Regardless of what anyone thinks of its first two acts, it’s hard to deny the awe-insipiring power of the last 45 minutes of Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk.” Re-creating Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk across the Twin Towers with vertigo-inducing precision and seamless 3D, Zemeckis creates one of his most wondrous big screen magic tricks, and it single-handledly carries the entire film across the finish line.
Speaking to press in advance of the movie’s official world premiere as the opening night film of the New York Film Festival, Zemeckis revealed it was the chance to depict the grand act that drew him to the project. Although documentarian James Marsh used the subject matter first in his Oscar-winning “Man on Wire,” Zemeckis had optioned the story 10 years ago after reading the children’s book “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.” The director will be the first one to shower “Man on Wire” with praise, but the chance to visualize the eight times Petit walked the wire — which had never been recorded on camera in real life — provided a once-in-a-life-time opportunity for the visual wizard.
Joined by his cast, including leading man Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Ben Schwartz and James Badge Dale, Zemeckis took press behind the scenes of the film, while reminiscing on the true purpose of 3D filmmaking. Check out all of the highlights from the “The Walk” NYFF press conference below.
Gordon-Levitt learned how to walk the wire from Petit himself.
“Everyone on the production was like, ‘Don’t worry if you can’t really walk on the wire, it’s all going to be movie magic anyway.’ But I really wanted to learn how to do it, and Philippe really wanted me to learn how to do it,” said Gordon-Levitt about preparing for the role. “Philippe insisted he be the first one to teach me how to walk on the wire. He doesn’t do anything halfway, this guy, so he orchestrated this really elaborate workshop — it was just me and him all day long for eight days straight.”
“He said, ‘By the end of these eights days you will walk on the wire by yourself,’ and I thought that sounded ambitious. But he’s such a positive thinker. He believed that I would, and because he believed that I would, I started to believe I would, and when you believe that you can do something that’s when you can do it. And he was right. By the end of those eight days, I did walk on the wire by myself, and I continued to practice as we shot. I love it. It’s actually a fun, if painful occupation, or art form.”
The cast became a family by watching Zemeckis’ classics.
Newcomer Charlotte Le Bon spoke about how the cast became a family during the filming of the drama, and her co-stars provided an easy answer for how they bonded. “We did this thing on weekends, and we didn’t really tell you about this, Bob, but the cast would get together and we would watch Robert Zemeckis movies,” said Gordon-Levitt.
Added Schwartz, “Every single weekend we’d order food together and every single weekend we’d get together as a bonding experience. We’d watch his movies and just look at each other and be like, ‘We get to be a part of this!’ It was pretty incredible.”
On the roster of hits: “Back to the Future,” “Cast Away,” “White Lies Beneath,” “Romancing the Stone” and “Death Becomes Her.”
Gordon-Levitt thinks art can still be subversive when it’s popular.
When asked whether or not Petit’s stunt preserved its subversive integrity even though it received so much popularity (even the cops patted him on the back), Gordon-Levitt responded, “Ideally what an artist can do is build a bridge and bring someone over and show them something and have them appreciate something they had not appreciated before, as opposed to going so far as to keep the sides split, in which case you’re sort of just preaching to the choir. To me, that’s the greatest success in subversive art — when someone who might not have appreciated it at first is won over.”
The crew built the top two stories of the Twin Towers on set.
“We were on a sound stage. They built a beautiful set of the top two stories of the tower, and then surrounded that with green [screen] and hung the wire at the top of the set and out into a green abyss that was anchored on a pole,” said Gordon-Levitt of how they achieved filming the high-wire sequences. “That wire was about 12 feet in the air. When I walked out, I had to walk backwards to get back.”
Shedding more light on the magic behind the visuals, Zemeckis said, “Obviously the technique that was used the most was digital painting. When I was making this movie, I think I wound up using every special effect technique that I’ve ever used in my career except probably cartoon animation. We mixed it up. Like any great magician or illusionist, we don’t want to let you see the effects so we just kept using different technique, but the majority was digital.”
The cast was honored to pay tribute to the Twin Towers.
“I actually went in the summer of 2001 to the top of the World Trade Center,” Gordon-Levitt reflected. “It was my first summer in New York after my freshman year of school. It was touristy but I wanted to go do it, and I remember it pretty distinctly. It felt more like being in the sky than being in a tall building.”
“It’s just a piece of the landscape,” said Schwartz. “When you think of New York — that’s what it was for me. I went to the Freedom Tower this trip and I stood at the edge of one of the pools and looked to see how far that walk would’ve been and it was just incredible. It’s so far. It seems so insane.”
“I actually did that walk at the memorial,” added Gordon-Levitt. “Those two pools are the footprints of the old towers. I stood at the north corner of the south tower and walked from there to the south corner of the north tower just to see what it’s like. It’s a long walk.”
“Those towers — they were the fabric of my childhood, and they’re the fabric of New York City,” said Dale in a moving tribute. “For all of us, when we were there or just looking at them from afar, it was part of who we are as a city. I couldnt bring myself to go to the memorial until after we did this film, and this year I went and I can’t tell you how proud I am to be a part of this film and what I believe this film means to New York and the memory of those two towers.”
When it comes to the indie vs. studio debate, Gordon-Levitt could care less about budget.
“To me, having worked in both low budget films and bigger budget studio films, the important thing is actually not the budget,” said the actor. “The important thing is the motivation of the filmmaker, and everyone who is working for the filmmaker. You can find indie movies that are just sort of being derivative and trying to make a name for themselves, and you can also find studio movies with a real sincere heart. It’s really more about the individual people than the budget or the corporate infrastructure.”
Zemeckis loves organic 3D, but don’t ask him to re-release his classics in the format.
“When I came upon this event that I was thinking could maybe be a movie, it just called out that it could be a 3D movie,” the director said. “I had been searching for stories that originally led themselves to being in 3D. I believe 3D is a filmmaker’s tool that is a decision that’s made at the very beginning based on the story or screenplay, just like the decision you would make to shoot a movie in color or black and white, or white screen or spherical.”
“In my opinion, it should be used to enhance the emotion in the story. For example, I never once thought that ‘Flight’ should be in 3D. It’s not a 3D movie. There’s nothing 3D would enhance. [With that said], I would never think about converting one of my old movies to 3D because they were never designed that way. You have to make a 3D movie constantly, it changes your editing, pacing, the way your camera moves, the lenses you use — it all has to be thought through from the beginning.”
“The Walk” opens in IMAX 3D on September 30, followed by a nationwide release on October 9.
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