Man On Wire
BEHIND THE SCENES
Producer Simon Chinn first encountered Philippe Petit on that venerable of British media institutions, Desert Island Discs. It was April 2005, just over three decades after Petit’s audacious high wire walk between the twin towers. "Listening to the BBC’s Radio 4 is a reliably comforting experience, but Petit’s impassioned voice and his unique and uncompromising view of the world – happier on a wire at a thousand feet than on terra firma – gave rise to a distinct unease and burned into my brain for ever more." Chinn was convinced that Petit’s extraordinary story was ripe for a feature documentary.
As he suspected, Petit and his partner and Production Director, Kathy O’Donnell, were already a few steps ahead. Since the publication in 2002 of TO REACH THE CLOUDS – Petit’s critically acclaimed account of his Word Trade Center ‘coup’ – numerous approaches had been made by hopeful but ultimately disappointed documentarians. In this instance, the timing was fortuitous. Petit was on his way from his home in upstate New York to Nottingham in the UK to consult on a stage adaptation of his book and O’Donnell felt he and Chinn should have lunch. It was an uneasy first meeting. Heavy traffic on the motorway from London meant that Chinn arrived an hour late and Petit (as befits a man for whom such measures can mean the difference between life and death) was not immediately impressed.
However, the bit between his teeth, Chinn was not easily deterred and, after several subsequent exchanges, including a further meeting in Paris (for which, this time, he was pedantically punctual) Petit and O’Donnell decided to take a leap of faith and accept his proposal.
Chinn then teamed up with long-time producing ally Jonathan Hewes at Wall to Wall Media, one of the UK’s best-established independent production houses. It was Hewes who suggested James Marsh to direct.
Hewes had met Marsh some years before and was already a fan of his work, from Troubleman on the murder of Marvin Gaye to his beautifully evocative Wisconsin Death Trip, to his more recent narrative feature, The King.
"James is that rare thing," says Hewes, "a director who has an ability to deliver extraordinary visuals but always in the service of the wider narrative. We knew this story needed someone special to bring such a rich and multilayered story to the big screen and, in this, James has exceeded our expectations."
Marsh needed little convincing when Chinn first called him at his home in New York: "James had just finished making The King, a dark and uncompromising tale about incest and familial violence," says Chinn, "and I think the prospect of doing something a little more life-affirming was rather appealing. I sent him my proposal and he got back to me almost instantly. He would direct. I hadn’t even asked the question but who was I to argue?"
"Most people living in New York know about Philippe’s walk," says Marsh. "It is truly part of the folklore of the city and more poignant now that the towers are gone. But I immediately knew that the fate of the World Trade Center had nothing to do with our film. Philippe’s adventure should stand alone as an amazing true life fairy tale, set in an era usually remembered as squalid and corrupt."
Thus begun a long collaboration between Marsh and Philippe Petit, involving many trips by Marsh to Petit’s home in the Catskill Mountains. Petit had been ruminating for some three decades on a whole range of ideas for books, documentaries, articles, plays, and feature films, as well as meticulously collating a vast archive of documents, film footage, and personal memorabilia. Drawing for inspiration on this treasure trove, as well as Petit’s irrepressible stream of ideas, Marsh began work on a 50-page treatment which evolved into a clear personal vision for bringing the story he wanted to tell to the screen.
Unlike Petit’s book, told very much from his own singular perspective, here was an opportunity to tell the story for the first time from the point of view of all the co-conspirators in "the artistic crime of the century."
"I had always seen the film as a ‘heist’ movie," recalls Marsh. "We soon discovered that there were an amazing group of supporting characters involved in the plot. The testimony of Philippe’s accomplices allowed us to create multiple perspectives on the execution of this criminal enterprise with its many setbacks and conflicts. They had all been waiting 30 years to tell their part of the story, and their recollections promised to be vivid and surprisingly emotional."
Marsh and Chinn now set about assembling a team of people in New York, London, and Paris who would be able to execute their plans. In London, co-producer Victoria Gregory began working through the complexities of shooting and cutting over the course of a year on multiple formats and across two continents. While in New York, co-producer Maureen Ryan set up the US-based documentary shoots and the dramatic reconstruction. New York-based cinematographer Igor Martinovic, fresh from shooting Sundance 2007’s Grand Jury Prize-winning Padre Nuestro, signed on as Director of Photography. And Marsh’s editor, Jinx Godfrey, brought her considerable experience in cutting both features and commercials to the task of creating a gripping, multilayered narrative that had to constantly cut back and forth in time and place.
