On August 7, 1974, Philippe Petit did something amazing, something spectacular, something that no man had ever done before or since. In the middle of the night, he snuck up one of the two towers of the newly-built World Trade Center, strung a wire between the two towers and the next morning, he proceeded to spend 40 minutes walking across it, 104 stories above the ground, as people on the ground looked up in amazement and the police patiently waited to take him off to jail.
Award-winning filmmaker James Marsh has captured this amazing achievement and all the preparation that went into it in his new documentary Man on Wire which combines interviews with Petit and his accomplices with never before seen footage, photos and an impressive reenactment of the Ocean’s 11 like planning. It’s the one documentary this year that absolutely must be seen, because it makes you feel like you were there on the day of Petit’s historic feat.
ComingSoon.net has an exclusive clip from the movie that you can watch below and then an interview with Marsh and Petit immediately following it.
On film, Petit is a lively man as he retells his story, but he was somewhat more subdued when he and Marsh sat down with ComingSoon.net to talk about this stirring film, which is already one of the best films to come out this year.
ComingSoon.net: I know the origins of how the film’s producer met Philippe and convinced him to allow him to document this mythic feat, so Philippe, since this happened 35 years ago, I have to assume that people have been wanting to make this movie all that time and it’s a story that people know. Why and how did you know this was the right time to make it? Philippe Petit: I said “no” to all of the propositions of feature films and documentary films from the moment I finished my walk, to the moment I said “yes.”
CS: That was it? You just finally decided it was the time? Petit: No, no, no it had to do with my position in the creative effort of it. I didn’t want to abandon my story. I wanted to be associated in some way with the creation of a film, so I had an assurance that the story not be transformed as it sometimes happens in Hollywood.
CS: James, as far as your approach to the film, you enhanced the interviews with recreations of the preparations for Philippe’s walk. Had you figured how you wanted to tell this story before you talked to Philippe? James Marsh: No, I was dimly aware of the story. I think most people living in New York have a recollection of it, have a knowledge of it. It’s like a folk memory, but I came to it with a very open mind. I think one of the reasons the film develops between us is it was a collaboration, and there was a lot of listening to be done, a lot of talking to be done. What Philippe alluded to with his answer is what made this viable now was as a kind of collaboration where you’re going to try to tell a story and also the spirit of the story which is kind of intangible. That’s really important that you get the spirit of the film right. Also, once you realize the film is defined by its protagonist and therefore, it’s very important that the protagonist of the film whose story it is, is not only fully involved in the on-camera part, but also is aware of and contributes to how the story is told. That’s how we did it. We didn’t always agree but nevertheless, I think the film benefited enormously from the challenges that we put to each other as we were making it, and the questions we asked each other as we were making it. Philippe asked me lots of questions, many of which were very, very interesting and to address. I didn’t always give him what he wanted and vice versa, but it was a very interesting collaboration. I’ve often done that with films; you collaborate with people. The film at it’s very best is a collaboration. I think this for me was one of the best collaborations I’ve ever done, because we’re so different as people, and I wanted to make the film for Philippe as well with him. if you like.
CS: Philippe has written a lot of books about his achievements. Before your first meeting, did you read a lot of the stuff he had written? Marsh: I’ve read “To Reach the Clouds” very carefully. I didn’t have a chance to read all of his work, but I did catch up on most of it in the course of the initial research that I did.
CS: What was your first meeting like together with James? Petit: Actually, our first meeting was on the phone and it was a very nice conversation, and I felt, “Okay, that was very interesting,” and then the second meeting was a lunch at the end of which we shook hands on the project, so it was pretty fast and simple. Marsh: It was interesting. I was expecting although I had no expectations I just raced up to shake hands with Philippe, and we ate and drank and had a good time. It was a spontaneous reaction that I had that I’ve got to make this film. I have to make this film. I think Philippe felt that perhaps based on our initial chemistry that this was going to work, so he very kindly put me out of my misery quite quickly and just called me up and said, “We should do this.”
CS: Did James explain to you what he wanted to do in terms of telling this story? Petit: No, no, because at the beginning of the adventure of making a work of art like this, one doesn’t necessarily have all the vision. You might have a skeleton, but no, for me it was to feel something, and also to feel the reaction of James to the idea of collaborating and he wanted it. Marsh: I think my motto as a filmmaker, I think we all do on one level or another I’m not a genius, I’m not Stanley Kubrick, but you have to be open to other people’s ideas, and they can enrich your own enormously and it’s a dialogue of ideas.
