Heath Ledger’s death sent shockwaves through Hollywood -- it was the kind of tragic event that still feels raw. But for those who knew and worked with him, the pain of losing him was much greater. According to The Dark Knight’s editor, it was especially tough to learn of his death so soon after they had wrapped filming.
Lee Smith has worked as a film editor for more than 30 years on films like Spectre, 1917, Interstellar, and Inception. In 1999, he first got to know Heath Ledger when he edited Two Hands, an Australian indie comedy he starred in before his Hollywood breakthrough. In the following years, Lee Smith’s career also took off. As a frequent collaborator of Sam Mendes and Christopher Nolan, he’s earned three Oscar nominations, and won one for Dunkirk.
I saw [Heath] several times during the shoot of The Dark Knight on the set and it was always hugely amusing. Right from the first day of shooting, I was just completely in awe of how far he’d come from doing a low-budget film in Australia to standing there with his back to camera holding onto that mask as he commands the screen. I was sitting in a small trailer on location with Chris Nolan, the cinematographer, and everybody else and we’re just all sitting there going, ‘Oh, man, this guy’s amazing.’ Just the way he walks, the way he talks. He brought everything to that role.
Lee Smith remembers what a shock it was when Heath Ledger, 28, passed away in January 2008 -- especially since they had worked together so recently and Smith was in the middle of post-production, editing footage of Ledger:
It was terribly sad. We were about 10 or 12 weeks past the end of the shoot. It’s of course incredibly sad when anyone passes away, but he was such a brilliant actor and he brought so much to that role. It was a great loss that he’s no longer with us.
Though filming on The Dark Knight had been completed at the time of Heath Ledger’s death, Lee Smith’s work as an editor was not yet done. That meant he was responsible for helping to put together the footage of what would be one of his final performances on film. After The Dark Knight was released, it was met with near universal acclaim, with particular attention paid to Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. He ultimately earned a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Lee Smith, too, was nominated for an Oscar for his editing of The Dark Knight.