‘Wire’ walks a fine line

Special to The Times

On Aug. 7, 1974, a confident young Frenchman named Philippe Petit walked a secretly rigged wire between the World Trade Center towers in New York, dazzling a waking city, inflaming authorities, and making gloriously real a goal he’d worked toward for six years.

But it’s taken 34 years for a movie such as James Marsh’s acclaimed documentary “Man on Wire” to come along and chronicle it. That’s because Petit -- a man whose height-scaling pursuits understandably lead him to be concerned about control over his destiny -- had rejected all offers from filmmakers over the years.

“You cannot embellish it, you can only give justice to it,” the 58-year-old Petit said of his achievement in an interview at the Palomar hotel during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “I wanted at least collaboration, you know? And that didn’t happen until I met James Marsh.”


Upon which the impish entertainer picked the director’s pocket (Marsh was also along for the interview) and showed him how to kill someone with a copy of People magazine. “He’s kind of a mischievous fellow,” says Marsh, who felt the urge to tell Petit’s story after reading the wire walker’s eccentric and poetic 2002 memoir “To Reach the Clouds.” “But we got on really well. We’d talk about movies all the time. I think he wanted someone who was willing to listen to his ideas about how the film should be. And that it was going to be fun.”

Which doesn’t mean they always saw eye to eye. Doing an interview for the documentary in a steam bath? No, said Marsh. Using the same Michael Nyman music Petit practiced wire walking to many years ago? Absolutely. In any case, Petit relished the idea of artistic discord: “To be fighting for your point is more interesting than agreeing constantly.”

The idiosyncratic Petit, whose Gallic-accented English has a juggler’s rhythmic grace, talks about his adventure-filled life -- including his rebellious rock climbing as a boy, his street-theater amusements and his mastering the pickpocket’s trade-- in a way that is both disarmingly arty and casually arrogant. Self-taught as a wire walker, he sets himself apart from journeyman big-top daredevils by calling what he does “a unique theater in the sky” rather than a job. “They don’t maybe love their wire, or talk to their wire,” Petit says of others who perform aloft on a taut, thumb-thick stage. “What interests me is a purity. Remember the etymology. It’s ‘high-wire walker.’ So I dedicated myself in creating walks. Go to the circus, to those people, and if you said, ‘Show me some walking,’ they would laugh at you. ‘We tumble, we do pyramids, we do unicycle, but we don’t walk. This is ridiculous.’ So I think it is the most difficult thing to do on a wire, to do some amazing walk.”

Despite the heart-stopping effect his talent has on spectators, he insists endangerment is never a factor. If he can’t control a situation, he won’t perform. “I have a life wish, not a death wish,” says Petit, who has designs for wire walks at the Grand Canyon and Easter Island, but as yet no financial backers. “I will never take a risk. ‘Let’s get on the wire and we’ll see’ is not me. Risking your life is really an obscene exercise.”

In fact, “Man on Wire” is most nail-biting about everything but Petit’s legendary bird’s-eye stroll: the assembling of his dedicated co-conspirators, the subterfuge, the close calls with security guards, the last-minute changes of plan.

“It’s actually more like a heist film than a documentary,” says Marsh, who ended up combining interviews and footage of the planning from Petit’s archive, and re-created scenes in black and white (inspired by genres and auteurs including caper films such as “Rififi” and German Expressionist directors such as Murnau) into a time-shifting narrative. “It had to feel like a ripping yarn as it unfolds. But the human drama was what surprised me most about it, the power of the recollections of people. For all of them, it was a very big event in their young lives. Every interviewee was in tears at some point. What Philippe achieved was done with great passion and great conviction.”

That combination of a kid’s dream come true and an undercover operation is why Petit, who has lived in the U.S. since the feat, refers to the wire walk as both a fairy tale and a coup. Marsh notes, “As someone says in the film, ‘It’s illegal, but it’s not wicked.’ ”

While the movie gives a hushed embrace of criminality’s pleasures (“Life is short, and an artist or poet should not lose their time and energy in asking permission,” Petit says), it declines to offer any mention of the murderous act that destroyed the towers in 2001.

“It felt to me completely and utterly wrong to burden the film with some foolish, tokenish gesture,” says Marsh of his carefully wrought decision to leave 9/11 out of “Man on Wire,” and not even ask Petit about it in interviews. “I know the power of the subtext of the film. I experienced it myself. I live in New York and witnessed the destruction with my own eyes. But this story came along and I saw the antidote quality to it. His story is a unique opportunity to inhabit the Towers again and in a sense rebuild them. In the film, they go up, they don’t come down.”

It’s a decision Petit applauded as well. But it didn’t mean Marsh wasn’t nervous about the potential reaction. At the film’s Sundance screening this year, a tear-streaked woman approached him, and suddenly the filmmaker feared he’d misjudged his movie’s timing. Then she spoke. “She said she was crying because she was really happy,” Marsh recalls. “She said, ‘I lost someone in the buildings, and you’ve given me another memory.’ ”