CS: In this case especially since you’re telling his story, and you basically have to recreate his story without actually having been there. Did all of these films and photos and home movies come from you, Philippe? Were these things you’ve had archived? Petit: No, not all come from me. James did immense research and found hidden treasures about the towers and about me at the moment, after the walk and things like that. I brought a big trunk of documents because I really love to collect everything. I’m an archivist at heart, so I had all of the pictures, and all of the preliminary rehearsal on film, and all that I had secured.
CS: That’s amazing because holding onto those films for thirty-five years, just to have the foresight to document it the first time but also for those films to survive. Petit: I did both. I had the foresight, because for the beginning of the film to be produced and to transport it through thirty years, as you said, and the result is wonderful as you see in the film. Because I had said “no” to the other offers and so I was waiting for the right time. I could be a very patient man sometimes. Marsh: Of course, they didn’t show it to me straight away. You proved yourself, you proved your intentions, and when I called and I saw the footage shot in France, I was delighted and thrilled. I knew that we had another part of the palette, the texture. It’s like a little Truffaut movie. It’s beautifully shot, that material, and very revealing of the dynamics of the group, as well as the preparations that you’re seeing taking place, the real preparations, that was really happening.
CS: As far as the recreations, was that all done after you’d spoken to Philippe and the other people? Marsh: Yeah, the way the film was made was that first we did a couple of very long and fairly inventive sessions with Philippe. Philippe is interviewed in a very sort of loose way in the film. It was his idea to create a kind of space and a situation where he could feel free to act out and show and explain things in the way that you see in the film. Of course, I kind of resisted it a little bit, “That’s not how you do it, and that’s not conventional.” At a certain point I felt very liberated by doing that, but he took me to that position. That wasn’t where I first wanted to go, and once we started doing a much freer interpretation of it, it was incredibly energetic and fun. On screen it’s really fun to watch when you see someone passionately and charismatically enacting out things for you. It’s wonderful for me as a filmmaker to have that to work with.
CS: I’m sure you’ve told this story before, or at least told parts of it in your lectures and in your book. What was different this time? Petit: This was not on the page. It was not on the stage talking. It was actually reenacting and I cannot tell that story, probably I can not tell any story, without really becoming all of the characters. Talking about theater actually, I built a little barn in upstate New York and I call it “the smallest theater in the world,” but it a mini stage and a red velvet curtain. James invited me to tell my story in that space among other places, so I had great joy in reliving the past and deciding which character I wanted to give life to and remembering things. Some of that is in the film, so it happened very naturally for me. Marsh: You could’ve shot the whole film that way. You could actually have made the film only with that material. It would’ve been a different film, but it would’ve still worked.
CS: It seems like this could’ve done a one-man show of sorts. Marsh: It was and it is and it could be. Obviously, we had other elements we used in the film. We built a mosaic of things, but as the starting point, that was the main story, and we added to the story interviews with the other people involved in the whole adventure. I structured the film in the way that you see as a kind of heist film with flashbacks and two overlapping timelines and three at certain points, because the towers are going up as well. That’s quite an elaborate structure for a documentary. I think a vaguely unconventional one, but the story gives that to you. It asks to be told that way, and it’s a movie. I think Philippe thinks cinematically, actually different from me, but he has a cinematic kind of vision as well, so that really helped to then go and construct visual sequences and illustrations and comedic dramatizations of the process by which this criminal conspiracy unfolded and took place on the afternoon, evening, and morning of the walk itself.
CS: How did you find some of these other people in order to get them involved? Marsh: The Americans were a little tricky to find, but a little bit of natural thinking these days can get you there. We talked about whether they should be in the film at all and on and on.I think it ended up it was good to hear from all those who were part of this. Quite honestly, not all of them came out of it pretty well and to their credit, those that don’t come out of it well own up to it. So we do have a couple of mea culpas, if you like, in the course of the interviews which we see on screen. That I think makes it it’s not only the good guys, there were some bad guys as well.
