Just as Man on Wire is such an unusual documentary, so was
this exclusive interview with its subject, Philippe Petit. Here was
the man who done something that was a huge feat in of itself
walking on a wire strung across the World Trade Center in 1974.
Petit's daring, but illegal, 1350 feet high tight-rope routine was
what some consider, the artistic crime of the century.
Then, there he was, a guy who managed such a feat yet hadn't made a
feature film in life, wanting to crank out his own document of his
adventure. Well, it took quite a while it happened nearly 34 years
ago and much time to find the right director be his collaborator
and creative extension of his own vision, to make Petit's internal
vision into one that could shared with the world at large.
What a way to get there. Through circuitous and complicated twists
and turns he finally found British director James Marsh who had made
two strange and unconventional films a rather successful doc
Wisconsin Death Trip and a less satisfying fiction feature,
Thankfully, Marsh returned to making docs with Man on Wire
and provided a fascinating look into how its subject trained to do a
near-impossible task (think about the winds whipping around those
towers that high in the sky), perceived his own achievement, and
developed his own efforts to document his feat. It also illustrated
how Marsh had to transform his material into a whole unique mix of
archival footage, documentation made at the time, and a faux
It takes incredible fortitude and determination to be a director but
no director has taken on the challenge of making a film quite to the
degree that Petit did by creating the event that was its focus and
actualizing it as well an event that few people would risk doing,
let alone succeed at doing. But succeed he did, and so did this
film, from winning the 2008 Sundance Film Festival to being a
featured doc at this year's Tribeca Film Festival.
your unique relationship with the World Trade Center beyond the
general feelings about the devastation and loss of life it must
make you incredibly sad for its loss...
On the subject of the towers disappearing, of course it was
an immense uh, sadness is not the word it was something alive
that was pulled out of me.
kind of feelings have emerged by refocusing on that time?
[I have] the same feelings that I had when I was preparing
this work, when I was performing it, and afterwards, being welcome
by New York and the world. The feeling of profound joy, elation, of
being happy to inspire people. So, nothing had changed, and nothing
can change that, the memory of this adventure is an intimate,
romantic, poetic, joyful feeling that will continue to be that way
for the rest of my life.
was done, were you thinking, "Now that this is done I can move on to
other things in my life?" Did you wonder what to do next?
Well, if I were a different person, of course after doing
something so ultimate and immense, I would've ask myself, "What can
I do next?" But that's not me. I was interested in doing beautiful
things and after having done that [one] beautiful thing, there are
millions of other beautiful things to do for the rest of my life
and for the rest of the world. I never had the problem of "topping"
my World Trade Center performance.
strange that after you two were introduced, you're making a movie
such a long gap?
No, it's not strange. It's an evident step, and it's
logical. I managed to resist offers of doing probably the wrong
movie or the wrong play for many years. I could have easily become a
millionaire. But, as you can imagine, the twin towers coming down
that day, and saying yes to other offers, and somehow, again I
decided to do something meaningful and wait for the moment when the
thing will make sense; it made sense for me to say yes to this
documentary even 34 years after the walk.
it about James that convinced you to work with him, that made you
think you had common ideas?
It is a complex chemistry when you put two artists together
and you discuss a project there are no two directors for this film,
there is one director, and how difficult it is for me to think of my
own films for so many years. So all of those were artistic
challenges, but there was a letter, James introduced himself to me
and explained his motives for doing the film and there was a phone
call, James talked to me at length and I was struck by his honesty
and his sensitivity. There was a lunch where probably none of us ate
anything because we talked, we talk, we talk and then there was a
handshake at the end and the beginning of a complex adventure of
collaborating and creativity and letting go, of fighting. All of
that is the good radiance that any artistic collaboration should
have. If everything goes too well, I don't think it is going to be
this film that came out of this, was it what you expected?
Not at all. As I said, I wanted to make a film about that
adventure even before the adventure started and that's why as a
producer I caused some film to be shot in my property in the center
of France and then I realized no, I have to abort making a film of
that adventure because you can not be of a movie crew crawling at
night in the twin towers. But then after that we constructed
everything as history and started amassing it for years after the
walk, all the archives and memorabilia, because I thought that if I
am making a film then I am making a film, [but] how naοve and stupid
of me. So I came to America and tried to make my own film but, of
course, I didn't get very far and I said no to many film offers but
then when I said yes to this documentary you can imagine by that
time I had in hand tons of film, you know, very precise. It was very
sensitive, very delicate to collaborate with a filmmaker and not be
frustrated, not to feel betrayed, not to, you know, disagree with
certain images being chosen or certain editing [moves] being
performed. But all of that is a normal state of feeling for me
because I was "inhabited" by the film of this adventure.
you feel you've added to the film and what did you feel that was
missed along the way that you learned to add?
I didn't need to learn because I already knew what would be
the ingredients if I were making the film. So I didn't learn. I had
those ingredients in me before I started collaborating with James.
making the film now, what did you learn from James that hadn't
occurred to you? What were the fresh thoughts about filmmaking that
came to you? What did you learn about what you want to do going
Well, a documentary has been made about my adventure
between the towers, therefore there will never be another
documentary, but there will be a feature film actually. There is a
feature film and I am collaborating with the director and it's a
whole new adventure, but what I learned, well I didn't need to learn
it was in my head. If I did my own film than I didn't need to learn
from another filmmaker, I really was very precise about what I
wanted to do. So, it's a difficult question, I don't really know
what I learned, I should have not been so giving up of certain
things, but we had bloody battles and some I won some I lost. They
were artistic battles though, so it is not the good the bad and the
ugly. There is an artist having a vision and another artist having a
vision, and they are collaborating. So, I learned that this was the
story of my life. I could have always said I don't want to make a
film, I only want to make my film, but I had the intellectual rights
to say "Okay, lets do it." But I don't know what I learned. I am
going to ponder your question later.
any other media that you haven't touched that now you want to do?
Yes, yes. Opera, theater and other things, I am going to
continue to do books but I have done that, so not much. But I would
like to transcend the art forms and associate myself with other
artists even though that is very difficult for me.
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