Skip to main content

Walking on Air: 'Man on Wire' Presents Petit's Terrific Tale

By Kathy McDonald

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 Center's tragic destruction.

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.

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 adventure.

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 in Australia. 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 Philippe did."

Philip Petit, walking acorss the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in preparation for his transcendent World Tarde Center walk. From James Marsh's Man on Wire. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Philip Petit, walking acors the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in preparation for his transcendent World Trade Center 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."

The British-born 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.

Festival audience 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."

Get more information about Man on Wire at the movie's website.

Kathy A. McDonald is a writer based in Los Angeles.