CS: They’re all very entertaining characters for sure. Have you been in touch with Jean Louis and Annie all these years? You get the impression by the end of the movie that none of you have seen each other again since you performed this feat. Petit: In the past few years, yes. We saw each other after the walk. Actually, we saw each other again when James shot us in Paris. We were together in Paris, a few months or a year before the movie was made. Marsh: Jean-Francois came from Myotts, he is the gentleman who is with Philippe on his tower. He is very loyal, a very beautiful, lovely human being, came to Paris in the middle of the winter in his flip flops, showed up and he was a very important part of both the story and I think a wonderful presence in the film. He’s not in the film as much as some of other people, but he says one or two of the things that I find most striking. At one point he says, “I knew what I was doing was illegal, but it wasn’t wicked or mean.” That gets to the heart of one aspect of the story. He’s on the tower with Philippe and he recalls, he says something like, “We all knew that he could fall, we never believed it.” Those two observations were for me, two key insights that he gave me in a very simple way, to especially his motivation for being there, and also his distinction between things being illegal and not being vicious or unpleasant or ugly.
CS: Phillipe, were you there at all when James was talking to these people or to Jean Louis and how did you feel watching some of the stuff they said later? Jean gets very emotional a few times in the movie, not only about his worries about you possibly falling. Petit: No, I was surprised at certain reactions of certain people, but I didn’t feel one way or another. I mean I have my own remembrance of the chemistry of the group. Of course, the chemistry, you can’t expect it the same thirty five years later. Some people you turn, some people change. Me, I didn’t change. I still juggle in the street, I still walk on the wire, so I’m not surprised when people show me a completely different way of thinking than the one that was a half century before, so I don’t really have much feeling about that. I was working on my part which was to give to James as honestly as possible, as fully as possible, my reliving, because it was really not remembering, it was more reliving. I was not so conscious of what the others were saying; I saw it when it was on the screen most of it.
CS: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a lot over the last thirty five years, but what does it feel like being a hundred stories above the ground looking down? I don’t think anyone else has ever had that experience. Petit: I walk on the wire, it’s my profession, and there are no two high wire walks alike. Certainly, in the story of my life, the walk between the Twin Towers was one of the grandest, one of the most memorable, but not solely the grandest and the most memorable. It was immense, and I can not really do justice in a one liner, you know, “How did you feel?” So I wrote this book “To Reach the Clouds” because actually in that book I did span the weeks and the months and the year almost to give justice to how did I feel. It was not easy because there were a lot of things turning in my head. There was certainly great joy and also an awareness and also a feeling of exploring a new continent. As you said, it’s not a place to put a human being and nobody before me and after had walked in the sky at that height, so it was a very, very strange life away from life.
CS: I wasn’t in New York at that time, but if somebody told me that you did it or showed me picture, I’m not sure I’d believe it, but once you see the movie, it’s hard not to believe. Petit: (laughs) Well that’s good, that’s good. That’s a good sign. (laughs) Marsh: Well, you can see a picture and an image and it’s very beautiful. It’s worth saying what Philippe does as a performance, and it’s a beautiful performance, it’s not just for it’s own sake, but what proceeds it is this elaborate criminal conspiracy which I think is what makes the movie. I think that does surprise some people who do know the story because they don’t know the extent and the precision of the planning and the detail that was gone in, the imaginative thinking to get this to happen. It’s a miracle to take place, and a great deal of imaginative thought has gone into it.
CS: I thought it was amazing that Philippe had actually gotten to the top of the towers a couple times before the walk, took photos of his time up there. Incidentally, when you did the interviews, did anyone contradict what Philippe told you about that night? And if so, how did you decide what to include if it might be different? Marsh: What’s interesting about it is to have these subjective points of view that you’re using to build the story, but there was kind of a consensus on what happened. Of course, what happened was there were disagreements at the time as to how this was going to be done, and not everyone saw it through. The Australian, Mark, who was an important part of the first part of the adventure, doesn’t feel able to see it through, so he backs away because as he says in the film, “I don’t want to be liable for the death of my friend.” So it’s subjective and people remember things differently. I was surprised by the emotions and was kind of excited if you like by people recalling this. By and large the points of view are subjective, but they construct the story, and the story is what happened. It was very useful to have. For example, even though Alan “Albert” who was in Jean Louis’ Tower betrayed Philippe essentially and didn’t see the thing through and left at a very vital time, even his perspective on it, as someone who didn’t quite believe in it was very interesting to me. It was enraging to Philippe I think at the time, and there’s other things that went on there that we don’t get into in the film about stealing photographs and on and on. But even his perspective was, I thought, useful, because he was skeptical, he didn’t really believe. Then he had to believe, so that’s interesting, but it was a joy for me to have these parallel narratives that there’s a North Tower going on and the South Tower going on. It was a great resource, but there wasn’t a great deal of contradiction in people’s accounts. There was definitely different feelings, that people thought had different feelings about what they were doing, but the factual accounts were interestingly similar.
