I’ve flung myself over the void from the top of bridges and between mountains – but I’ve never walked over it.
That’s why I watched the vertiginous film re-enactment of French aerialist Philippe Petit’s feat, to be with him as he danced, knelt and reclined on a cable strung between New York’s Twin Towers – then the tallest on earth – over the 1,400 foot void beneath.
I wanted to feel what it’s like. And I did!
I was right up there with the aerialist as he glissaded back and forth across the swaying cable, 110 stories high over the streets of Manhattan for almost an hour.
I wasn’t a spectator craning my neck below, squinting at him through field glasses. Most of the time, I even managed to gaze down where I’d fall splat on the pavement with a split second of lost focus, a single misstep.
And I never wanted it to end. I felt like I could remain there forever, suspended in midair, treading over the clouds as in a dream.
While Philippe’s real “Walk” has been documented, no moving images of it exist. “The only recorded evidence of the walk is a handful of still photos,” explains Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Philippe in the Robert Zemeckis film.
“The photos are incredible. But it’s different than seeing and experiencing it unfold,” he went on.
“Making a movie where you actually get to be inside the character of Philippe, when he lives that moment and all the hopes and fears and imperfections that led up to it, is unique. Getting to witness that in a movie, being up there with the character, seeing what he saw, is a different experience.”
For me, it’s also personal matter.
I used to gaze at the twin towers of the World Trade Center the first time I came to the Big Apple, five years before terrorists obliterated them. Early this year, I visited the memorial with two eternity pools gushing from the gaping holes where they once stood.
Ironically, the fame which the Twin Towers gained led to their destruction. Nobody liked them when they opened to the public in 1973. People thought of them as ugly giant filing cabinets in the skyline, the eyesores of Manhattan.
After Philippe’s walk in 1974, the twin towers acquired a personality of their own. New Yorkers became enamored with them. They became icons of the Big Apple and the ultimate symbols of America.
And that’s why they were targeted 28 years later. To humble this great nation, terrorists hijacked two passenger planes in 2001 and crashed them into the twin towers, kamikaze style, crumbling them to dust and taking over 5,000 lives.
At the time Philippe walked between the towers, they were proud new structures soaring over the harbor. And Philippe was so young then. He conceptualized his “Walk” aged 17 but actualized it aged 25.
His 45-minute walk on the highest wire in the world at the time took all of 8 years to prepare.
He’s 66 now, a senior citizen, although he declared if the towers should rise again, he’ll repeat his walk.
But I’m not so sure.
I do wish the film had done more to dissect his psyche. I felt it stereotyped him as a daredevil, nothing more. In the end, as the credits rolled, I realized I knew nothing about him except for the fact that he’s “got guts” – as one cop said in parting.
Of course, the making of the film intrigued me, as always.
What can be more challenging than creating the entire world of 1974 New York, as seen from thousands of feet in the air, between two buildings that have since fallen, from scratch?
“We have to make everything, from the lobby of the World Trade Center to 1974 downtown New York City,” says Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Baillie.
The production design department built the roof of one tower on a giant stage. It was a mind-blowingly cool, big set. Still, the city around it, the fog swirling between the towers, the towers themselves rising up from the city, all had to be created completely digitally, based on photo references.
Those buildings obviously don’t exist anymore but they had to feel 1,000 percent real and present, because they are the emotional heart of the film. “The Towers are very much present in the film as characters,” the director stressed.
Likewise, the film would not have been possible without the real Philippe Petit, who says “The Walk” is an accurate portrayal of his real-life coup.
“I must confess, I was on the edge of my seat – not just for the wire walk, but for the whole adventure. Seeing the movie in IMAX 3D, I was transported back there on that day August 1974. It’s my story. I know it well. I know how it ends – and yet I was secretly thinking, I hope these guys make it.”
Another challenge was the fact that the real-life Philippe had years of high-wire walking under his belt to perform his coup. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the actor who played him, only had eight days.
Gamely, the actor embraced the challenge of walking on the wire.
“It was a serious challenge, but I love doing stuff with my body – incorporating physicality into a performance,” Joe acknowledged.
“What is wire walking?” asks Robert Zemeckis. “You could say it’s a stunt because it’s risky. You’re on a wire hanging, in the case of the World Trade Center towers, over 1300 feet in the air. But it’s also dance. It’s also gymnastics. It’s also ballet. It’s a whole physical performance. It’s an art form unto itself. In movie terms, it’s stunt work, but in reality it’s ballet.”
And Joe couldn’t have asked for a better tightrope teacher. Philippe himself taught him. Truth is, “He taught me more than tightrope walking. For him, balance on the wire is the metaphor for his whole life and creativity.”
“I taught him my wire, not the high wire,” Philippe clarified. “I taught him there’s no balance unless your body and your soul, your heart and your mind, are in unison with your feet and with the balancing pole in your arms. That’s the secret of balance. Without passion, without soul, you’ll have a dumb acrobat on a rope.”
Theirs was an intensive workshop, “excruciatingly tiring”, as he described it. Mentor and student toiled from nine AM to five PM every day. “We had breaks of only thirty seconds. We started with the line on the floor. In the end, he was seven feet high on a thirty feet long wire.”
The entire crew gave Joe a huge ovation.
“He was able to walk by himself across our entire stage on a real wire — his training went that far. The crew was so excited to see their actor do the performance by himself,” confirmed Producer Steve Starkey.
“For the simpler stuff, Joe did the actual walk himself, which was amazing,” Kevin added. “For the more complex stuff, like when he lies down, when he has the pole over his back, the wire was nestled into a 20-foot-long green steel beam. When you look at the actual footage, he’s walking on a six-inch-wide plank that has the wire in the middle of it. But when we removed all the green, it looks like he’s just standing on a wire.”
Needless to say, certain technical moves on the wire were beyond Joe’s ability.
For these, the filmmakers employed a double, Jade Kindar-Martin, one of the most accomplished high-wire walkers in the country – a man who married his wife on the high wire, and who was trained by Rudy Omankowsky, Jr. – the son of Papa Rudy, who trained Philippe Petit.
“There were a few truly complicated stunts that only a true wire-walker could do – like kneeling down on the wire and saluting with the hand, or the more complicated turnarounds, or juggling flaming torches on a slack rope,” Kevin explained.
The stunt double performed these and Visual Effects did a face replacement, making Jade’s performance seamless with Joe’s.
“We scanned Joe’s face in 43 different poses, so we could record all of the muscle movements that his face is capable of. We could mimic the look of concentration and determination that Joe would have if he was doing that action on the wire.”
Definitely, “The Walk” is worth seeing – and not just for vicarious thrill seekers and adrenaline junkies.
It’s a love letter to an era gone by, to Paris and New York City in the 1970s and most of all, to the tragic twin towers of the World Trade Center.