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Strange Duality: An Interview with Man on Wire‘s Philippe Petit and James Marsh

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Strange Duality: An Interview with Man on Wire’s Philippe Petit and James Marsh

“I wish I’d known you were going to interview him—I’d love to learn if he’s still in touch with my friend Barbara Remington who had the albino skunk.” This was my original downtown bohemian pal Rose’s reaction when she found out I’d just spent twenty minutes at the offices of Magnolia Pictures doing a beat-the-clock interview with Philippe Petit, the only person to ever dance across a high-wire between the Twin Towers, and filmmaker James Marsh, who profiled the legendary Frenchman and his “artistic crime of the century” in his appropriately uplifting documentary Man On Wire. Though we discussed everything from spirituality to positive con artistry to A Clockwork Orange, the subject of living in Chelsea with an albino skunk never came up. (Sorry, Rose.) Here’s what did…

There’s two things that really stayed with me after watching Man on Wire, and it’s a strange duality: the idea in the film of spirituality and criminality and how they’re intertwined. Am I way off?

James Marsh: It’s a very interesting response. I mean, criminality, of course: the film offers itself on that level. There’s another dimension, I guess you could call it spiritual or about the imagination, about theater, about performance. About the nature of artistic performance. That’s probably where I would position it, not being a very spiritual kind of fellow.

I was trying to figure out why this was coming at me. I think it was Annie Allix who said in the film that it was almost a calling for you, Philippe, to be doing these things. And everyone who was talking about the walk spoke of it as an almost religious experience, almost like they witnessed a miracle. That’s where I got the spiritual sense. Do you agree with that?

Philippe Petit: I would have to agree. It probably exuded from my personality and my drive and my way of perceiving the art of wire-walking, which I studied by myself at a very late age instead of being born in a circus and learning it at four years old. I think that it came from me that I could not do these things as a stunt. It had to be meaningful, a poetry page written in the sky. For my friends around me it was contagious, so they only could talk about it in a spiritual way.

Marsh: The policeman [in the film] is interesting. He responds to it in a way that… he obviously sees lots of very ugly things on a daily basis and suddenly he’s moved to a very lyrical description of what he’s just seen. He’s almost incapable of expressing the awe that he’s articulating, and that to me was a very important moment in my discovery of materials for the film, to find this policeman who responded so well to what he was witnessing. It is, as you say, miraculous. Someone walking in the clouds, walking on air. It’s a miracle from down below. His description is very captivating, I think. That’s what speaks of your reaction.

I wrote in my review about there being this Miracle on 34th Street aspect to the film that, I think you even said you wanted to create. This whole idea of the 70s, that there were all these horrible things going on, and all of a sudden this miracle happened in the sky and it shook everyone up.

Marsh: I think it happens in a certain historical context in New York in 1974. The city itself as you probably know wasn’t in its best sort of shape, but certain things were more possible because it was so chaotic and anarchic. And then there’s the culmination of a political crisis that plays out the week of Philippe’s walk when Nixon resigns just a few days later. So that’s the context for it and perhaps the beauty of the act becomes even more starkly exposed as a result.

I think it’s obviously a filmmaking choice. You chose to include these people talking about miracles. You chose to include the police officer. You chose to do all these things, so I felt like the two of you, on some level, were trying to get the spiritual aspect across.

Marsh: I think we were trying to be true to peoples’ responses. And that’s their response at that point. To see the walk through the eyes of those that most cared about Philippe or were most invested in it. And how they recalled it was with great emotion. I wasn’t really expecting that. Almost everyone there was sort of tearful, not in a bad way, but in a joyous way about what they remembered and how they felt about it. And sometimes a lot of people were lost for words.

Even Annie, thirty years later, is still crying.

Marsh: Everyone looks up when they talk about it. It’s something you just need to be true to as opposed to manufacture. It’s just there. And the testament is in the people that we spoke to.

So it’s kind of a joyous accident. You found it.

Marsh: Yeah, I was respecting something that I discovered in the course of making the film.

