Philippe Petit should be more annoying. Given to flights of poetry while answering the simplest questions and given to praising himself to the heavens, he seems like a self-involved little Frenchman. But after seeing his work, you suddenly get it. He’s just being honest.
In 1974 Philippe secretly set up a high wire between the tops of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. He spent a couple of hours walking back and forth on that wire 1,350 feet above the streets of New York City. Man on Wire is a documentary about that feat, and it’s a gripping one, structured like a heist story and always with the wonderful and idiosyncratic voice of Petit bringing us along.
Petit and director James Marsh came to Los Angeles to do some press for the film. This is a roundtable interview, and while one or two of the questions are kind of dumb, I left them in, because each of Philippe’s answers remains worth reading.
Man on Wire opens this weekend.
Note that all of Petit’s answers are this color, while Marsh is this color.
You spent 8 months in New York, scoping out the World Trade Center and getting ready. Where did you get the money to do this?
Petit: Where did I get the money? Actually the answer is the truth, and it’s beautiful: I financed, so to speak, although not much money was involved but surely too much for me, I financed le coup, as I like to recall it, by passing my hat as a street juggler in the streets of New York, like I did earlier in France.
Was there a moment when you were on the wire between the two buildings where you felt perfectly balanced? What’s going through your mind?
When I was on that wire, when I embarked on those eight crossings, I felt perfectly balanced on each step. If not, I probably wouldn’t be here to answer the question!
But is that the key – to always feel balanced?
It isn’t a matter of feeling. You have to be composed, to construct, to leap through this solid balance or else you evaporate in thin air. And once you are at that height, the void is stronger than the human being.
It was clear to me that everything you did was with meticulous preparation, but there was no way you could prepare for what it would actually feel like to be on that wire at that height. When you first stepped off onto that wire was it not what you imagined, or was it exactly what you thought it would be?
When I first stepped on that wire, it wasn’t a surprise, my presence on that wire. It was a dream, it was a nightmare, it was some of both. It was months and months of dreaming and preparations thus there was no surprise. There was maybe an impatience there; I had certainly thought I had prepared as much as I could, and that was my safety net.
This film is structured like a heist movie, and walking out of it I felt that it would make a great dramatic film. You’ve done dramatic films before, but what made you want to do this as a documentary?
Marsh: I would argue this is a dramatic film even though it is a documentary, and hopefully it transcends that label. As you said, it’s structured like a heist film, like a thriller, and that’s what it was. In Philippe’s book it was laid out that way, the story was implicitly that. It was an easy choice and a definining choice to structure the film as a genre film, where you have the timeline unfolding and the conspiracy comes to its fruition on its day but then you flash back and see all the obstacles that were in the way of this impossible quest. Hopefully it’s a dramatic film in itself and the documentary label is irrelevant. Maybe there is another film to be made out of this as a pure drama, but I’ve done my film with these real elements, with the real people, the real protagonists of the story. I’m happy and comfortable having made a film that has these documentary elements in place but transcends its format to become a big screen experience.
Philippe, what are you afraid of? And James, has hanging around with Phillipe brought out any daredevil instincts in you?
I am often asked what am I afraid of and although I am clearly an alien, I don’t belong to this century and this Earth, I am very much a human as well. And as a human being I have many fears, like you, like others, but in the sky I do not have such fears. In the sky I cannot have such fears. I have to reduce the unknown to nothing so that the outcome will be a victorious one.
To answer your question of have I been inspired to do daring things: No. I’m a coward. But I think there’s an important moral in Philippe’s story, which I think the film offers up, which is that nothing is impossible. If you want to do something badly and passionately, you go about it with passion and meticulous preparation, one step at a time. You can do things that can surprise yourself. That’s something I think we can all understand and be inspired by.
Are there any more daredevils around, would you say?
