Philippe Petit walked above the world and into history on Aug. 8, 1974, when he crossed a cable that connected the roofs of the recently christened World Trade Center's Twin Towers.
The high-wire act forever linked the artist and his canvas, as the brilliant documentary Man on Wire smoothly proves. The documentary is a lock for a nod for Best Documentary when the Academy Award nominations are announced Thursday, but the New Orleans Film Festival is offering proof why when it screens the movie on Tuesday.
Petit, a feisty Frenchman who became a worldwide celebrity for his feat, now lives outside Woodstock, N.Y., and took time to discuss the walk.
There is a key point in the film where you talk about how crucial the moment was when you actually took one foot from the floor of the roof and onto the cable wire. Why?
It's the decisive moment of a 15-year wait. Surprisingly, when I'm on the wire is when I'm most comfortable, more than when I'm half on the wire and half on the ground. It's a point of no return. I have to decide to give myself to that walk. It happens at every performance. It's not framed by fear, because I am much too happy to be there and much too impatient to start the adventure.
I had these feelings that I was stepping into the unknown.
How can you explain an act that feels like one part crime and one part work of art?
I don't think it's for me to describe. I did something that speaks for itself. It's for the people who have seen it to make up their mind. Obviously, I don't know what the definition of art is, but obviously this was not the act of somebody running across something and claiming, "I did it!"
This was a performance of sorts, even if an illegal or surprising one. I know that people take what I did, when they actually look at what I did, as a very strange theatrical performance.
The movie does not mention the Sept. 11 terror attacks, to keep the two incidents separate. But where were you when the towers fell?
There is no television in my life, so some friends called and said, "Come quick, you'll see on TV your Twin Towers are being destroyed." My friends referred to them as my towers. I saw it on that fateful morning in disbelief, then horror, at what was happening.
Do you miss them?
I don't miss them like that, but they are very alive in me. I am constantly talking about them, particularly in the past year accompanying the film to festivals. The towers are always very present in me. So of course I miss getting on the roof and look at New York from this beautiful vantage point. There's a very personal feeling about the towers. But we know the towers took so many lives with them, so it could not be compared with losing a piece of architecture.
James Marsh, the director, chose to fill in several key moments of the story with reenacted scenes that I thought blurred the lines between reality and fictionalized reality in a very interesting way. What did you think of this?
Personally I see it as fiction, and, personally, I hate the reenactment of the film for that, for the fiction. The fact that I hate it is not a criticism or judgment of James' film, because it worked very well the way he interspersed those fictionalized moments. It should be judged not by what I see in them but how they enrich the film. They do have their place in the film. He was right to do it, but I would not have.
I don't want to get into it because if I do it would be construed as me criticizing or judging James' film. What I'm saying because I love movies so much, and this adventure meant so much to my life, that I created my own movie in my head. The movie in my head of course is a very different movie. I would never have gone for a fictionalized adventure.
What do you recall about performing a walk to help open the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans in 1975?
I was all over the newspapers at the time. I remember it was quite an adventure, because it was right after the World Trade Center walk. I was in town because I was touring with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, so they asked me if I would be interested in opening the Superdome with a walk. I chose to place the wire at the highest spot inside the Dome, just above the last row of seats. For music, they played Ravel's "Bolero." There were 80,000 people in there, and it was wonderful. It was the first time I stayed in New Orleans, and I loved it. I love the liveliness of the French Quarter, you know.
What would it mean for you to have Man on Wire nominated for an Academy Award, when they're announced on Jan. 22?
I'll be honored and I'll be happy, but it's not really my universe to value prizes and be told, "You are the best." I kind of smile at that, because I am a craft person. I love to work. It's nice, but I do not envision life by the awards I am given.