They called it the artistic crime of the century. Shortly after 7:15am on 7 August, 1974, a 24-year-old Frenchman stepped off the roof of the South Tower of the World Trade Center into thin air. And walked around for 45 minutes.
When the police arrived, they were stunned. Standing on a thin steel cable strung 140ft between the Twin Towers, swinging in the morning breeze a quarter of a mile up, Philippe Petit started to laugh. He sat down, gave knee-salute and, while lying on the wire, seemed to be talking with a seagull circling above his head. “We asked him to get off the high wire, but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle,” recalled one of the bewildered officers. “He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire.” By the time he calmly stepped back onto the rooftop – and into handcuffs – Petit had made eight crossing between the Towers. When spellbound reporters asked why he did it, the young man simply shrugged. “When I see three oranges, I juggle. When I see two towers, I walk.”
“It’s one of those stories where it’s almost impossible to believe it all happened. It’s wonderful and it’s all true,” says James Marsh, the Brit director of The King who brings Petit’s story to film with documentary Man On Wire. “Le Coup” took six years of planning. Petit and a group of rag-tag conspirators – including his girlfriend, best friend, a WTC employee, a random Australian and a NY pothead – disguised themselves as businessmen, journalists and construction workers, smuggling their equipment in using fake IDs and hid in the towers overnight while security guards prowled the building. “My references for this film were heist thrillers, particularly Rififi with it’s extraordinary silent break-in,” says Marsh. “We created this structure, where we see this unfolding crime take place and then flashback to the events that got them there.”
Petit has been asked to consent to a film of that day numerous times over the years. But it took Marsh to finally persuade him to let him tell the story. “Philippe doesn’t really live in the same world as you and I. You have to enter his world, and if you do so, you have to enter it on his terms. You must never call him a daredevil. Or refer to it as a stunt. He’s an accomplished pickpocket, and a magician and a juggler. And he’ll display all those darks arts for you when you meet him.”
As he climbs the walls and hides under curtains, watching the charismatic Frenchman tell his own story is a one-man show. “It’s strange because film is what drives me for all my life. I think my life… I think it’s a movie,” Petit tells Total Film in his rich Gallic accent, so animated that almost every sentence turns into a performance. In fact, for the last 25 years, Petit has been making a list of his favourite film. “It’s a long list, but let’s say, I like Marat/Sade from Peter Brook, The Man In The Glass Booth, the films of Milos Forman, Fellini, Kurosawa…” Hitchcock’s Vertigo? “Yes, yes, Vertigo, Rope, I have seen quite a few Hitchcock films. And The Birds, of course…” Petit doesn’t take the bait. In fact, he doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of the word “falling”. “That’s not what I’m talking about,” he chuckles. “You are. But not I. Heh, heh… No, I cannot do that. This is a word that is foreign for my mind. I walk on thin lines in mid-air. What you just describe is the opposite, the negation of that.”
Three decades later, people did fall from the Towers, as Petit watched all day in horror on a neighbour’s television. But for Marsh, here was a chance to “somehow reclaim the memory of those buildings for something else, just for the duration of the film.” And Man On Wire is the first film since 9/11 in which the Towers are instinctive associated with magic and wonder, no longer a symbol of tragedy. “Besides the fact that thousands of people lost their lives, I had a personal connection with those towers, they were alive inside me,” says Petit. “I had seen them grow and I had married them with my wire, and now to see them die was a very personal drama.”
Still performing on the street and continuing his high-wire projects, Petit describes himself as “a filmmaker at heart who has not done his first film”. That could be about to change – he’s now develop his own film about that WTC wire-walk. He also has a friend who might be able to help. “I like to remember that we met by accident but it’s not true! I loved his early films, like 25 years ago, and I wrote him a little note. We met and we discovered we were like brothers! Heh, heh, heh. And sometimes we fight to the blood. The world is small. I had to meet Werner Herzog. And he had to meet me.”
Publication: Total Film.