favorite stories about the late star, makes this movie feel like it’s giving these people a safe space to mourn.
“There wasn’t a person who sat in front of that camera that didn’t really show incredible joy and emotion when recalling that friendship or that love or those experiences that they had with Heath,” Murray says now. “It just started and it flowed through every interview.”
For friends like Amato, the experience of filming was cathartic and enlightening. They were given a chance to celebrate their friend, and show the sides of him that the public may not have known existed. For instance, Ledger was an accomplished chess player who was only a few points away from becoming a Grandmaster, the highest title one can earn in chess, before he died. Fans and the media may have had a certain perception of Ledger, but the doc proves there was so much more to his talent and personality than most of us knew.
“I feel like all the people I interviewed felt that it was important for them to say, ‘Heath inspired me and he inspired me not just in the time we knew each other but up until this day,’” Buitenhuis says. “He’s very much a part of people’s lives still, so that was kind of beautiful to see that someone can have such an effect on people that way.”
The film makes the argument that Ledger’s legacy shouldn’t be associated with tragedy and death, but with his extraordinary life. The work that he made, both publicly and privately, during his all too brief time is worth honoring, and it's a thrill to see his vibrant, lively self featured in the film. Near the end of the editing process, Ledger’s family got a chance to see the doc, and Murray remembers how ecstatic they were to see his true self appear. “What they said, aside from the fact that they were emotionally swept by this film, was that was Heath. That was who he was,” Murray recalls. “That’s Heath right there in that film, the essence of him.”
I Am Heath Ledger shines a light on the man Ledger truly was, and who those who love him remember. Now with this film, they've made sure no one will ever forget.