When I sit across from Philippe Petit, I look into eyes that have seen what no other eyes have, or will see again. Thirty five years ago, the French artiste sky-walked on a 450-pound cable between Tower 1 and Tower 2 of New York City’s World Trade Center. For almost forty-five minutes, he walked, danced, hopped, knelt and lay down on the wire, as microdots of people watched from below, and as police waited at the edge to arrest him. The word “death-defying” doesn’t do justice to what the Frenchman achieved that day. Imagination-defying is more like it. For the past seven years, the Twin Towers have been framed within the context of their destruction. But Man on Wire, the new documentary by James Marsh, recalls the towers at their birth, and the man who looked at them and saw a stage in the sky.
Marsh’s cinematic rendering of Petit’s Great Coup plays more like a caper film than a play-by-play retelling. Talking-head recollections are interspersed with the true thrill of it all — how Petit and his band of outsiders (and insiders) managed to sneak their gear to the top in the middle of the night, and prep it in time for the morning walk. This is inspiring cinema. When Petit finally walks between the towers, seemingly walking on air, it’s cathartic. The film is loosely based on his own recollections of the event, which he chronicled in his book To Reach The Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers. Since then, he’s written six other books (all by hand), became an artist in residence at Cathedral of St. John the Divine on the Upper West Side, and currently lives with his partner in the Catskills region of upstate New York. I sat down with Petit, who is also a poet, juggler, mime, actor, and whatever-else kind of artist there is. He infuses his phrases with grandeur, and it’s enthralling. I did not look down at my question sheet once.
September 11th was not mentioned in the film at all, but for anyone watching, it’s on their mind the whole time. And in the film, it’s made clear that you had a special connection with the towers before they were even built. How did that day affect you?
It was an evisceration as you can imagine, but I decided in my book to not mix the life of the towers. It’s another story, another movie.
When that day happened, you must have had a different reaction than most people, because you shared an experience with the towers that no one else has.
Those towers were alive inside of me and were pulled out, as you can imagine.
Do you remember how you found out?
I do not have a television. My friends in the Catskills called me and said “Your towers are being destroyed,” and I ran to a TV set and I saw what everybody saw that day.
When you see the poster of your film, what do you think?
I like the space and the one word, “exhilarating.” I think it’s a great poster.
Can you believe that’s you?
No, there is element of disbelief in my relation with looking at the picture, as it was when I was in the middle of the two towers. I had to make somewhat of a photo imagination. Yes, it did happen, and yes, I’m the man in the book.
Can you still picture yourself there and look down and see what you saw?
What was that like being up there in the middle, between the two towers?
I improvised a performance that took almost an hour, and made me do eight crossings. Things happened to me, and things crossed my mind. It was a performance, but of a very strange kind. People looked like specks on the ground. They could see me but they were specks. It was a surprise performance. It was illegal. It was not advertised. And the immensity … the void … the turbulence …
What did it sound like?
There was a lot of music in my head, the music of my heart. The sound of my buffalo slippers caressing the steel cable, the murmur of New York coming to me, the seagulls, the steamboats at some point, the sirens of course, the screaming audience, the steel skeleton of the towers crackling because they actually move. It was a magnificent symphony.
Did the police say anything to you while you were up there?
They said many things.
You talked to them?
I was completely disregarding them. They didn’t exist. I was completely into my performance. I felt countered, of course. They were screaming at me, and I know it was because they wanted to stop the show. But I don’t know what they were screaming, I wasn’t listening.
How did they treat you afterwards?
I decided to stop the show because I felt threatened by their frustration and impatience. Then there was a very violent moment. I wrote that in my book, it was very violent. They were so frustrated because they had been waiting for so long. They literally jumped up on me and I had to fight to be heard about relieving the tension of the wire, because relieving that tension the wrong way could be a disaster. It could break the cable and kill people. I really screamed to be heard, and finally they sent a contractor up and it made a lot of sense to relieve the tension for this man too. Then I was taken away in handcuffs. But the violence of the moment diffused after, and most of the policemen wanted their photograph taken with me. And I became a folk hero happily.
What’s the bigger challenge, getting the cable on top or actually walking across the cable?
