It might be safe to say that with this current age of multi-character, CGI laden superhero films, we may never get another performance in a DC or Marvel film that was as kinetic and exciting as Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight. As his captain in that film, Christopher Nolan has one of the better perspectives on just how amazing of a talent Ledger was before he passed away.
Here are some of the interesting things Nolan has mentioned about the late, Oscar-winner in the years following his death.
1. Ledger Was Pissed They Had To Re-shoot The Opening Sequence
One of the best sequences in The Dark Knight is actually the opening IMAX sequence for both its grandiosity, and the reveal of the ultimate bat-villain: The Joker. But it almost didn’t turn out the way we experience it now. Nolan was still easing into using IMAX cameras, and when the actual reveal of Ledger as The Joker happened, his face was out of focus slightly. In an interview with Film Comment at the Walter Reade Center back in 2012, Nolan discussed how the opening scene was almost ruined by a poorly focused shot. They would have to re-shoot the scene and Heath was not happy.
It was tremendous, but when we looked at dailies it was slightly out of focus. So I just rescheduled, and I got this horrified phone call from Heath saying, ‘What have I done?’ It was the first time he had ever kind of shown us the voice and character [for real] and we wanted to reshoot it! [But I said], ‘No, no no, it’s great,’ but he never quite believed me.
They still re-shot the scene, but they ended up going with the original anyway because Ledger knocked it out of the park.
2. Nolan Had To Detach Himself Emotionally From Ledger’s Death
In an interview with EW in 2008, Nolan discussed that grieving during the process of finishing and editing the film would have been a disservice to Heath Ledger’s legendary performance.
For me, for my process, just working straight through it and wrestling through it and working was actually — I felt very lucky to have something to do. Because for most of the people who knew him far better than I did, who were around him, it was very difficult for his family and everyone. I was very fortunate: I had something very specific to be getting on with — I felt an enormous amount of responsibility to him.
3. Heath Had A Natural Fascination With The Film-making Process
Even when he wasn’t shooting a scene, Heath would follow around Nolan and the film crew on set to experience the enormity of the film-making process. In a piece he wrote for Newsweek as a tribute to the late actor, Nolan explained Ledger’s excitement for film.
Those nights on the streets of Chicago were filled with stunts. These can be boring times for an actor, but Heath was fascinated, eagerly accepting our invitation to ride in the camera car as we chased vehicles through movie traffic—not just for the thrill ride, but to be a part of it. Of everything. He’d brought his laptop along in the car, and we had a high-speed screening of two of his works-in-progress: short films he’d made that were exciting and haunting. Their exuberance made me feel jaded and leaden. I’ve never felt as old as I did watching Heath explore his talents.
4. The Role Of The Joker Was All Ledger’s Doing… Sort Of
Much has been said about how Ledger added all the nuances and tics to The Joker character, and Nolan agrees that most of that was the actor’s natural ability, but in this 2014 interview with Time Out, he mentions that he had a hand in the conception of his Joker.
I feel very, very proud of being involved in that performance, and it really was a collaboration. But I hesitate to take too much credit for it because Heath really was a self-starter in that regard. We talked a lot about reference points and I tried to free him up with the tone. But he really came up with the goods on that one. I’m very proud to be involved with that.
5. Nolan’s Favorite Joker Scene Was In The Interrogation Room
One of the best parts of any film with a strong protagonist and antagonist is when the two finally come face-to-face (ahem… Heat); The Dark Knight was no different, as when The Joker and Batman meet in an interrogation room. Nolan told the L.A. Times in 2008 about his favorite Joker scene.
To be honest, it’s pretty easy for me. The scene that is so important and so central to me is the interrogation scene between Batman and the Joker in the film. When we were writing the script, that was always one of the central set pieces that we wanted to crack. On the set, we shot it fairly early on. It was actually one of the first things that Heath had to do as the Joker. He told me he was actually pretty excited to tear off a big chunk early on, really get one of the Joker’s key scenes up in the first three weeks of a seven-month shoot. He and I both liked the idea of just diving in, as did Christian [Bale, who portrayed Batman].
6. Ledger Was Interested In Playing The Joker Before There Was A Script
Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan had met several times before The Dark Knight about working together — most notably Ledger turned down the role of Batman in Batman Begins — but before he even read the script, Ledger contacted Nolan about playing the role of The Joker. Nolan spoke to Delaware County Magazine about how they were on the same page from day one.
I’d met with Heath several times on projects in the past and nothing had ever come of it. And I think he’d heard I was looking for someone to play the Joker before we had a script, and I’d heard that he was really actually into the idea. And we met and we both had exactly the same concept in our heads of who that guy would be in this film in the way that we’d interpreted it.
7. Nolan Really Misses Heath
When you work with someone for so long — just the production of the film was seven months — sometimes you can grow an affinity for that person (or sometimes you can grow to hate them). In the case of Ledger and Nolan, they had a mutual respect for each other’s talents and work ethic. In Nolan’s Newsweek tribute, you can almost see the blood dripping from his heart.
When you get into the edit suite after shooting a movie, you feel a responsibility to an actor who has trusted you, and Heath gave us everything. As we started my cut, I would wonder about each take we chose, each trim we made. I would visualize the screening where we’d have to show him the finished film—sitting three or four rows behind him, watching the movements of his head for clues to what he was thinking about what we’d done with all that he’d given us. Now that screening will never be real. I see him every day in my edit suite. I study his face, his voice. And I miss him terribly.