"I have nothing to do with people who jump out of a plane with a suitcase and a key, and they open the case and they put their parachute on, and then exclaim ‘I did it!’ It is a completely different world. I don’t understand why people do silly things like this. I walk on the high wire.
"Of course there is something extreme when people point at me, a dot in the sky, but it is not what I am after. I don’t want to be thought of as a unique phenomenon, I want to do something I believe in, and doing it as beautifully as possible. Afterwards people come to me and say, it was inspiring, it was beautiful. That to me is a very different discourse, from forcing your name to arrive in the book of records."
That is Philippe Petit talking, the the man who walked a high wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. The film of his achievement, Man on Wire, is hot favourite to win Oscar for best documentary. Petit was in Edinburgh for the film's European premiere last summer and months in advance I'd booked at interview with him, only to be mildly stunned to find I had no takers from the Scotttish Sunday papers, who apparently hadn't heard of him. So I never wrote the feature I wanted to write, and eventually sold a tiny news piece to the Times, which you can read here: Petit in Edinburgh
But it was a much better interview than that piece. Perhaps because English is not his first language, Petit's English is very precise. I've stuck the whole thing below, and it makes a decent read.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Did you often go back to the Twin Towers?
I went back often, I had a VIP pass forever. There is no such thing as forever, but I went there just before the disappearance of the towers, for yet another interview. It was my home away from home.
Of course, I autographed the building – it was preserved, even when the building was redecorated.
The unsaid thing in the film is the towers aren’t there anymore ...
It was a very personal thing. I had toiled so hard to get to know those towers, they grew on me almost as a living entity and therefore when the towers died I felt something was pulled out of me. That is a very personal feeling. We know the death that day …. It’s hard for me to talk about my personal feeling with all this loss of life.
But like Edinburgh Castle [he can see it from his seventh floor hotel window] you imagine it will always be there…
Yes, yes. Whenever I put a wire somewhere, Notre Dame or the Eiffel tower people say, you know when I look at this place, it seems different because of what you did. I do that too when I look at Notre Dame. It’s not a normal cathedral, it’s my cathedral. I remember the wire. There is a certain conquest of the place where I walk.
People described what you did as beautiful – is that why you did it, for the beauty?
It's strange because those towers were maybe not seen by people as beautiful. For me they were not beautiful in an aesthetic way, they were just so grand. … an intimate theatre on which to set my wire …. After my walk, people said “Philippe gave humanity to those towers”
But what drew you to wire walking
A whole childhood of art and sport of climbing and solitude. Trying to achieve things. What drew me to the Twin Towers was at the time they were the most fantastic stage to put a wire, to create some kind of mystical theatre in the sky. It was a very weird performance. I was a dot in the sky the people were ants on the ground. Could they see me? Could I hear them? It was really an out of this world performance.
It is a performance. But it seems a very personal thing.
That is very well observed. It is a very intimate almost day-dreamy dialogue with those two giants who at the time of the walk for me were my friends. They were the enemy at the beginning – but as I approached they became my friends and accomplices, they let me walk between them. That was … it was a very intimate feeling. It was a strange performance. The first crossing was not even performing, it was more making sure the wire was safe, feeling it, because I had not even inspected the other anchor point which I always do before I walk. It was a very strange first walk.
But when I got to the other side for whatever reason, I went back on the wire and started walking and walking my eight crossings. That was unplanned, totally improvised. Then I could call it a performance. But it was made out of the personal joy of being there – it was a strange kind of performance. Unique.
The police officer encapsulated a lot of the feeling on that day …
Yes he was pulled out of his condition of being a policeman …. At some point I decided to give myself up. By then they were very frustrated. They were violent and angry – that dissipated after a while, but it is not a good memory.
[The film says that his violent arrest was the most dangerous thing that happened that day]
What do you think of other extreme sports and the absurd lengths people go to break endurance records?
Climbing six peaks in six hours? I have no interest in that – there is no beautiful human achievement – there is a mechanical muscle achievement. But that doesn’t interest me – what interest me is the theatre of life, the mystery of life, and artistic achievement.
I have nothing to do with people who jump out of a plane with a suitcase and a key, and they open the case and they put their parachute on, and then exclaim ‘I did it!’ It is a completely different world. I don’t understand why people do silly things like this.
Of course there is something extreme when people point at me, a dot in the sky, but it is not what I am after. I don’t want to be thought of as a unique phenomenon, I want to do something I believe in, and doing it as beautifully as possible. Afterwards people come to me and say, it was inspiring, it was beautiful. That to me is a very different discourse, from forcing your name to arrive in the book of records.
The ironic thing is I have broken records – but it is not my goal. There are more noble activities in life than creating and beating records.
Fortunately I was not born in the circus. I reinvented in my own childlike and poetic way what it is to walk on a wire. It is the theatre and poetry which drove me to the wire.
I loved the line about taking your foot from the building, and [your friend and accomplice] Jean-Louis’s description of tension ebbing out of your face. That sensation of moving away from the safety of the building – can you still feel that?
Absolutely. I feel that sensation each time I grab the balancing pole and start a high wire walk. It is not exactly the same feeling each time, but it is a feeling of intimate decision. Not for nothing is it called the first step. The first step is a beautiful title for stepping into a new continent ….
Not many people dare to take that first step – to land on the moon, to dive into a great abyss in the sea.
Is it fear or expectation, or letting go?
