Producer Simon Chinn first encountered Philippe Petit on the venerable of British media institutions, Desert Island Discs. It was April 2005, just over three decades after Petits audacious high wire walk between the twin towers. Listening to the BBCs Radio 4 is a reliably comforting experience, but Petits impassioned voice and his unique and uncompromising view of the world happier on a wire at a thousand feet than on terra firma gave rise to a distinct unease and burned into my brain for ever more. Chinn was convinced that Petits extraordinary story was ripe for a feature documentary.
To Reach the Clouds
As he suspected, Petit and his partner and Production Director, Kathy ODonnell, were already a few steps ahead. Since the publication in 2002 of TO REACH THE CLOUDS Petits critically acclaimed account of his Word Trade Center coup numerous approaches had been made by hopeful but ultimately disappointed documentarians. In this instance, the timing was fortuitous. Petit was on his way from his home in upstate New York to Nottingham in the UK to consult on a stage adaptation of his book and ODonnell felt he and Chinn should have lunch. It was an uneasy first meeting. Heavy traffic on the motorway from London meant that Chinn arrived an hour late and Petit (as befits a man for whom such measures can mean the difference between life and death) was not immediately impressed.
However, the bit between his teeth, Chinn was not easily deterred and, after several subsequent exchanges, including a further meeting in Paris (for which, this time, he was pedantically punctual) Petit and ODonnell decided to take a leap of faith and accept his proposal.
Chinn then teamed up with long-time producing ally Jonathan Hewes at Wall to Wall Media, one of the UKs best-established independent production houses. It was Hewes who suggested James Marsh to direct.
Hiring Director James Marsh
Hewes had met Marsh some years before and was already a fan of his work, from Troubleman on the murder of Marvin Gaye to his beautifully evocative Wisconsin Death Trip, to his more recent narrative feature, The King.
James is that rare thing, says Hewes, a director who has an ability to deliver extraordinary visuals but always in the service of the wider narrative. We knew this story needed someone special to bring such a rich and multilayered story to the big screen and, in this, James has exceeded our expectations.
Marsh needed little convincing when Chinn first called him at his home in New York: James had just finished making The King, a dark and uncompromising tale about incest and familial violence, says Chinn, and I think the prospect of doing something a little more life-affirming was rather appealing. I sent him my proposal and he got back to me almost instantly. He would direct. I hadnt even asked the question but who was I to argue
Part of City's Folklore
Most people living in New York know about Philippes walk, says Marsh. It is truly part of the folklore of the city and more poignant now that the towers are gone. But I immediately knew that the fate of the World Trade Center had nothing to do with our film. Philippes adventure should stand alone as an amazing true life fairy tale, set in an era usually remembered as squalid and corrupt.
Thus begun a long collaboration between Marsh and Philippe Petit, involving many trips by Marsh to Petits home in the Catskill Mountains. Petit had been ruminating for some three decades on a whole range of ideas for books, documentaries, articles, plays, and feature films, as well as meticulously collating a vast archive of documents, film footage, and personal memorabilia.
Drawing for inspiration on this treasure trove, as well as Petits irrepressible stream of ideas, Marsh began work on a 50-page treatment which evolved into a clear personal vision for bringing the story he wanted to tell to the screen.
Unlike Petits book, told very much from his own singular perspective, here was an opportunity to tell the story for the first time from the point of view of all the co-conspirators in the artistic crime of the century.
I had always seen the film as a heist movie, recalls Marsh. We soon discovered that there were an amazing group of supporting characters involved in the plot. The testimony of Philippes accomplices allowed us to create multiple perspectives on the execution of this criminal enterprise with its many setbacks and conflicts. They had all been waiting 30 years to tell their part of the story, and their recollections promised to be vivid and surprisingly emotional.
Marsh and Chinn now set about assembling a team of people in New York, London, and Paris who would be able to execute their plans. In London, co-producer Victoria Gregory began working through the complexities of shooting and cutting over the course of a year on multiple formats and across two continents. While in New York, co-producer Maureen Ryan set up the US-based documentary shoots and the dramatic reconstruction. New York-based cinematographer Igor Martinovic, fresh from shooting Sundance 2007s Grand Jury Prize-winning Padre Nuestro, signed on as Director of Photography. And Marshs editor, Jinx Godfrey, brought her considerable experience in cutting both features and commercials to the task of creating a gripping, multilayered narrative that had to constantly cut back and forth in time and place.