"I have the mind of a criminal." That was the first thing Philippe Petit told me when I met him. He then went on to show me how he could kill a man with a copy of People magazine and, before we parted, he picked my pocket. Here was an extraordinary individual who viewed the world in a unique way. Not least, from heights and views that no other man has ever seen.
It is fitting, then, that his story is really the oldest story there is. It is the hero going on a journey, or quest, to test himself and achieve a seemingly impossible objective. As a teenage wirewalker in France, before the World Trade Center was even constructed, Philippe was dreaming up a reckless scheme to break in to those un-built towers, rig a wire between them and to dance on that wire, 1350 feet above the ground, for the delight of passers by. Each one of these tasks looked impossible and the last one seemed like a death wish. In fact it was quite the opposite – as his girlfriend Annie points out in the film: "He couldn’t go on living if he didn’t try to conquer those towers…it was as if they had been built specifically for him."
I set out to make a film that would be a definitive account of this mythical quest so I hadn’t anticipated that it would become a fundamentally human drama that, amongst other things, turned out to be a comedy of errors, a love story, a story about friendship and its limits and a satire on authority and arbitrary rules.
The richness of the narrative comes from Philippe himself, with his endless capacity for self-dramatization and his inability to sit down and tell his story when standing up and acting it out came more naturally. The recollections from his oldest friend Jean-Louis and his former lover Annie are no less dramatic and surprisingly candid about the conflict and antagonisms that their adventure generated. Other contributors gleefully own up to a whole raft of illegal activities and concede more painfully their fears for Philippe’s life and their loss of faith in the enterprise. But for those that made it to the top of the towers with Philippe, the words of his trusted accomplice Jean Francois provide a kind of moral for us all: "Of course, we all knew that he could fall…we may have thought it but we didn’t believe it."
Inevitably, the film also portrays New York and America in a bygone era. The Watergate crisis reached its dramatic climax in the very same week that Philippe walked between the towers and Nixon resigned the day after Philippe’s adventure. In 1974, New York was clearly a dirtier, more lawless and more dangerous city than it is now. It was an era of sleaze, adult film cinemas, muggings and civic corruption. And yet in this era of zero tolerance, it is hard to imagine the present police officers, judges and politicians of the city reacting to Philippe’s criminal activities in the way they did in 1974. Back then, they applauded him for his exploits.
Even harder to imagine now is a group of French speaking bohemians breezing through JFK airport with suitcases containing shackles, ropes, knives and a bow and arrow (!), then hanging around a major New York monument with cameras and forged ID cards waiting for their chance to break in - and actually getting away with it. But in the words of Jean Francois again: "It may have been illegal…but it wasn’t wicked or mean." That’s a distinction worth remembering.
About The "Man On Wire" Characters
Philippe Petit was born in France, but not of the circus. At an early age he discovered magic and juggling. At 16, he took his first steps on the wire. He learned everything by himself as he was being expelled from five different schools. He became adept at equitation, fencing, carpentry, rock-climbing and drawing; he also studied the art of bullfighting.
Aided by his passion while performing throughout Europe, Russia, Australia and the United States, he taught himself Spanish, German, Russian and English. He also developed a keen appreciation of architecture and engineering.
On the sidewalks of Paris, he created his street persona: wild, witty and silent—a character that will never leave him—forever beguiling all who see him. With his wire, he has extended the boundaries of theater, music, writing, poetry, drawing and filmmaking to become an inimitable high wire artist.
Petit gives lectures and workshops on a variety of topics internationally. He is single-handedly building a barn in the Catskills using the methods and tools of 18th century timber framers. His latest book, THE ART OF THE PICKPOCKET, was recently published in France.
Petit’s book, TO REACH THE CLOUDS, which recounts the adventure of his illegal high wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center was adapted for the stage by the Nottingham Repertory in the UK.
Among the friends who have associated themselves with some of his projects are such diverse artists as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Werner Herzog, Annie Liebovitz, Milos Forman, Volker Schlöndorff, Twyla Tharp, Peter Beard, Marcel Marceau, Paul Auster, Paul Winter, Debra Winger, Robin Williams and Sting. For the past 30 years, he has lived in New York City where he is an Artist-In-Residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine—the largest gothic cathedral in the world. He was presented with the prestigious James Parks Morton Interfaith Award, and was recently made Chevalier des Arts & des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.
