On August 7th 1974, New Yorkers peered upwards into the gap between the World Trade Centre towers to watch Frenchman Philippe Petit, a week shy of his 25th birthday, dance on a thin piece of wire. The stunt was mind-blowing and just one of many similar “coups” Petit had accomplished all over the world. Today, he tells his story to documentarian James Marsh in Man on Wire and has captured the imagination of an entirely new generation. RT sits down with Petit to learn more.
The film is becoming quite the phenomenon, which this moment really was for you and for a lot of people. What was it like reliving that in such minute detail from the very beginning?
Actually it was exactly as you said, I was not remembering, I was reliving it, and I have a little barn in upstate New York, and I have a little theatre there, and I was re-enacting almost every scene from my book “To Reach The Clouds” from which Man on Wire was taken. So you see one scene in the film, but we spent days and days re-shooting and it was very nice to go through the whole story in my life.
How fresh was the whole event in your memory?
Oh, extremely fresh, mostly not when I just remember, but when I get back into telling the story, acting all the characters, and making theatre out of it like a one-man show. It’s so vivid.
Do you think thats part of it, the experience, that it has become so vivid, that it was such big thing, a an attempt really?
I think its my way. You know the who want to talk about it, who want to jump back and say “do you remember this?” Again it becomes almost theatre; I think it’s my way of reliving. Yes the story is full of surprise, it’s full of dramatic moments, and full of miracles. It’s easy to dive into it, and to relive it.
You talk about it in the film with a great deal of passion, you talk about it being an act of poetry, did you see it as an artistic statement that you were making?
Actually I should not say what it was, it’s for the people to decide what it was, but obviously it was something that was a poetic moment. Obviously it was an artistic event. But its not for me to say what it was – I was busy doing it. The people who watched it decide what it is. If I had been walking briskly to the other side, and claim I did it, and go down, and become rich and famous, then it would have been a completely different event. The fact that I stayed there, dialogued with the seagulls, I stayed forty-five minutes, I did eight crossings, and I did all those choreography, laying down, forgetting where I was, makes it obviously some kind of strange theatre in the sky.
How would you describe yourself as a person?
Well that right there is the tough question, because I was not born in the circus world, I taught myself at an early age, wirewalking. Earlier I taught myself trampolining. Earlier when I was six years old I was crazy about magic, and I taught myself magic, and then I became a man of theatre, directing plays, writing, I became a writer, I wrote 6 books.
So who am I? I don’t really know, I’m certainly not a wire walker, the way you see that in the circus, I actually wrote one day a text, the title was “I am not a wirewalker,” because I am not, except it’s what people know me for, my famous works. So I would say I am – the nice expression in America is – a Renaissance Man. Somebody who does many things, who is passionate about many things.
Are you completely fearless?
There is not an element of fear for me. For the others, yes, certainly, but for me no. There is an element of joy, of profound elation. On the wire, I don’t fear anything; I have no reason to fear anything. On the ground I have human fears like everybody else. I recall forty-five years of performing on the wire around the world, and I don’t think I was ever afraid.
There are moments where things are very delicate, or that the elements are against me, a strong wind or some problem with the installation of the wire, and so I have to be very careful, and I am conscious of what is about to go wrong, but I cannot be fearful that it will be very dangerous for me to be fearful. I have to be fully aware of whats going on, and fully involved in a way that people on the earth do not carry their life. I have to hold my life in an absolutely intense way.
Is that something that comes with the experience of having done it for so long, or is it something that was always there, when you first got on the wire?
Well, neither. The way I am immensely concentrated, doesn’t come from having done it for so long, and it’s not something that was there my first walk. It’s something that I immediately saw from the beginning as a necessity for me to walk on that wire, and I started assembling elements of a very special way of being concentrated, and focussed, and yet very aware of everything. I started building this state of being from my very first walk, but I was not mastering this at the beginning, as a young wire walker of 18, 19, 20. When I was 20 or so, I did Notre Dame, without permission. In ’73 I did Sydney harbour bridge. In ’74 at 24 years old, the World Trade Centre, I was not really the master that I am today. I was still learning, and yes I was building this very strange state of being, that allowed me to be very solid, in a world that is very fragile up there.
What’s your relationship like with death?
I have a very good relationship with death, it’s leaving me alone. But its not only the act of wirewalking, but in the art of living itself there is no better place to feel yourself living intensely than on the edge of life. So I’ve never pronounced the word “death”, it’s not part of my vocabulary; I pronounce the word “life” all day long. There is this expression “death wish”, but mine is “life wish” and that says it all.
Is there still a hunger in you for another big coup like the World Trade Centre?
In my mind, yes, in my heart there is a constant cultivation of this young rebellion, a disregard for authority. And it’s in my nature – I think of creating something, and unless the phone rings, and it’s somebody who wants to hire me to do a beautiful show in a city, that will follow.
But when it’s something that comes from me, when I look at some place that I would like to put a wire, it’s almost impossible. I have to get the organisation together, I have to get permission, I have to find the money, and I can’t. I’m sure you can imagine, its more than impossible today, in Tokyo, Moscow, Paris, New York, London, to sneak into buildings, and to, at night, put a wire. I would probably get shot first, ask questions later. But it doesn’t matter, even if it’s impossible, I am still thinking that way very much.