Interview with Philippe Petit

Philippe_PetitPhilippe Petit is the titular tightrope-walking subject of the wildly popular Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire and, more recently, Robert Zemeckis’ (Flight) big-budget The Walk, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Don Jon) as Petit. Both films telling of the story of the always-game Frenchman’s August 1974 experience of walking between the rooftops of the twin towers of the Word Trade Center on a high wire cable he and his team illegally rigged up.

The 2008 doc is based upon Petit’s own book on the event and its devising, 2002’s To Reach the Clouds, which was re-issued by Skyhorse Publishing as Man on Wire.

Back in the fall of 2008, I spoke with the lively Mr. Petit, who resides in upstate New York and has lived in America for more than 30 years. As he’d been hitting on the press trail for the past several months talking up both the book and the movie, I decided a fresher angle might concern his decision to live in the U.S., particularly as so many of his tightrope performances are mounted in Europe and Australia.

Philippe Petit on the morning of August 7, 1974

Philippe Petit on the morning of August 7, 1974

“Oh, I never even chose to live in America; it just happened naturally,” he told me. “Back in the early 1970’s, I traveled here frequently. I’ve done so many walks in New York, both legal and illegal—the Museum of the City of New York, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Lincoln Center.”

“My visa was always for two weeks or a month. Not long. But I kept coming back and working here. So I decided, well…,” he added.

When I asked Petit if he ever had any interest in returning to live in his native country, his response didn’t trail off.

“My book is not published in France. Something is wrong with France—I get very frustrated,” Petit told me, the frustration apparent in his voice.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit in The Walk

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit in The Walk

“In my own country, France, I can’t get projects off the ground. It’s very frustrating,” he continued, without any prompting from me. “Usually, when my phone rings and it’s a French voice, I know that whatever [project] they are calling about, it’s going to be bullshit and that it’s not going to happen.”

“But I love French wine and cheese,” he quickly added.

It’s not that Petit has never taken any high-altitude strolls in his native country. To date, he has mounted at least three major performances in France above the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, the Eiffel Tower and the Paris Opera.

But his feeling on what he thinks his country’s opinions are about him and his work are far from rosy.

“When I die, they’ll probably name a dead end street for me and spell my name is wrong,” he said.


About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.