Joseph Gordon-Levitt explains why it was such a thrill to follow in the footsteps of twin towers tightrope walker Philippe Petit.
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moment] might even be the second most significant thing that happened to the towers so [ The Walk] might become a historical document in the future,” he says.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