James Marsh‘s Man on Wire is one of the most beloved documentaries of the 21st century. It’s easy to see why. Marsh recreated high-wire walker Philippe Petit‘s illegal— and daring—walk between the tops of the Twin Towers almost as if it were a bank robbery. The stakes were that high, regardless of the joie de vivre of the performance bandits. The film won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2009.
When Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Cast Away) announced that he’d make a 3D film from the same story, many cinephiles wondered how the documentary could be improved upon. As a lover of Wire, I was skeptical about The Walk. But even knowing the story going in, Zemeckis’ recreation of Petit’s walk is a towering achievement. The “coup”, as Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) calls it, is certainly daring, but the elements of the high-wire walk itself—including numerous unaccounted for obstacles that can’t be mentioned until you’ve seen it—is pure movie magic that’s made even more astounding because it’s true.
Recently, we were able to speak with Petit himself, about his walk on the wire between the Twin Towers, his training of Gordon-Levitt for The Walk, and the biggest challenges for his performances.
COLLIDER: You’ve already had your story turned into one film [in the documentary, Man on Wire], how did having that under your belt help you approach making this bigger, audience immersive film?
PHILIPPE PETIT: I was involved in the making of this film from the very beginning, which began nine years ago and I do not believe that Man on the Wire the award-winning documentary of 2008, helped Robert Zemeckis to make his own film. He saw the documentary, of course, but he went back to my book To Reach the Clouds and I was at the beginning consulting and even participating in the shooting and then the film changed and then they wanted a young actor to play me, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and The Walk took a different turn and I had less direct collaboration with Mr. Zemeckis although I still consulted from time to time.
I loved Man on Wire and was not familiar with your story prior, so everything was a surprise to me. However, to Zemeckis’ credit, even though I knew the outcome prior to seeing The Walk, the way he shot this film, from your point of view, more than 100 stories high, I couldn’t help but clutch my arm rest and lean over onto the person sitting next to me because it’s so nerve-wracking! And I already know how it goes! How do you keep from being afraid yourself, when you’re walking on a wire at such a high elevation?
PETIT: For me, when I am on the wire, I do not have a problem of eliminating or blocking fear. I do not really feel fear, although it is a fearful activity to walk in thin air, as I do without any safety device, but I am not fearful. But I don’t like to risk my life, so I prepare sometimes for months or sometimes for years. But sometimes after a walk, I look what I have done, and I have a little bit of fear coming to me, just looking at pictures.
I have walked many times around the world and each time it’s different from the last one. It feels a little bit like I am a theatrical director, creating a theatre in space. It’s really a theater in the sky. But of course the World Trade Center is certainly the most well-known of my productions. That’s why two films have been made about it, but I have many many other walks that I have done in my life that I am equally proud of, that I think have the high artistic level as which as the one at the World Trade Center.
Your multiple walks between the Towers was turned into two films, and also featured as the uniting narrative in the award winning fiction book, Let the Great World Spin (by Colum McCann). It’s inspired such wonder. But which performers inspire you?
PETIT: Performances that inspire me? Ah, that’s interesting. I am very sensitive to all form of music, painting, sculpting, dancing, and I love cinema also. For example if I look at the work of the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who happens to be a friend of mine, everything he does is inspiring to me. If I look at the performance of another friend Sting, whenever I hear him take over a stage and share his art with millions, it’s very inspiring to me. So I have a lot in my life, a lot of friends who inspire me and I’m sure it goes the other way around, or so that I inspire them.
What was your level of either training or assisting Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his stunt performers?
PETIT: Of the stunt people, there was one young man who is both a professional wire-walker and stunt man, so he was already at ease in providing all the action that was needed for the camera. I was the first one to say to Mr. Zemeckis, “I could train your actor and have him physically walk without anything else on a wire—not a very high wire or very long one —but it would help don’t you think?” And he said, “No. You cannot do that, it is impossible.” I told him that I think it is possible, and it would help show my work. I would love to have the actor, really walking, on a real wire. So we looked at the calendar and between all of our schedules, it was determined that I had 8 days. So in 8 days I trained Joseph Gordon-Levitt to walk on a tight rope.
Could you describe the experience of working with Gordon-Levitt on his ropewalking?
PETIT: Oh, it was incredible. I put different types of wires in a in an empty warehouse in upstate New York. Everyday I had a program for Joseph, which was half technical and half artistic. The body and the soul, in my opinion, must be linked in order to walk beautifully on a cable. So I also shared with him my style, my way of confronting the wire and my approach to practicing on the wire, and he was very open to that. Joseph was very interested in understanding my true relationship with the wire. In 8 days, he did much more than learning how to walk on different wires, he was also learning how to become me. He was listening to my voice and looking at my body language. He is a very good young actor. He was a quick study and managed to do it very well.
When you perform, what are the biggest challenges you must overcome once it’s live?
PETIT: When I perform outside, the major problem that could arise is strong wind. I spend months preparing for the types of wind that occur in different locations. I usually practice on a small, low wire, that features the predominant wind. I study the meteorology of the place at the time that I am supposed to do my walk, and then I find the predominant direction and velocity of the wind and I train to fight that wind.
In 1973, The Twin Towers spoke to you as the perfect place for you to perform a high-wire act. You’ve done many since, but which natural arena is the one you’d most like to perform, but have not?
PETIT: I am very attracted by the mysterious landscape of Easter Island. Not only because it is a piece of land that is further away from another, but also because of the beautiful statues of Moai that are there. To do a beautiful walk there, I would have to involve the Moai, and the Rapa Nui people who live on the island. That will be incredible project but to do that I have to have a producer, who starts paying for it, and the first thing is to send me and my producer to Easter Island because I’ve never been there. As you can imagine, it’s not too easy to find financial or governmental support for these things, but sometimes it happens.
Obviously this was incredibly difficult for you to pull of in 1974, while trespassing, but in your opinion would it even be possible today? Do you think this act would still be received with a sense of wonder, or would we view it as more criminal now?
PETIT: The practical answer is, no it would be totally impossible for young or foreign people to get access to roof of a building that stands in the heart of a giant city and to put a cable across. But, at the same time, even at the time I did it, it was impossible. I would of course say it is more impossible now than in 1974—because of the security-oriented world that we live in—and yet at the same time it’s surprising to see that all the protection that we invent, we are never completely protected. And nothing is fool proof. You can always find a way to do something. Now, of course, when I do the action, it’s an action that inspires people, it’s a gift to people, it’s not the other way around, I do not take something, I do not hurt people. Yes, I think today would be more than impossible and yet part of me would think that I continue to think that nothing is impossible.
This film doesn’t directly reference 9/11, but it does feature a line of dialogue that Gordon-Levitt delivers perfectly (when he says that he/you were granted a pass to visit the Twin Towers overlook “forever”). What is the level of loss that you feel for the city of New York when the Twin Towers were destroyed? And have you been granted the same level of access to the new tower?
PETIT: Well, I feel that Mr. Zemeckis gave a a beautiful ending to this movie. In 1974, we thought that those towers would stand up forever and everyone knows it didn’t happen. So I thought to finish with a beautiful shot of the towers, framed by the sun, was a was a very nice ending. We know the real ending of the towers, but they were very beautiful and we did think they’d be there forever. I have been to the new tower. I’ve been invited to climb and look at the construction, and view from the overlook. It’s a beautiful piece of architecture, but it will never replace the two towers.
Petit’s comments have been slightly edited for clarity. The Walk is currently in theaters.