On August 7th 1974, a young Frenchman named Philippe Petit stepped out on a wire illegally rigged between New York's twin towers, then the world's tallest buildings. After nearly an hour dancing on the wire, he was arrested, taken for psychological evaluation, and brought to jail before he was finally released.
Following six and a half years of dreaming of the towers, Petit spent eight months in NewYork City planning the execution of the coup. Aided by a team of friends andaccomplices, Petit was faced with numerous extraordinary challenges: he had to find away to bypass the WTC's security; smuggle the heavy steel cable and rigging equipmentinto the towers; pass the wire between the two rooftops; anchor the wire and tension it towithstand the winds and the swaying of the buildings. The rigging was done by night incomplete secrecy. At 7:15 AM, Philippe took his first step on the high wire 1,350 feetabove the sidewalks of Manhattan...
James Marsh's documentary brings Petit's extraordinary adventure to life through thetestimony of Philippe himself, and some of the co-conspirators who helped him create theunique and magnificent spectacle that became known as "the artistic crime of thecentury."
From desert Island to big screen
Producer Simon Chinn first encountered Philippe Petit on that venerable of British mediainstitutions, Desert Island Discs. It was April 2005, just over three decades after Petit'saudacious high wire walk between the twin towers. "Listening to the BBC's Radio 4 is areliably comforting experience, but Petit's impassioned voice and his unique anduncompromising view of the world - happier on a wire at a thousand feet than on terrafirma - gave rise to a distinct unease and burned into my brain for ever more." Chinnwas 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, werealready 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' - numerousapproaches had been made by hopeful but ultimately disappointed documentarians. Inthis instance, the timing was fortuitous. Petit was on his way from his home in upstateNew York to Nottingham in the UK to consult on a stage adaptation of his book andO'Donnell felt he and Chinn should have lunch. It was an uneasy first meeting. Heavytraffic on the motorway from London meant that Chinn arrived an hour late and Petit (asbefits 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 severalsubsequent exchanges, including a further meeting in Paris (for which, this time, he waspedantically punctual) Petit and O'Donnell decided to take a leap of faith and accept hisproposal. Chinn then teamed up with long-time producing ally Jonathan Hewes at Wallto Wall Media, one of the UK's best-established independent production houses. It wasHewes who suggested James Marsh to direct. Hewes had met Marsh some years beforeand was already a fan of his work, from Troubleman on the murder of Marvin Gaye to hisbeautifully evocative Wisconsin Death Trip, to his more recent narrative feature, TheKing.
"James is that rare thing," says Hewes, "a director who has an ability to deliverextraordinary visuals but always in the service of the wider narrative. We knew this storyneeded 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 incestand familial violence," says Chinn, "and I think the prospect of doing something a littlemore life-affirming was rather appealing. I sent him my proposal and he got back to mealmost instantly. He would direct. I hadn't even asked the question but who was I toargue?"
"Most people living in New York know about Philippe's walk," says Marsh. "It is trulypart of the folklore of the city and more poignant now that the towers are gone. But Iimmediately knew that the fate of the World Trade Center had nothing to do with ourfilm. Philippe's adventure should stand alone as an amazing true life fairy tale, set in anera usually remembered as squalid and corrupt."
Thus begun a long collaboration between Marsh and Philippe Petit, involving many tripsby Marsh to Petit's home in the Catskill Mountains. Petit had been ruminating for somethree decades on a whole range of ideas for books, documentaries, articles, plays, andfeature 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 asPetit's irrepressible stream of ideas, Marsh began work on a 50-page treatment whichevolved 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 anopportunity to tell the story for the first time from the point of view of all the coconspiratorsin "the artistic crime of the century."
"I had always seen the film as a 'heist' movie," recalls Marsh. "We soon discovered thatthere were an amazing group of supporting characters involved in the plot. The testimonyof Philippe's accomplices allowed us to create multiple perspectives on the execution ofthis criminal enterprise with its many setbacks and conflicts. They had all been waiting30 years to tell their part of the story, and their recollections promised to be vivid andsurprisingly emotional."
Marsh and Chinn now set about assembling a team of people in New York, London, andParis who would be able to execute their plans. In London, co-producer Victoria Gregorybegan working through the complexities of shooting and cutting over the course of a yearon multiple formats and across two continents. While in New York, co-producerMaureen Ryan set up the US-based documentary shoots and the dramatic reconstruction.New York-based cinematographer Igor Martinovic, fresh from shooting Sundance 2007'sGrand Jury Prize-winning Padre Nuestro, signed on as Director of Photography. AndMarsh's editor, Jinx Godfrey, brought her considerable experience in cutting bothfeatures and commercials to the task of creating a gripping, multilayered narrative thathad to constantly cut back and forth in time and place.
Philippe Petit was born in France, but not of the circus. At an early age he discoveredmagic and juggling. At 16, he took his first steps on the wire. He learned everything byhimself as he was being expelled from five different schools. He became adept atequitation, fencing, carpentry, rock-climbing and drawing; he also studied the art ofbullfighting.
Aided by his passion while performing throughout Europe, Russia, Australia and theUnited States, he taught himself Spanish, German, Russian and English. He alsodeveloped a keen appreciation of architecture and engineering.
On the sidewalks of Paris, he created his street persona: wild, witty and silent-acharacter that will never leave him-forever beguiling all who see him. With his wire, hehas extended the boundaries of theater, music, writing, poetry, drawing and filmmakingto become an inimitable high wire artist.
Philippe Petit gives lectures and workshops on a variety of topics internationally. He is singlehandedlybuilding a barn in the Catskills using the methods and tools of 18th centurytimber framers. His latest book, The Art of the Pickpocket, was recently published inFrance.
Philippe Petit's book, To Reach the Clouds, which recounts the adventure of his illegal high wirewalk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center was adapted for the stage by theNottingham Repertory in the UK.
Among the friends who have associated themselves with some of his projects are suchdiverse artists as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Werner Herzog, Annie Liebovitz, Milos Forman,Volker Schlöndorff, Twyla Tharp, Peter Beard, Marcel Marceau, Paul Auster, PaulWinter, Debra Winger, Robin Williams and Sting. For the past 30 years, he has lived inNew York City where he is an Artist-In-Residence at the Cathedral of St. John theDivine-the largest gothic cathedral in the world. He was presented with the prestigiousJames Parks Morton Interfaith Award, and was recently made Chevalier des Arts & desLettres by the French Ministry of Culture.