I have read that you first heard Philippe Petit on the radio before seeking the rights to his book, "To Reach the Clouds". What was it that first compelled you to follow your instinct and make this film?
Yes, I first came across Philippe on a famous BBC radio show called 'Desert Island Discs' in April 2005. It was a combination of his extraordinary passion and utterly idiosyncratic view of the world that first caught my attention. Then I read his memoir, 'To Reach the Clouds', in which he tells the story of his World Trade Center 'coup' from his singular perspective. The book reads like a heist thriller, infused with poetry, and I just knew the story - particularly set against the backdrop of those iconic buildings, viewed now through the prism of what we all know happened to them - would make a wonderful cinema documentary. Philippe is an amazing character for a documentary, but I also wanted to gather together all the conspirators of the coup so that the story could be told from multiple perspectives for the first time.
How did you convince Petit to accept the offer of making his story into a documentary?
I pursued him with some tenacity - a quality he appreciates. He was pretty sceptical at first but I had the bit between my teeth and wouldn't let go. In the end, he relented! The key to getting him to entrust us with his story was to guarantee that we would involve him in the creative process and make it as much of a collaboration as we could. James and Philippe hit it off immediately and they spent many hours together, over the course of many months, discussing the film.
How did director James Marsh come on board?
James had just finished making his first fiction feature, The King (starring Gael Garcia Bernal and William Hurt), which was a very dark story and, I think, a pretty grueling experience for him. Philippe's story is the opposite of dark - it's a sort of urban fairytale: poignant, often witty and hugely life affirming. And it also had this great caper element at the centre of it. I had seen James' breakthrough film Wisconsin Death Trip when it went out on the BBC in the late 90s and when my producing partner Jonathan Hewes (the film's executive producer) suggested James to me I had another look at it - it's a beautifully crafted film which looks like it cost a lot more to make than it actually did! I called James in New York, where he was living at the time, and he immediately responded to my proposal - he was absolutely determined to direct the film. But It was critical that Philippe was happy with the choice of director so that was another hurdle was had to cross. Philippe agreed to meet James near his home in upstate New York and they got on famously; by the end of their first meeting it was a done deal.
The film watches as a major documentary. Were you and Marsh in agreement about the vision of the film?
Yes, we were very much in synch on the vision for the film. In terms of form, I had always seen it as a heist thriller and James embraced that idea, developed it and made it his own. The film's structure, with the unfolding heist in the foreground, and flash backs to the agonizing months spent planning for it, has more in keeping with genre films like Reservoir Dogs than conventional documentaries. We also both knew it had to be a big screen experience for the audience. The fact that it's a documentary is really incidental - it's fundamentally a narrative film, the characters just happen to be real and their words unscripted.
How much creative control did Petit exert over the film?
Philippe was a central creative collaborator in the process - he was brimming with ideas throughout the production and we embraced his best ones. In the end, though, we had to make the film we wanted to make and so there were some disagreements in the last stages of editing. But when the film was locked Philippe looked at it again and - even though it's not the film he would have made himself - gave it his blessing. He has been incredibly generous, and has given up a huge amount of his time to support and promote the film around the world, about which we are immensely grateful.
How did you finance the film?
The film was financed by the BBC, The UK Film Council and Discovery Films in the US - all of whom contributed roughly equal amounts of money to it.
The climax of the film is the1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Center performed by high wire artist, Philippe Petit was illegal. Did you encounter any opposition from NY authorities when making the documentary?
No, quite the opposite. Philippe's story is part of New York's folklore and the Port Authority, which owns the land on which the Twin Towers were built, were supportive of the project and gave us a lot of the WTC archive they control for free. Larry Silverstone, the property developer who is building the new towers on the WTC site also very generously gave us free access to film in his newly rebuilt 7 World Trade Center tower. All the reenactments depicting Philippe and his accomplices hiding out in the WTC before going up to the roof were in fact filmed on the 52nd floor of this new tower, with views into ground zero and the void where Philippe rigged his wire in August 1974. It was a privilege to be allowed to film there.
It was wonderful to see veteran Australian documentary filmmaker, Mark Lewis in the guise of co-conspirator in the documentary. Where did you shoot his interview? What was he like to work with? Were there other conspirators that you didn't interview for the film and if so, why?
Mark Lewis is a wonderful presence in the film and, although he eventually abandoned the 'coup', Philippe remembers him with great affection. The section of the film which tells the story of Philippe's second illegal high wire walk between two pylons of Sydney Harbour Bridge, which Mark helped him with, is one of my favourite moments in the film and the footage from it - shot by another Australian filmmaker called James Ricketson - is glorious. We shot the interview with Mark in New York - he was always very generous and supportive of James and the project. We pretty much managed to find and interview all the key conspirators for the film...though there were one or two bit players who we couldn't track down.
You've had a huge success with Man On Wire at festivals across the world, the first non-US production to win both Grand Jury Prize: World Cinema Documentary and the World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival; Special Jury Award and Audience Award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, the International Audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Standard Life Audience Award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. What's next for you?
I've recently embarked on another feature documentary that James Marsh is going to direct. I can't say too much about it at this stage...just watch this space!
Watch 'Man on Wire'
Sunday 26 July, 10:15pm on SBS (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Language: English, French
Director: James Marsh
What's it about?
A maverick, a dreamer, an artist: Philippe Petit is all of these things and more. On a slightly windy day in the summer of 1974, a lone figure appeared high above the heads of the people of Manhattan, balancing perfectly on a high wire strung between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. For almost an hour, Petit danced on the wire, ignoring the pleas from police to get down, simply rejoicing in his artistic expression. Winner of the 2009 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.