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Movie Detail Monday: ‘The Dark Knight’ Heath Ledger Improvisation Myth

Dark Knight Heath Ledger Hospital Explosion Improvisation
Warner Bros. Pictures

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Movie Detail Monday: ‘The Dark Knight’ Heath Ledger Improvisation Myth

Don’t mistake meticulousness for movie magic.

Most of the time, the Monday Detail Monday series zeroes in on a specific aspect of a film production and explores what makes it so incredible to see on the silver screen. This edition, however, is meant to do the exact opposite. I want to take the opportunity to actually debunk one of the more common–and famous–rumors that persistently floats around the internet, practically establishing itself as common knowledge among cinephiles.

Of all the bits of trivia and factoids related to Christopher Nolan’s 2008 magnum opus “The Dark Knight,” the one that has seemingly caught on more than any other is that Heath Ledger, in his Oscar-winning performance as the Joker, improvised the scene in which he is momentarily frustrated and confused when the hospital fails to explode in its entirety.

When the initial explosions briefly stop, Ledger turns around, throws up his hands, and whacks his detonator a couple of times before the explosions suddenly resume and the entire building gets leveled. Ledger’s frustration and fidgeting during this sequence is supposedly the incredible wherewithal of an actor staying in character and improvising until the scene gets back on track, right? WRONG!

Not only was the sequence meticulously rehearsed, but everything went perfectly to plan.

In reality, that pause in the action was utilized by Nolan and crew as a means to do the scene practically while still keeping Ledger safe. Nolan confirmed this to be the case in the special feature “Gotham Uncovered: Creation of a Scene” that was part of “The Dark Knight’s” home release.

Here’s what Nolan had to say about it:

“[Special effects supervisor Chris Corbould] was able to come up with a scenario in which Heath could actually be walking out of the building because what Chris worked out is if we put in a little beat where the first set of explosions stops as if something’s gone wrong, and the Joker just takes a second to look around surprised like the audience is surprised, then the major demolition comes in and he jumps straight into the school bus. In that way he was able to come up with a practical scenario in which we could actually take a principal actor, walk him out of a building that’s about to be destroyed, and literally drop the building to the ground.”

Regardless, something that’s really impressive about the scene–and itself worthy of a Movie Detail Monday mention–is that the destruction of the building is absolutely real. Nolan and company blew up the Brach’s Candy Administration Building in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago.

Indeed, they only had one take to pull off the shot. Talk about pressure. Yet they absolutely nailed it, thanks in part to all that rehearsal and planning.

Check out this awesome footage of the scene in action below.

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