Derik Murray has been making documentaries in both short and long formats since 1996. His 21 films to date have covered a wide range of subjects including sports figures, martial artists, musicians, political figures and many more. The latest addition to his “I Am…” series which airs on the Spike Network, I Am Heath Ledger, focuses on appropriately the late actor Heath Ledger who at age 28 died in 2008 of an apparent drug overdose in New York City. Ledger, known mostly for his work in Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight was just hitting his creative peak when he passed and this short documentary chronicles his life from his childhood in Australia right up until the day he died in New York.
Murray was gracious enough to spend some time talking to us about Heath’s legacy and what meant most to him…I Am Heath Ledger premiered May 17th on the Spike Network and available digitally.
Hello Derik…how are you, really great to talk to you.
Yeah, thanks for spending some time with me I appreciate that.
No, I think you’re much busier than I am so thank you.
(laughs) I don’t know about that but yeah no it’s great, we’ve had such a good reaction to the movie so it’s good to talk to people about it and get their thoughts and share the journey you know?
It’s not too often in a contemporary setting you get to talk about somebody who has passed that essentially hadn’t peaked yet that we know of. Certainly he was on quite a role at the time so we hadn’t seen a downward spiral so people’s reaction was so visceral, because it was almost like a punch to the stomach more or less. Do you get that sense at all?
Yes. Yeah, for sure, absolutely. There was just no way that…I mean as we see in the movie there was no, there was no Heath Ledger on some dark spiral tale to the depths after doing the Joker character that was just not who he was or where he was at in his career. He was on absolute quest to take his career to the next level and to essentially also to begin that journey of becoming a director which really he was an inspired filmmaker at heart and that’s what we learned before we went into this movie that’s also what inspired us to make this movie, because he was much more of a full rounded visual artist and just an incredibly strong acting talent, a brilliant acting talent. So yeah, I think people were absolutely shocked I mean his family, the people that were close to him there was no indication at all. That’s one of the interesting parts about our movie I think is when we express his passing, and when we take you there, we don’t go down that path of giving you the details of what people think could have happened what we do is present it in an emotional way because what we do is those that were closest to him that were trying to reach him on that day and we’re hearing what transpired and you can just see and how they tell you that story, the shock and awe of that moment and time.
Especially from guys like Ben Mendelsohn who I thought was great and can tell a story very well…
I thought Mendelsohn in particular to see seemed like to be still reeling from it in a way even though it’s almost 10 years later. I’ve followed Heath’s career, seen pretty much all of his films. I remember when he did pass I would hear things like “suicide” “cry for help” “drug addict” and stuff like that, mostly from the casual movie going audience, nobody that really took the time to dig deep. Did you feel any personal responsibility to set the record straight or did you just let the facts tell the story?
Yeah, you know what I didn’t feel a personal conviction to set the story straight because I didn’t have that intimate knowledge, you know, I did not know Heath and I had not gone on the journey that I had gone on now with my co-director Adrian Buitenhuis, we went into this wide open. We wanted to meet those that were closest to him and really wanted to learn number one, who he was and number two, what transpired, that might’ve have in fact expected his departure at such a young age, so we were wide open. It was just so, the story was so consistently shared by those close to him that we then learned very quickly and consistently from all of them as to what his state of mind was at near the end of his life and of course, the most important part, that they were inspired by him. What they had experienced as close friends and family members, those that worked with him, we really got to go inside of who Heath Ledger was. But yeah, we did not go in going “let’s set the record straight” but in many ways I think we have which you know is realistically a tribute and credit to those that really spent time with us and shared with us who Heath Ledger was, this magical inspired artist.
Let’s backtrack a little. You’re known as a documentary filmmaker, especially expository, how did this project get to you? Did someone approach you about it or did it just pop into your head one day?
Yeah you know what; I have this kind of a vision board in my office with iconic faces and sometimes little quotes and stuff that I put up there that I build over time. It’s always up on the wall, and some of it is images of people that I’ve told their stories already and some of these images are people that I’m interested in exploring. Heath has been up there for some time, and of course my Execute Assistant, Gemma is in fact native Australian and those pictures of Heath interestingly enough migrated into her office so there’s this omnipresent notion of Heath Ledger and that really motivated us to dig down deeper and find out what was really behind this incredibly talented young actor that was one of the bright stars of his generation, you know, what was his story? That took us down the path and once we found out that there’s much more than what was on the screen, he really was this incredibly committed artist, photography and filmmaking was really what inspired him and what was a big part of his heart. Once we did that we realized that was not something that was common knowledge, that wasn’t in magazine articles and newspaper articles that we had researched. That just wasn’t coming loud and clear and we thought “wow”, this is an interesting journey. That set us, that motivated us to really dig deeper and as we got deeper the doors opened and we built trust with family and friends and next thing you know were rolling cameras and the stories were taking us over. Quite frankly, we said this in the edit suite, Heath became a co-director of this movie because we started to uncover more and more of his footage and acquired that from family and friends and those close to him and because we started spending time with his vision, with his footage and these moments in time he started to in many ways direct and motivate the story we were telling. And so it’s a really interesting and rewarding creative experience making the movie.
