Sundance Features

January 18, 2008

James Marsh, Man On Wire

"In a sense it's kind of a bank-robbery film -- not to steal something, but to give something."

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

THE REELER: Man on Wire is an interesting case -- a World Cinema competition doc that's essentially a New York story. What can you tell me about it?

JAMES MARSH: Very simply, it's the story of an illegal tightrope walk that was performed by Philippe Petit between the Twin Towers in 1974 -- just as they were being finished. He had the idea even before they were built; he'd seen a newspaper article as a teenager in France. When they were built, he came to New York and spent a year planning how he could actually do this. When you see the images of what he did, it looks like kind of a stunt, when in fact it's kind of a criminal conspiracy that lasts for about a year. He spent eight months in New York sneaking around the towers -- breaking into them, taking photographs inside and on the roof of the towers to figure out how he can get himself and a group of people into the tower with lots of equipment without anyone noticing -- to do his performance. In a sense it's kind of a bank-robbery film -- not to steal something, but to give something.

R: How did you get turned on to the subject?

JM: Philippe wrote and published an idiosyncratic memoir of the whole event called To Reach the Clouds. It's almost a diary of how he did what he did. He's French, and he's very expressive with language -- English is his second language, but he uses it in a very Gallic kind of way. And the memoir is just so charming and captivating. There's also a children's book that tells the story in a much more simple and graphic way. Those are just the two things I was aware of, as well as the folklore of this happening. After 9/11, some of this was invoked once or twice in connection with the Twin Towers, which I think made the film both viable and [represent] something different viewed from our perspective. But one of the things I thought going into this project was that it shouldn't be confused with anything that happened to the towers later on, even if that's a perspective that people can't help but bring to it. It isn't a nostalgic wallow in what happened 30 years ago; it's much more of a crime narrative that just so happens to be about the World Trade Center.

R: Considering that you did want to have that demarcation, how did you go about pursuing and assembling this kind of crime story, so to speak, in a technical sense?

JM: The first point of entry is Philippe himself. He has a quite obsessive archive of materials related to what he did both in that walk and other illegal walks he did. Once you meet Philippe you realize he's clearly the protagonist in this story, and he was keen to work with me on the film and suggest ideas and be involved in the whole production. The we rounded up people who were involved in the actual criminal conspiracy, all of whom have quite conflicting memories of what happened and how they did it. There's this very subjective set of different narratives and quite a lot of conflict among the people involved. It was a kind of squabbling bunch of ne'er-do-wells, one of whom was French, another of whom was Australian, a couple of Americans. Some of the people on the team backed out at certain points because they thought he was going to literally commit suicide up there. So you've got all of this human drama going on; I think that after 30 years everyone was keen to have their say.

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There is no moving archive of Philippe's walk, so we relied on really quite striking stills that were taken from the roof by one of his accomplices. They can be really strong if you do your job properly with them. There is some very charming archive film that Philippe himself was involved in shooting in France: He organized a training camp in the countryside, where he put a wire up that would be the same length as between the Twin Towers and then practiced on the wire. They also practiced how to get one line across from one tower to the other; they ended up using a bow and arrow to fire fishing line across. It had these very comic, medieval elements leading up to this ultimate performance: a breathtaking, hour-long dance on the wire. It really helps set up a rather innocent tone to the whole proceedings.

R: What are your apprehensions, excitements and other thoughts about attending your first Sundance?

JM: I'm keen to go. I think the best thing is to have low expectations and hopefully be surprised. When you finish a film, one of the first things you're curious about is how the film plays with an audience. At a festival you tend to have kind of a sympathetic audience in the first place, so it's kind of benign. I don't have any specific expectations other than I hope the film works for an audience. From that, maybe other good things will come.

Comments (7)

I used to be in class with Philippe (1966-1968). As a family as well as a classmate, and very impressed by his talents and strength of will to continue his art despite a father who appeared insensitive to his son's special albeit very unusual gift, we tried to help both morally and in-kind. He spent most of his pocket money of which he had very little, buying cards or other items for tricks rather than solid food. It kept him slim though! His inner strenght and self-control were already obvious...and, in afterthought, maybe he simply lived on ...air!Last time I saw Philippe was on Boulevard St.Germain surrounded by a bunch of both French and American tourists. He was delighting them evolving on his monocycle while juggling. My mother however, met him in New York, just after he had walked between the towers.He could tell her about the secret making of the cable, about the attitude in the New World visa the Old one with respect to his talent and performance and a lot of other details found in his book "To reach the clouds". Which I only read a few years ago stumbling upon it quite by chance. The last time I heard about Philippe was last summer. Again, quite by accident, he met some close friends of mine in the Lot. How he turned up there is a mystery. But life is full of surprises and I would love to hear from him. Maybe, if you can just convey this message to Philippe...from an old classmate and friend, Kristin

To Kristin Ebbesen,

I would love to hear from you directly, email me please so we can exchange numbers and let's talk.


When my daughters told me about this fellow student and his difficulty in convincing his family about his circus ambitions---we decided to give him a party to raise some money for him and we told him to go ahead "pick-pocketing" and juggling etc. It was a huge success, particularly when he returned all the "stolen" goods ! Then the next time I saw him it was in N.Y. Greenwich village, doing his routine on the pavement---Then to my delight he later took me up to the twin towers & showed mw how it was done ! The mind boggles at his bravery. There is something mystical about him.

When will this film be released in 2008? Thanks

I have just seen Man on Wire and was struck of course by the magic of the story, and gasped aloud several times during the film as he stepped foot on the wire and danced on it. But what I have not heard mentioned, and perhaps I misread the film, but I had the clear sense that the relationships which were integral to his taking this walk ended with the walk, with Annie and Jean-Louis. I found myself very curious to know more about this. It seemed significant that Philip had sex with a stranger shortly after descending the towers. It seemed that something in him had changed and perhaps in his relationships as well, as though some part of him did die or transform with this act. Curious if others had similar thoughts.

The first time I met you was in December of 1974

Then years have past and I was at Great America at the pictorium. You were walking over Niagra Falls.

Now, another 16 years have past and I was at Borders and picked up one of my favorite magazines...there you were...AS BIG AS LIFE!!!

I wonder if there is a reason why you keep popping up into my life?

I hope you email me at

Fantastic. I cannot wait to see the film.

Spent July 2007 helping to set up a walk with my lifelong friend, the young upstart funambule (and Vermont-France expat) Jade Kindar-Martin in Angers, Fr. Had the pleasure of reading To Reach the Clouds for the first time at Jade and Karine's Mas in the southern Cevennes last April. Wonderful!

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