Neither fear nor expectation. It is more of starting a voyage of exploration. In a word that has not been touched by man. Look out of the window. How many people are walking in the sky? None. In the past 100 years, how many giant walks can history record. One or two and most of them by me. It’s a mythic voyage, something out of this world. What I feel out there - and I love it so probably much for that reason – is something that you do not get on earth.
You’ve kept doing it?
Yes, it is one of my many passions. It’s life lived at its fullest. You cannot do it all day long, all your life. I usually practice four hours a day. Ok that’s a good part of the day when I am happy and in my element but unfortunately life calls for me to put my feet back on earth. Have lunch. Sleep.
And you always stay in the seventh floor of hotels, like this one?
It’s a little low. [laughter]
This sense of the Robin Hood in these walks is strong, isn’t it? Picking the pockets of the bureaucrats who want to stop you.
Exactly I was never very good at obeying the rules.
[in the film there are glimpses of his first two well known ‘illegal’ walks – Notre Dams, 1971, at 20; then Sydney two years later and the following year the Twin Towers]
I never thought of asking permission. It never dawned on me to knock on a door, to ask ‘Would you let me ….?’ It’s so obvious the answer would have been ‘Get out of here?’ I did it by intuition, illegally, because that’s what an artist should do; he shouldn’t ask permission, in my opinion.
The last time you were hired “professionally” …
For the Letterman show, three years ago [for the launch of a book he wrote]. It’s not a walk I like to remember, it’s a walk I did to help my book. It’s not one of my beautiful walks [16 stories high over Broadway and 42nd Street]. It was straight from one building to another. It was almost raining, it was co-ordinated with a TV show, and I don’t like TV.
It seems to be harder and harder for me to hired as a wire walker. It seems the world has changed, that people are more afraid of everything – putting on a giant event, and um … I don’t know, in a few years from now the profession of wire walker will be plainly illegal.
There was a century when giant feats would be attempted, when we would build things and attempt things . It the opposite now, we won’t attempt anything and it is better to say no than yes. People say ‘You never know’ and ‘what if’. I live in a world of what if’. Talking about my last walk, I am also thinking about my next. It’s very strange – I am the most famous wire walker in the world, and I am the one works the least. All the others are in the circus. That is easy – you do the same thing everyday.
To conquer the world, to run a wire between that beautiful church and incline towards the castle – well I am ready to do it tomorrow. It will take probably a few months of research and organisation and a few weeks of rigging and it will cost a lot of money probably – but then it will have a few hundred thousand people, and the entire world through the press to witness another miracle.
Why is it not happening? If I want it to do it, it will be like the end of the world, a total nightmare. I have to find the money, to get the permission, it is almost impossible. But it the phone rings, if the mayor of Edinburgh rings and says, ‘Hey Philippe I saw your film I looked at the press and you would like to walk. My city says “Come here, lets do something”’. This is a dream. Secretly I know it will never happen.
When most people think of what I do, they must think, this man is mad. He’s risking his life. It’s insane. We should stop him and put him in jail. I exaggerate, but that is a little of the feeling, when you think the world has changed. The world has changed immensely. We are surrounded by cowards who are not …. Who are forgetting to be poets. We are all born with a part of us who is a poet. Why are we now dulling our senses and not wanting to do beautiful things? My profession is do beautiful things, but I need to be invited.
Did you make money from the Twin Towers walk?
I am inept at keeping money. I am not a rich man. My financial life is a mess.
For the Twin Towers – there was not much involved – but most of it came from street juggling, in New York for eight months. A few friends of mine chipped in.
It seemed to be the end of friendships?
That was what they say, but I was surprised when I saw that in the film. Most of my friends cry when they describe the first step and that’s beautiful, its noble to cry, but there is something else, like the doubt. I was surprised. I can't talk for them, and they have the right to say what they think in the film, but this is not my film.
So you’re still friendly with your helpers?
No, but that is not my choice. So, it is a strange human chemistry again and I don’t know where it came from. People change, they do U-turns. But I don’t change. Two weeks ago I was in Western Square Park in New York, passing my hat. Nothing has changed for me. But anyway, that is their story not my story.
The tensions in the film?
This is not invented.
Where did the American helpers come from?
I needed people to help me. It was dream. But is was very demanding. People would say ‘Yes, yes’ at first and then later think ‘ Omigod, he really is going to do it’. They were scared to death, or feeling like cowards. Some of my friends said ‘I will’, and then said, ‘I have to stop, I can’t help you’. Some even betrayed me. That is the human dance. That is part of doing something and needing accomplices, there are the good the bad and the half and half.
And Annie? Was she your girlfriend afterwards?
Well, that’s what she says. At that moment something stopped, that’s not at all what I will say when I am 90 years old and write my memoir. I won’t tell it that way. Yes this relationship diffused and evaporated slowly, but it was not the guillotine of me having walked the twin towers. Everybody understands life the way they want - I respect the individual’s way of thinking, but don’t ask me to agree with it.
But you admitted bedding that American woman after you were released from jail …
I would never have allowed that to be part of the film, it is totally unnecessary. This is part of the differences I have with the movie maker, and it is healthy to have differences.
I suppose he saw it as a kind of adrenaline rush on your part ….
Yeah, yeah, probably. In my book, I mention it because I wanted to be very honest in explaining what happened after the walk, but it is mentioned in a poetic, very soft way in four lines. I never thought this would become a scene in a play – but it did when I allowed a play to be made from my book. The director decided to have a scene from that encounter. I thought it would never happen in a film. It disturbs some people, and disturbed me the first time. But that’s life.