During the course of our travels within southern Alberta, and our interviews with those who made Brokeback Mountain, we were told many things about Heath Ledger by those who had the rare privilege of working with him. He is fondly remembered by them as a deeply committed artist, a generous friend, and one who dearly loved this life. We are honored to share a few of their recollections here.
Ang Lee insisted on perfect lighting for the Basque Bridge scene. In the hours that the cast and crew waited patiently for the sun and clouds to cooperate, Ledger took off his shirt and hung from the underside of the bridge, clowning around, greatly amusing the crew.
Ken Zilka (Roughneck #1) said that Ledger was so determined to make the Thanksgiving street fight realistic that he accidentally broke Zilka’s nose. And, of course, Ledger insisted on doing his own stunt work for the cliff jump.
David Trimble (the Basque) remembers the experience of working with Ledger and Gyllenhaal as “amazing.”
First Assistant Director Pierre Tremblay said Ledger accidentally landed on top of Michelle Williams while they were shooting the toboggan scene, injuring her knee. Tremblay recalls that Heath insisted on riding with her in the ambulance to the hospital in Canmore, presumably the first spark of their romance.
The proprietor of the Red Coat Motel in Fort Macleod, where a photo portrait of Ledger is proudly displayed, said Heath and Michelle shared a room while they stayed there, joking, “If only I’d saved the sheets!” To deter paparazzi, Ledger was registered as “Keith Fletcher.”
The bartender at the Blue Bar in Carseland (Signal Bar) said Ledger was “a bit of a [pain]” because he would not talk to anyone while he was preparing himself emotionally for that scene, so determined was he not to be “the one who fucked [the movie] up.”
The owner of the Lonesome Ranch said Ledger was very focused during his time there, working extensively with his diction coach, intently trying to sound “downtown Wyoming.”
Roberta Maxwell said that when her lines were to be shot, Ledger volunteered to be there, instead of a double. He was still in tears from doing his scene upstairs. She was touched by his gesture, an unusual professional courtesy, and has said it contributed greatly to her own performance.
In June 2004, while the production was based in Fort Macleod, Ledger visited the seedy Queen’s Hotel bar (Cassie’s Bar) and stayed up late, drinking with the locals. Some of the guys we met there remembered that. Unfamiliar with the Brokeback story line at the time, they jokingly offered to double for Heath in his movie’s sex scenes.
Larry Reese (Jolly Minister) mentioned to Heath that his daughter was a big fan of his earlier films. Without prompting, Ledger later presented Reese with a hand-written message of thanks to Reese’s daughter, an extraordinary kindness on the part of a celebrity who was mercilessly hounded for his autograph.
The owner of the Twist Ranch said that Heath waived union / guild work rules to allow the filmmakers to shoot late one day when they were trying to complete the critical scenes at that location.
During the shooting of the difficult fireworks scene in Fort Macleod, it rained very hard. The babies (twins were rotated to comply with child welfare regulations) were crying a lot. “Ledger held them like a father and calmed them down. He loved kids,” said a crowd extra who was positioned nearby.
A coincidence, Ledger’s sister gave birth to a set of twins while he was making the film. He is remembered as having been very frustrated that he could not be with her in Australia at the time.
Hannah Stewart (Alma, Jr., age 3) needed to have her hair darkened for the role. When she looked in the mirror after the dye job, she started to cry. Her father remembered that it was Heath who stepped up to calm her down and stop her from crying, saying that Ledger had a way with children that was “magical.”
And, as has been reported, it was Ledger’s inspiration to reverse the shirts for the final scene, never imagining that it was to become his own, enduring valediction. Yes, he really did get it, didn’t he?
A dedicated, loving, and vibrant presence has now passed on, but his legacy will endure, not simply in the form of a monumental work of art, but in the hearts and minds of those whose lives have been forever changed by it.
JB / 3 March 2008
Revised 16 June 2008