For the lack of better words, it’s been a real balancing act for famed wire walker Philippe Petit for the past nine years — considering not one but two films about his death-defying walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center have made it to the big screen.
The first, of course, was director James Marsh’s 2008 Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire”; and now, nine years after Petit got a call from filmmaker Robert Zemeckis in a bid to tell the wire walker’s riveting tale in narrative fashion, “The Walk” is finally stepping its way into theaters.
“Although ‘The Walk’ is not the first film to take a look at the part of my life, it’s different because of the dimension and its immensity, and if you look at the movie in IMAX 3-D it is incredible,” Petit told me in a phone conversation from New York Wednesday.
Now playing in IMAX venues and expanding to theaters nationwide on Friday, “The Walk” chronicles the life and events leading up to the then-24-year-old Petit’s thrilling wire walk between the void of the Twin Towers in 1974. Directed and co-written by Zemeckis, “The Walk,” based on Petit’s book, “To Reach the Clouds,” stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit and Ben Kingsley as his mentor, Papa Rudy.
The interesting thing about “The Walk” is that Petit wasn’t looking to make his story into a feature film — that is, until he got a call from Zemeckis out of the blue. Once Zemeckis obtained a copy of the 2003 children’s book “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers,” he was determined to flesh Petit’s story out on the big screen.
“I received a phone call from him because he had the children’s book that he was reading to his little kids,” Petit recalled. “He said, ‘I want to make a movie about you in 3-D, putting people on the wire with you, and nine years later, the movie has opened. It’s really been an adventure.”
At the same time, the French artist said, “Man on Wire” was in the works, so he felt that there would be a chance Zemeckis wouldn’t be interested in telling another version of his story.
“The first thing I said to Robert when I met him was, ‘Did you know that there’s a documentary in production?’ and he said, ‘That’s great. It can only help. This film will be a different form of storytelling from the ideas in my head.’ So after the ‘Man on Wire’ production, I started another adventure with Robert,” Petit recalled.
“The Walk” is particularly special to Petit, because as a PG film it is accessible to a wider base of movie fans. Petit said what makes the film experience particularly poignant — even though it is not addressed in “The Walk” itself — is the retelling of his tale in the wake of the terror attack on the Twin Towers.
“It’s incredible, seeing my story first as a children’s book and now being open to film audiences as a family movie by Robert Zemeckis. I have a whole new generation getting interested in what has become a legend, in a way, because the towers are not here anymore,” Petit said. “I have kids from schools sending me beautiful drawings, poems and questions, and at the end of the year, one school even puts on a little play that reconstructs my walk. The films have opened the door to a different age. That’s a great compliment for an artist to witness.”
Petit has maintained a great sense of humility about his accomplishments (“The Walk” also chronicles his walk between the two towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in 1971), as well as sense of humor. In his in his Twitter bio @PetitWTC, he proudly describes himself as “Man On Wire — been arrested more than 500 times for … Street-Juggling!”
The irony is, Petit said despite everything he’s done — and as many times as he’s been arrested — it’s never been for the attention. In fact, as it’s demonstrated in the film, Petit assembled a small crew for his “artistic coup” to walk the wire between World Trade Center towers, which was pulled off like a heist underneath the noses of New York City authorities, city personnel and construction workers.
“What is extraordinary is that I’ve never sought fame, it came naturally in the aftermath of the things I did,” Petit said, humbly. “If I had a goal, it was to venture in that strange, magic space created between the Twin Towers. I’m glad what I offered the people watching below and people around the world inspired them. I’m glad when people came up to me afterward and said, ‘You inspired us,’ instead of just offering them a slice of the impossible.”
If Petit’s dizzying walk between the Twin Towers in “The Walk” proves anything, it’s shows that you can go to incredible places as long as it’s your passion — not fame or fortune — that’s guiding you.
“People often ask me what the recipe is for the life I lead, to walk a wire, I always refer to the word ‘passion,'” Petit, 66, said. “If I look back at my life, whether when it was at 6 years old when I was learning magic by myself or at age 14 when I started to learn juggling, the passion was what mattered. I was practicing 12 hours a day, and was thrown out of school because I was so passionate and wanted to attain perfection. Passion should be on everybody’s slate throughout life.”