Walk, The: Zemeckis and Gordon-Levitt on their Adventure Film

the_walk_poster_2Directed by Robert Zemeckis, The Walk, which world premiered last night at the New York Film Fest (NYFF), opens in limited theaters September 30 before expanding wide on October 9.


The Sony Pictures release tells the story of Philippe Petit, the famous high-wire artist who on Aug. 7, 1974, performed for 45 minutes on a tightrope that connected the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.   The film’s final sequence received a huge, warm applause from the audience.

the_walk_posterDirector Zemeckis and the cast spoke about the making of the challenging film.  Unaware of Philippe Petit’s performance beforehand, he began developing the film after reading the children’s book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, which led him to secure the rights to the French high-wire artist’s story.

Zemeckis said he was been actively looking for material that lends itself to 3D specifically as a storytelling tool. “I thought it had all the elements to make a compelling movie,” he said, later praising the overlapping Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire “that lets you in to see what all the real characters were thinking.

But the thing I always wanted to do was present the walk itself, and of course that can’t be done in the documentary because there’s no video footage of the walk ever recorded. …The goal was to evoke the feeling of vertigo. We worked really hard to put those audience up on those towers and on the wire.”

the_walk_4_gordon-levittWith no former high-wire experience, star Joseph Gordon-Levitt trained directly with Petit, who optimistically insisted that the actor would be able to walk on the wire alone after “an elaborate workshop” for eight days.
“He’s such a positive thinker, he believed that I would and because of that, I started to believe I would,” he said. “When you believe that you can do something, that’s when you can do something – and he was right. By the end of the eight days, I was able to walk on the wire by myself, and continued to practice while we shot. It’s actually very fun, if painful.”

the_walk_2“Just to see what it was like,” Gordon-Levitt also walked the distance between the World Trade Center memorial’s two pools, which are located where the Twin Towers stood before the September 11 attacks.  He visited the original observatory once before, in 2001, during his first summer in New York City. “It was touristy but I wanted to go do it. I remember it distinctly. It felt more like being in the sky then being on a tall building.”

Along with a stunt double, the actor shot the climactic wire-walking scenes on a soundstage with re-creations of the top two stories of the tower and a wire approximately twelve feet off the ground that was connected “out into a green abyss and was anchored on a pole. …

the_walk_1_gordon-levitt“When I went out, I had to walk backwards to get back.” Zemeckis added, “I think I ended up using every special effect technique that I’ve ever used in my career, except probably cartoon animation.  We mixed it up. Like any great magician or illusionist would do, you don’t want to let them see the effects, but the majority was digital painting.”

What did Gordon-Levitt learn?
Aside from wire-walking, Gordon-Levitt also learned to speak French fluently, perfecting a Parisian accent, supervised by his co-star Charlotte Le Bon and other French actors on set. “I don’t know if I fooled French people but I fooled Americans,” he laughed.

Asked if wire-walking is actually an occupation or an art form? he says: “I don’t know if there’s a real answer to that.  You could argue any of those categories but in my experience, if you focus too much on labeling things, you probably aren’t paying attention to what’s good about it.”

“He’s such an optimist,” Gordon-Levitt said of his character. “He’s such a positive thinker.” Like Petit, 66, who was in attendance, Gordon-Levitt said he isn’t afraid of heights. “My dad’s really scared of heights, though,” he said. The performance is a stretch for the actor, as a leading role that has him speaking in a French accent.

Artists are anarchists

Zemeckis, referring to lines in the film, added, “All artists are anarchists in some way– some more extreme than others, but it’s something that I think artists are supposed to do. We’re supposed to present a different angle on everything, and I certainly think it is art as much as poetry, in my opinion.”

Tom Rothman, the chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Motion Picture Group, said “The Walk” was a four-quadrant movie that could appeal to audiences from ages 8 to 80. “I think that’s the very unique thing about ‘The Walk,’” he said. “It’s truly for everyone. It’s very rare in today’s business — it’s a PG-rated live-action film. The last movie I worked on like that was Life of Pi, Rothman said of Ang Lee’s 2012 Oscar contender that grossed more than $600 million worldwide.