Even before they were built, New York’s Twin Towers provided a dream for Philippe Petit, and he spent six years chasing that dream until he conquered them with a spectacular, illegal act.
On August 7, 1974, the Frenchman walked between the towers on a wire, without a net or a harness, some 1,362 feet (415 meters) above ground — a seemingly impossible feat of guerrilla theater.
The story of what Petit and his team accomplished after months of scheming is the topic of “Man on Wire,” a documentary screening at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival.
“This film is about life: The life of the towers and the life of a mad poet aided by a few friends who clearly did the impossible. And that’s what mad poets do,” Petit, now 58, said from a Manhattan tavern.
The festival was created in 2002 in response to the attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Director James Marsh chose not to mention the attacks in the film, concentrating on Petit and his co-conspirators.
“Why burden a surprising fairytale that happens to be true and happened in 1974?” said Marsh, shoehorned into the booth next to Petit.
Marsh weaves never-before-seen archival footage of Petit’s preparations with dramatizations and interviews into something of a heist film, keeping viewers guessing as to how they achieved something Marsh called “subversive and beautiful.”
“Man on Wire” won the grand jury prize and audience award for world cinema documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival in January despite limited buzz and screenings.
There are only still photos of the walk itself, during which the 24-year-old Petit crossed the chasm between the towers eight times over 45 minutes before giving himself up. Police who arrived on the roof scared away the co-conspirator who was to shoot the feat with 16mm film.
Marsh said that absence enriched the film.
“If there were such footage, it would have been seen so often that it would have devalued the experience,” Marsh said.
Waiting room visionThe documentary recalls how Petit, a young street juggler and self-taught wire walker, saw plans for the Twin Towers in a magazine while in a dentist’s waiting room. He immediately imagined walking between them on a wire. He was so excited he skipped the dentist’s appointment, but left with a dream.
He completed similar, illegal walks across the twin towers of the Notre Dame cathedral and the Sydney Harbour Bridge before considering himself ready for the grand prize.
He shunned numerous commercial offers after the walk and has lived on little money since, sometimes passing the hat after street performances in New York City parks.
Petit stashes ideas for his future projects — books, films, an opera and high-wire walks — in a red box in the barn he built with 18th century tools near Woodstock, N.Y.
“I have postcards of distant places with two towers, two mountains, two icebergs,” he said.
Upon sitting down for the interview, Petit sketched the World Trade Center towers with a fountain pen.
“This is not what attracted me,” he said later, pointing to the wire connecting the two buildings. “It was this here, the void, that fascinates me,” he said, running his finger between the two buildings.
When Petit was alone on the wire back in 1974, the year after the Towers officially opened, he did something most wire-walkers do not dare: he looked down.
“I was devoured by the void in a way, with giant terror,” Petit said. “But I had to offer myself that magnificent view, that beauty. I was never going to be there again.”