Let’s talk a bit about criminality then. Philippe, when you were younger you were doing these performances and they were illegal acts. And the Twin Towers walk was the artistic crime of the century. As I kept watching you get arrested on the film, I wondered if this turned into part of the performance, or if it was something separate?

Petit: No, no. Here I was, 17 years old, a self-proclaimed, self-taught wire-walker. Nobody wanted to hire me in the circus, in musicals, in opera, in film, in theaters. I desperately wanted to be a wire-walker so I started deciding my own destiny and began appearing here and there without permission. I did quite a few illegal walks, but was totally unknown before I put my wire between the towers of Notre Dame and was put on the front pages of the entire world. Then Australia, again front page all over the world. And then of course the Twin Towers, which began a new acknowledgment. So it was not something that I needed, and it was not something that had to do with my performance, although of course a performance being commissioned and one being illegal is not the same. To start with, the audience doesn’t know there is something going on. You have to get them to look up.

Does that give the performance a different feeling?

Petit: Yes, of course. A very different feeling. The first crossing between the Towers I was completely unaware of the crowd, and the crowd was not really there. There were my friends screaming, “Oh look” and a few people assembling. Very quickly it became a giant crowd, but at the beginning it was me and the wire and it was a very solitary discourse between me and “my towers,” as I used to call them. But of course, without permission on the wire I cannot be free as I am in a commissioned performance because I have to be aware of the police, because I do not control the situation in terms of the powers that be. This as opposed to a real performance where people pay me to perform. Then I am a professional, and then things are organized. So in an illegal work things are completely disorganized and they are on the side of chance. Not for me on my wire. I don’t take chances, but the actual event is a giant question mark.

It reminded me of the happenings in the 60s where this chaotic, artistic miracle happens. Obviously you planned greatly for it, but you still left the idea that there was an improvisational aspect to it.

Petit: The performance itself was a complete improvisation. I never thought of walking across and yelling “Victory!” I was thinking of starting something very unique and very intimate and to see where I get with it. Then it transformed itself into a performance and then the crowd got very big and started responding and screaming and applauding. And I heard it. It became a performance where I kept crossing despite the officers on both sides wanting to grab me at each end of the crossing. Then there was the threat of dislodging me from the wire, and the weather turning to rain made me decide to do one last crossing before stopping the performance. But it was completely improvised.

As opposed to the performances that you’re paid to do.

Petit: Those are completely organized and rehearsed. I have light and costume and music and every step of it has to be as perfect as possible. It’s a theater play where if the actor is not on his mark or does not say his/her line, the play is a disaster, so yes when I create a theater play that is commissioned, it is a complicated, different type of performance.

You worked with Herzog on performances like that, yes?

Petit: Well, Herzog is a very good friend of mine for 25 years and he made a short film of me when he was the director of a film festival in Vienna. I put a high wire there and I gave a short history of cinema on the wire with a lantern imagica projecting a few portraits of The Godfather, or of Fellini on a giant wall. It was again a very strange kind of performance. Werner filmed the whole thing and it was the beginning of a very wonderful friendship.

Let’s talk some more about the criminality aspect. The other thing I took away from Man on Wire was the whole idea of con artistry. Not of your performances, but of getting people involved to help you live out your dream. That struck me as very similar to filmmaking where you’ve got to get all these merry pranksters on the bandwagon with you to get this thing done. Do you think there’s some sort of similarity between that? I’m saying hustling in a good sense, in a way that you have to do this. There’s this impetus in you and you’ve got to get it done, and you’ve got to get as many people to help you.

Petit: As far as building this dream into a reality, a parallel can be made with a con man, but usually a con man is there to hurt his fellow man. To steal, to use deception in a negative way. For me as a street juggler, it’s very natural that I look over my shoulders like a pickpocket, a magician. It is very natural that I know which victim to choose to create illusion, but it’s nothing criminal, nothing ugly. But yes, I certainly have this con man spirit in me. But I would not use the word ’con man’ because it is a very negative.

Maybe ’hustling’?

