HIGH ACHIEVER

Joseph Gor­don-Le­vitt ex­plains why it was such a thrill to fol­low in the foot­steps of twin tow­ers tightrope walker Philippe Petit.

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - By Michael Bodey

Well might you won­der why any­one would at­tempt to drama­tise Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk be­tween the twin tow­ers of the World Trade Cen­tre. The daz­zling 1974 achieve­ment by the mad French­man has al­ready been chron­i­cled with elan by James Marsh in his 2008 film Man on Wire, which won the Academy Award for best doc­u­men­tary.

But that movie was not filmed in 3-D. And Robert Ze­meckis, the di­rec­tor of the Back to the Fu­ture tril­ogy, For­rest Gump and The Po­lar Ex­press, ap­pre­ci­ates how to use tech­nol­ogy for a unique vis­ual ex­pe­ri­ence, as he has done with The Walk, a vis­ceral ex­pe­ri­ence fea­tur­ing 3-D stunts that ac­tu­ally brace an au­di­ence and a rol­lick­ing ren­der­ing of a ro­man­tic’s life.

Joseph Gor­don-Le­vitt plays Petit. He says the com­bi­na­tion of the spec­ta­cle and the in­san­ity of the ad­ven­ture made the role “all the more in­ter­est­ing a role for me to play as an ac­tor”.

“Be­cause the truth is of­ten­times when you get a grand, vis­ually spec­tac­u­lar ac­tion movie com­ing out of Hol­ly­wood, the char­ac­ters tend to be sim­plis­tic,” he says.

“And so it’s re­ally in­spir­ing for me to have both the big vis­ual ac­tion se­quences but also have this char­ac­ter I can re­ally sink my teeth into.”

Petit is an amaz­ing char­ac­ter, a pixie-ish ball of un­bri­dled op­ti­mism and der­ring-do. But New York’s World Trade Cen­tre is also a cen­tral char­ac­ter. Ze­meckis and his dig­i­tal ef­fects team soar up and around the tow­ers with af­fec­tion.

This week, Ze­meckis ad­mit­ted that with­out the tragedy of Septem­ber 11 in 2001, in which ter­ror­ists crashed two jets into the tow­ers, the film prob­a­bly would not have been made.

He be­lieves the film “por­trays this won­der­ful, hu­man mo­ment in the history of the tow­ers”.

“[That mo­ment] might even be the sec­ond most sig­nif­i­cant thing that hap­pened to the tow­ers so [ The Walk] might be­come a his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment in the fu­ture,” he says.

Aptly, the film pre­miered at the re­cent New York Film Fes­ti­val. Gor­don-Le­vitt noted that was an ap­pro­pri­ate venue given “the movie re­ally is a love let­ter to New York City”,

He says the Amer­i­can re­la­tion­ship to the tow­ers is chang­ing slowly.

“When­ever any­body sees the tow­ers of the World Trade Cen­tre, any­one at first is go­ing to see the tragedy,” he says.

“And that’s im­por­tant. It’s worth remembering the tragedy — but I also think with any tragic loss, it’s also good to re­mem­ber the pos­i­tive things, the good times, the beau­ti­ful, lu­mi­nous im­ages, and have those in the mind as well.”

The 34-year-old notes that when griev­ing the loss of a loved one, we don’t only fo­cus on death. “You tell sto­ries of [that per­son’s] life, and that’s what this movie is,” he says.

It is also cel­e­bra­tion of the oc­ca­sional fol­lies of the hu­man spirit. The ac­tor laughs. “In­deed. Folie in French, of course, means in­san­ity … I don’t know why I said that. But Philippe is part bril­liant, tal­ented artist and part mad­man.”

Gor­don-Le­vitt, who will also soon be seen play­ing US Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency whistle­blower Ed­ward Snow­den in Oliver Stone’s drama Snow­den, spent some time with the 66year-old Petit and got to know him.

The French­man in­sisted he would teach the ac­tor how to walk a tightrope at his work­shop.

“We spent eight days to­gether and he said by the end of the eight days I would be able to walk on my own on the wire,” Gor­don-Le­vitt re­calls.

“It sounded am­bi­tious to me but he’s such an op­ti­mist, such a pos­i­tive thinker, and he him­self be­lieved that I could do it, and that con­vinced me that I could do it.

