Winter 2020

Poetry in Motion

In viewing Man on Wire, Davis Guggenheim marvels in director James Marsh's deft reenactments, inspiring use of score and ability to build suspense

By Robert Abele

Phillipe Petit is suspended on the wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center in Man on Wire. (Screenpull: Magnolia Home Entertainment)


Settling in for a viewing of James Marsh's DGA-nominated and Academy Award-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire, Davis Guggenheim—himself an Oscar winner for An Inconvenient Truth—is practically giddy at the chance to rescreen a movie he says "changed the way I look at documentaries."

As he dims the screening room lights in his Venice, Calif., offices, Guggenheim—whose latest documentary is Inside Bill's Brain: Decoding Bill Gates—recalls the wonder that enveloped him when he first saw Marsh's imaginative and fleet-footed telling of Philippe Petit's infamous tightrope walk in 1974 between the just-completed World Trade Center buildings. "It blew my mind because it breaks the mold," he says. "It took me on a journey from traditional documentaries to what documentaries could become."

Right away, with no credits, the atmosphere isn't that of a typical nonfiction movie. A wild-eyed Frenchman is telling us about a nightmare he had about not nailing shut some crate, which he says might be his "coffin," all while artfully composed black-and-white shots and the sound of thunder and rain suggest we're seeing reenactments. Other voices and interviewees—some French, some American—talk of tension and secretive planning. Are we in the middle of the tale? Are those blueprints? Is this New York? Was that an arrow being placed in a tube? And what's in that crate?

The mystery and style are the points, says Guggenheim. "This is just great storytelling, because he's not a slave to typical narrative structure," he says of Marsh. "He's going right into the stakes from the moment you start. It's bold: the silhouettes, the dramatic lighting. It's shot like a film noir."

The tick-tock pacing of the reenactments—the suspenseful cutting, the ominous music—was to Guggenheim's mind, when he first saw the film, a kind of alert that new rules were being laid down in the documentary world. "At this moment, the war over what is applicable in a documentary is raging," he says. "Films were rejected by the Academy for having reenactments, and he's going full force into it. And that music (a mix of curated soundtrack and original score credited to Michael Nyman and J. Ralph)? It could be from a Ridley Scott movie."

And because documentary directors maintain significant authorship over story, Marsh is making a decision about the story he wants to tell, says Guggenheim: something nonlinear and genre-tipped. "It feels like a heist movie or a caper movie. The director is saying: 'This is not your father's documentary. So sit back, because I'm going to tell you an incredible story.' I can't overstate the power of that first sequence, the visuals you would never have in a documentary, the music that's portentous, the suspense. You don't know exactly what's going on, but you know the stakes are as high as they can be."

(Top) James Marsh's documentary opens with "wild-eyed Frenchman" Philippe Petit recalling a dream in which his own death is seemingly foretold; (Bottom) Split-screen footage of the WTC being built and Petit as a boy. (Screenpulls: Magnolia Home Entertainment)

The first true documentary images come when we see footage of the World Trade Center being built, but then Marsh split screens it with a picture of a boy, who we realize is that animated Frenchman from the beginning, Philippe Petit, our rascally hero. Guggenheim stresses how much Marsh's storytelling abilities are informing his choices.

"I've grown to accept the simplest version of what storytelling is to me, and it's a character who wants something. And this split screen begins that conversation, this idea that this character and these buildings are going to come together, right? You even hear Philippe say, 'Once upon a time,' and that his story is a fairy tale."

Marsh also recreates the moment, as narrated by Petit, when he was a boy in a dentist's waiting room, coming across an article on the yet-to-be-built towers and instantly realizing his life's goal, which he memorializes by drawing a line on the magazine illustration, connecting the tops of the buildings. "See, he's showing you, not telling you," says Guggenheim. "The pieces are slowly being revealed to you. From the opening, to the footage of the towers being built, to drawing a line between the buildings. The storytelling is as good as any fiction movie."

Archival footage from the early '70s, shot by Petit's cohorts, of his first public high-wire walks—dressed in black atop Notre Dame and then Australia's Sydney Harbor bridge—give us our first cinematic taste of his ability, but also our subject's grace and showmanship. Underneath the monochromatic footage at Notre Dame, the music is ethereal, and under the color footage in Australia, it's a slow, almost bluesy guitar track.

"The whole movie you're wondering, is he a poet, or is something wrong with him?" says Guggenheim. "Is he crazy, or the most enlightened person ever? If [Marsh] had cut it differently, it's just a suspense sequence. But what he's trying to establish here is, this is just what he does for a living. All the shots are tranquil, so the music is tranquil. It's a groove. These sequences are there to reveal his character, his passion. He's not a stunt guy. It's hypnotic."

But when Marsh cuts back to the World Trade Center towers—and their formidable height—it's a jolting reminder of what all this is in preparation for, which Marsh adds to by including Petit saying to the camera, "If I die, what a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion." For Guggenheim, it's like a knockback to reality. "You're like, 'Oh shit, he's going to tightrope across the World Trade Center.'"

The buildup to Petit's tightrope walk, including a woozy shot looking down from the building's ledge, and a binocular matte frame applied to an archival photo suggesting the stealth nature of the enterprise. (Screenpulls: Magnolia Home Entertainment)

With two timelines set up—the tension-filled circumstances on the day of the walk, and the events leading up to it—Marsh toggles between them. When the film returns to the "present" and Petit's gang's sly efforts to get inside the World Trade Center, Marsh gives one of his interviewees a playful, mug shot-like introduction, and the onscreen moniker "Inside Man." "Marsh has him turn from the shadow into the light, looking straight into the camera," says Guggenheim. "It's totally contrived and wonderful. Again, it's like a caper movie."

