Philippe Petit and James Marsh: Men on Wire 

Standing on top of the world with the director and subject of a remarkable new documentary

Wednesday, Aug 6 2008

Il nous faut de l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace ...

Kevin Scanlon

Petit, front and center

—Georges Jacques Danton

The very idea of walking
on a high wire strung across the twin tops of the World Trade Center requires a balance between near-madness and supremely individual confidence. It’s that dance of emotions that propels James Marsh’s enthralling documentary, Man on Wire. French provocateur Philippe Petit’s “coup” (as he loves to term it, even in his rapid-fire English) should be a widely known event, familiar to anyone born after August 7, 1974, when Petit pulled off his spectacular stunt. Strangely enough, it isn’t, and as Man on Wire lovingly recounts the adventure, it also conveys a nostalgic romance for the lost towers, returning them to life once more and leaving the film with a bittersweet finish. Marsh and Petit talked to L.A. Weekly about the film and its embrace of risk during the Los Angeles Film Festival, at which Man on Wire (which opens in general release this weekend) had its local premiere.

click to enlarge KEVIN SCANLON - Petit, front and center

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L.A. WEEKLY: The first word that comes to mind after you watch Man on Wire is “ecstatic.” Is that what you were after?

JAMES MARSH: I would say that this is the ideal response, certainly. The story is so lyrical that it places a big responsibility on the filmmaker to convey this onscreen and to approximate the astonishing nature of the act itself. The tale really has layers to it, since there’s also a mythical dimension.

PHILIPPE PETIT: That reminds me of the advice that my friend Werner Herzog gave me that I placed at the front of my book about the coup, To Reach the Clouds. He said, “Philippe, you are not a coward — so what I want to hear from you is the ecstatic truth about the Twin Towers.”

That’s Herzog’s stated goal as an artist, to reach for that “ecstatic truth,” as he puts it. But there are differences between many of Herzog’s characters and you, Philippe, because they are actually mad, and you’re not.

PETIT: This is something you encounter when you study the history of art, [that place] where an artist ventures into risky territory and where that may tilt into madness. I love to explore that area, because I think there should be some madness in creation, some explosion, some refusal of rules.

The film mentions Philippe’s thought as he considered crossing the Twin Towers: “Impossible, so let’s get to work.” James, is it fair to say that Philippe has the spirit of a child flirting with danger, but with an adult sense of preparation?

MARSH: Exactly. He’s a rebel thinker, when you consider how crazy it all was. The logistical demands to get the proper equipment to the top of the towers alone was borderline crazy.

PETIT: I have this childlike rebellion against those who say that I can’t do something, which is something that I felt very early in my life. I have more wisdom now than I did at the time, but when most of the world tells you that you cannot do something, what an incentive to prove them wrong.

Do you think you were born with an instinct to walk the tightrope and test limits?

PETIT: I don’t believe that at all. I think you are born with fingers to become a concert violinist, but why do you put your hands on the instrument and start playing it? Why did I put my feet on the rope? I think there’s an early chemistry, yes, but it’s a chemistry of passion, of rebellion, and maybe some arrogance, with a capital “A.” I knew I was an individual from the very beginning.

James, how did you approach this material as a director, considering that you were coming directly from making a narrative drama (The King) but are also a veteran of many documentaries (The Burger & the King, Wisconsin Death Trip, et al.)? It seems that you tried to meld both of those techniques here.

MARSH: The structure of Man on Wire is like a heist film, say, like The Killing, with rewinding timelines. When I saw how Philippe’s team had to get phony IDs and arrange all of this cloak-and-dagger business, I had an early insight of doing restaged sequences in the style of a heist movie, in black and white. I also derived this from Philippe’s book, not only its structure but its reflective tone. And yet this is real life, so it’s also poignant and sad and comic, and the ending is quite messy. I absolutely embrace that messiness, because it’s more interesting than being pat.

A vital aspect of the film is your use of composer Michael Nyman’s music, which works so beautifully, in part, because the high-wire act is one of forward motion, and Nyman’s music is powerfully locomotive. It’s so ideal that I suspect many viewers will assume the music was written specifically for the film, even though it wasn’t.

MARSH: In a sense, the idea for Michael’s music came from Philippe, who plays Michael’s work “Requiem,” from his score for Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, during practice sessions in his backyard. Michael’s work has a dancing aspect to it as well that I felt matched the dance of the high-wire act, even a galloping effect.

Philippe, there are some who might think you get kicks out of taking a lot of risk. What’s your perspective on risk?

PETIT: I’m not interested in risking my life. I’m not interested in presenting the spectacle of a dare. But I’m constantly misunderstood and yet I don’t care, because I never tempt the fates and I don’t take outrageous risks. I would never walk out on the rope, trying to tempt death. I want to grow to be really old. I worship life. Therefore, I rehearse for thousands of hours to put myself into a state of serenity on the tightrope.

I don’t mean risk as a death wish. I mean, in the context of anything that’s ever been achieved, looking honestly at risk.

PETIT: Ah, so if you mean the risk of exploring other worlds, of opening the door into the unknown, in that case, I don’t think you’ve lived until you’ve taken such risk. Now, if you cross a big boulevard in Los Angeles without looking left and right, then you’re an imbecile. But it’s essential that we take risk in order to venture and open up new possibilities and new worlds. This is what I live for; it’s something that gets me going and keeps me alive.

MARSH: It’s the risk of the imagination, that’s what you mean.

Exactly. It’s part of what unites art, science, enterprise, performance.

PETIT: [It’s] the risk of living fully, and really, if you’re not thinking about living, then you are a zombie. Against this is the current drive to make things excessively safe. You see this all around us now with things like little kids riding their bikes, wearing big helmets and kneepads and who knows what else. But what happens to the kid who falls off his bike and bleeds a bit and learns from his fall? Normal risk must be taught and ingrained in everyone.

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