Walking on air

Twin towers wire-walker Philippe Petit and "Man on Wire" director James Marsh talk about taking risks and making magic in troubled times.

Topics: Beyond the Multiplex, 9/11, Movies,

Walking on air

Everyone who watches “Man on Wire” will bring to it a context that is never mentioned in the film and is in the strictest sense irrelevant. On Aug. 7, 1974, a French wire-walker named Philippe Petit, with the aid of several accomplices, brought a seemingly harebrained scheme to fruition by stringing a 200-foot cable between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. He then walked back and forth on that wire for 45 minutes, a quarter-mile above the streets of lower Manhattan, appearing totally calm. He danced, he reclined on his back. He conversed with passing seagulls, he knelt and saluted. Perhaps most unimaginable of all, he sat on the wire and looked down at the ground.

As the film’s English-born director, James Marsh, describes it, “Man on Wire” is partly a heist movie and partly a fairy tale. It’s frequently funny and sometimes startling, offering various low-rent “Ocean’s 11″ reconstructions as Marsh explores how — and to some extent why — Petit and his motley crew of French and American co-conspirators pulled off what has been called the “artistic crime of the century.” (Think about it: How exactly do you get a three-quarter-inch steel cable that weighs about 450 pounds across 200 feet of open space? The answer is revealed below.)

Petit had already performed illegal wire-walks between the spires of Notre Dame in Paris and above the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia, but tackling the still-unfinished towers in 1974 — at the time, they were the tallest buildings in the world — marked the culmination of his career as a guerrilla artist. He still bridles, by the way, at suggestions that his WTC walk was a publicity stunt or a daredevil act rather than a public art performance, and if you think he’s being pretentious my advice is to see the movie.

When police finally persuaded Petit to come off the wire, he was arrested on various charges (one of them relating to public performance without a license), but the officers on the buildings’ roofs watched him for some time in amazement. As we see in the film, one of them, Sgt. Charles Daniels of the Port Authority Police Department, later gave the TV cameras a memorable description:

“I observed the tightrope ‘dancer’ — because you couldn’t call him a ‘walker’ — approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire … And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle … He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again … Unbelievable, really … Everybody was spellbound in the watching of it.”

Whether you want to call Petit’s exploits daring or foolhardy, beautiful or crazy, they made him an instant folk hero in a city and a country plagued by soaring crime rates, a worsening fiscal crisis and a meltdown in national politics. (Richard Nixon resigned the presidency a day after Petit’s wire-walk, although I discern no obvious connection.) One of the reasons “Man on Wire” feels so magical is that you can clearly see that Petit transformed and humanized those towers at the time. For many New Yorkers, they were faceless, monolithic colossi that represented a reshaping of Manhattan in the image of capitalism; with his 45-minute stroll, Petit remade them into soaring, abstract sculptures that defined a breathtaking column of negative space.

Even without the inevitable context I mentioned earlier, Petit would make an irresistible protagonist for a motion picture. At age 59, he looks only a little older than the compact, charismatic figure — possessed of both tremendous athleticism and prodigious mental concentration — who danced between the towers. As an interview subject, he’s confident and combative, brushing off questions that don’t interest him and avidly seizing on those he likes. Fortunately for Marsh’s purposes, Petit has attracted attention all his life; there are home movies, for instance, shot at his clandestine training camp in the French countryside where he built models of the towers’ roofs on the ground.

Of course those towers no longer exist except in memory, and all the tactics and subterfuge used by Petit and his friends — the fake I.D. cards, the helicopter surveillance, the workmen’s clothing and the rented utility van, the scouting visits as a French architecture reporter — may resonate differently than they used to. But I think it’s a mistake to belabor any perceived historical ironies in this story. (And it certainly would have been a mistake for the film to bring them up.) As Marsh suggests in our conversation, the odd or tragic or troubling context of “Man on Wire” — the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the succeeding seven years — belongs to the viewer, not the film.

Speaking as one New Yorker who lived through 9/11 and saw this film with a packed house of natives at its Tribeca Film Festival premiere, I experienced “Man on Wire” as an almost mystical incantation. The Philippe Petit we see in the film is an arrogant innocent, a boy who saw a picture in a French newspaper and decided to perform an impossible feat. Petit says that he thinks the meaning of his 1974 artwork remains mysterious 34 years later, and I think he’s right. Marsh’s film takes that mysterious action and uses it to resuscitate those towers, for just a few minutes, as something they never were, as symbols of transcendence and as waking dreams.

I met with James Marsh and Philippe Petit earlier this week at the offices of Magnolia Pictures, the distributor of “Man on Wire.” (Listen to the interview here.)

Philippe, how did you first get the idea that you wanted to walk between the twin towers?

