Heath Ledger (Photo by J. Vespa/WireImage)
J. Vespa/WireImage

It's been almost a decade since the world tragically lost Heath Ledger, arguably one of the best actors of our time. In Spike's upcoming documentary I Am Heath Ledger (warning: mild spoilers ahead), we get to witness him for more than what we've come to known him for. Aside from acting in timeless films, he was also a doting father, a mischievous friend, a kind father and brother, and a man with an overbearing passion for his craft. It was about to transcend in from being in front of the big screen to behind it. 

"I honestly think the universe is off its axis," musician Ben Harper and close friend devastatingly says in the first minute of the movie. "I'm not supposed to be talking with you." From there, we are whisked away into the world of the late actor from his humble beginnings in Perth, Australia to his final days in Brooklyn, N.Y. There are heartwarming insights in beloved roles in 10 Things I Hate About You, The Patriot, Monster's Ball, Brokeback Mountain and more. There are also tender, gripping moments interwined, as the audience witnesses Harper's loving lullaby to Heath and Michelle Williams' daughter Matilda, a surprising reveal about Spider-Man and Heath trading his acting hat for a directing one. 

I Am Heath Ledger is a haunting movie that will drive you to dig deep into a well of emotions, but is a must-watch for any fan of the actor. Ahead of the documentary's premiere on Spike on May 17, we spoke with director Derik Murray about his mindset of trying to portray Ledger as intimately and personable as possible. Read what he told us about the actor's dream endeavors, his favorite film and working with his close friends and family.

FUSE: Being a fan of Heath, like many others, we felt it may have been too early for a film about him. Why did you think now was the right time?
Derik Murray: Sometimes you jump into making a movie because of your passion—you gotta make it happen. In this case, I don’t think many people realize it was almost a decade ago that he passed. We always felt that Heath was this incredible, bright star and one of the foremost actors of his generations. His body of work is staggering, but we didn’t know a lot about him. We started to do a little more research about him because his name was among a bunch of iconic actors we were interested in. The thing that intrigued us was we started to find out there was so much more to him. He was a passionate artist with photography, film and music and he just embraced it. He wanted to become a director…and that story alone wasn’t well known in the media. Frankly, that really motivated us to jump on it and get going. 

We were excited about that story. And as we started to meet people in his life, what really propelled us forward was we started to learn he had used a camera to document his personal journey. It was essentially his acting tool, his acting coach that he could film himself and replay it back to see certain nuances he’d bring to the screen. As we began to realize that we were going to get access to his archive from family and friends, we thought “This movie is making itself before our very eyes.” It’s funny because the one thing we didn’t want to do realizing that it will be the 10th anniversary of his death next year, we didn’t want to be part of that. We did not want to have a movie that’s sort of trading off of the anniversary.

Definitely, that would have come off as disingenuous.
Totally! And that’s just not that the guy he was. He wasn’t caught up in that, and as his friends have said he’d probably be looking at us making this movie with a raised eye. But at the same time, I’m thrilled that his closest friends and family would be part of it. The excitement was also that Heath was all about going for it, you know? He left home at 17 and decided he wanted to be an actor on the spot, so to speak. He took some drama lessons in high school and the next thing you know he’s on television in Sydney. At 19 he shows up in L.A. As you recall, Matt Amato tells us that he wrote the script for the audition, Heath went for the lead role and he came out with it! Which was quite staggering for being 19 years old.

“There were various rumors about ‘The Dark Knight’ being this role where he spiraled downward and scarred him forever. It was completely the opposite.”
-Derik Murray

There’s a ton of big names in this movie, along with Heath’s family members. What would you say was the biggest challenge you faced while trying to group everyone together?
I think one of the key things for us was that we had a cross-section of people. Going back to Heath as a person, he wasn’t just an actor. We wanted to ensure that we got the community who knew and worked with him to make sure he was well represented. His involvement in music and music videos was important, so we wanted to make sure that side was represented. 

