By KJ Doughton | December 30, 2008

Originally ran on FilmThreat.com on 07/23/08

Don’t mistake “Man on Wire” with “Man on Fire.” You won’t find a gun slinging Denzel Washington in James Marsh’s whimsical, dreamlike documentary – only an impish Frenchman with a passion for walking wires. But you will find crime. The movie’s opening image of shadowy figures emerging from a van – surrounded by Big Apple traffic and downtown high rises, screams Heist Film.

Wait a minute. Where’s Al Pacino and Christopher Walken? How can petite-bodied Philippe Petit, a hyperactive Frenchman with freckles and carrot-top hair, possibly carry a film that does, in fact, involve illegal smuggling, the bypassing of security, and other activities typically confined to scarfaced, tough-guy villains?

Quite easily, it turns out. During his first meeting with “Man on Wire” director James Marsh, Petit confessed to the filmmaker, “I have the mind of a criminal.” He then demonstrated how to kill someone using only a “People” magazine, before picking Marsh’s pocket.

“Man on Wire” presents Petit as the ringleader behind a master coup. It is August 7th, 1974. After over six years of planning, Petit and a team of fellow conspirators ascend 1,350 feet to the roof of a World Trade Center tower. The group rigs a wire between the towering building and its nearby twin. At 7:15 a.m., a black-garbed Philippe steps onto the wire and initiates a delicate dance of tightrope showmanship, which lasts almost an hour.

Dubbed the “Artistic Crime of the Century,” Petit’s WTC wirewalk became a widely publicized cultural phenomenon. “Man on Wire” uses this famous stunt as its centerpiece, while also providing background on its intense lead character through archival footage, reenactments, and talking head interviews.

“Talking head,” however, is too limited a term to describe Petit’s force-of-nature monologues. Punctuating his enthusiastic conversation with bursts of laughter and flailing arms, this overwhelming tornado of a man takes the act of being interviewed to the level of stage performance. At one point, he drapes himself in a curtain to simulate a sequence from the coup in which he crouched hidden beneath a tarp. Later, he scampers about a table of miniature buildings and diagrams, walking viewers through a step-by-step primer on the art of illegal wire rigging.

Was he ever frightened during his ballet between what was, at the time, the world’s tallest set of skyscrapers? Nah. “If I die,” he exclaims in the film with fearless, wide-eyed glee, “what a beautiful death.”

As a child in France, Petit was already wire-walking to the beat of a different drummer – also teaching himself equitation, fencing, carpentry, rock-climbing, drama, drawing, and bullfighting. He created a colorful, flamboyant persona as a street performer, juggling items from a unicycle while dressed in a panther-black body suit and magician’s top hat. His charisma and physical agility were impressive, but his ability to follows instructions was not. The extroverted free spirit was expelled from five different schools.

The 1974 WTC coup might be Philippe’s most famous walk, but it’s merely the tip of a skyscraper-length body of work. “Man on Wire” press notes credit him with 23 different high wire performances dating from 1971 through 2002. Negotiating unpredictable wind patterns and improvised wire riggings, the tenacious air artist has conquered open spaces atop Notre Dame Cathedral, Sydney Harbour Bridge, and many other architectural wonders of the world. Some, like Notre Dame and Sydney, were clandestine. Others, like a 1991 wirewalk during the Vienna International Film Festival (under direction of filmmaker Werner Herzog), were “legitimate,” official events.

“Man on Wire” puts Petit center-stage, but Marsh’s detailed movie also presents additional key players from the WTC coup. There’s Jean-Louis Blondeau, who engineers the concept of shooting a fishing line between the towers using bow and arrow (the line was later used to pass the walk cable from building to building). Annie Allix appears as Philippe’s long-suffering French girlfriend, acting as a romantic, supportive muse to this sometimes-unsympathetic partner (who celebrates his WTC walk with an impulsive groupie tryst).

Barry Greenhouse appears as the gang’s “inside man,” a WTC employee whose Wild West handlebar moustache appears nearly as long as his high-rise workplace. Some coup accomplices – like Jim Moore, Mark Lewis, and Alan Welner, eventually bail out under the anxiety-inducing combination of deathly heights and potential legal liability. Another, pot-smoking muso David Foreman, is booted from the operation after showing up stoned.

Was the WTC wirewalk truly the “Artistic Crime of the Century,” or was it a massive ego trip taken to lawbreaking extremes? Is Petit an antisocial criminal or a revolutionary showman? To Marsh’s credit, “Man on Wire” leaves audiences to ponder this question, while suggesting that its complicated subject is both.

