Living On The Edge: James Marsh on Man On Wire
Another from the Clash archives (August 2008): James Marsh on his film Man On Wire which would win a BAFTA the following year. Marsh’s next documentary Project Nim is out in August.
On August 7th 1974, Phillipe Petit completed one of the most dangerous artistic statements in history when he tightrope-walked between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Director James Marsh discusses Man on Wire, his new documentary that examines the incident.
Imagine standing atop a skyscraper almost half a kilometre high. Now imagine walking along a tightrope approximately an inch thick for fifty metres until you reach a second tower of the same height. It sounds impossible. And yet, this amazing moment of bravery is matched in the incredulity stakes by the planning needed to even attempt the actual walk.
When Frenchman Philippe Petit first saw an artist’s impression of the twin towers, he was strangely compelled to cross them by tightrope. Years later, after similar feats in Sydney and at the Notre Dame, he was ready. Having assembled a small range of accomplishes who veered from loyal friend to dedicated stoner, as well as discreetly scouting every minor detail of the towers, he was fully prepared. All he had to do was sneak sixty metres of steel cable and accompanying rigging into the tower, get their two-hundred kilogram mass up to the roof, some twenty-eight floors above the top eighty-second floor, and then rig the wire from one tower to another. All while allowing for wind and the movement of the two buildings.
Amazing, Petit not only succeeded, but crossed the gap eight times during a forty-five minutes spell of dancing above the dazzled onlookers. He was arrested, but not after capturing the imagination of the city.
An Englishman in New York, director James Marsh has created Man on Wire, a fascinating and compelling study of Petit’s tale. “A lot of people are dimly aware of the event almost like it’s part of the recent city’s folklore,” he begins. “After the towers were destroyed it took on a very different meaning for obvious reasons. Philippe Petit wrote a book called To Reach The Clouds which is very personal and subjective memoir of how he did his World Trade Center walk. The book is written from his own point of voice and what I tried to do was to broaden it out and to try to track down every person who was involved in the plotting of what was essentially a criminal conspiracy.”
The film becomes a multi-stranded narrative as similarly fascinating characters such as Petit’s best friend Jean-Louis Blondeau and girlfriend Annie Allix give their side of a fascinating and surprisingly emotive moment. “I was surprised by how much detail everyone else remembers and how important it was as an adventure in their young lives,” explains Marsh, previously best known for the Gael García Bernal drama The King and creepy docudrama Wisconsin Death Trip. “When people recall the moment of the walk itself, they’re incredibly moved and they seem to reconnect with their feelings of the time. Their friendships have been tested in really unusual ways so in that respect you can see some very strong emotions from people who no longer have the same friendships that they did at the time. That’s the one thing that surprised me more than anything else. It becomes very poignant and bittersweet.”
For Marsh, the appeal of the project wasn’t solely due to the event’s almost mythological status. “Once you realise it’s not a stunt and it’s actually a performance that someone wants to do so badly and the whole performance is framed by the possibility of death – and it’s completely illegal, it was trespassing and breaking and entering – you realise you’ve got a sort of crime story where the objective isn’t really a crime at all, it’s to give something, to do something amazing,” he flows beatifically. “It passes this test that I have of being naughty and subversive as well.”
Petit, of course, is the undoubted star of the show. Upon first meeting Marsh to discuss the project, the nimble fingered Frenchman picked the director’s pocket and taught him how to kill a man with a magazine. Interviewing him on camera proved to be a similarly tricky task. “Usually you have a certain amount of control, but that wasn’t an option with Phillipe. Within a few minutes he was running off around the room, climbing up the walls, hiding behind curtains and running out the door,” laughs Marsh with evident fondness. “So I decided to embrace that and liberate everybody from the conventions of interviews and try to capture the energy of his testimony.”
There’s a sadness that no video footage of the great walk exists, but its absence creates an enigmatic feeling that makes the story all the more astonishing. Blondeau had equipped himself with a 16mm camera to film proceedings, but after spending six hours pulling the prohibitively heavy wires into place he couldn’t even lift it. Marsh’s documentary substitutes video footage with some remarkable stills photography of the incident.
Man on Wire represents astounding viewing; its eccentric lead as compelling as the almost unbelievable circumstances, all constructed with empathy and artistry that makes it perhaps the finest documentary since Touching The Void.
“I think he [Petit] has a very good concept of danger and that’s what keeps him alive,” concludes Marsh. “But also he knows his own limits and his own talents, he’s a very ambitious man and he doesn’t recognise anything to be impossible when it comes to his art of wire-walking. He’s very attentive to the nature of what he does. He’s got a sense of his limits, but they’re pretty amazing limits.”