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Without A Net: An Interview with Man on Wire’s Philippe Petit

Philippe Petit is like many artists. He thinks like a dreamer, speaks like a poet, and is fiercely passionate about his work. But he’s also unlike any other artist, thanks to one mind-jarring feat: His infamous, illegal high-wire walk between New York City’s Twin Towers in 1974.

James Marsh’s Man on Wire, one of the most acclaimed films of 2008, chronicles Petit’s dream act from the moment the French performer first heard about the World Trade Center to the completion of his remarkable act. Thanks to the film’s popularity, its recent Oscar nomination, and Petit’s book (also titled Man on Wire), the artist and his accomplices have been revisiting the details.

Filmcritic.com: Tell us about the fame that comes with such a unique achievement.

Philippe Petit: Fame was never something I was seeking in my artistic journey. It’s to be used as a tool for an artist to break open doors and keep creating. That’s how I enjoyed fame in ’74, it was not just for the emptiness of being famous.

I tried — but didn’t succeed — to do all of what I wanted to do. My books, my film, my play, my performances. It’s not what people think. It’s not, ‘You’re famous and now the whole world changes.’ If your soul stays in the same place, nothing changes. If I am famous, well, I am an unsuccessful famous man. Certainly, I don’t care.

Then how did you choose to get involved with the movie Man on Wire?

In the past 34 years, there were dozens of invitations to let a movie be made from my story. I said no to those offers because it was ‘sign here, you’ll get instantly rich, and we’ll invite you to the premiere.’ Of course, if you know my life a little bit, such a thing is impossible for me. I wanted to participate in the process of creating a work of art.

It’s ironic, and naturally enraging, that it took 34 years for me to find the right people. Basically, it was the welcome collaboration of mine, the welcome participation in the creative process. That’s what made me say yes.

The film delves into the day-to-day activities, such as sneaking into forbidden areas of the World Trade Center and smuggling into tools. What was the mood like for you and your colleagues?

It was life at its best between a group of friends, and one of the friends had an amazing dream. It started like that, but then things get more complicated, and there are more accomplices that were not my friends. The general mood for me, after all those years of dreaming, all those months in New York spying on the Towers and assembling the pieces of the puzzle, was very joyful. At times, very dramatic and very gripping, but usually very joyful.

That shows up on screen as you recount the time. Your energy is one of the hallmarks of the movie.

I had a great joy — and pain, at times — to relive this adventure. We [shot the movie] for days and days and days, so it could’ve really been this one-man show. Only a few bits and pieces remain in the documentary. I remember having a great joy — it was exhilarating — to be reliving the story.

What has provided the thrill in wire-walking for you, specifically at the Twin Towers? Were you intrigued by the enormous height?

I’ve frowned at the idea of breaking records, the first one to do something, or do it longer, higher, more difficult. I was not born into the world of the stuntman and the daredevil; I was born into the world of theater and writing and sculpting and classical music. Therefore for me, it’s not the scale of something.

I didn’t just run across and scream ‘I did it!’ I actually made some kind of very strange theater in which my friends told me, ‘You just stood 45 minutes on that wire. You actually crossed eight times. Each of the crossings was very different.’ This is not the act of a stuntman obviously, it’s the act of a mad boy who is in love with a very small stage on which a life should not be changed but should be carried across. This is how I still feel about it.

I was struck by how impossible it is to truly illustrate the magnitude of that wire-walk. It seems that no image or film can really capture it. Would you agree?

I do agree. I’m a wire-walker, but actually I’m a moviemaker that hasn’t done his first movie. I have really thought of how to tell my adventure through the art of moviemaking for the past 34 years. In the film in my head, there is a way in which I do justice to the walk. I think it’s a mix of sound effects — the sounds that were in my head and many many other intimate sounds in the body of a wire-walker. There is the sliding of his soles on the cable, there is the vibration, and that’s only one-tenth of I would have shared if I had made this movie.

There would have been the sound and the smell of the city. The sea, the ocean… there are so many unknown sounds I would have brought almost tangibly to the screen, and I would have married them in some kind of mad symphony. I would have done that maybe by just staring at one picture, and one picture only, and extremely, slowly, zooming in to that picture as you appear to enter the universe of the wire-walker.

In the film, when you talk about the obvious dangers of wire-walking, you say one wrong move and you could enter ‘another life.’ Is that your viewpoint on death?

Yes, that’s very much how I feel. When people talk about the danger of wire-walking they use crude words. I cannot use those words because my universe on the high wire obviously is not the one people perceive. It’s a very different one. It’s a peaceful place where, yes, no mistakes are allowed, but that is a beautiful thing to live your life where no mistakes are allowed. Then, you’re going to live fully, and that’s partly what I’m seeking in the clouds.

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