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Man On Wire - James Marsh interview

Philippe Petit in Man On Wire

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JAMES Marsh talks about the challenge of directing the acclaimed documentary Man On Wire, as well as working with Philippe Petit, the man who dazzled the world when he walked between the World Trade Center towers on nothing more than just a wire…

Q. Given Philippe’s self-confessed disdain for authority, how was he to direct?
James Marsh: Well, I didn’t set myself up as an authority figure. I’m not that kind of director. I invited a collaboration and that’s why, I think, he finally decided to give up his story. He’d been asked many, many times to do it. Simon [Chinn], the producer, was in the process of optioning his book, which was a long, drawn out process. But right in the middle of that he asked me to take a look at the book. I knew the story from having been in New York and knowing that he was a folk hero in New York to some extent.

The book is really captivating and surprisingly gripping. It’s written a bit like a thriller and that’s what prompted the way I approached the film. So, there wasn’t really an authority figure on the film because I didn’t set myself up that way. Of course, there were disagreements and combat of some sort or another. But it was all about the work and making the film better… and being challenged, actually, which is very useful as a director. He’d ask: “Why are you doing this? What’s all this about?” But it makes you have to convince yourself that you’re doing the right thing. But I wasn’t a headmaster to him and nor would I want to be [laughs].

Q. Is there a little bit of the daredevil in you that made you want to tackle this subject?
James Marsh: No, I’m so not a daredevil. Philippe would also resist that label passionately. There is something about what he does that’s asking us to suspend our disbelief, if you like. On that level, it’s not a word I’d use to describe him. But one of the reasons you choose to make films about people like that is because you don’t have any conception of doing it yourself. You live vicariously through it and I think that’s one of the reasons why the audience so far has responded well. We go to somewhere you wouldn’t go normally. And how he does it is so funny and criminal.

Q. Do you think that in his head Philippe imagines himself as the hero in this great story?
James Marsh: Maybe it’s true as well… you could say it’s delusional, but in fact in his case, he is the hero of his own fairytale. When you look at this story – and I did very carefully – there’s so many reasons why they shouldn’t have got away with it. Just in terms of this criminal enterprise, there were so many times where they should have got caught and the game was up – not least when they were on the roof, having gone through this caper in both towers and almost being caught there, when they lose the wire. That should have been it. One of the people even gave up. And then there’s the miracle of what he’s actually going to do as well, which is to essentially defy the laws of gravity, nature and the weather to do this performance. So, he is pretty heroic.

Q. Do you think he’s also a little bit mad? He won’t acknowledge the concept of the word falling…
James Marsh: Oh, he won’t do that. It’s not a word he ever uses, or pronounces, or wishes to hear. It sounds a bit crazy and eccentric but he is actually really, really careful and that’s why he still is around. He’s not cavalier at all; when it comes to doing what he does, everything has to be right otherwise he won’t do it. He’s always very certain that he’s going to succeed. At The World Trade Center, for instance, the variables were much less controllable. The Twin Towers are very high up, so there was a different eco-system at that level. He was 1,500 feet up, more or less, and because they were so close together there was a kind of vortex that happens when war air rose up between the towers and pushed him up. But he knew about all that stuff because he’d done all his research. He wasn’t going onto the wire without knowing he could survive it. And the people that most believed in him had this faith.

Those that didn’t believe in him, didn’t go through with it. The Australian, Mark, who was a really nice guy and a really important part of the planning, went up there one time and got freaked out. He thought at that point in time that it wasn’t organised enough and he was probably right. So, in some respects, maybe him backing away at that time may have been the saving of the whole enterprise, because they had to reconfigure it when he backed away. He was the engineer and had really good ideas about how to rig it. One of his other friends also says in the film: “We all knew he could fall, but we didn’t believe it.” And that’s an act of faith.