Marsh's techniques for creating a heist-movie vibe seem endlessly inventive, including a spirited planning sequence set to disco music, during which Petit talks about casing the World Trade Center. "Look, he's putting a cheesy binocular matte on archival footage, as if it's Philippe looking. Just like you'd see in a '50s crime movie."

The director is also being careful about the tones he's creating, says Guggenheim, reflected in the black-and-white recreations shot like an elaborately executed theft, and the backstory buildup using footage shot by a band of misfits who knew they were recording something for posterity. "You should know the rules that you're in," says Guggenheim. "One is grounded in reality, as when we're seeing archival footage or the towers, and the other, the caper part, is whimsical. He does it with music, too."

And much like classic caper movies, says Guggenheim, Marsh is aware of when to lay the obstacles—dissension amongst the gang, a love affair going sour—as Petit and his friends meticulously think through every step. He'll then choose the right archival clip to sow the feeling he wants at a given time, like a clip in the planning sequence of Petit goofing off. "He's juggling an egg and it breaks in his hand," says Guggenheim, "and you're like, oh no, he's fallible. You think, is he deluded?"

Marsh softens the tone slightly when, over the pastoral footage from the meadow where Petit has set up a wire rig for practicing, the Frenchman clues us into his childhood ("I loved to climb …") while we watch his younger self balancing, barefoot and shirtless. "It's halfway through, and for the first time, (Petit is) describing why he wants to do it," says Guggenheim, who notes the score for this sequence, a single violin. "It's the music you play under a Picasso painting." Almost at that exact moment, Petit's then-girlfriend Annie describes how Petit saw every day as "a work of art." Guggenheim adds: "This is so not about ego. It's about the ultimate expression. Beautiful."

When the backstory and day-of storylines eventually merge, at the point when Petit's disguised infiltrators have made their way to the Twin Towers' roofs at night, Marsh's recreations briefly take over because there aren't any photographs or archival film of the eve of the walk. The effect—gauzy lighting, stars arcing by—is almost storybook. "If you scrutinize the shots, it's really fake," says Guggenheim. "But because you're in it with the suspension of disbelief, you buy it. They're on a stage, and he's put a moving starscape behind it to get a time-lapse feeling. You can see how small the set is, and my guess is he gave it an abstract feel so you wouldn't notice how unreal it is."

Petit on the day of his daring deed. (Screenpulls: Magnolia Home Entertainment)

When dawn breaks, and it's the moment of truth, Guggenheim pauses to reflect on how Marsh has been playing it all along. "The wonderful thing about this movie is that it goes back-and-forth between whimsy and terror, right?" As interviewees talk about their worries that morning—the clouds, precipitation, wind—Marsh offers up a photograph taken from below. "Look, it's wet, there's water on the lens," he says. "You just feel pure dread."

When Petit speaks of the moment when he's about to step on the wire, momentarily scared and uncertain, but knowing he has to start because their operation will soon be discovered, Marsh cuts to a photograph looking down from the building's ledge but adds a woozy camera movement.

Guggenheim has been waiting for this. "This is the shot that gave me a stomachache the first time I saw it," he says. "Again, he's breaking the rules of documentaries, manipulating an archival shot, but it's subtly done. If you had a photograph and just moved the camera across it, it would just look like you're panning on a still. But he actually does a parallax shift, changing the relationship between the front and the back. With this one simple shot, it's happening before your eyes. And it's two seconds."

Marsh had no film of the walk, because there was none, so when he cues Erik Satie's serene, haunting "Gymnopédie, No. 1," he offers a succession of stunning photographs with Petit and the witnesses in voiceover, and yet the effect is as cinematic as anything. Says Guggenheim: "Again, he's not cutting it like a suspense movie—it's not 'will he die or not?' It's ecstatic, the full expression of his soul. The photographs are beautiful, the music is perfect and the characters are making it real. The audience will always fill in the movement, if you give them room for their imagination."

Petit's friend and closest conspirator on the journey, Jean-Louis, who shared a love-hate relationship with the bullheaded Petit over tactics and fears, cries on camera at the memory of those steps finally happening. Guggenheim—understanding how effective this moment is for a documentary interviewer seeking emotion—gets teary, too. "It's my favorite part of the movie." Many tears have been shed over the towers, but Guggenheim loves that here it's about remembering something wonderful, "a few friends trying to do something beautiful."

When the film premiered in 2008, Marsh was rightfully concerned that he'd made a movie about the towers too soon after 9/11. Guggenheim remembers thinking the same thing that year. "Seeing the World Trade Center was shocking because I was still traumatized by that, and I still hadn't accepted the fact that those buildings were gone," he says. "So the fact that the movie is about the buildings but never addresses it sort of looms over the whole thing. And yet it was just the opposite. It was joyful, and fun, and lyrical. It was a pure story, and the footage was in service of that."

Marsh does include one telling photograph of the wire walk taken from the ground, which for whomever shot it at the time just happened to include an airplane mid-flight in the background, but now of course, in the wake of the buildings' fate, carries a different resonance. That airplane makes it an admittedly gasp-worthy image, says Guggenheim, but not an insensitive one, not after all we've been thrilled by, because there in the frame is Petit, too, the impossible man on the impossible wire. Says Guggenheim: "It makes you think that maybe the memory of the World Trade Center should be this ridiculous act of pure beauty."

Screening Room

In this popular feature, a director talks about a film particularly close to their heart, why the creative choices are inspired, how it influenced their own work, and why the movie continues to resonate for them personally.

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