An impossible, but true story, the new film from Robert Zemeckis, “The Walk” is a live-action, PG-rated entertainment for all audiences, ages 8 to 80. A love letter to the World Trade Center, the film is a 3D and IMAX® visual experience, unlike anything audiences have seen.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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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.”
In this way, “The Walk” transports moviegoers to a moment in time when the towers – or, at least, our perception of them – was 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.”
Opening across the Philippines in October 14, “The Walk” is distributed by Columbia Pictures, local office of Sony Pictures Releasing International.