VALLAURIS (France) Performance for Picasso's 90th birthday
NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL (Paris) Clandestine
SYDNEY HARBOUR BRIDGE (Australia) Clandestine
WORLD TRADE CENTER (New York City) Clandestine
CENTRAL PARK (New York City) Inclined walk over Belvedere Lake
LAON CATHEDRAL (France) Crossing between the two spires for an international television special
LOUISIANA SUPERDOME (New Orleans) Walk for the opening of the largest covered stadium in the world
CATHEDRAL OF ST. JOHN THE DIVINE (New York City) Walk celebrating renewal of the cathedral's construction following a 40-year hiatus
CONCERT IN THE SKY* (Denver) High wire play for the opening of the World Theater Festival
SKYSONG* (New York) High wire play for the opening of the SUNY Arts Festival
BEAUBOURG/GEORGES POMPIDOU CENTER (Paris) Ascension
CORDE RAIDE-PIANO VOLANT* (Paris) High wire play with rock singer Jacques Higelin
PARIS OPERA (Paris) High wire improvisation with opera singer Margarita Zimmermann
MUSEUM OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK (New York City) High wire performance for the opening of "Daring New York" exhibit
ASCENT* (New York City) Concert for grand piano and high wire on an inclined cable over the nave of the Cathedral St. John the Divine
LINCOLN CENTER* (New York City) High wire performance for the reopening of the Statue of Liberty
WALKING THE HARP/A BRIDGE FOR PEACE* (Jerusalem) High wire performance on an inclined cable linking the Jewish and Arab quarters for opening of the Israel Festival under the auspices of Mayor Teddy Kollek
MOONDANCER* (Oregon) High wire opera for the opening of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts
GRAND CENTRAL DANCES* (New York City) High wire choreography above the concourse of Grand Central Station
HOUSE OF THE DEAD (Paris) Creation of the role of the eagle in the Dostoevski opera directed by Volker Schlöndorff
TOUR ET FIL* (Paris) Spectacular walk—for an audience of 250,000—on an inclined 700 meter cable linking the Palais de Chaillot with the second story of the Eiffel Tower commemorating the French Bicentennial and the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen under the auspices of Mayor Jacques Chirac
AMERICAN OUVERTURE* (Paris) High wire play for the ground-breaking ceremony of the new American Center
TOKYO WALK* (Japan) Japan's first high wire performance to celebrate the opening of the Plaza Mikado building in Akasaka
VIENNALEWALK* (Austria) High wire performance evoking the history of cinema for the opening of the Vienna International Film Festival under the direction of Werner Herzog
NAMUR* (Belgium) Inclined walk to the Citadel of Vauban for a telethon benefitting children with Leukemia
FARINET FUNAMBULE!* (Switzerland) High wire walk portraying the 19th century "Robin Hood of the Alps" culminated by the harvest of the world's smallest registered vineyard to benefit abused children
THE MONK'S SECRET LONGING* (New York City) High wire performance for the Regents' Dinner commencing the Centennial celebrations of the Cathedral St. John the Divine
HISTORISCHER HOCHSEILLAUF* (Germany) Historic high wire walk on an inclined cable to celebrate the 1200th anniversary of the city of Frankfurt, viewed by 500,000 spectators and the subject of a live, nationally broadcast television special
CATENARY CURVE (New York City) Humorous interlude during a conference on suspended structures given by the architect Santiago Calatrava
ACT* (New York City) Medieval performance to celebrate the 25th anniversary of New York City's most innovative youth program
CRESCENDO* (New York City) A theatrical, allegorical New Year's Eve performance on three different wires set in the nave of the Cathedral St. John the Divine as the farewell tribute to The Very Reverend James Parks Morton, Dean of the Cathedral, and his wife, Pamela
MILLENNIUM COUNTDOWN WALK* (New York City) Inauguration of the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History
ARTS ON THE HIGH WIRE* (New York City) Benefit performance for The New York Arts Recovery Fund on an inclined wire at The Hammerstein Ballroom, with clown Bill Irwin and pianist Evelyne Crochet
CRYSTAL PALACE (New York City) Jacob K. Javits Convention Center
CROSSING BROADWAY (New York City) Inclined walk, fourteen stories high, for THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN
* High wire play conceived, directed and performed by Philippe Petit