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Man On Wire - Philippe Petit interview

Philippe Petit in Man On Wire

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ON August 7, 1974, a young Frenchman called Philippe Petit stepped out on a wire suspended between New York’s twin towers, then the world’s tallest buildings. After an hour dancing on the wire, with no safety net or harness, he was arrested and thrown into an underground prison.

New documentary Man On Wire follows this story and interviews the man behind the greatest artistic crime of the century. We also chat to Philippe about the experience and making this new film.

Q. What was the trigger that made you want to do the World Trade Center walk in the first place?
Philippe Petit: It was a clipping in a French newspaper showing a picture of the model of those two towers. That’s what made me want to transform the roof of those towers into a theatre using my high wire. It was an instant feeling. It was then six years of dreaming, eight months of planning, one night of doing and one morning of performing.

Q. You still perform now, but do you think you’re a better wire-walker now?
Philippe Petit: Oh, I’m 10 times better. I have acquired certain knowledge and wisdoms that I didn’t have at the time. In many fields… in the important field of knowing myself, in the essential field of knowing the wire, in the very important field of rigging the wire. I became an engineer for all my projects. I even sometimes, for a big walk, design the steel cable to be manufactured, and in my artistic ability and talent as a theatrical director to put music and costumes together to put theatre in the sky. All those things I didn’t have when I was a foolish 18-year-old. I’m still arrogant but I don’t think I’m foolish [laughs].

Q. So, if the towers were still here would you do it again… and even better?
Philippe Petit: No, I would never do it again. All my performances have the feel of something unique… that’s what people tell me when they look at my show. Personally, I would never see the walk as being miraculous. But if they are, then you don’t do a miracle twice in your life. I would not want to duplicate or re-do something. I would do it very differently if I was now invited to walk between two towers.

Q. What went through your mind when you actually stepped out on the wire for the first time?
Philippe Petit: Well, a turmoil… many, many things. Most of it was profound joy at finally being out there, holding my life and carrying it across on the wire. At first, the first crossing, was very difficult and treacherous because I had not checked or tested the other anchor point, which I usually do all the time, because I couldn’t be on both towers. My friend had done it using my information and my specifications, but still the fact that I’d not been there to check it as I usually do was very, very tough on me. For the first crossing, or the first portion of the first crossing, I was tiptoeing on that wire not knowing how it would behave. But a few steps after that I immediately felt it was good enough and then you can see in one of the photographs that I have a big smile.

Q. You also lay down on the wire at certain points. Do you find a zen-like calm when you’re doing that?
Philippe Petit: Well, yeah, actually I think early on it had become kind of my choreographic signature in the sky. Laying down is very painful. Obviously, your whole body is pressing on a little thread… that’s how you cut photos. It’s very painful and very difficult, because your whole balance is inversed. You have almost no balance. But all that is not important for me. I had practised that intensely for weeks and weeks and years. I lay down on the wire between the towers of Notre Dame, and then between the pylons of Sydney Harbour Bridge. So, then it was obvious I was going to do it several times between the towers of the World Trade Center. Since then, it’s something that I do often. I like that figure in the sky because I think it must inspire people… you’re not only walking but also falling asleep. What an image! But also it’s facing the sky and inviting a dialogue with the birds and marvelling at the clouds. It’s quite nice. It’s a natural expression of me on the high wire.

Q. Do you literally not see anything else around you when you’re up there?
Philippe Petit: It’s a strange thing and it took me a lot of years to build this strange way of being on the wire, which makes me very safe. It’s a total concentration and focus. But it’s not a focus with blindfolds. I have to be aware of so many things. I have to be aware of the dangers to survive, but also of the wind and humidity in the air. I should not receive these things as a surprise; I should feel it coming and I should react accordingly. So, my concentration is immense and at the same time I am very aware of the world – not the world below. When the police screamed at me, for instance, I hardly saw them. I didn’t even hear what they were saying; I didn’t care. I have a way to expel some facts and some actions, or even thoughts. I don’t let negative thoughts come to me because that could be very dangerous.