This is reminiscent of an old Steve McQueen doc years ago where his family had filmed a ton of home movies. It’s not often you get access to this much archival footage, first of all footage in general, but now you throw in the caveat he filmed it himself. When you realized you had access to so much of it, I assume there were hours and hours of unused footage, was it hard to not get personal sitting in the dark editing room pouring over all this footage? You essentially lived inside Heath’s head for a period of time?
Yes, yes you know it’s true. It’s an immense task and I have to give our editors credit and also my co-director Adrian Buitenhuis, this was one of the many missions he was point on and he spent days and weeks pouring through that content. We had hours and hours and hours of footage and of course hundreds and hundreds of photographs to go through so it was really a case of obviously you do your first pass on it and you pull material forward. Then you start looking for the content that really resonates with you, that makes you smile or helps paint one of the stories now developing in front of our cameras. But the task of started to make these very sort of story choices and artful choices and bring them all together onto this canvas. It wasn’t easy, to your point; this could have been a ten part series of Heath’s footage there’s no question about it. So the choices were hard, there were many pieces that didn’t make it that we loved but we feel also very confident that we chose the pieces that we felt that would really help tell this story to the fullest possible level.
You obviously had a lot of great names involved; I even spotted Rose Byrne in the background in one of the old videos. Obviously there’s a huge missing piece with Michelle (Williams) and I understand she didn’t want to be involved on camera and that’s certainly understandable but was there anybody else that you wanted to get or reached out to but just couldn’t do it for whatever particular reason?
Yeah, well you know what’s interesting is we have that cast that you’re looking at and in all these films the cast, when we’re doing these movies, the cast evolves. It evolves for a few reasons, one is there are certain people who don’t want to be interviewed and you respect that, two is particularly when you’re working with hard working directors and actors there’s sometimes very small if any windows you can spend time with them because of their schedules. Then the third part of that evolution is that as you get into the story you realize that certain characters that you might not have imagined originally are actually more important than you imagined. And in Heath’s case it’s interesting because we learned early on about his incredible openness and the way he shared his life with his family but we also went down this path and we learned even how much more he opened up and shared his life with his friends. This is a guy that his friends from primary school were friends of his for life, for example in Trevor DiCarlo’s case he travelled with Heath throughout his career and was very much a part of recording Heath’s life and being there when Heath was filming his own life and his own journey journey. And Trevor was right there with him as was Kane (Manera) as was Nfa (Jones) and we realized individuals like this were in Heath’s case, in many ways as important as any actor that we imagined that he had worked with on such and such a film. We really realized in order to get to the personal side of Heath this is what we needed. We were very blessed, I thought what was very important was the eclectic nature of our cast so we have actors and actresses that worked closely with him and had relationships. We have musicians and artists that worked with him whether it be Ben Harper, whether it be Nfa himself or Grace Woodroofe, we then of course have directors that were important and part of his seminal films specifically Ang Lee and Brokeback Mountain. I was really happy with the cast. We did try hard to pull in Christopher Nolan from The Dark Knight, and he was very cooperative but he was knee deep into his current film and there was never window that was going to work for him. There were other people we sort of looked at but to be honest we all just kind of fell into this natural rhythm and this sort of eclectic cast is really where we ended up that we felt was really the most fulfilling as far as Heath Ledger’s story.
Let’s go non-Heath Ledger for our final question. These types of expository documentaries are obviously very popular and it’s very difficult to tell a person’s life story in an hour and a half and one of things I felt after Heath Ledger and I heard people around me saying was “…I didn’t know this or that”, it’s almost a gate to deeper waters. The “I Am…” series you’re doing, is it something you see yourself doing in the future or do you want to try different formats or fictional story telling at all or are you really happy and content doing these types of projects?
No, you know what I’m very fulfilled, very excited about these projects and we have a lineup of more of them coming up with Spike (TV) who’s been an amazing partner for us so those will continue. We’re actually talking about increasing the amount of them because they are so popular so were excited about that. Quite frankly I’m a storyteller at heart and I have a number of projects that are longer form coming up. Short answer is that I love the “I Am…” series and will continue making more and more of these as many as the folks out there will support. We have Sam Kinison coming up; we have Martin Luther King coming up and more on the horizon, but definitely looking at some long form exciting series that we’re going to be doing in the year ahead.
That all sounds great! Listen, I know you gotta run so I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me. I’ve enjoyed everything you’ve done up until now so keep going and I look forward to your next project.
Thanks Steve, very kind words and I really appreciate that. At the end of day that feedback is really important to us so thanks for all your support and listen, I hope we talk again in our next film and many more in the future.
Will do, thanks.
There you go! If you still haven’t seen I Am Heath Ledger and you’re fan of the young actor, I recommend it! It does a nice job in a short amount of time showing just how much Heath meant to his family and friends.
Till next time…