Q. There’s a quote in the film from someone who watched Philippe at work that they’ve never seen concentration like it. What was it like to watch him first-hand for you?
James Marsh: It’s absolutely amazing. One of the first meetings we had, when we sort of made a pact to do this together, Philippe has this bizarre little cell in St John The Divine Church in New York, and in this sort of refectory, he had this secret wire that he got out. The drop was probably about 50 feet, and enough to do yourself some serious damage, but he got into this zone – which is something that I think happens to a lot of actors and performers – which is their own little space. It’s an amazing act of concentration. And I think that’s the reward for him, being in this world that no one else can be in. It does involve a heightening of the senses and all of those intense feelings that you have. It’s a wonderful thing to look at.

I actually didn’t have much regard for the culture of wire walking before I started making the film. It felt like a circus thing. But Philippe takes it to something that’s altogether more theatrical and altogether more poetic. The performance between the Twin Towers is just that – it’s not a stunt where he walks across just once; he performs. There’s a wonderful photograph – which is my favourite in the film – where you see him smiling on the wire. He’s so happy to be there and it just makes the whole enterprise… that’s it in one second, this joy that he has.

Q. Did you find yourself believing in him too?
James Marsh: Absolutely. It’s not my will or faith that’s keeping him up there by any means… it’s all his own. But there’s also something really magical about it; it’s like a dream. And if you were up there on that day, or any of the other illegal walks, it’s almost like a miracle that you witness. And that’s how people responded to the Twin Towers walk. It’s just so unexpected and brilliant what he does. It’s so subversive, illegal and beautiful.

Q. This film paints the memory of the Twin Towers in a happier light. Whereas the abiding image is one of destruction, this brings viewers back to their beauty. Was that something you were aware of?
James Marsh: Not in any kind of overt way. If you try and do something like that, then you’re not going to succeed. But I was aware that by the very act of telling the story that all kinds of other emotions were going to be in play. It felt to me to be very important that we didn’t have any kind of explicit discussion of those buildings’ destruction. I mean, what was I going to say about them that hasn’t been said already? And why, in a sense, taint this beautiful story that happened 30 years before with events that had nothing to do with it. But, of course, I was aware of some of the uncanny parallels… of a bunch of foreigners snooping around and taking photos, and having a plot against these buildings. But their plot is a magnificently beautiful plot and therein lies the massive difference. I’m very aware that when people see the film – even more so in America and even more so in New York – that there’s a kind of very strong subtext that will work at whatever level you want it to work.

There’s certainly images in the film that are very striking because of what happened, and that have a power that you don’t really control anymore. It seems kind of vile to me to leave the people responsible for the destruction of those buildings as the people that somehow own them, and the politicians in America that exploited those events for other things… A foreign journalist actually asked me whether I felt I’d exploited the buildings by doing this film and I was like: “For fuck’s sake, no! But there are many other people that have… and perhaps you should ask them about that rather than me. Wars have been started because of it.” Of course, this story is unbearably poignant for many people, to see these buildings alive, but they are part of a beautiful story.

Q. The production notes also mention that you approached it as a bit of a heist film. Did you draw on any of your favourites in the genre while making it?
James Marsh: Yeah, I looked at Rififi, which is a French film from the late ’50s, which is directed by Jules Dassin, who was French by ultimate origin but was black listed by Hollywood and had to go to Europe to work. It’s about a raid on a jewellers and it has this brilliant half an hour sequence where it’s all silent and you just see the process of it unfolding. That was very useful… it’s a French film that was also quite expressionist as well. And it was black and white. I also looked at Ocean’s Eleven as a modern version of the heist film. I knew from the very beginning, when I read the book, that it was available to be told that way. And it would be a bold thing for a documentary to do – to not be responsible and have biographical details, etc, but just to tell it as a story, and as a rollicking crime caper. It was just nice to have a complicated structure to work with because it challenges you a bit more.

Q. Will you be making another feature film, to follow-up The King, or sticking with documentaries?
James Marsh: I hope so, although this one didn’t feel like a documentary to me. It was always funded to a level where it was supposed to be a feature-doc. I saw it as a movie, as a story, and therefore didn’t feel in any way handicapped by the fact it was a documentary. It wasn’t supposed to be a documentary that exposed the evils of the world and I think, in some respects, it’s almost the antidote to that, particularly in the context of what happened after that.

Read our review of Man On Wire