Q. Did you anticipate the level of celebrity that followed the World Trade Center walk?
Philippe Petit: I’m not really caring for it. If people see me as a celebrity… I don’t really know. It helps sometimes to be recognised, sure, to get a table in a restaurant or to get a producer to agree to produce the next performance. But other than that, I don’t feel myself at all like a celebrity. I’m too busy working on my next project.

Q. But did it make your next project harder because you were more recognisable perhaps? Previously you’d worked under the radar…
Philippe Petit: No, it wasn’t difficult. It made it easier. For me, it’s like a tool, it’s like having money. When I have money, I can use it to help my next project. Although I’m never rich enough to produce my next project! I need art angels for that, who write the cheque. But to be known is a tool. If I want to meet with the mayor of a city, he will receive me and talk to me because I am known. If I were unknown, nobody would even talk to me.

Q. What is your next project?
Philippe Petit: At this moment I don’t have a project that I can announce a specific place or a date. I can say what my next dream of sorts is… I would like to make a documentary of me street juggling around the world, in little villages where no magician or juggler has been seen before. It would be nice to go to two or three places on Earth as my street juggling character. But on the high wire, I have quite a few dreams. I was talking about The Pyramids before… it would be incredible to do a high wire between The Pyramids. I have also the Easter Islands project. I have not yet invited my art angel to that project but I have up my sleeve the desire to attach my rope from those fabulous statues… from the belly of those Gods to maybe the top of the volcano. I have a friend who lives there who says that the Rapa Nui people would love to invite me. They can’t, because they have no money, but they would love to help me. I think that if I were to go there, because of those statues, the landscape and the mystery of the island, it would be a mysterious walk to share all over the world.

Q. How about the feature film you’re making on the World Trade Center walk?
Philippe Petit: There is a feature film in development and that’s all I can say. It’s with Robert Zemeckis and I’m collaborating but that’s all I can say about it.

Q. How did you feel when you were approached for the documentary?
Philippe Petit: James [Marsh] did not approach me with any one style, but with a desire to make a film. The producer, Simon Chinn, initially approached me about the idea of making a documentary film about my book To Reach The Clouds. I wasn’t really interested, but he was insistant, and at some point I wanted to agree with the choice of director. So, I met with some selections and I immediately liked the desire of James Marsh to need my collaboration. That’s the reason I said no to previous ideas; people wanted me to sign off my story and they’d invite me to the premiere. But I didn’t want that. I wanted to follow the construction of the story.

Q. Was it important to you that the film didn’t touch on anything to do with 9/11?
Philippe Petit: It was obvious, not important. My story has to do with the life of the towers. My book is talking about my adventure; it’s an homage to the Twin Towers and the glorious life of those buildings, so there’s no room there for the death of the towers. It’s not a part of this adventure, so therefore it was very logical and right of James not to include that part in the film.

Q. But the film does give something back to the memory of the towers and the people of New York? It’s a celebration of their history, rather than their destruction…
Philippe Petit: Yes, I think that and I see that when people see the film; they are moved and they laugh and they cry and they applaud. Part of their inspiration is that they see the towers in their glory because everyone that comes to the theatre has seen the towers in their destruction. People are moved by what we show.

Q. When you’re not planning a wire walk, what do you do to relax?
Philippe Petit: I hate to relax. I don’t go on vacation. I travel for life with a desire to live. It doesn’t apply to me, the word relax. When I go through life, I don’t take pictures like most people, I do drawings. I have a little sketch book. I’m also constantly working. I have written six books; I am working on my seventh. I do lectures on creativity around the world. I am building a barn also in upstate New York. I built it with 18th Century tools and method and inside I have the smallest theatre in the world. As you mentioned, I’m still doing the street juggling. A few weeks ago I was passing my hat in Washington Square Park in New York, making a fortune. I don’t like to do nothing. When I am the beach somewhere, I hate to lay there and get sunburn. I’m all about enjoying life.

Q. It sounds tiring…
Philippe Petit: But it’s a beautiful fatigue. It’s the fatigue of the joy of life and I love to be tired by that [laughs].

Read our review of Man On Wire