It’s two different things. I must confess that I never thought of the wire walk itself, it was a dance. I wanted to succeed in putting a wire across and then sufficiently rig it so I could perform. The rest of the walk I never really thought of. The walk, after one or two crossings, becomes surprisingly easy, but I never gave myself in to the feeling of easiness. I had to feel on guard at every step. There was a giant void and an exposure that is inhuman.
What is striking about the film is the final act. I was surprised to see the way your relationships with your friend and your girlfriend, who supported you and were instrumental in your success, eventually fell apart.
That’s what they feel, but that’s their point of view.
You don’t mind having that in the film?
It’s not my film. I didn’t have the scissors, and I didn’t decide the editing.
But after watching the film are you upset with that part of it?
Who cares about the mood of aging people 34 years later? I would have replaced that with an essential relationship, such as with me and my equipment, and my towers. I had the film in me and it’s very different film.
After the performance, and after you were released by the police, you went straight to a hotel room and had sex with a groupie.
I hate that scene having its place in the film, because I did write twelve lines about it in my book and they were very evocative. To me it was very unnecessary to do that, and it’s sad that young kids can’t see that film, because of that, and it doesn’t portray at all — it was what it was. I treated it with a certain poetry and elusiveness in my book, and it was turned into black and white. It’s a big mistake.
Are you and James the director on good terms?
Yes, we are friends and there is a mutual respect.
So even though he did some thing in the film that you don’t agree with, you’re able to respect what he did?
Yes, yes, yes.
Why is that?
It would be wrong in a collaboration between two artists to fight where there is a winner. There is no winner, it’s his film. I have my own film in my head, but what you see is his film. We fought on many subjects, and at times he ran with his film, and he is probably right. But I am right to also hold onto the film that is in my head, as giving justice more to my adventure and to the spirit of it. But his film is very strong, and everybody loves it. It inspires people and it has the spirit of my adventure, and some truth.
Do you find it difficult to watch the parts you don’t like?
It’s not that I don’t like it, but again, I had in my mind the way I would have done it, and as a historian I would have done things in a very different way. I’m not criticizing his film, but letting out my frustration of not having been able to make this film myself. I do not criticize his film. I give justice to his vision, and to mine, but when I was with him in a theater of people, I see how the film drives people and inspires them, and entertains them and make them have tears, and laughter. This film is running, you can not stop it. It’s beautiful to see how people are inspired by it.
Why do you lie down on the rope?
I don’t know why, but I call it “Notre Dame,” because it’s a movement that I did for my first time in my life between the towers of Notre Dame, my most famous, first illegal walk. I learned it in France by posing for a painter who tried all kinds of positions and said “Lay down on the wire,” and I stayed there for almost a half hour, and it hurt like hell, and then it became almost comfortable. If I closed my eyes I could go to sleep.
Why do you do this? Is this a talent you’ve been given?
No one is born with a given talent. It’s not something that you’re given. You have to fight for it. It takes a special stamina and passion to practice thousands of hours, thousands of weeks, dozens of years to achieve something. And it takes a very special soul to create a performance, to be an artist, to think of theater. It came naturally, but with a lot of hardship because I learned by myself. I wasn’t born into this world of the circus, where you start at four years old. I had to fight everybody, my parents, the teachers, the police. I basically had no choice. That’s how I see it.
You say you view wire walking as art. Tell me why, what about it?
It is theater in the sky. I use the wire to design something that is obviously not a demonstration of strength. It is not obviously something to frighten people. I took the wire in a very intimate way as a poet, and I see myself as writer in the sky. It’s a smaller stage, but it’s theater. If it’s not theater, it’s nothing. To me it’s interesting to do something that is beautiful, for other people to see and say I was very inspired, it made me think, it was profound, it was marvelous. That to me is interesting.
But what if it’s not always as high as the towers? Can it still be profound?
I think Fellini would back me up that you don’t need immensity to create magic. Of course a wire walker must be in the air, otherwise it’s terrestrial. You could have a wire walker in a giant cave, surrounded by thirty thousand candles, and in that cave you can recreate the infinity of the void. To me, it’s all theater and poetry, otherwise it’s not worth doing.