Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk” is the opening night film in the 2015 New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. Zemeckis and a few cast members spoke with the press this morning before tonight’s premiere.
In “The Walk,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays real life wire-walker Philippe Petit, who illegally walked a high wire between the World Trade Center twin towers in 1974. The film is a dramatization of Petit’s life leading up to and including his dramatic triumph in New York.
There is a documentary about Petit’s walk called “Man On Wire” (which is streaming on Netflix), but since there is no video footage of the actual feat (only still images), this dramatization is the first opportunity to really imagine what it was like up there on that wire.
Gordon-Levitt and Zemeckis were joined at the press conference by fellow cast members Charlotte Le Bon (“The Hundred-Foot Journey”), James Badge Dale (“World War Z”), and Ben Schwartz (“House of Lies”).
Shot in 3D, Zemeckis (who brought us “Back to the Future” and “Forrest Gump”) said that they worked hard to take the viewer on the walk with Petit. Well, they succeeded. There are moments when the camera is on Petit’s feet (as played by Gordon-Levitt), and we are looking down from the top of the towers to the long drop below. I had to close my eyes a few times, and at some point, I noticed that my hands were drenched in sweat – even though I already knew that Petit survived his high wire walk.
The film opens with Gordon-Levitt as Petit narrating his story, and then, we’re taken back a few years to his childhood in France and his young life as a street performer in Paris. When he sees a photo of the not-yet-completed World Trade Center towers in a magazine, he immediately feels that he must walk a high wire between them. “The Walk” is a fun ride – both comical and suspenseful.
Gordon-Levitt is wonderful as Petit, perfecting his Parisian accent and often speaking in French. The actor spent a lot of time with Petit (now 66 years old) to prepare for the role.
Below are some of the highlights of the press conference.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt on learning to walk on a high wire:
Philippe actually insisted that he be the first one to teach me to walk on the wire, and he doesn’t do anything halfway, this guy. So, he orchestrated this really elaborate workshop with just me and him all day long for eight days straight. And he said, “By the end of these eight days, you’ll walk on the wire by yourself.”
And I thought that sounded ambitious, but he’s such a positive thinker, he believed that I would. And because he believed that I would, I started to believe that I would. And when you believe that you can do something, that’s when you could do it. And he was right. By the end of those eight days, I did walk on a wire by myself and then continued to practice as we shot. I love it. It’s actually really fun, if a painful – what would you call it? An occupation, an art form….
I think everyone in the production was sort of saying, “Don’t worry if you can’t really walk on the wire. It’s all going to be movie magic anyway.” But I really wanted to learn to do it, and Philippe really wanted me to learn to do it. And I did it. But I should also say while there are quite a few shots of me in the movie, there’s also quite a few shots of Jake Martin, who was my wire-walking double. He’s an excellent wire-walker as well.
On filming the wire-walking scenes:
Gordon-Levitt: We were on a sound stage. They built a beautiful set of the top two stories of the tower and then surrounded that with green and then hung the wire off the top of the set and out into a green abyss that was anchored. And that wire was about 12 feet in the air. When I walked out, I had to walk back to get back.
Zemeckis: Obviously, the technique that was used the most was digital paint. But when I was making this movie, I think I ended up using every special effect technique that I’ve ever used in my career except for probably cartoon animation. We mixed it up like any great magician or illusionist would do. We didn’t want to let you see the effects, so we just kept using different techniques. But the majority was digital.
On visiting the World Trade Center and the Freedom Tower:
Gordon-Levitt: I actually went in the summer of 2001 to the top of the World Trade Center towers. I just moved to New York at that point because I went to Columbia starting in the fall of 2000. So, it was my first summer living in New York after my freshman year. It was touristy, but I wanted to do it. I remember it pretty distinctly. It felt more like being in the sky than it felt like being in a tall building.
Schwartz: I’m from New York, so it was just a piece of the landscape…. But I went to the Freedom Tower this trip. I’m assuming the pools are approximately where the buildings stood, is that true? I stood at the edge of one of the pools and looked to see how far away that walk would have been, and it was just incredible. It’s so far, and it seemed so insane. But I stood there a couple days ago and just tried to feel the distance between it. It’s pretty incredible.
Gordon-Levitt: I actually did that walk at the memorial because those two pools are the footprint of the old towers. I stood at the north corner of the south tower and walked from there to the south corner of the north tower just to see what it was like. It’s a long walk.
Schwartz: It’s so long!
Dale: I grew up on 20th between 9th and 10th. Those towers were part of the fabric of my childhood. It’s the fabric of New York City, for all of us, whether we were there or whether we were just looking at them from afar. It was part of who we are as a city. I couldn’t bring myself to go to the memorial until after we did this film. This year, I went. And I just can’t tell you how proud I am to be a part of this film and what I believe this film means to New York and to the memory to those two towers.
On recreating 1974 New York:
Zemeckis: I think the visual effects team did a magnificent job. We worked really hard and researched intensively what Manhattan and New York and the towers looked like, where everything was, and to make sure everything was in its right place. We knew it was important to do that right. I’m satisfied with what we did to evoke the sense of vertigo….
We worked really hard to put the audience up on those towers and on the wire. Both my cameraman and my visual effect supervisor, we really studied what would be needed to achieve that effect.
Gordon-Levitt: As far as the 1974 period, I think we should also probably mention Ben Schwartz’s mustache.
Schwartz: I don’t know why it took so long to get to this part of the interview. I’d like to thank my dad. I remember when I got the role, Bob [Zemeckis] said, “Don’t shave. Don’t cut your hair.”