Well I cannot talk about something very foreign to me. I am not a daredevil. The way I started was seeing theater in the high wire, I was not born in that world and not profiting from their tradition, so I am probably the opposite of a daredevil, I am a poet who has chosen to venture on a very thin stage. But in a way there are many wire walkers and they are all confined under the circus tent. They all perform in a certain tradition of making the audience afraid and boasting technical marvels, but I do the opposite. I want to inspire you, and I travel in a world of beauty and simplicity. I walk on the wire, I don’t do pyramids or somersaults – I used to do that when I first started. But what interests me is the beauty of the wire and the ability to inspire audiences.
I know you started juggling at 14, and wire walking not soon after, but were you a daredevil as a very young child? Did you try to do things beyond boundaries.
I never pronounce the word daredevil again as it’s not part of my vocabulary and it’s not who I am, but as a young child I could not follow even other kids, the way they play or my teachers, my parents, the powers that be. I would rebel and go the opposite direction. I would climb, and of course years and years of climbing and discovering arts and sports led to me discovering the wire. Years of learning by myself led to me becoming the wire walker I am today, a very different one than who you see in the circus.
The sex scene in the film was interesting – I certainly wasn’t expecting it.
In Philippe’s book it’s there, and as a filmmaker you look for those moments of surprise and drama and in this case a rather sweet encounter. On a personal level, speaking for me, I was surprised that anyone would have the energy. Philippe hadn’t slept in two nights and after the wire performance itself he had been in jail and in a mental hospital. This felt like a very sweet and actually innocent kind of episode. I dramatized it in a way that I think is sweet and innocent and not in any way vulgar. And it’s a vague homage to A Clockwork Orange if you like. But nonetheless, it’s a surprising coda to this magnificent adventure. It’s like that whole business with Bill Clinton and the blowjob, you feel like there are certain rewards you earn in life.
One of the main characters in this film, the Twin Towers, came to a tragic end. I’m interested in why you left that out, especially as the buildings meant so much to Philippe.
I almost want to turn the question around. It was very clear to me going into the project the absence of those towers and the end that they met. But it was even more clear that we shouldn’t burden Philippe’s story with what came later. This is almost the opposite of that, it’s a celebration of a wonderful adventure that these buildings were a part of. They are characters in the film, and that’s how Philippe views them. He knows them, he sees how they breathe and live in a subjective way. I wanted the audience to come in and discover those buildings through Philippe’s point of view, the way he goes up the back stairs and goes on the roof when it’s very windy. It was never a question or an issue for me. I felt we could trust the audience to complete the film in that way. Every single person in the world knows what happened to those buildings, there’s no mystery to that. I think it’s funny that as a filmmaker you want to trust and allow the audience to make that completion and bring whatever subtext they like to that. What do you even do? Do you show them coming down? Wouldn’t that just be horrible and disgusting, to blaspheme Philippe’s adventure with this horrible, unrelated tragedy? Philippe in his book does tangentially engage with those feelings, and that’s the book, but I think the movie is too literal for that. The images are too literal. I don’t want to see those images again, personally. I saw what happened with my own eyes, so it was never a question to me that we should include a superficial or crass interpretation of those events in light of Philippe’s adventure.
Well, it’s the elephant in the room when you’re watching the movie. Did you ever worry that it’s a film about conspirators who are foreign going over to infiltrate the towers… did you ever worry that it would be problematic?
I did not worry at the time because I could not foresee what would happen. I gave myself to the story with joy and passion. After I could not alter the beauty of my adventure. It was an homage to the Twin Towers and the film does justice to that. It would have been a different film, and probably the wrong film, if it included what happened to the Towers later.
It’s an interesting question, an interesting observation. I mean of course I’m aware of those comparisons and those potential analogies, but it’s up to the audience to see what they make of that and process that for themselves. We don’t need to force it. We tell the story as a gripping, suspenseful adventure, and of course there are echoes, but they’re echoes that are retrospective.
To answer your question directly, I don’t need to give a message about it. Everybody can see there was an immense relation. I studied the building to create something. Other people studied the building to destroy and kill. Make your own conclusion, it’s very similar and it’s two different worlds.
