Exclusive Interview 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 had done something that was a huge feat in and of itself—walking on a wire strung across the World Trade Center in 1974. The then-24-year-old Petit's daring, but illegal, 1350-foot-high tightrope routine was what some consider, "the artistic crime of the century." It also got him arrested.
There he was: a guy who managed such a feat but he hadn't made a feature film in his life, wanting to crank out his own document of his adventure. Well, it took quite awhile—nearly 34 years later—and much time to find the right director to be his collaborator and creative extension of his own vision, to make his internal vision into one that could be shared with the whole world.
And what a way to get there. Through circuitous, complicated twists and turns, he finally found British director James Marsh, who had made two strange and unconventional films; a rather successful documentary, 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), viewed his own achievement, and then made 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, a 2008 Sundance Film Festival Audience and Grand Jury award winner (and official selection at 2008's Tribeca Film Festival), now a candidate for the 2009 Oscar for Feature Documentary. So when the film was released in late summer 2008, Petit (who is artist-in-residence at NYC's St. John's Church) had discussed how he felt about it after all these years and, now that it was out, where it was leading him.
Q: 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 9/11.
PP: On the subject of the towers disappearing, of course it was an immense— sadness is not the word—it was something alive that was pulled out of me.
Q: What kind of feelings have emerged by refocusing on that time?
PP: [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... for the rest of my life.
Q: 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?
PP: 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.
Q: Was it strange that after you two were introduced, you’re making a movie after such a long gap?
PP: 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.
Q: What was it about James that convinced you to work with him?
PP: 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. All of those were artistic challenges. But there was this letter [in which] James introduced himself to me and explained his motives for doing the film. And there was a phone call [where] 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.
Q: So this film that came out of this, was it what you expected?
PP: 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 I cannot be [part] of a movie crew crawling at night in the twin towers [at do the act itself.]"
But then after that we constructed everything as a history and were 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. 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.
It was very sensitive, very delicate to collaborate with a filmmaker and not be frustrated, not to feel betrayed, not to 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.
Q: 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?
PP: I didn’t need to learn because I already knew what would be the ingredients if I were making the film before I started collaborating with James.
Q: In making the film now, what did you learn from James that hadn’t occurred to you? And what did you learn about what you want to do going forward?
PP: Well, a now documentary has been made about my adventure between the towers, therefore there will never be another documentary. There will be a feature film, actually. 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, then 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, lets do it." I don’t know what I learned, but I will ponder your question.
Q: Is there any other media that you haven’t touch that now you want to do?
PP: 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.