PUSHING HIMSELF TO LIMIT
Director Robert Zemeckis has stepped out into the career unknown before, but nothing compares to his latest stunning feat
Hollywood filmmaker Robert Zemeckis has made movie magic for 40 years. He blended actors with animated characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, took us back in time in Back To The Future, moved us with Forrest Gump and, with just Tom Hanks and a volleyball named Wilson, he captivated audiences for 150 minutes in Cast Away. Zemeckis also led the way with live-action performance capture films Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol.
It was the accidental discovery more than a decade ago of an illustrated children’s book called The Man Who Walked Between The Towers that stirred Zemeckis’ creative juices for his latest technical feat, The Walk.
“I was looking at the children’s book and said, ‘Is this a real story?’,” the bespectacled Chicago-born director, 65, says. The story is true.
In 1974 a quirky Frenchman, Philippe Petit, did what should be impossible.
He walked on a highwire between Manhattan’s 110 storey-high World Trade Center towers.
It wasn’t a staged event like many made-for-TV stunts or illusions created by modern day publicity seekers sponsored by energy drink companies. Petit performed the walk by stealth.
He recruited a band of friends to help him break into both landmark buildings, and with a 200kg, 61m-long steel cable, they worked secretly in the darkness throughout the night to connect the two buildings.
They had to avoid police, security and construction workers still finishing the towers.
Then at first light Petit, after plenty of drama, attempted his highwire walk above Manhattan without safety ropes. There was wind and the towers, designed to sway in the wind, meant the cable was always moving.
“The thing that strikes me most about Philippe is his optimism,” Joseph GordonLevitt, who plays Petit, says.
“He’s such a positive thinker and that’s what allows him to do something like this.
“To have this idea to hang a highwire between these two towers and, of course, hear every voice in the world say, ‘That’s impossible. You shouldn’t even try’ but he’s such an optimist he said, ‘I will. I’m going to do it’.” Petit’s feat was retold in the 2008 Oscarwinning documentary Man On Wire.
Zemeckis, always pushing the boundaries of filmmaking, thought the documentary was magnificent, but continued his decade-long journey to make the movie knowing he could show viewers a new perspective. He also wanted to make a movie that children and adults could watch.
Petit also performed a highwire walk across the two north pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1973, but while that walk was videotaped, the World Trade Center feat wasn’t so. There’s only photos.
Zemeckis used cutting-edge technology to re-create the walk in IMAX 3-D, transporting white-knuckled audiences to 1974 Manhattan. “We knew that it was important to recreate the World Trade Center towers to be exactly the way they looked in 1974,” Zemeckis says.
“We spent a lot of time, a lot of work, a lot of research to make sure we got that absolutely right.” Petit fell in love with New York and today, at the age of 66, he still lives in the city and spent time with Gordon-Levitt while preparing to shoot the movie.
Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, left, and film director Robert Zemeckis pose atop the Empire Tower in Moscow.