CS: You mentioned this is just one part of your life and it took this line to document it. Do you have other aspects of your life we might one day see in a movie, like some sort of biopic? Petit: I would like to continue to tell stories of what I did in a biographical way, so I will continue to write. One day I’m sure I will write a story of my life, but it might be a little bit too early to do so, and then one day if there is room for a feature film of the same adventure, why not? Actually, this has somewhat started, but I’m not here to talk about that, but yes, there are plenty of other things I want to do using the wire or with this story. At some point I let a play be staged. It was in England actually, and I was quite unhappy of the result, but it didn’t really matter. It was interesting to see how a director of a play would handle the adventure from my book and there are many other walks to come. I still have many projects, so there could be films on those walks. I mean it’s an endless thing. Actually, I have to choose. I have to think of what is my next project and at the moment I am engulfed in many projects, but at the moment I am following this film. I say “following” because this film is developing on its own. It has such a success that you want to kind of run after as a leader. I am happy to accompany the film a little bit all over the world now because it’s a great film.
CS: Do you think you’d ever be able to do anything like this again, considering that you’re known and any time you walked into a tall building, they’d suspect something? Petit: You mean illegally? Let’s say you look at New York and America. We live in a very different world now. We even have an expression for it, “post 9/11.” There was a time before where things were possible for an artist like me to do things illegally, and I think now it’s probably impossible, but as you saw in the film, the word impossible doesn’t make me do a u-turn. I kind of start working on it, so even the impossible is possible to achieve, but we live in a very different world where probably I would be shot and then ask questions later.
CS: In the notes, I think it was mentioned that you were able to bring the bow and arrow on the plane even. Marsh: But you’d be carted off in shackles and that’s a completely other film, but if he comes to New York, you come with a suitcase full of stuff and what happens? Petit: Yeah, there was a custom agent that asked me to open my suitcase, and he sees all this equipment and I explain what everything is, and he says, “What is it for?” and I say, “This is to put a wire illegally between the Twin Towers,” and the guy laughed and he said, “Okay, next,” wished me luck and all that. There are so many scenes in my cinematographic adventure, that the difficulty becomes, what do you choose, and how do you cut your work?
CS: So James, where do you go from here? You went from docs to dramatic features with “The King,” so do you expect to go back to that type of stuff? Marsh: Just trying to work. You always hope that one film leads to the next, but unfortunately it hasn’t really happened that way. You always have to start again from the beginning, but after making a feature film that was kind of cruel I guess in some respects, and it divided people down the middle it would seem, it was a great joy to make this film because it’s so subversive. What Philippe does is illegal, subversive and mischievous, and still to this day I love the idea what he did. I love the memory of it and I still get goose bumps when I think about the walk itself. It was a great privilege to make this film, so I’m really pleased that audiences so far have responded to what I’ve responded to in the story, so I don’t know what I’m going to do next.
CS: Do you feel like Philippe must have felt like after doing his walk where you’ve done this amazing feat and you don’t know what to do to follow it? Marsh: No, not at all. You are very blank at making a film. That’s the objective is to get to that. I’m not very good at constructing a career. Actually I don’t construct a career, I don’t know what it is, that’s not what I do. You just want to do things you think are worthwhile.
CS: And Philippe, you’ve got another book coming out? Petit: Yes, I just finished my sixth book which is released in France only at the moment, but I hope it will travel. I have a book that the publisher asked me to write, so it was nice for a writer to be somewhat on commission, to be asked to do something, and I have several books and projects, so I will continue to write. I will continue to walk on the high wire. I do continue to street juggle, so nothing changed for me and I just want to work.