If you thought that Everest had the cinematic market cornered on terrifying, vertigo-inducing, real-life stories of man defying nature at tremendous altitudes, then think again. On September 30, The Walk marches its way into theaters, bringing a dramatized version of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s daring and entirely unauthorized 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Enlisting the aide of numerous confidantes, Petit (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) surreptitiously snuck his way to the top of the Twin Towers, strung up a high-wire cable, and walked back and forth between them — all without a safety harness. You know, something a crazy person does. Though many are familiar with the story thanks to James Marsh’s 2008 film Man on Wire, it is getting new life in The Walk, the long-gestating brainchild of Robert Zemeckis, who both directed and wrote the screenplay for the forthcoming film.
Long intrigued by Petit’s outsized personality and outrageous stunt, Zemeckis’ film pulls out all the stops, using the latest technology available to put the audience in Petit’s shoes and force them to peer over the edge into oblivion. While much of the film’s tone is rollicking in nature, it also contains some of the most harrowing and stressful sequences I have seen on the big screen all year. With that in mind, I spoke with the legendary director of films like Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and the Back to the Future trilogy about his ongoing fascination with Petit, the challenges in finally bringing it to the big screen, and of course, how he intends to celebrate October 21, 2015, the day when Doc Brown and Marty McFly finally make their way to the future.
Nerdist: So we’ve seen an account of this story before in Man on Wire, but what about Philippe Petit and this feat spoke to you and made you want to bring it to life on the big screen?
Robert Zemeckis: Well, you know, I started this project way before they made Man on Wire. I guess when I discovered Philippe’s story, I always thought it was a story that could lend itself to a magnificent big-screen adventure. I fell in love with this character that Philippe is, and the passion that he has to perform this feat, and I thought it would make a really interesting movie.
N: I was surprised to see that it’s almost like a heist movie, where they have to sort of break into the tower. I don’t think a lot of people really understand that aspect of it.
RZ: Uh-huh. Yeah, yeah. It’s kind of like a caper.
N: You use forced perspective and POV shots to great effect in this film. What motivated this decision and what was your filmmaking process like?
RZ: Well, we knew that’s what we wanted to do. I mean, the mission for this spectacle of the movie was to put the audience on the high wire with Philippe. So my cameraman and my visual effects man and I, we studied what would be the best way to evoke that feeling of vertigo for the audience. We really spent a lot of time figuring out what was the best way to do that–what lenses to use, where to place the camera, how to move the camera. And so it was something that we really spent a lot of time on.
N: You mentioned that you’ve been working on this project for a while. How did it change from its initial conception to its completion?
RZ: You know, like all screenplays go through different permutations. But this was a difficult one to write, because how do you write the actual performance of the walk? So what I basically did was I spent hours–many hours–interviewing Philippe. Interviewing him on film, actually, too. Using him telling me the story, I put together a very elaborate animatic of the whole piece, and then I took that animatic and started transcribing to what I called loosely a screenplay, and then honing the screenplay with Chris Brown, my writing partner. We engineered the screenplay from a very unique place that we had never done before.
N: Was Philippe’s narration throughout the film culled from those interviews?
RZ: It was sort of inspired by interviews is probably the best way to describe it. Obviously, you know, like you’re talking to me now, if you were to put what I’m saying on screen, it wouldn’t really be that interesting, or compelling, because it isn’t sharp and to the point. But inspired by his interviews that I did with him–for sure.
N: What’s one of the most surprising or fascinating things that you learned from your interviews with Philippe?
RZ: Well, you know, I guess the most interesting and surprising thing is how many times and how many turns throughout this caper, or coupe, as he calls it, this thing could have just fallen apart, and it never did. I mean, there were so many close calls, and so many things where this whole thing could have just never happened, and they just kept on, by the skin of their teeth, they just kept moving forward and moving forward, and it’s actually an astounding tale.
N: Especially when you see all the moving parts involved, and all the things that did go wrong, it’s amazing that he was able to pull it off, let alone walk between the towers. So speaking of challenges, what was the most challenging part of this production for you?