No stranger to the crime genre, Marsh’s past films include “Troubleman” (1994), a documentary journey through the final days of soul crooner Marvin Gaye, who was murdered by his transvestite-preacher father. In 1996, New York-based Marsh revisited the eccentric-music-star realm with “The Burger and the King,” which examined the unusual diets and dining rituals of Elvis Presley. “Wisconsin Death Trip” (1999) was another foray into docu-crime, before the director tackled his first dramatic feature with “The King” (2005), an uncompromising, dark journey through incest and revenge with Gael Garcia Bernal and William Hurt.

In the paragraphs that follow, Marsh discusses the illegality behind the WTC coup, the dream-like power of cinema, and how the inevitable shadow of 9/11 influences his film.

How did you first become aware of Philippe, and consider creating a film like “Man on Wire”?
I encountered the story in its full bloom, in Philippe’s memoir, “To Reach the Clouds,” a wonderful, personal, and captivating account of the whole incident. Then I began to see that it could be an amazing film. The book itself is very cinematic, and gripping, as well. That’s how I got the idea to make “Man on Wire” into a heist film, from my reaction to reading the story. There is suspense in the various points of the adventure, where it looks like things aren’t going to work out and go wrong, and the improvised thinking around that. So it hopefully works on that level, as a kind of bank robbery/heist film.

The movie focuses so much on Philippe’s obsession with wire walking, I found myself asking the question, “Does this guy have a day job?”
He was a street juggler and street performer. That’s how the coup was financed. That’s how he supported himself and his friends in New York, through street performance – passing the hat around. There were other people he knew who were very much in sympathy to what he was doing, who maybe put a little more in the hat. But the idea of him going to an office job or having some kind of regular employment (laughter)… once you know him, you find that idea to be humorous.

Philippe is a very theatrical, animated presence in the film. In one scene, he covers his own head in a curtain while narrating. He becomes a role, reciting and reenacting these old memories. How did you choose when to have Philippe employ these personal theatrics?
He does what he wants to do. You don’t just sit down and interview someone who wants to give you a lot more, and really remember with their body as well as their words, and so the idea of (ordinary) interviewing fell apart. It became a reenactment, which has a real texture in the film. I think one of the things that define the film is the energy and mischief of those reenactments that Philippe does. They’re very funny.

You describe the heist film feel of “Man on Wire.” How much impact did the illegal aspect of his wire walking have on your movie?
It defined illegality. You couldn’t hope to go and get permission. I don’t think it crossed anyone’s mind. Of course it’s illegal. That’s the only way it could have been done at that time. I loved that. I loved the subversive element of the actual performance between the buildings, and the transformation of those buildings for that amount of time when the performance was going on. It ceased to be boring offices, and became something magical. It was defined by illegality. That’s why the film is allowed to be a crime caper, as well as a documentary. It’s probably more of a heist film, or a bank robbery film, than it is a documentary.

Annie Allix is presented as Philippe’s long-time French girlfriend. She talks about admiring his excessive, creative side – yet she also puts up with a lot…
I think the film lays it out. Annie is present for some of the preparations in France. There’s a closeness there that’s important to Philippe. But that’s really her role. She’s part of it. Not the most important part, but she does give you an interesting perspective as a woman, perhaps. There’s a sequence early on in the film where we sort of enter into her mind. She describes first meeting Philippe, and what she was thinking. I think this was an important emotional perspective for the audience as well, that they enter into this other point of view of a principal character, and see what she saw. I think she describes those things very beautifully. Women have responded really well to the film. I think one of the reasons for this is that she gives the women in the audience a nice perspective to enter into this adventure. It’s very romantic. It’s a refutation of the boring and the terrestrial.

“Man on Wire” features scenes of Philippe explaining the WTC wire walk through small buildings and diagrams on a table. It was like a stage, in which he would manipulate the miniatures to demonstrate the technical preparation.
It’s a very important part (of the film) to understand the difficulties of the rigging. That felt like a good way of doing it. Just kind of use a series of models to show how you guideline the wire, so we can understand the difficulties, then the solutions, to doing that.

