Advice for Anyone Terrified of Heights: From “The Walk” Inspiration Philipe Petit

In 1974, the world's imagination was captured by the unthinkably bold, beautifully thrilling feat of a French tightrope walker when, unauthorized and without nets, he suddenly appeared strolling on a wire between the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center.

40 years later, Philippe Petit's feat remains one of the singular breathtaking leaps of modern times, on a par with the Apollo missions. His story was the subject of a celebrated documentary “Man on Wire” and now forms the basis of a new film from director Robert Zemeckis, “The Walk” starring Joseph Gordon Levitt as Petit.

We spoke to Petit by phone about the new film, why his hour long stroll remains such a potent ideal, the loss of the towers and advice for the vertigo-ridden everywhere.

Hitfix: What was your feeling seeing your story on the screen for the first time?

The first time was a strange feeling because I have not accompanied the film in these last few months. It was a very long development, ten years. And initially I was very involved consulting and I was to play myself with special effects making me as a young man. And then a few years ago, it took a different turn and it was decided that a young actor should play me, and my collaboration from that time on my collaboration almost ended,  although I continued to try and help the movie and taught Joseph Gordon Levitt how to walk on the wire,

So the first time I saw the movie, Ii was very surprised. I knew I would be surprised but I was very surprised, at what a joy it was to see the film.  Although many things in the movie where it didn”t happen, what was important to me was that the spirit of my character and adventure was respected.  So my first screening, i was not anxious, but i didn't know what to expect. And after that I saw the movie again and again, and each time it was a joy to discover new things and the little alterations to my adventure didn't bother me.  When you make a movie, you change little things, and some of those changes are not to my liking but they're not important enough for me to list things. On the whole, I enjoyed this movie and I think it”s beautiful work.

It”s been reported that people are actually getting sick watching the high wire scenes in the film.

No, no, that”s an invention or a journalist being dramatic.  Maybe one human being.  It”s a film to change you and inspire you and make you walk on the wire with me.  People who are afraid of heights will still love this movie because it invites them to look at a different world and they will still marvel at this world, flying between two buildings. So no, we should not carry on this little thing of this movie is going to make you get sick.

What is about this moment that inspires people all these years later?

I think if you would explore such a question, it has to do with many things. One is it”s a very simple fairy tale. An artist, who falls in love with two towers,  because he's a wire walker, that have not even been built and when they are built they are the highest in the world,  It”s the ordering of a fairy tale. At the same time those two buildings are now known by the entire world because of their very sad disappearance and the human lives lost. So many people might want to look at those towers at the time when it was joyful. 

And the need to combat the grief of the disaster that happened on September 11 with the joy and the majesty that happened on my walk. And we can not actually talk about those two extremes all the time.  The life of the towers should be remembered as well and this film I think does justice to that in a magnificent way. And the people come to the film and come back to me and say we are inspired by this adventure. I think it has a lot to do with the quixotic quest for the impossible dream.

Do you think to do something like that you have to be as young as you were or would you do this today?

If you talk about inspiration I think inspiration can come from any kind of artist and any kind of art action, it doesn't have to be a young person. So if you ask me if I would do it again, as an artist I would not duplicate something I have done before but certainly as a human being i am willing and capable to duplicate such feats, but I would choose another building and another scenario.  But what I do is I choose beautiful places and I invent almost like a theatrical director a performance, because really what interests me is theater, theater in the sky,  So there are many more projects as we speak involving more theater in the sky.

Do you have your next target in mind?

I have many, but when the phone rings and a producer wants you to do a walk, that”s pretty simple. They will create the logistics behind it, finding the money.  Another complicated kind of project is when I, the artist, dream of something, and I have to embark on my dream. And they the difficulty of getting the financement, and getting the logistics involving permissions and all that is almost impossible for an artist like me.

One of those dreams of mine is to walk in that beautiful place called Easter Island and to involve my wire to encompass in the theatrical presentation the beautiful statue called the Moai and to involve in my presentation the Rapa Nui who live on the island to be part of the celebration and the show. That is the very mysterious almost mystic performance I would like to put together.  For that, I need the help of producers, but by talking about it someday I will meet somebody who will say, okay, let”s construct that dream. Let”s make it happen.

When you finished the walk, how did you return to earth spiritually and physically?

The aftermath for any performer is always a little sad,  When you leave the stage, for any great dancer it is a little bit of a flat line, there if you have given on the stage the best of you, then after the show any great artist I think must be exhausted, must feel empty and dead. And that”s what happened to me,.  After any performance, and certainly after the twin towers, I had been many days, not sleeping, not eating. I had been all night in the building not drinking. I was in the worst condition to do the show. But after this it”s a great question because after it, I was completely empty,  And even more than that it was a little bit of sadness to be back on earth because my life on earth is not the life I prefer, to be in the sky and performing. There was a little bit of frustration of becoming again pedestrian.

After an accomplishment like this walk how did you decide what to do for your next act?

Well at the time, I was not thinking about the aftermath but I didn't have any problem continuing to perform, because I was full of projects and the entire world was knocking at my door.  Not the entire world because the French for example were not very enthusiastic to invite me back to my own country and most of the world was really proposing performances and I worked quite a lot after the twin towers and I never had the problem of thinking – what could I do next, because I was not trying to find the gigantic. If I were there was nothing to do next after walking between the highest towers in the world, you'd have to wait until a higher tower than that.  But this was never my goal to break records.  So after the highest towers in the world I did other walks that to me were equally artistically interesting. And still today I practice three hours a day on the wire and I have many projects.

What advice do you give to someone who is afraid of heights?

It depends and I don't really have recipes up my sleeve but to be afraid of heights I think goes with not being ready to enjoy exploring,  If i push you and force you to climb a tree it would be very logical that you would not want that and say, oh no, I”m afraid. But if you alone would like to climb that tree to look across the boundaries of the field where the tree is. Or to look at the world from a different perspective. Or to hide or to meditate. And when you explore there is the fear of exploring but there is the amazing gift offered to the explorer of what”s new what”s never seen before. Surprise., Daily surprises.  If you talk like that  to a child who is afraid of heights maybe they would want to climb to see the beauty of climbing or the beauty of appearing on the top of something and looking at the world from a different perspective. So if you have that beauty calling you, you can call it also a passion, I don't think that comes with a fear, or maybe a little bit of fear that can be conquered very easily. So I think in a way that the vertigo that the fear of heights is almost a human invention shielding the fact that it takes a little bit of courage to discover a new world.

How did you get yourself to come off the wire?  How did you know it was time to stop?

At the end of the walk, in my book,  I try to share, why did you end?  When did you conclude your performance?  One was certainly I was observing the impatience and frustration of the police on both sides. It was not just a couple policemen, it was a crowd of police and other officials and they were becoming angry and they were discussing ways of getting me off the wire, by cutting the wire, by a helicopter picking me up, which was would have meant instant death, and also I was feeling and observing the weather, which was turning very windy and cold and it was starting to rain almost and then also the poet in me was feeling the gods of the void, the gods of the tower, the gods of the wire allowed me to trespass and I should not push and make them angry and withdraw their permission to walk, and maybe they would punish me. So there was a poetic feel of the time, there is no need for me to do more performances, I have already done- I didn't know but my friends told me I had already done eight crossings but and then all that in my head mixed up and gave me the feeling that okay, now i should conclude my performance and give myself up to the police.