“And once I be­lieved I could do it, I could. Belief has a lot to do with one’s own abil­ity.”

Petit em­pha­sised to his stu­dent that tightrope walk­ing is at least as much a men­tal ex­er­cise as a phys­i­cal one. And fo­cus was el­e­men­tal.

Gor­don-Le­vitt has jumped quickly from his on-screen teen­dom in the sit­com 3rd Rock from the Sun to lead­ing-man ter­ri­tory with strong roles in solid adult dra­mas in­clud­ing Looper, In­cep­tion, The Dark Knight Rises and in the un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated 2009 ro­man­tic com­edy 500 Days of Sum­mer.

He was able to see sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween his craft and that of Petit. “There is an over­lap with act­ing be­cause when you’re on the wire, you can’t think about any­thing else,” he says.

“You can’t go on wor­ry­ing about ‘ What if things go wrong’, ‘I’m re­ally high up here’ or ‘Maybe I’m not good enough’. You can’t let your mind wan­der in those di­rec­tions.

“And sim­i­larly when you’re act­ing in a movie, when the cam­eras are rolling, you can’t be think­ing: ‘Oh, there’s a cam­era right in front of me’ and ‘I won­der how were go­ing to do at the box of­fice?’

“You can’t think about all that stuff; you have to just fo­cus on be­ing present in the scene at that mo­ment.”

The Walk is in one sense a heist movie as Petit as­sem­bles a mot­ley crew of friends and strangers to as­sist with the overnight con­struc­tion of the wire on the soon-to-be-com­pleted build­ing site.

It is also a cu­ri­ous psy­cho­log­i­cal study of the mind of an enigma, though.

Petit’s drive to achieve some­thing that had not been achieved be­fore may not be pe­cu­liar but it is not com­mon ei­ther. “He’s al­ways been el­lip­ti­cal when­ever any­body asks him why he did what he did,” Gor­don-Le­vitt says.

In­deed, the film be­gins in that man­ner, as Gor­don-Le­vitt’s Petit be­gins a nar­ra­tion while stand­ing on the Statue of Lib­erty’s torch, with the twin tow­ers in the back­ground.

“I think the rea­son he al­ways clev­erly avoids that ques­tion is be­cause there is not a way to ex­plain it in words and it’s sort of like love,” Gor­don-Le­vitt says.

“He de­scribes it as a love af­fair with the tow­ers. He fell in love with them and you can’t ex­plain why you fall in love with some­one. You could talk about things you like about the per­son but none of that would prob­a­bly add up to love.

“There’s some­thing ‘un­place­able’ about it and that’s why he al­ways says there is no ‘why’. [He says,] ‘There’s a beau­ti­ful im­age in my head and I had to make it hap­pen.’ ”

Petit has spo­ken of the peace in which he found him­self as he tra­versed the chasm 400m above the ground be­tween the two tow­ers. It begs the fur­ther ques­tion: Why did he not sub­se­quently chase sim­i­lar highs? Is there any way of com­ing down from one?

Gor­don-Le­vitt says Petit re­mains an in­cred­i­bly dis­ci­plined per­son who still walks the wire — the ac­tual steel ca­ble that he hung be­tween the two tow­ers — each day at his home. He has also pub­lished a dozen books in­clud­ing To Reach the Clouds, on which both the films have been based.

“He’s very, very pro­duc­tive and driven,” Gor­don-Le­vitt says.

Petit even made a barn/re­hearsal space/ minia­ture theatre for him­self, which he built by hand us­ing only an­tique wood­work­ing tech­nol­ogy and no power tools.

“Do­ing some­thing like that re­quires an enor­mous amount of drive and fo­cus and at­ten­tion to de­tail, which is I think why he’s still do­ing as well as he is,” Gor­don-Le­vitt says.

The Walk is open na­tion­ally.

PETIT IN­SISTED HE WOULD TEACH THE AC­TOR TO WALK A TIGHTROPE

Joseph Gor­don-Le­vitt in The

Walk, top; Philippe Petit in a scene from Man on Wire, above; Gor­don-Le­vitt with di­rec­tor Robert Ze­meckis, right

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