Philippe Petit: When I was a self-taught wire-walker, 17 or 18 years old, I was looking for places to put my wire where the wire [would] be transformed to a theatrical stage. It was not born in a moment. I was interested in a theater, the poetry of the wire. And those towers called to me, in the form of one day clipping a picture of a model [from a newspaper]. They didn’t exist yet, of course. I remember I thought, “This is it. At one point in my life, I’m going to transform the negative space between those two monoliths into the most magnificent theater.” It took me six and a half years to dream and eight months in New York to make it happen, but the dream became true.

Looking back on it, what was it about the towers that drew you? Was it the fact that they were planned to be the tallest buildings in the world? Was it the duality of the structure?

It was a lot of things. It was probably the negative space — people will see the two buildings differently if I am in the space between them. I wanted to transform that space into, again, an ephemeral reach for a type of theater. It was not bad that they were announced to be the highest in the world, but I was certainly not interested in breaking records, the highest and the longest.

You’ve just described it as a theatrical work. Is that how you understand your whole career as a wire-walker?

I don’t think of it as a career. It’s what I do. I am an actor on a very thin stage and I write in the sky, basically. As opposed to making it look difficult, which is a tradition from the circus, but I was not born in that tradition.

It took you, as you say, eight months on the ground in New York, planning in secret, to accomplish this. Talk a little bit about how this was managed. The buildings were not even complete when you did this, is that right?

Well, they were structurally finished, but the upper floor was still an incomplete construction site. The irony of it was that there was almost no planning. There was a lot of homework on my part. I like to call it spy work. I would disguise myself as a worker, as a journalist, as a filmmaker, and I would sneak in the building. I would make notes and have friends take pictures and measure. I would think, “How can I bring the equipment here?” The actual plan was simple. I entered the tower at night with two crews. The plan changed a lot, and it was a festival of miracles that night as I recall it, but anyway, it did happen.

And getting the wire across the space between the two towers — how far was it?

Something like 200 feet, from point to point. Maybe I should not reveal what the film explains, but it’s explained in my book. As you can imagine me and my friends, my accomplices, we thought of all kinds of things, stupid things, absurd things, great ideas. And one of the ideas came from my friend who was on the other tower. It was to use a bow and arrow! Not to pull the cable, of course, but to pull a fishing line through the air, but, as you can imagine, pulling a heavier and heavier rope until at last there was a very strong rope pulling the heavy steel cable. And that’s what we did.

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Some people have certainly, at the time and subsequently, described what you did as a publicity stunt. It’s fairly clear, seeing the film, that that wasn’t your goal, but how do you respond to that?

It’s OK. When I was born it was with a shrug and a smile. If you’re a dentist and they call you a cop, how do you respond? I am a man of theater and I took those towers to do something beautiful and unique. If for some people it is the opposite of that, well, then they need to have their eyes and brain examined, Anyway it’s not for me to say what it was. I should ask you, what do you think?

If it were my goal, I would have just run across, yelled, “I did it!” and then cashed in on it. That’s what stuntmen do, right? So obviously I was on a different planet, and I had a different goal, but it’s not for me to say that. You know, you should think what you want to. Go watch the film and I think you will realize that it was a mystical and mysterious endeavor that is still not completely answered today. It inspired people, and it has intrigued them. Usually stunts don’t do that.

Were you surprised that you became the object of such media attention after it happened? You briefly became a celebrity in New York.

I was a giant celebrity. I was a folk hero. I mean, New York was in trouble. Nixon was resigning. All that is in the film. It shows you what kind of time we were living in. I was not really surprised, but I didn’t care about it. It was not my goal to be famous, but I toyed with it. I got invited to great restaurants by producers who asked me to do stupid things after a nice dinner. I would say, “I would never do what you propose,” and I’d continue to street-juggle or whatever; I continued to fight for my own vision and still, today, I am doing so.

If you had waited one more day, you’d have competed directly with Nixon for the headlines.

Oh, it was happening. When he left [the White House] on his helicopter, he got word that this French guy was getting good press. I was not aware of it. How ridiculous! I should have done my homework on the political situation in America! I mean, I was a street juggler, and I was going to walk when I was going to do it. I was oblivious of the situation.

Turning to James Marsh, the director of this film. You’ve lived in New York for 14 years, but you didn’t know much about Philippe and his wire-walk when you began this project.

James Marsh: I think it’s one of those stories that a lot of people that live here know about. It’s like an anecdote or a kind of folklore memory that you have inherited. It’s one of those great moments in the city, and so I was aware of it in that general sense. But I really knew nothing about it when I read Philippe’s book ["To Reach the Clouds"], and it was so captivating. The book lays out a conspiracy that lasts for eight months in New York, and a dream that’s there for six years. The process was like a big criminal conspiracy, and that’s how I approached the making of the film.