Mark Lewis, an Australian member of the team, opted out of the assignment. He was concerned about the litigious nature of American society. Group members also voiced concerns about being charged with voluntary manslaughter or assisted suicide, should Philippe fall to his death.
I think he was an important part of the early planning for this, yet he doesn’t feel able to see it through for the reasons he gave very early in the film. Jim Moore, another character, was initially possibly part of the team. He goes up there one time and it’s very windy. He sees all of the negative elements and things that could potentially go wrong, and he backs away from being involved in the rigging. I think he’s just scared (laughed). Who am I to judge him? I would be scared, too. If you can imagine going up to the top of the World Trade Center…

But I think Philippe was going up there for that very reason, to see and experience the extreme conditions up there. I think everyone involved is quite honest about the fear of being up there. They make no bones about it. The Americans who get involved later on are feckless and unreliable.

David Foreman, one of the would-be team members, was even smoking pot on the night of the coup, right?
Yes. That’s David, a rock musician at the time. He was stoned on the night they went up there. He doesn’t try and pretend that he was the hero of the hour. He ends up being a rather cowardly presence. The team gets rid of him. He’s kicked off the team. He’s dispatched from the powers and leaves accordingly. To his credit, he doesn’t make out to be anything other than that… perhaps someone lacking in moral fiber.

There were introductory scenes for each of the characters, where each key player would be initially be silhouetted in black, their head would turn to reveal an illuminated face, and their title or part in the coup would be written below. Whose idea was this?
That was a way to serve the heist element of the story, by looking almost like criminal mug shots. And it labels peoples’ roles in the film. There’s a character called Barry (Greenhouse), who is very important to the story, and he has a preposterous handlebar moustache. At one point towards the end of the film, he says he wasn’t necessarily adverse to things that were slightly illegal, with a very mischievous smile on his face. You make your own friends in this kind of venture, I guess. He was the right person for that. He had the ID cards, and a floor plan. He was also a great find, because he worked on the highest occupied floor of the twin towers. You couldn’t get any higher than where he was at the time. He was on the 82nd floor. He was a key and vital part of the successful execution of the coup. You see him in that mug shot, and he looks very dodgy, indeed – very mischievous.

Does he wear the moustache during his regular routine?
Sure! In other photographs, the moustache is bigger – even more magnificent, like when he was there in 1974.

Were there any key players in the coup who were anxious about participating in “Man on Wire,” and being filmed?
Everyone involved, once tracked down (participated). Alan (Welner) was resistant to it, and we questioned whether we wanted to leave him in the film. I felt that we should at least interview him and see what he had to say for himself. He was hard to find. He was a little reluctant to get on camera, but eventually even he saw that it was a wonderful story and he was part of it, for better or for worse.

This story would be unique under any circumstances, but “Man on Wire” is somewhat bittersweet and sad, in light of 9/11. Knowing that the Towers are no longer there adds additional emotional impact.
Clearly it does. I’m aware of that very much. Of course, this film makes no reference to the future tragedy of those buildings. But it’s implicit as you view the film; a subtext that everyone will bring to it. There’s a poignancy to the fate of those buildings. The film needs to work on a level of story that – at least for its duration – transcends the fate of those buildings. Why should they only be defined by the ugliness and hatefulness of their destruction? They had a life before that, and this is one of the most brilliant stories about those buildings. It happened in 1974, when they had just been finished. They were new.

Can you describe your next project as a filmmaker?
I’m working on a straightforward feature film out of the UK. I’m also doing a documentary on the subject of dreams, also being created in the UK. I did a feature film before “Man on Wire” called “The King.” I’m doing a fictional crime thriller set in the North of England in 1980, called “1980.” I’m also developing this ambitious, potentially crazy documentary that will be dramatizing a dream diary. An old man recorded all the dreams he had over the course of a lifetime, of a woman he was in love with. The dreams have a surreal dramatization of his relationship with this woman, who dies very tragically in the dreams.

Dreams play a pivotal part in “Man on Wire.
The film opens with a dream. Then there’s the more general sense of someone dreaming something. I always thought that the walk itself was like a waking dream. If you were walking underneath the WTC (and saw Philippe) it would feel a bit like a dream: the imagery of a dream – a man walking on the air. It does have those elements. Hopefully, it’s hypnotic in the way that dreams are.

It’s an ambition of many filmmakers to create a dream-like state, and the best filmmakers really do that, like Alfred Hitchcock and Frederico Fellini. The whole relationship between dream states and film is very interesting. You watch a film in a darkened theater. It’s like being asleep, a little bit.

“Blue Velvet” is like one big long dream. So is “8 ½,” which opens with a spectacular dream. The documentary I’m developing could be unwatchable or even unlike-able, but it feels like it will be a noble failure at worst. At best, it might be something really personal and surprising. It might extend your ideas about filmmaking in some way or another.

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