RZ: Umm, you know, I guess choreographing the walk, because it’s a very strange form. It’s almost like a dance number, or ballet. There is a lot of drama in it, and there is story that happens, but it also is this other thing, which is very difficult to describe. And of course, wanting to present it with the spectacle and the artistry that Philippe evoked in how he told it to me. That, I think, was the biggest challenge.
N: Between this film and Everest, which also comes out soon, we’re seeing a lot of terrifying situations at tremendous altitudes. What about staring death in the face like that–sort of humans doing the impossible–why do you think we’re compelled to see these? Why do you think we’re compelled to do these things?
RZ: Well, we’re not compelled to do them, that’s why we like to go see them in the movies!
N: Yeah! [laughs]
RZ: So thank goodness. That’s what movies afford us. They afford us to be able to safely experience these death-defying things, and that’s one of the things that movies can do like no other art form. Those are the stories that lend themselves to cinema.
N: For the actual production of it, how much actual wire walking was involved?
RZ: Oh, a lot! A lot. I mean, there’s a lot of wire walking, and the main reason why the–I mean, it wasn’t exclusive wire walking, because that’s not how you do it. You mix it up with all kinds of different illusions. But there was a lot of wire walking, because what we needed to have to make sure that it looked realistic was a flexing wire. The only way to really achieve that is to put your actor on a real wire.
N: Did you attempt any wire walking yourself?
RZ: [laughs] No. Not at all. That’s something that I’m happy to not do. [chuckles] You know, I would only be able to do one of those small wires that’s maybe 2 or 3 feet off the ground, and what would be the point of that?
N: Much of the film features Philippe breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly. What was the impetus behind that?
RZ: Well, the impetus behind that was meeting and understanding, very early on, that the audience had to understand what Philippe was thinking and feeling when he was on the wire, because there was no way to do that–there was no one for him to talk to when he was on the wire. So that was what I knew, early on, was going to have to happen. So I had to have a storytelling device to do that. It wasn’t something I couldn’t use till the very end of the movie, so I made this decision to basically tell the audience the story from the very beginning. It was all to serve the final 30 minutes of the movie.
N: You mentioned that this film has been sort of germinating for a while. How long did it take from concept to completion?
RZ: About nine years.
N: Wow. Tell me about sort of the casting process there? Was Joseph Gordon Leavitt your first choice to play Petit? What about him spoke to you?
RZ: Yeah, he was my first and only choice. Obviously, he’s a great actor. He speaks prefect French. He’s a fantastic physical actor, and he loves–what do you call it? The circus arts, maybe we’ll call it that. The kind of performance art. He’s a student of that stuff and loves that stuff, so he fit the bill perfectly.
N: Shifting gears slightly, we’re coming up on the infamous October 21, 2015 date from Back to the Future II. A lot of people are marveling at how a lot of the inventions featured in that movie are starting to pop up in the real world. Are there any that have actually come to pass that you’re most particularly amazed by or impressed by that it actually happened?
RZ: I’m impressed by that Bob Gale and I–I think it’s about 50%, which is pretty good. That’s not a bad percentage of predicting the future, you know. I think we did pretty good.
N: I think so. You guys should definitely be getting a percentage on those hover board sales.
RZ: Yeah, right, exactly!
N: Do you intend to celebrate that anniversary in any way?
RZ: Uh, I’m going to be in Europe promoting The Walk.
N: Just ride down the red carpet on a hover board. That way you can kill two birds with one stone.
RZ: I like that.
N: So after The Walk, what do you have coming down the pipeline?
RZ: I’m doing a romantic thriller with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard.
N: Is this the one that’s set during World War 2?
N: Is there a title for that yet?
RZ: Not yet, but it’ll be coming soon.
The Walk opens on September 30 in select theaters.
Curious about which Back to the Future inventions have actually come to pass? So were we…
Dan Casey is the senior editor of Nerdist and the author of 100 Things Avengers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. You can follow him on Twitter (@Osteoferocious), where he walks a delicate tightrope of dumb puns of and self-promotion.