It’s tense — you immediately enter into this crime story and then you flash back in the film to all the events and all of the obstacles that have to be overcome. Nothing is certain and lots of things inevitably don’t go according to plan and they improvise brilliantly on the moment and the whole thing is just this wonderful story, constantly surprising and miraculous. At every step of the way it shouldn’t have really happened and it does. It’s like a fairy tale.

Well, you just used the words “criminal conspiracy.” Everyone that sees the film now is going to bring to it the memory of another criminal conspiracy, of what happened to the towers 27 years after Philippe walked across the wire. In what way is that or is that not part of the story of this film?

It’s as much a part of the story as you want it to be, as a viewer. It’s obviously a defining fact of those buildings. But in 1974, they’d just been finished, and Philippe’s story unfolds at that time. I can’t really control how people respond to it or what they bring to it, but clearly I’m aware of it. If the film can work on that level, perhaps it allows you to reconfigure one part of your memory with something good about those buildings, without being fatuous about it. It’s certainly something that the film might achieve if we’re lucky, but the film makes no reference to what happens later, because the references are already in our minds.

It’s possible that you might have made the film if the towers were still there, but we can’t know the answer to that question. The film as we see it today is inevitably conditioned by the fact that they’re gone.

It hasn’t changed the story, but the way we view the story is different, which is what I think you’re talking about. I’m not sure the film is more viable after the towers were destroyed, but certainly there is a lurking impulse in the film. It’s a great story about these buildings that are no longer there, particularly for people living in New York.

Philippe, you’ve often spoken of feeling a personal connection to those buildings. Did you feel what happened later as a personal loss?

P.P.: Yes, of course.

Do you think the absence of those buildings will affect the way people understand what you did?

No, it has nothing to do with it. But of course, as James said, everybody who reads about those towers or sees a film about the life of those towers will bring their own book, their own film, the one about the death of the towers. It’s a film that has been overseen and a book that has been overread, so I have nothing to say about that. It’s not part of my adventure, it’s just a — I was going to say a fact of life. But there are two different continents, one of life and one of death. They don’t have anything to do with each other except that the towers are in each of those stories. I belong to the story that glorifies the towers, and it was a joyful fairy tale. That’s what I can talk about.

As you say in the film, very movingly, you were quite literally walking on the edge between life and death when you went out on that cable.

I said those things, but I would not say it again. Maybe I said it in a context of talking at length about how I felt in that situation. But if it’s a question about risk and danger and death, I would say that surely this was a life-affirming moment; it was solid in its fragility. The wire-walker’s life is framed by losing your life, but I don’t have any death wish. I have a life wish, so I work in that direction, and I am extremely steady on the wire. So there is no danger, no fear, and certainly there is no risk. It would be obscene to risk one’s life.

You certainly never behaved on the wire between those two buildings as if you felt any danger or fear. The things you do are remarkable to someone who has never tried anything like this. You sit down, you kneel, you salute, you appear to be looking at birds, you lie down.

I fell asleep, yes.

Watching you up there, I felt that what you did partly changed what those buildings meant in 1974, when for many people they represented a certain kind of triumph, maybe of capitalism and international business …

And what you felt was mirrored by a lot of people after my walk, who cited my walk for having humanized the towers. It was a beautiful compliment to what I did.

J.M.: It makes it subversive. I like that part of it. That these buildings aren’t built for a wire-walk, but they actually are. I love the idea of these commercial monuments being transformed momentarily into something more playful and artistic and beautiful. I love that subversive dimension.

I assume that an illegal or clandestine wire-walk, or any other kind of performance involving a major public building, would be much more difficult today.

P.P. It would be impossible. But in my life I work on the impossible, so when you work on it it’s no longer impossible. It becomes a set of problems to solve one after the other. Obviously the world has changed. New York has changed. Human beings on earth have changed, and it’s impossible. But that would not stop me from considering it.

“Man on Wire” opened Friday at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Sunshine Cinema in New York and opens Aug. 8 in Atlanta, Austin, Texas, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Portland, Ore., San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.; Aug. 15 in Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Miami, Nashville, Tenn., and Santa Cruz, Calif.; Aug. 22 in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Ithaca, N.Y., Kansas City, Sacramento, Calif., San Luis Obispo, Calif., and Sarasota, Fla.; Aug. 27 in Santa Fe, N.M.; and Aug. 29 in Boise, Idaho, Chapel Hill, N.C., Concord, N.H., Dayton, Ohio, Dennis, Mass., Great Barrington, Mass., Madison, Wis., Olympia, Wash., Providence, R.I., and Waterville, Maine, with other cities to follow.

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