Man on Wire - James Marsh interview
Reach for the sky
This article is from 2008.
Philippe Petit was the man who dared to walk a tightrope between the Twin Towers. Director James Marsh tells Kaleem Aftab how he made a film of this incredible feat
The story of one man’s illegal high wire walk between the Twin Towers is an amazing tale that has, unsurprisingly, been told many times before; in newspapers around the world in 1974 when Philippe Petit performed the feat, in the children’s book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers and in Petit’s own inimitable prose with his memoir To Reach for the Clouds. British-born director James Marsh couldn’t believe his luck when the funambulist agreed that he should be the man to bring the story, hailed by many as ‘the artistic crime of the century’, to the screen.
Marsh recounts, ‘It was a real gift as a story. Your job is just to do it as well as you can, given that you have this great narrative already there. It’s the classic story of a hero going on an impossible quest with all the setbacks and impediments along the way and trying to pull off a plan that is clearly impossible. Philippe had written his personal memoir, so we took that and then added all the other people intimately involved in the adventure. They don’t always agree though and there’s a lot of conflict between them.’
Watching all of these contradictory, amusing and sometimes tear-jerking personal accounts in the resulting documentary Man on Wire (which took the World Documentary Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at The Sundance Film Festival), it becomes clear that this is a story only now being told properly. Marsh wisely makes full use of the big screen to bring an added visual dimension to the tale that simply doesn’t exist on the page.
The documentary also includes footage from Petit’s previous daredevil walks at Notre Dame in Paris and Sydney Harbour’s steel arch bridge in addition to scenes of the tightrope gang practicing and scheming in France. This archive material is mixed with personal accounts from those involved. Where there are occasional gaps of representative visual material, Marsh has created some assiduous recreations that he weaves seamlessly into the picture (a technique also employed in his excellent 1999 documentary Wisconsin Death Trip).
Significantly, one thing that Marsh adamantly refused to do was make any mention of the destruction of the World Trade Center: ‘I didn’t want to get into the Twin Towers falling down; that felt like a whole other story and had nothing to do with what Philippe did. I resisted that easily. I had no desire to make some crass association with 9/11. I wanted to reclaim the memory of the towers to something else, albeit just for the duration of the film. We have this brilliant story that is so funny and his achievement that is so beautiful; why mess with that? Philippe does it well in the book, and you can take it or leave it, but in the film mentioning 9/11 would infect everything with the horrible tragedy and slaughter that took place. Some people expected it to be in the film, and although you could even criticise the film on that level, for me it was a no-brainer.’
That the director succeeds in reclaiming the World Trade Center for Philippe Petit has much to do with the enduring appeal of both the man and his achievement. The Frenchman is such a mesmerising raconteur and engaging personality that the camera can’t help but adore him. The given of the story is that a man succeeds in doing a death defying high wire walk. The magic of the tale is in revealing how he gets there and meeting all the characters involved in the plot.
Man on Wire, Cineworld, Thu 26 Jun, 8.30pm; Fri 27 Jun, 9.30pm, £8 (£6.40).