The Dark Knight Without Heath Ledger
How will Warner Bros. sell a summer blockbuster marked by tragedy?
Knight's Tale: Despite persistent rumors that Heath Ledger had not finished recording all his lines for the upcoming Batman movie, Warner Bros. insists that director Christopher Nolan got what he needed while filming.
Warner has kept largely mum about how it will manage its big investment in The Dark Knight after Ledger's sad and untimely death. The studio is still figuring out what to do not just with the film but with products like T-shirts and toys. In fact, the studio has set a big meeting for today to discuss those merchandising questions.
Warner plans to release the movie as planned in July. Usually, after filming is completed, actors do looping sessions—that is, they record and perfect their lines in a studio. It would be unusual for Nolan to have all the sound that he wants at this early stage but a producer—not associated with this project—tells us that it's not impossible. "I can't think of a movie where there were no looped lines whatsoever, but I can think of movies where a main character was not looped," he says.
On a big-budget franchise picture like The Dark Knight, he adds, looping would be the norm. "When you are doing a movie like Batman, as opposed to The Savages, you loop," he explains. "You are a perfectionist because you have the money to do it and the studio gives you whatever you want. You go through 17 takes of Heath Ledger saying, 'I'm the Joker,' and if it isn't just right, you loop it."
Warner could use a voice artist if needed—and there are rumors that the studio will do that. If so, the studio's denials would be understandable: Warner wouldn't want the public to be listening for variations in the voice when the movie is released. But the producer assures: "With a good voice artist, you would never know the difference."
Indeed, when Spartacus was rereleased in 1991, the studio wanted to insert the deleted seduction "snails and oysters" scene between Tony Curtis and Laurence Olivier. The footage was there, but the sound was not. Curtis was available to redo his lines; Olivier's part was seamlessly performed by Anthony Hopkins.
A Warner executive acknowledges that another actor may at least have to provide a Joker voice for such things as a planned theme-park attraction. Some marketing efforts—like an idea that involved calls to fans' cell phones—may be scrapped.
Dozens of licensing agreements have been in place for months, but another studio source says that relatively few involve Ledger's image. Many Batman-associated products are aimed at children aged 5 to 9, so, this executive says, Warner was proceeding with a degree of caution even before Ledger's demise because of the intensity of the Joker's character in the film. For some products, the cartoon image of the Joker was already being used. And Ledger did photo shoots so that his likeness could be used on certain products such as T-shirts.
Now Warner has to figure out what to do with products bearing that likeness. "You don't want people to think you're exploiting his death," the source explains. "But his character is part of the movie, and he was on board with wanting to do this with his character." And if Warner doesn't release the merchandise, "The pirates would come out of the woodwork, and then it's completely out of control."
Meanwhile, Warner is likely to alter some of its marketing campaign, which featured Ledger's image in the early going. A source close to the project says the plan all along was to start with the Joker and then segue to the image of Aaron Eckhart as Two-Face. In the film, Two-Face is in a love triangle with Rachel Dawes, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. It was clever to cast Gyllenhaal in the role vacated by Katie Holmes. Both have similar kewpie-doll faces, so it's not a grating change. And Gyllenhaal brings more weight to the part. That's one less thing to worry about in a blockbuster that's already carrying a lot of weight. (link)
Kim Masters is an NPR correspondent and the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everyone Else.
Still from The Dark Knight copyright 2008 Warner Bros. Pictures. Photograph from the Sundance Film Festival by Scott Halleran/Getty Images. Photograph of an Oscar award by Kevin Winter/Getty Images.