Twelve people have walked on the moon. Only one has ever, or will ever, walk in the immense void between the World Trade Center towers. Filmmaker Robert Zemeckis brings The Walk, an impossible, but true story to the big screen. It is unlike anything audiences have seen before, a love letter to Paris and New York City in the 1970s, but most of all, to the towers of the World Trade Center.
The Screenplay was crafted by Robert Zemeckis & Christopher Browne, based on the book “To Reach the Clouds” by Philippe Petit.
On August 7, 1974 – the day before Richard Nixon announced he would be resigning from office – Philippe Petit, a French aerialist, surprised the city of New York with a high-wire walk between the towers of the almost-completed and partially occupied World Trade Center. Passersby without a moment to spare stopped in their tracks and looked up. They saw the impossible: a man dancing high in the sky, seemingly in the thin air.
Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), guided by his real-life mentor, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), is aided by an unlikely band of international recruits, who overcome long odds, betrayals, dissension and countless close calls to conceive and execute their mad plan. Robert Zemeckis, the master director of such marvels as Forrest Gump, Cast Away, Back to the Future, Polar Express and Flight, again uses cutting-edge technology in the service of an emotional, character-driven story. With innovative photorealistic techniques and IMAX® 3D wizardry, The Walk is genuine big-screen cinema, a chance for moviegoers to viscerally experience the feeling of reaching the clouds.
Now, forty years later, Zemeckis – one of cinema’s most accomplished filmmakers at integrating technology in the service of emotional storytelling – is putting moviegoers in Petit’s shoes.
The Walk, an epic, big-screen cinematic spectacle, gives moviegoers the chance to go where only one man has been or ever will be – 110 stories in the air, on a wire, walking between the towers of the World Trade Center.
“When I first heard this story, I thought, ‘My God, this is a movie that A: should be made under any circumstance, and B: should be absolutely presented in 3D,” explains Zemeckis. “When you watch a wire walker, you always have to watch by looking up at him. You never get the perspective of what’s it like to be on the wire. Our film will follow Petit’s story but will ultimately put you on the wire, walking with Philippe, and by presenting it in 3D, it is going to be spectacular and very emotional.”
Spectacular, emotional – and exciting, with a driving plot of near-misses and almost-catastrophes as Petit and his ragtag team pull off the impossible. “I love the idea of a guy – a performance artist – who pulls off this great caper,” says Zemeckis. “The caper is illegal, it’s dangerous, but it doesn’t hurt anybody. It seemed like something out of another time – you don’t really see stuff like that anymore. It was almost like a fable.”
“I was struck by the passion of Philippe’s dream and its fulfilment. It’s not unlike, in a certain way – for me – a producer who wants to make a movie,” says producer Steve Starkey. “But underneath all that is this thrilling caper story – the tension in carrying out what Philippe calls his ‘coup.’ In the end, it makes me and others cry – which is a similar moment to what I had when I read Forrest Gump.”
“Philippe saw the two towers and he literally drew a pencil line between them and said, ‘I’ve got to put a wire between those towers; I’ve got to walk.’ In his mind, those towers were built for him to create that performance,” says Zemeckis. “What’s amazing about Philippe, and why I think his story is unique but universal, is that’s what happens to all artists. If you ask an artist, Why did you paint this painting? Why did you write this music? Why did you make this movie? – there’s never any answer. Anyone who pursues an unlikely dream will identify with that feeling that was inside of Philippe – that he had to do this, no matter what the cost.”
Not only does the film show who he was before and how he came to be on that wire (his growing up, his surrogate father, etc.), but for the first time, moving images of the walk itself – not only from the observers’ point of view but Petit’s. “The only recorded evidence of the walk is a handful of still photos,” explains Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Petit in Zemeckis’s film. “The photos are incredible, but it’s different than seeing and experiencing it unfold. To me, 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 actually witness that in a movie, and be up there with the character, seeing what he saw, is just a vastly different experience.”
Reminiscent of his use of Forrest Gump’s own, unusual, voice to augment the narrative in that film, Zemeckis has Petit himself narrate moments in The Walk to add insight—especially to his inner thoughts on the wire. The slightly surreal use of the Statue of Liberty (like Petit, a French gift to America) device for this helps lend a fable-like quality to the PG-rated film. “This is a true story, “ says Zemeckis, “down to all its details, but it also has a ‘once upon a time’ feel to it – a lost time and place – and I wanted to combine the literal with the figurative.”
Fittingly, Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Baillie got involved in The Walk very early on. “I’ve been part of the project for six or seven years now,” he says. “Robert and I were working on A Christmas Carol, but there was this great idea that he had for a movie about this crazy French wire walker who’s trying to tightrope between the Twin Towers.”
The project was especially intriguing for the VFX supervisor, because of the immense challenge it presented: the entire world of 1974 New York, as seen from thousands of feet in the air, between two buildings that have since fallen, would have to be created from scratch. “We have to make everything, from the lobby of the World Trade Center to 1974 downtown New York City. The production design department actually built on a giant stage the roof of one of the towers. It was a mind-blowingly cool, big set, but 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, sadly, but they had to feel absolute, 1,000 per cent real and present, because they are the emotional heart of the film. Only very recently has the technology evolved to where this, though challenging, is possible. And only in the cinema. Interestingly, for example, we found different folks even had different memories of their colour – because it changed, depending on the angle of the sun. We want to honour and do justice to those buildings, for those memories but also because what Philippe did between them was beautiful,” says Baillie.
In this way, The Walk transports moviegoers to a moment in time when the towers – or, at least, our perception of them – were reoriented. “At first, nobody liked the Twin Towers. While they were being built, everybody in New York thought they looked like filing cabinets. After this walk had happened, people loved the towers. They had a personality. When Philippe Petit walked between them, they suddenly became poetic and were transformed.”
“The Towers are very much present in the film as characters,” adds Zemeckis. “This is one glorious and human moment that happened. That’s something that’s important to remember.”
Throughout his legendary career, Zemeckis has made films that have most successfully used cutting-edge technology in the service of storytelling. For Zemeckis, it’s all about the latter: technology is a tool, like any other technique, that the filmmaker can use at his disposal. “The secret of any magic is to mix it up,” he says. “Every great magician uses more than one technique to create the illusion. It’s the filmmaker’s task to do that as well, to use all of the tools that we have and keep mixing it up, so the audience can’t see the trick.”
Of course, the film would not have been possible without the real Philippe Petit, who says that the film is a highly accurate portrayal of his real-life coup.
“I have seen many a masterpiece by Robert Zemeckis, and this one of course is different to me because it involves part of my life,” says Petit. “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, and I know how it ends – and yet I was secretly thinking, ‘Well, I hope these guys make it!’ Now, if by the power of a magnificent movie, I could be transported in the most important day of my life, imagine millions of people watching the film. For the first time in the history of cinema, they’re going to actually be on the wire with me. This is a beautiful movie and I completely love what I saw.”
Petit says that the reason his story goes beyond wire walking and becomes a universal, inspiring story, is that it’s a story about an artist pouring his heart and soul into his work. “It’s the difference between somebody grabbing a balancing pole and risking their lives to get to the other side, and somebody like me, who carries his life across,” he says. “One might be stunning, but the other is inspiring. People have said to me, after a performance, ‘It gives me the feeling that I could make my dreams come true, I could move mountains.’ You can take the words ‘wire walker’ and replace it by other profession. It’s about the quest for perfection, the attention to detail, the respect for tools, and place yourself there, whatever you are, even if you are in the art of living.”