James Marsh has made one of the year’s best films in Man On Wire, charting an illegal 1974 high-wire walk between the twin towers.
Even though I’m a deeply macho raving heterosexual, I don’t mind admitting that James Marsh’s documentary, ‘Man On Wire’, had me in tears.
Through archive footage, talking heads and reconstruction, Man On Wire charts the eight months of preparation of Philippe Petit’s illegal high-wire walk between the twin towers on August 7th, 1974, the actual walk, and the aftermath on the motley crew who put it all together.
It’s already picked up two awards at Sundance, and repeated the trick in Los Angeles and Edinburgh in the last few weeks. Marsh – who made his name with 1999’s Wisconsin Death Trip – returns to documentary here, after the 2005 Gael Garcia Bernal-led feature, The King.
Q: An incredible movie, and a wonderful documentary. It’s been called ‘the artistic crime of the century’ – is that why you chose to shoot this largely as a heist movie?
JAMES MARSH: When I first read Philippe’s 2002 book about the whole adventure, I found it incredibly gripping, and my first instinct about making a film of it was to shoot it like a heist film, like a bank robbery film. What happens is – just so everyone knows – it’s about an illegal tightrope performance on top of the World Trade Centre in 1974. In order for Philippe Petit to do this stunt, he has to break into the towers, and he spends months and months and months planning out such a criminal conspiracy to get a team, disguised, into each tower, one dressed as businessmen, one dressed as workmen. They have lots of heavy gear they’ve got to sneak up to the top of the towers, and then rig the wire, all under the cover of darkness, all totally illegal. During the course of this sort of heist, lots of things go wrong, because they just do. So, it becomes this comedy of errors, where they really care about the objective, which is to do this tightrope performances.
Q: I kept thinking of movies such as The Ladykillers, The Killing and Ocean’s Thirteen – were there reference points for you, or were you wary of being too stylised?
Well, I did get too stylised. It’s such a great story, it would be a shame not to enjoy the elements that are offered to you. So, there was a very conscious effort to turn it into a heist film, but a heist film done by the unlikely criminals you could imagine. They’re artists, bohemian types. They’re not hardened criminals. So, there are lots of things going wrong, and there’s all this human drama. They spent eight months casing out the towers, taking photographs, sneaking up to the top, snooping around, often in disguise in funny hats and moustaches. So, it’s got all the classic elements of a heist film, so, why not do it that way? It’s a documentary in name only.
Q: Philippe and his motley crew took plenty of footage of their previous escapades – at Notre Dame and Sydney Harbour Bridge – and of their preparations here, which obviously helped enormously in proving here just how amateur this operation was…
Yeah, it’s all absolutely true, however preposterous it may sound, however unlikely some of the things that happened are. But Philippe began to document this on film, and there’s some wonderful footage of their little training camp in France – they have a little road sign up, saying ‘WTC Training Camp’ – and there are various quite specific problems to solve, not least how to get a very heavy cable across from one roof to the other, across the void, as it were. And they do it in a brilliant way, and I won’t tell you how they did it, but it’s very inventive and very charming. And this footage shows you some of the solutions they come up with, but, more importantly, it shows you what a good time they were having, frollicking around in this field, having a little adventure. Also, there’s the arguing seriously about how they’re going to do this.
Q: Could you tell from the moment you saw all this old footage that you had something special on your hands?
You can never tell how an audience is going to respond, but you know how you feel about the story. When I read the book, I just loved the story for what it was – it’s a really brilliant tale, and I’m surprised it hasn’t been done before. I think people had tried, but you have to collaborate with Philippe, you have to bring him into the equation, and in the film, he’s a very animated presence. If I was to start running around the room during this interview, that makes it pretty difficult for you.
Q: Is it because Philippe is so very much larger than life that other filmmakers shrunk from the challenge of telling his story?
You have to get his respect, and trust, and we really did collaborate on the story, and collaborate on the film, and I think that’s why he went with this film. But he likened the collaboration to me stealing his story, and him chasing me with a knife for six months, trying to get it back.
Q: When you finally get to the moment of the walk, it’s pure lump in the throat stuff…
Yeah. They go through so much, and they want it so badly, that there are certain points in the film that you really feel it’s going to fall apart – they get so close up there – so, you’re really put through it before you get to the point where they finally get to it. And even then, it’s very existential, because, sure, we know he survives, because he’s in the film, but we don’t know how this walk is going to happen. Is it going to be one crossing, or more than one crossing, and then it becomes this beautiful performance. I found it incredibly beautiful, and a transcendental moment in time – if it’s all right to use such a long word on an Irish website…
Q: I’ll asterix it out…
Indeed. Asterix it out. Asterix out the pretentious word. But it is like someone realising something that seems impossible, and that is, I think, really moving.
Q: Being a native New Yorker now, did you feel you were also reclaiming the twin towers, giving people a happy memory to dwell on now?
I hope so, but that’s not the intention of the film; it’s to tell the story. There is a massive subtext, of course, because the towers aren’t there anymore, having been destroyed in an horrific manner. We see the building of the towers, at the very beginning of the film, and his idea to do this predates even their construction. So, we see them going up, rather than coming down, so, it’s not only about their destruction – they’re known for that, they’re defined by that – this story is a really beautiful story about they’re being a stage for something really wonderful and magical. So, maybe through the course of the film, people will enjoy that sense of the buildings.
Q: You’re back in documentaries after making ‘The King’ – was the big bad world of fiction filmmaking a little too tough?
It was a hard film to get made, and it didn’t do very well at the box-office, even though the critics liked it, so, when this film came to me, I knew it had to be a documentary, because it was all real, and all the people who were involved were around, so, it would have been perverse to make a fictionalised account of what happened. It was all so dramatic already. I just saw it as a documentary that was very much a big-screen outing, one that would be enjoyed by a lot of people together in a room. I think it makes you laugh, and it makes you cry, and that’s great to see in an audience, to have that connection. I felt it had the scale to fill a big screen, rather than being a TV documentary that’s ashamed of itself. So, it’s a shamless thrill ride, at certain points.
Words : Paul Byrne
‘Man On Wire’ is in Irish cinemas from August 1st
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