Watching the film it’s impossible not to wonder what you do when you’ve reached your dream. There’s no higher wire to walk than that one.
When I am asked that question that after I conquer the dream of the World Trade Center could I have other dreams, I say yes. First you have to have a capacity to dream a lot. Secondly since I don’t have a career as a wire walker, since I am a free spirit devouring life with no idea what tomorrow will be about, I had no problem and today I have no problem after the World Trade Center to imagine other amazing places. They don’t have to be bigger and higher – they could be smaller and more intimate. To me they will be as important as the one that is seen in Man on Wire.
What were your first meetings like?
They were very interesting. I knew it was Philippe’s story but I also knew it was important that there was a collaboration. He had lived through the story, it was his story, and he was an enormous asset to the storytelling, to know that the protagonist could give his comprehensive, detailed and often witty and energetic account of what happened. We talked a lot across the whole of a summer about how the film was going to unfold. But we also got to know each other, to trust each other. I was given a gift, I was given a responsibility to tell the story well. It felt to me that the responsibility included embracing the person whose story it was.
Was there anyone who refused to be interviewed for this project?
No. We had a hard time finding everyone, and we talked about the propriety of intervieiwing the less reliable, feckless members of the team who came very late, the Americans, who were an untrustworthy, unreliable bunch as you see in the film. To their credit they didn’t shy away from owning up to that. So no, it was hard to find one or two of the people, but everyone I think saw this as an opportunity to talk about and remember something that was so important to them.
The title of the film is so great because it reflects so much of the film itself. Phillipe finds beauty in every day places and you find this poetic title in a police report.
The police report itself is hilarious. It’s an official, bureacratic account that reduces it to official, bureacratic language, yet there’s still bits – you see the policeman who is interviewed in the film who has just witnessed the walk, and he’s given to flights of lyricism on the back of what he just witnessed. It’s this wonderful moment where you realize that here’s a cop who sees lots of ugly and unpleasant things every day and now he’s seen something surprising and miraculous. His language reflects that, but the report itself is what I would call copper language, police language. It says ‘Man on wire,’ and it’s both wrong and right at the same time. It’s spectacularly wrong as it goes nowhere near where what actually happened, but it also serves the film in a way. and it’s interesting because we’re using this official description.
Philippe, when you see the poster what runs through your mind?
Disbelief. That I would love to meet this guy because I think it’s amazing. Then I realize, ‘Oh, I’m the guy!’ It’s a shock almost. When I say disbelief it’s not a little pirouette for an interview, it’s what goes through my mind. After my walk, as we see in the film, I was offered a VIP pass to come with friends as often as I wanted to come to the top [of the World Trade Center], and I did often, by myself, to daydream, to recall the beautiful walk. It was very hard because I could not believe what I did I did. It took an effort of imagination to say ‘Yes I did it.’
Philippe, how important was it to you that you do these walks on your own, without going through official channels, without being bankrolled, without making a big deal in advance?
I never chose in my life to do things without permission, but it became obvious I shouldn’t spend my budding talent and relentless energy on getting on my knees and begging people who obviously never say yes to grant me the permission to do something beautiful. Artists shouldn’t ask permission, they should just go and do it. Yes, sometimes you have brushes with the authorities but it never dawned on me to ask permission.
Why do you choose to live in New York State?
I never chose, actually. I didn’t take a list of places and decide where to live. I stayed as a welcome folk hero after my walk in 1974. I stayed ten days, ten months, ten years, now I look back and it’s thirty four years. I am a New Yorker. Even though I live upstate I am still an artist in residence at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. I stayed because I have no choice.
There’s something about your era, Philippe, that makes people of other generations feel like everything worth doing has been done.
When I hear there is nothing more that can be done or said, this is a very wrong view of the universe. You have to dig a tunnel and die. Life is on the surface of creativity and the beauty is that whatever you do, whatever they do, there is always something else to do. It isn’t about comparison – if you stop to compare you stop creating. You have to forget what the others do and you have to follow your dream in an almost ‘I have no choice way.’ There are a million beautiful things to do.