Walking on Air: 'Man on Wire' Presents Petit's Terrific Tale
An impossible but
beautiful dream that came to life on the most improbable of stages-above the
clouds between the World Trade Center's
Twin Towers, director/screenwriter James
Marsh's Man on Wire (see the trailer here) chronicles wire-walker
Philippe Petit's famed 1974 conquest of the world's tallest buildings via an
unprecedented performance. For 45 minutes, Petit, seemingly magically, walked
and danced across a tight wire rigged by himself and his co-conspirators, while
New Yorkers held their collective breath below.
While we all know
the story of the Twin
Towers' horrific end,
Marsh's intent was to reclaim the buildings for their life, rather than their
death. "On a very deep level, it was a kind an artistic response to living in New York City and seeing
what I saw," Marsh explains. "But more importantly, it's a cracking narrative."
As Man on Wire shows, through archival
footage and interviews, Petit's obsession with the buildings pre-dated their
construction; his own ambition parallels their construction and, in some ways,
he saw them as being built for him. "I wanted there to be a clear distinction;
I didn't want to pollute this story with those images that are already in
audience's minds," explains Marsh of his clear choice to not engage with the
history of the buildings and the horrors that are known so well. The
documentary deftly blends re-enactments, personal recollections and historical
reconstruction, but purposefully avoids any footage of the World Trade
Marsh was inspired
to take on Petit's tale as a hopeful change of pace after making the feature
film The King, which he describes as
very violent, shocking and disturbing, and was "liked and hated on equal measure." He
read Petit's memoir, To Reach The Clouds.
"It's such an amazingly good story, gripping and surprising, with an intriguing
bunch of characters," says Marsh.
From James Marsh's Man on Wire, which opens July 25
through Magnolia Pictures. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
What clinched the
project for Marsh is the way Petit narrates and recounts events: "He tells and
recalls it, and remembers it as sense memory. Having a wonderful raconteur,
able to remember so much of the detail and so much of the feeling involved,
made it irresistible as a film."
"I cannot just
calmly recall the adventure," Petit concurs. "I have to relive it truly." Although he has seen the film countless
times, beginning with its 2008 Sundance Film Festival premiere, Petit is happy
to see it again with an audience. "I participate in their joy, tears and
laughter. And I'm on the edge of my seat." Man
on Wire is consciously structured as a heist film, adapting the original
tone of Petit's book and unfolding of his "criminal artistic act."
"It's more like a genre film than a
documentary," Marsh contends. All aspects of the film, from the
black-and-white, almost expressionistic cinematography of the re-creations to
Michael Nyman's score, is precisely done; nothing is unintentional. "I wrote
the script as an organized narrative with a fragmented timeline," Marsh
explains. The film reveals the event by cross-cutting between explanatory
flashbacks rushing towards the exciting unfolding of the early morning
Petit had documented
some of his early planning with both film and still photography, as well as his
earlier walks between the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral and across bridge
towers in Sydney Harbour
He made several surveillance trips to the World Trade
Center. Preparations were
all-encompassing--physical, mental and spiritual for the self-trained Petit. "I
was not born into the circus world," he explains. "I had to learn wire-walking
by myself and become my own engineer. [He devised the rig used at the Towers.] My
relation to the equipment is one of the essential aspects of this physical
adventure." His sudden sprightly appearance thousands of feet in the air one
summer morning was actually the culmination of a years-long quest.
The epic scale of
the awe-inspiring moment was almost like conjuring up a miracle and, per Marsh,
is profoundly different than today's "human spiders," who gain fame for scaling
building exteriors, or performance artists like David Blaine, who famously
suspended himself in a cage over the Thames River. "There's a huge difference
between doing something just to prove that you can do it and doing something as
a beautiful moment in its own right," says Marsh. "That's what I thought
Philip Petit, walking acors the Sydney Harbour Bridge,
in preparation for his transcendent
walk. From James Marsh's Man on Wire. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
In addition to
historical footage, Marsh embraced several filmmaking techniques, from
animation to dramatizations to present-day interviews. "[As the director] you
should let the story direct you on how the story should be told," Marsh says,
noting that Man on Wire owes most to
vintage French, black-and-white heist films. "Quite honestly, I don't make a
distinction between fiction and nonfiction; a film is a film. I was very
mindful of the entire canvas of cinema."
Marsh began his career at the BBC as a researcher, segueing to news and then
film. He's fondest of Luis Bunuel, citing his playful and mischievous tone that
is echoed in Man on Wire. While
shepherding the film through the festival circuit, with Audience and Grand Jury
Awards at Sundance, as well as Audience Awards at the Los Angeles Film
Festival, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and the Edinburgh Film Festival,
Marsh continued to develop two other projects: a documentary about one man's
dreamlife, and a fiction film for the UK's Film Four. In addition to his
high-wire walks, Petit is collaborating with Robert Zemeckis on developing a
feature film also taken from Petit's memoir.
reaction has been outstanding, even at the Tribeca Film Festival, where Marsh
was somewhat nervous to showcase the film. "I'm always surprised when something
works the way you want it to work; this one appears to work. It's a thrill ride
for the audience." The level of suspense and sense of adventure really appeals.
Magnolia Pictures will release the film July 25 in New
York and August 8 in Los
Angeles, with a national rollout to follow.
And what of Petit? Did
that August day in 1974 change his life? " I'm still a struggling artist, still
fighting authority," Petit says. Adding a refrain very familiar to documentary
filmmakers, "What it did, it gave me a little bit of fame at the time that I
used as a tool to open doors, to try to get my next dream produced."
Kathy A. McDonald
is a writer based in Los Angeles.