Ben Harper and Bon Iver helped to bring in that storyline. One element of Heath’s personality that was so important was that he, unlike most of us, embraced his lifelong friendships. It wasn’t a matter of getting on the phone once in a while and chatting, even thought the trajectory of his life was different than theirs. He loved to share his life with his friends. It was so fortunate that we had Trevor DiCarlo, Kane [Manera] and N’fa. These are three childhood friends who are great storytellers and really brought forward the character of Heath from his early days right on through, because they were with him. They were on set of The Dark Knight and The Patriot. So that was vital to us. And the family of course. They really give you the idea of where he came from and who he was. His sister Kate Ledger was there every step of the way.

What do you think people will be most surprised to learn about Heath?
It was really a hidden secret to the degree that Heath was on the path to becoming a director. This film draws great attention to it and in fact, we said in the edits many times that Heath was the co-director of this movie. His content, his journey is predominant all the way through and in many ways it draws the storyline. I think something too that’s really important that we discovered going in, was there were various rumors about The Dark Knight being this role where he spiraled downward and scarred him forever. It was completely the opposite.

That was one of the most surprising parts for me, just seeing his sister Kate explain how excited he was about playing The Joker. It was interesting to see the film dispel those rumors.
Exactly. And look, we didn’t want to make a big deal out of it but we wanted to make it clear this was something he loved doing. He was creatively inspired by it and some audiences will be surprised by it.

One of my favorite elements of the movie was how you portrayed him moreso as a human than just a huge celebrity actor. Was that one of your goals to make him more personable?
One hundred percent. And again, coming into it we didn’t know. But it was so consistent. You know what’s funny, we made a conscious decision not to use clips from interviews because he was uncomfortable. You could see it. The juxtaposition of that against the footage he had shot just felt odd. It wasn’t Heath Ledger. So we made a point of sharing in the film that it was something he was absolutely adverse to. He did not like red carpets, he did not like going to interviews. It was key for us to let Heath’s true personality come forward, and to be honest that’s one of the most rewarding parts of this film. When his family saw the first cut of it, they were incredibly emotional and upset by it and absolutely shattered. But in a good way. They said to me specifically, “We had no idea what kind of movie we were going to make but at the same token that’s who our boy was. You captured the spirit of Heath Ledger.” For audiences that should be a very enriching experience, to have that proximity to what Heath really was.

I do like that you decided to use his actual audio clips, that seemed like that was more of his personality. It made the movie more emotional as well because it felt like he was directly speaking to me.
I don’t think I’ve said this many times, but a lot of that audio came from radio interviews where there were no cameras in his face. He was a great conversationalist and so he had a certain comfort. When you listen to those interviews, it feels very real and you don’t get that sense of someone wanting to run out the door.

I personally love him as The Joker in The Dark Knight and also his role in Lords of Dogtown. I wanted to know what was your favorite movie from Heath.
Lords of Dogtown is hilarious, isn’t it?

It’s so underrated so I’m glad you put that in there!
I think so too [laughs]. I think it was a very good indication of this very good-looking heartthrob taking on a role where he’s putting in false teeth and long straggly hair, so I loved it. But I think The Dark Knight is absolutely the seminal moment in his career and I don’t think as many people on the planet recognize the impact and creative genius behind that character. But I go back to movies I think has so many elements of that, the quality of his performance his commitment. Remember in the documentary Ben Mendelsohn says, “Here’s a movie about this great American icon—the cowboy. But it’s about two gay cowboys.” So think about Heath, this young actor taking on that role [in Brokeback Mountain]. You gotta be thinking in the back of your mind there’s some risk associated with that without a doubt. The first time I watched that movie, I was struck by Ang Lee’s filmmaking and the depth of the characters. It was a very, very important movie. But now that I watched it several times and I’ve already cued into Heath’s performance and the nuances, how he speaks and hold himself, how he progresses in age…it’s absolutely staggering. I think it’s a study of acting at the highest degree. I really do.

I Am Heath Ledger premieres on Spike on May 17 at 10 p.m. EST. Before then, the documentary (which received rave reviews at last month's Tribeca Film Festival) will have a cross-country limited theater release on May 3. Murray states the screening will also include about 25 minutes of extra content that never made it into the movie. See the trailer, featuring Ben Harper, Bon Iver, Naomi Watts, Heath's parents, Djimon Hounsou and more, below: