Last month, quietly and without fanfare, the high-rise ad for The Dark Knight on the building at the corner of Hollywood and La Brea was replaced. The poster, of Heath Ledger’s grimacing, sinister Joker, had lorded over Hollywood for the past eight months, both a symbol of the film’s box-office muscle and a reminder of the tragedy that lay at its feet.

A few blocks south, near La Brea and Beverly, is the office of the Masses, the film, music and art collective of which Ledger was an integral member. Any time one of the collective’s directors, producers or editors had to run an errand, there was their fallen friend peeking out from the base of the Hollywood Hills.

As conveyed in “Port in the Storm: Heath Ledger’s Final Days Among the Masses,” the Masses had become a refuge from the celebrity madness surrounding the actor in the two years before his death. Co-founded by Ledger’s longtime friend Matt Amato and Amato’s creative partner Jon Ramos, the Masses was where the actor was learning the craft of directing, by working on music videos. When he died, the entire operation was thrown into a state of profound grief and confusion. The story followed the group on a cathartic road trip to a film festival in Marfa, Texas, where some of its work was showcased.

Nearly a year later, the Masses collective remains intact, and has not only survived the loss of its friend and benefactor but has harnessed the energy to generate work and income. Says Sara Cline, the Masses’ executive producer: “It really feels like there’s been this conspicuous burst, not just of inspiration, but this force behind things that is allowing the work to move forward in the absence of having any guarantees.”

Not that there haven’t been rough moments. With a unifying member of their operation gone, individuals in the group struggled to figure out what they now had in common, and what their mission was. But they’re figuring it out.

Cline has just returned from another visit to Marfa, where she and a handful of Masses members shot a short film, Air. Among the crew were Ramos, actor Andrew Garfield, Australian writer Luke Davies and cinematographer Eric MacIver. Standing on set, Cline had a little epiphany. “I looked around and there was Luke, who wrote Candy [in which Ledger played the lead], and there was Andrew, who starred with Heath in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and Eric, who shot most of Heath’s video projects. It was really kind of beautiful to see that fabric come together.”

That fabric’s other pieces include Masses director and illustrator Daniel Auber, who this year completed a project that he and Ledger had been working on, an animated clip for Modest Mouse’s “King Rat.” Singer-songwriter Grace Woodroofe, the first signing to the Masses Music Company, has just returned to Perth, after spending the fall in L.A. recording her debut album, with Ben Harper producing. The album and the stunning video for her cover of David Bowie’s “Quicksand,” Ledger’s final directorial work, will be released this year.

For his part, director Amato has spent much of the fall and winter collaborating with British singer-songwriter Dido. The two hooked up as she was working on her new album, Safe Trip Home. After Amato crafted a short film on the record’s creation, Dido invited him to continue work in the Lake District of Scotland, where he shot the video for “Northern Skies,” the album’s nine-minute stand-out track.

Amato also traveled to the Mojave Desert with Baltimore guitar-pop band Beach House to direct its video for “Used to Be,” and his finished clip for Bon Iver’s “Wolves (Act I and II),” shot in Wisconsin the day after Amato learned of Ledger’s death, has become the lauded visual accompaniment to one of 2008’s most praised albums, For Emma, Forever Ago.

But Ledger remains close. As Amato explained in the spring, he still gets little memory nudges from his friend. It happened most conspicuously in a café. “It was a beautiful day,” recalled Amato. “I looked up at the sky and just idly asked myself, ‘Where are you, Heath?’ And I looked right here … and there’s this huge statue of the Harlequin Joker. Like, giant, like, eight feet tall.”

From “Port in the Storm: Heath Ledger’s Final Days Among the Masses” by Randall Roberts

“In the Masses, he wasn’t the boss,” [says designer and illustrator Daniel] Auber. … “Like in the Renaissance, you have the people called mecenate. I think the translation is ‘patron [of the arts].’ It felt like that but in a really natural way. It was completely spontaneous — and so much fun. The Masses was a shelter from the bad side of Hollywood.”

When nature filmmaker [Tristan] Bayer sets one of his prints on a mantel — a peaceful shot of a group sitting around a campfire at night — a scene from a year prior jumps into the room. Taken from perhaps 10 feet away, all the people glow orange inside the night. You feel the warmth just looking at it.

Bayer shot it in August 2007 on a beach in Mexico during a Masses surfing trip. For the dozen or so there … it was a spur-of-the-moment respite, a motivator, a sort of commitment ceremony and understanding that the company Heath had decided to finance 10 months prior was more than just a company.

“Heath just kind of came in one day and said, ‘Let’s get an RV and go to Mexico,’” recounts [Sara] Cline. “I said, ‘Heath, we have a company to run, and those are working days.’ And he said, ‘But it’s our company, and we can do whatever we want.’”

Over the next week, the dozen camped on the beach, surfed during the day and cooked and talked through the night. Recalls Cline: “It was free. We had only ever existed in L.A. together, and there was always a sort of nervous energy to Heath in the city. Every time he’d walk down the street, he’d get recognized, and he felt maybe a little restricted by that. [Mexico] was a place where nobody knew where the fuck he was, and it was very liberating for him. I think it was liberating for all of us.”

LA Weekly