Petit: Nor ’hustling.’ Everything I do I feel is completely honest, completely felt, completely generous and sincere. At the same time I have to seduce, I have to steal, I have to lie, I have to convince, I have to acquire things, I have to force, I have to impose. This is what an artist should do regardless of the rules, if he has a pure heart and wants to do something beautiful.

James, do you think there’s a parallel there?

Marsh: Between filmmaking and…

...the hustling aspect of it.

Marsh: I think you have to set the objective. The objective is to make a film. But I don’t think I’m conning people into doing something that they don’t understand. I’m not deceiving people, I hope, to sign up for something where they don’t understand what the objective is, which in this case is to make a film out of this beautiful story. But there is quite a bit of hustling in making films, with producers and money. And there is quite a bit of hustle to getting people to give you money to make something you want to make. That’s definitely a hustle, if you like. But again, it’s for a good objective.

Oh yeah, I take it as a positive thing in both lights. I just found there was a strange parallel between getting the filmmaking done and getting the high wire acts done.

Marsh: I think what Philippe did is quite a bit harder than what I did. [laughs]

Another thing I wanted to ask you about was A Clockwork Orange. Philippe looks like a young McDowell. And then you have the ménage à trois and the crimes in the film.

Marsh: I didn’t really think about the actual, physical similarities between Malcolm McDowell and Philippe. It was more that I wanted to playfully recreate and make sure that it didn’t feel too real. There’s a sequence in the film that is definitely based on A Clockwork Orange to some extent. But I hadn’t seen the other, more general comparison, and I can see where you’re going with that: the energy of McDowell’s performances and everything else. But for me the more important discovery was the genre of the heist film. Documentary isn’t normally structured the way that Man on Wire is structured. It’s constructed very much like a caper film, a heist film. And the story offered itself on that level. Even though we know the outcome—we know that Philippe is obviously around to tell the tale—that construct of a heist film allows it to be suspenseful and surprising. You don’t know quite what’s going to happen next, and they’re overcoming these obstacles each step of the way. That structure really helped that, I think. To have these two different timelines and to embrace genre elements from other kind of films.

Was that decision made before you knew that Philippe was using heist films to get himself revved up?

Marsh: It was based on his book and how gripped I was by the narrative in that book. How there was an endless series of impossible things that had to be overcome in order to put this performance on that morning. So it predated any knowledge of Philippe’s liking for the genre. But I think it was the right choice to make the film like it was in the present tense. It’s a historical documentary on one level, but in fact we play it out in the present tense, moment by moment, episode by episode. As opposed to a nostalgic recreation. Hopefully it has more immediacy by choosing to tell it that way.

The other thing I really, really liked about Man on Wire: obviously the Twin Towers aren’t there anymore and there is no mention of that. And I loved that because we already know that. We don’t need an explanation about that. We don’t need an exclamation point. That was obviously a conscious decision to not even go there, right?

Marsh: Conscious, and easy as well. It wasn’t a hard choice to make for the reasons you’ve mentioned. It’s a big fact that every single person who sees this film is going to bring to it. And my idea, a different one altogether, was to get you beyond that and over that, into some other story about these buildings. Not the story that’s come to define them. So the impulse is more than just “we’re not going to discuss the Twin Towers.” It’s that we’re going to tell a story that, if you like, allows you to imagine and think about them in a very different kind of way, at least for the duration of the film. I think there is a deeper objective in Man on Wire to reframe the buildings through the perspective of this story, and the fact that we see the buildings subjectively through Philippe’s eyes allows us to do that. It’s one man’s vision of these buildings. I think no one, as far as I’m aware, has reproached me or us for not engaging with the Twin Towers. If they did I’d be like, “What the hell do you want me to do about that?” It would be crass and wrong…

...and unnecessary…

Marsh:...and unnecessary, exactly. All those things. Philippe’s walk happened 34 years ago. It speaks to a very different time and the world we now live in was created to some extent by the Towers’ destruction. But it’s not a world I particularly like living in, to be honest. I prefer the world before that. The world where this destruction that has been so massively exploited by so many bad people, for so many bad objectives. To get involved in all that and to have some sort of comment on it seemed to me to be so missing the point of Philippe’s story.