Karin Catt / Spike TV

Here’s Why I Am Heath Ledger Focuses On The Actor’s Life, Not His Death

The documentary skims the details of the actor’s death — and that was intentional

I Am Heath Ledger, which debuted on Spike TV this week, is an intimate look at the the life and career of the late Heath Ledger, who died from an accidental drug overdose in 2008. Derik Murray and Adrian Buitenhuis's poignant documentary details Ledger's creative pursuits through the eyes of the people who knew him best — and through the lens of his own camera. (Most of the archival footage in the film was shot by the actor himself.) Those people include childhood friends Trevor DiCarlo and Kane Manera, his family, Ben Mendelsohn, Naomi Watts, Ang Lee, Ben Harper, and his longtime agent Steve Alexander, among others. Ledger's close friend and creative collaborator, Matt Amato, was not only influential in helping Murray and Buitenhuis go through Ledger's extensive catalogue of footage but also in getting the actor's family on board with the project.

Actress Michelle Williams, the mother of Ledger's daughter, does not appear in the film, but she did give the project her blessing. “I really did think the answer was going to be no, so I talked to Michelle, and surprisingly, she thought this was something that I should pursue at this point,” Amato told MTV News. “And I felt like there needed to be an anecdote to all of the gossip that's out there.”

I Am Heath Ledger celebrates the life of an artist who, as Harper says in the film, was bigger than the world had room for. The film doesn't dwell on Ledger's untimely death, nor does it get into grim specifics, and that was intentional. “We're not diving into those details,” Murray told MTV News. “If that's something that somebody needs, unfortunately, they can find that. We're honoring his death. You don't emotionally feel his loss through the details of his death — you feel it through the journey of those who were close to him and how they cope with it.”

What the film does offer, however, is rare insight into the restless mind of the actor, filmmaker, father, and rabid chess player. To Amato's point, it also quells some of the long-standing rumors surrounding his death. Here are some of the major revelations from the documentary.

  1. He may or may not have inspired Entourage
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    People tended to fall into Ledger's orbit. He was an empathetic person who often would call his friends just to say he was thinking about them. In fact, he loved people so much, he often housed his fellow Aussies — including future stars Martin Henderson, Rose Byrne, and Joel Edgerton — in his Los Angeles home while they tried to break big in Hollywood. “He would give them money, too,” Amato said. “Ten thousand dollars, anything they needed.”

    Naomi Watts, who dated the actor from 2002 to 2004, describes Ledger's generosity and his “come one, come all” open-door policy as an “Australian thing” in the documentary. “Casting directors would ask you, ‘Are you one of the Aussies living at Heath’s place?’” Mendelsohn jokes in the film, adding that Adrian Grenier and the show Entourage likely took inspiration from Ledger's own close group of friends.

    “He let you know how he felt about you,” Amato said. “The last time we had a party, he sat down next to me and said, ‘Matt, thanks for all the good times.’ And that was our last good time together.”

  2. He documented all of his adventures
    Spike TV

    The film details Ledger's love of filmmaking, a lifelong passion that manifested into a career behind the camera toward the end of his life. Ledger was constantly recording, documenting his life with a handheld camcorder. Directors Murray and Buitenhuis pulled so much from the actor's personal archive of footage to use in the film that they credit him as a codirector.

    “It's very true that Heath was the director, or certainly a codirector of this movie,” Murray said. “His vision goes all the way through.”

    That vision wasn't stylized to perfection either. It was a little rough, just like Heath. “He wanted to do things on a scale that was human and small,” Buitenhuis said, calling Ledger a grassroots indie filmmaker. “He wanted to work with his friends and show how much you could do with not very much.”

    Before his death, he was working on his directorial debut, a feature adaptation of the novel The Queen's Gambit. According to Amato, it was Ledger's passion project — a female-led story about a smart young woman who struggles with alcohol addiction as she works her way into chess championships. Amato hopes that one day he'll be able to carry out Ledger's vision for the film.

  3. He was uncomfortable with fame
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    Ledger detested the heartthrob label Hollywood threw at him, and he was often at odds with the celebrity culture he found himself in. He was so unsettled by the release of A Knight's Tale in 2001 that when the studio detailed the press tour to Ledger and his manager, the actor excused himself to have a panic attack in the bathroom. He didn't like being the handsome leading man. (Amato recalled how he referred to his 2005 film Casanova as “Crappynova.”) Instead, Ledger preferred roles he could disappear into, like his small yet incredibly memorable part in Marc Forster's Monster's Ball.

  4. He had a lot of fun as The Joker
    Warner Bros.

    The narrative that Ledger was in a dark place at the time of his death persists nearly a decade later. His role as the Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight was challenging, sure, but it wasn't all-consuming. Ledger spent six weeks perfecting the Joker's manic mannerisms before stepping onto set, and when he did, he felt truly in command of his performance. (He also conceived the white pancake makeup and smeared red lipstick himself.) According to those who knew him, Ledger was at his creative peak as the Joker, and it was often common to find him laughing between takes.

    “That film was so big and so dark and he had passed by the time it came out, so that became the narrative,” Buitenhuis said. “So when we went to make this film, obviously that was a question we wanted to ask. But a lot of the time I didn't even need to ask. People were like, ‘It's crazy that that's the narrative that everyone thinks because it was the complete opposite.’”

    While the Joker remains one of Ledger's finest performances, Amato is disheartened by the way it has been mythologized in our culture. “In many ways, I'm glad he's not around to see it,” he said. “There's even been acts of violence in the Joker's name that have occurred since he portrayed that part. I think he was too sensitive to survive that. It would have torn him apart.”

    “Our culture latches on to the glamour of evil and we glorify it,” he added. “Heath had fun playing the part, but he was the most nonviolent, gentle creature.”