James Marsh on âMan on Wireâ
James Marsh tells David Jenkins the amazing story of ‘Man on Wire’ and how he saw the Twin Towers go up – and come down
When did Philippe Petit enter your life?‘Most people in New York have a dim recollection of Philippe, even if they weren’t there when he did his “stunt”. It’s part of New York folklore. I met Philippe for the first time in spring of 2006. He was never going to say, “Okay, make the film”; you had to pass a few tests first. His big question was, “Will you make some mischief with me?” I wanted to make it subversive and funny in the same way that what he did was subversive and funny. He’s not the easiest person to collaborate with. He’s very fastidious, and if you’re dealing with people with very strong opinions – like I have too – it’s not always going to be hunky-dory. At the end of it, we both become very good friends. But it wasn’t always that way.’
The film uses pretty much every documentary technique going.‘Yes, and we pushed them as far as we could. It’s a hybrid of most of the methods you can use in documentary – there are reconstructions, archive footage and special effects. Notionally there are talking-head interviews, but in the case of Petit, we’ve got him physically acting out his testimony. So, everything that’s available to a documentary filmmaker is pushed to extreme levels. The music is very big in the film. It’s not just a little tinkling score, it’s Michael fucking Nyman. It’s huge.’
The pace and structure of ‘Man on Wire’ have much in common with thrillers.‘The first objective was to put on a good show. I didn’t want to make a responsible documentary. I wanted to push the form to encompass and embrace what Philippe had achieved and the preceding criminal conspiracy. It almost becomes a genre film as much as a documentary. It has the structure of a heist movie, with the squabbling and setbacks inherent in any human endeavour that’s devoted to a criminal enterprise. In this case, though, it’s an enterprise to give something back as opposed to taking something away. But it is a criminal enterprise nonetheless. Only, it’s being undertaken not by criminals, but squabbling artists.’
Why not dramatise the whole story?‘Even though I’d made fiction films before, I read Philippe’s book (“To Reach the Clouds”) and thought it should be a documentary. When I met him, even more so. Then when I met all the other people involved in the caper, even more so again. Disney is set to make it into feature film. It’ll be a big special-effects film, if you think about it. It’ll be made for 200 times what we made it for.’
Why tell this story now?‘Philippe’s book was completed after the destruction of the Twin Towers. I think that is a factor in its viability now. Had this been made in 2002 or 2003, I’m not sure people would have been able to engage with a story which has nothing to do with destruction, murder, terrorism and hatred. This is about the innocent aspirations of artistic criminals. I think that doing it now, when there’s a little distance between the destruction of the buildings and our ability to engage with them again as living, breathing objects, is for the best. In the film, you see the towers going up – but not coming down.’
Would you still have made this film if Petit’s high-wire walk had taken place elsewhere?‘I witnessed those buildings coming down. I filmed the aftermath of the destruction for the BBC. Part of the story is Philippe’s relationship with the them. He went there every day for months. He knew the sounds and the way those buildings moved and breathed and the life inside them. To answer your question, is the film more viable now? Yes. Is the timing right? I hope so.’
The film contains some intriguing parallels to 9/11.‘Yes, it’s basically a plot against these buildings, and they’re all foreigners. They’re hanging around and taking all sorts of photographs and pretending to work for various official companies in order to gain access. The big difference is that the end result is something beautiful. It’s illegal, but it’s not wicked.’
At the end of the film we see Petit’s stunt in a montage of photos with Erik Satie’s ‘Gymnopédie No 1’ playing. It’s an overwhelming moment. Do you think this is down to the act or how you present it?‘Your job is to tell the story in the best way you can. I think Philippe’s performance is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever come across because it is life affirming by being death defying. It’s “framed by death”, as he says. When asked why he did it, Petit says there’s no reason. If you can’t instantly see why this is amazing and beautiful, then you shouldn’t ask. He wanted people to enjoy this vision of beauty for 45 minutes, then carry on with their lives.’‘Man on Wire’ opens on Aug 1.
Author: David Jenkins
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