(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.
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.
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