Meet the Academy Award® Nominees: James Marsh--'Man on Wire'

Over the next few days, we at IDA will be introducing--and in some cases, re-introducing--our community to the filmmakers whose work has been nominated for an Academy Award for either Best Documentary Feature or Best Documentary Short Subject. As we did in conjunction with the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase that we presented last summer, we have asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films-the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far, and the impact of an Academy Award nomination.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is James Marsh, director of Man on Wire, which is nominated in the Documentary Feature category.

Synopsis: On August 7, 1974, a young Frenchman named Philippe Petit stepped out on a wire illegally rigged between the Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Center, then the world's tallest buildings. After nearly an hour dancing on the wire, he was arrested, taken in for psychological evaluation, and brought to jail before he was finally released. Man on Wire brings Petit's extraordinary adventure to life through the testimony of Philippe himself, and some of the co-conspirators who helped him create the unique and magnificent spectacle that became known as "the artistic crime of the century."


(c) 2008 Jean-Louis Blondeau/Polaris Images

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

 

James Marsh: I started out as a researcher at the BBC in London. I was basically a general dog's body for directors who worked there. The BBC was a vast and chaotic organization at the time (it probably still is), and I soon found myself working as a director of insert material for an arts and culture show. I had no formal training, so at first I just copied what everyone else was doing. Directors were obliged to edit their own material. This was in the days of Steenbeck editing and you had to physically cut the film and keep it all in synch. It's a good place to understand the filmmaking process; you had to be very precise when you made an edit. If not, it would take you about 15 minutes to unpick it and do another one. Also you have to confront all the mistakes you made at the
point of shooting. Editing is a great way into filmmaking, and I still do a first rough cut of my films myself. 

IDA: What inspired you to make Man on Wire?

JM: It was the act itself. Philippe Petit, the main character in my film, did a tightrope performance between the Twin Towers in New York in 1974. It was completely illegal and the culmination of a criminal conspiracy that lasted nine months and which involved quite a few helpers, some more reliable than others. It's an amazing gift of a story, and I still marvel at the achievement. Of course, making a film now that focuses on the Twin Towers involves a very weighty subtext. I thought about this a lot before I actually shot the film. I lived in New York for 14 years and witnessed the destruction of those buildings with my own eyes. I really wanted to make a film about New York that preceded the era of 9/11-the New York I had fallen in love with (much like the
characters in the film) when I first spent time there as a penniless student in the late '80s. 

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

JM: Well, there were the usual challenges of funding the film. Quite a lot of people we approached to back the film just didn't get it, but I guess that's to be expected. I had good
producers, and we ended up making the film with executives who loved the idea as much as we did. The main creative challenge was trying to figure out how to bring to life events that took place over 30 years ago and examining both the propriety and then practicalities of shooting reconstructions. Another big challenge was collaborating with Philippe Petit, whose story I was telling. At a certain points, we had quite passionate discussions about the direction of the film, and these became even more intense as we were editing. There was also an ongoing and quite complex human drama to navigate amongst the other contributors. There was conflict and disagreement between them during the actual execution of the walk, and a lot of those issues were still in play for us. I tried to do right by all the people who are in the film, and I think most of them are OK with the finished article. 

IDAHow did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

JM: I always thought the story should unfold as a kind of heist movie. Because the film is based on historical events, it was possible to write a very detailed outline of the structure before
we did any filming. Unusually for a documentary, Man on Wire has a flashback structure with three overlapping timelines--the day of the actual break-in to the towers, the backstory to the break-in with the recruitment of accomplices and planning of the adventure, and the building of the towers themselves, which ran parallel to the planning. I had worked these out beforehand and surprisingly, the structure held together well as the filming unfolded. The big revelation during the production process was the archive film Philippe himself had kept unseen and unprocessed for 30-odd years. Philippe had documented a lot of the preparations to his walk on 16mm film. It was beautiful and highly revealing footage and I literally jumped for joy when I saw it. During the edit, I was left alone to make the film I wanted. There was no interference at all, just support and encouragement. 

IDA: As you've screened Man on Wire--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

JM:
I've only seen the film once with an audience--at the first screening of the film at Sundance, and it was probably the flattest and most disappointing screening I attended in terms of audience response. The cinema wasn't full by any means and unbeknownst to me, news of Heath Ledger's death began to pop up on people's Blackberries and so there were quite a few walkouts. Maybe people walked out for other reasons, too. Anyway, at this point, I thought the film was going to be a failure, but interestingly I had really enjoyed watching it myself, and there was nothing I wanted to change. Philippe Petit was there, as was Annie Allix, who also appears in the film. Both of them loved the film too. That was enough for me. I haven't seen it since then; I never watch my own films once they are completed because I am no longer in a position to change them. We later screened the film at Tribeca and I went along to do a Q & A session after. There were people crying and
the audience response was so emotional and generous to the film. That was amazing, given the location, and it made me very happy. The only other screening that was that intense was in Sarejevo. 

IDA: Where were you when you first heard about your Academy Award nomination? Although it's only been three weeks since the announcement, how do you anticipate this nomination will impact your career as a filmmaker?

JM: In the documentary category, there's a shortlist, ahead of the nominations, so it definitely raises the stakes on the day. I was in Copenhagen, and I got a call from the BBC in London. I had miscalculated the time difference and didn't expect to hear anything until an hour later. I'm not sure how this will affect my career; I hope it means that I can work more. I have often struggled to make a living, and at certain points of my career, I felt defeated and worthless as a filmmaker. I'm pretty sure I will feel that again, and I would worry if I didn't! 

IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

JM: Here are a few films that were an absolute revelation to me when I saw them, though some may not be strictly categorized as documentaries: Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov),
Fires Were Started (Humphrey Jennings), Gimme Shelter (the Maysles brothers), Sans Soleil (Chris Marker), A Walk Through H  (Peter Greenaway), Lessons of Darkness  (Werner Herzog), The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris), Chelsea Hotel (Nigel Finch), One Day in September (Kevin Macdonald). All but one of the directors are well
known, at least amongst enthusiasts, but it is the little-known Nigel Finch who was the most important influence on me. Along with Anthony Wall, Nigel ran an arts film strand called Arena, which I made films for. He was a brilliant, playful filmmaker in his own right;
his film about the Chelsea Hotel is highly eccentric, formally brilliant and really witty. Most of Nigel's films were laugh-out-loud funny, but he was never mean to the people in his films, and he never
moralized. Nigel encouraged me to make films according to my own taste, and he gave me the best advice I ever had: You can do anything you like with a film, as long as you are not boring. Nigel died tragically young and I still miss him. 

Man on Wire will be screening Saturday, February 21 at 9:30 a.m. at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, as part of DocuDay LA, and on Sunday, February 22 at 4:15 p.m.
at the Paley Center for Media in New York City as part of DocuDay NY.

For more information on DocuDay LA, click here.

For more information on DocuDay NY, click here.