Powerful. Absorbing. Captivating. Mesmerising. The performance of a lifetime. A lifetime cut too short.
Ten years on from Heath Ledger's Oscar win for his spine-tingling performance of the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” Adrian Buitenhuis, co-creator of the acclaimed documentary “I Am Heath Ledger,” a film which beautifully explored the man he was, both on and off camera, speaks about the story of a “truly incredible actor” who “thrived off human connection”, and how he wanted to dispel the myths that surrounded the sad passing of the transcendent Australian well on his way to becoming a screen legend.
“The company I work for did a lot of bio(pic) documentaries and I hadn’t done one for them yet” says Buitenhuis. “They had been sitting on the idea of doing something on Heath for a while, and they asked if I wanted to do a film on Heath, and yeah, 1000%, absolutely”.
There was no doubt here that he wanted to explore the life of this incredibly gifted actor, one who swept into hearts all over the world with his first major role in cult classic rom-com “10 Things I Hate About You,” opposite Julia Stiles, before delivering masterful dramatic turns in 2001's “Monsters Ball,” and 2005's critical hit “Brokeback Mountain,” for which he scored his first Oscar nomination.
“I already knew there was a lot more to him than just being an actor, there was a spirit there, a real creative spirit that was evident in everything that he did” Buitenhuis states, before opening up on how Heath's family were approached about the project, after being inundated with requests from producers to make a film about their son since his tragic passing. “It really comes down to if the family wants something to have, of course it depends on the person, but mainly if they want something to sort of celebrate their son, and this could have been handled very differently, and could have been more focused on the death, rather than the life, and a lot of people in the industry will tell you what you want to hear to your face in order to get in the door, so they were just very conscientious” says Buitenhuis, as any family would be in the tragic situation the Ledger's found themselves in, in 2008, after Heath's shock passing. Kim Ledger, Heath's father is very open in the documentary about how he, and the rest of the family had to “grieve with the world” because his son was beloved by so many.
And removing some of the notions that surrounded Heath's death was also important for Buitenhuis, a film-maker who has also made similar projects on the likes of comic Sam Kinson, and Hollywood actor Paul Walker, after it had become twisted folklore that embodying the role of the Joker is what led to his untimely passing.
“ I think if I told someone I was making a film on Heath, that is immediately the thing they would say 'Oh yeah, the role of the Joker, that’s what got him' so yeah absolutely, it was super important, that's putting a lot of weight on Chris (Nolan) in a way as a director, and it's just not true” Buitenhuis says, and he is right.
His family have spoken out many times about how much he adored the role of the Joker, and just how proud he was of the role. His sister Kate, even mentions in the documentary (and whilst accepting the Oscar on his behalf) how they had talked about Heath being nominated (for an Academy Award) for the role.
“Everyone wants a narrative, with a third act, second act and what not, I just wanted to get to the truth of it, and sure playing dark roles can affect you, but it can also energize you creatively, it certainly wasn't the role of the Joker, he loved that role, he was in a great space when he died” explains Buitenhuis.
And in this role he loved so much he created one of the most iconic villains ever seen on screen. One now forever etched into the fabric of Cinema and pop culture as a whole.
From the voice, to the way he moved, he captivated audiences and fellow cast members, so much so that in one scene opposite the great Michael Caine, the legendary actor forgot his lines. Buitenhuis himself was one of millions swept up in the actor's Oscar winning performance.
“I saw it for the first time in the theater, and Chris (Nolan) is such a master at these things, but I mean there was never a doubt and I’m sure the other actors in the film would agree, there was never a doubt who's film it was, and I felt it so much more as well because we were editing those scenes for the documentary” says Buitenhuis.
A character Ledger spent over six months preparing took the world by storm in the summer of 2008.
The way his Joker slinked across the screen, the element of uncertainty, like a ticking time bomb of an antagonist, perfectly mirroring Christian Bale's Batman, and ready to explode with chaotic consequences, and with audiences just sat, waiting for his next scene.
“Anyone who I talk to around the film or who was on set was just like 'wow', people were getting out of his way when he was on set because when he was on, he was on, and he was the Joker” Buitenhuis says, with the air of admiration and fandom for an actor, and a man who was “brilliant at anything he touched”.