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Philippe Petit Steps Out As a Man on Wire to Garner Award Accolades

Philippe Petit at the New York press day for "Man on Wire."

Philippe Petit at the New York press day for “Man on Wire.”

Philippe Petit

Steps Out As a Man on Wire to Garner Award Accolades

by Brad Balfour

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, The King.

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 feature.

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.

Philippe Petit in "Man on Wire."

Philippe Petit in “Man on Wire.”

Given 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.

What 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.

When it 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.

Was it 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.

What was 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 that interesting.

Philippe Petit in "Man on Wire."

Philippe Petit in “Man on Wire.”

So 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 naïve 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.

What do 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.

In 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 forward? 

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, let’s do it.” But I don’t know what I learned. I am going to ponder your question later.

Is there 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.Photo Credits:#1 © 2008 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.#2 © 2008. Courtesy of Discovery Films.  All rights reserved.#2 © 2008. Courtesy of Discovery Films.  All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved. Posted: August 3, 2008.

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