NYFF: How 'The Walk' Director Robert Zemeckis Shot Joseph Gordon-Levitt's "Painful" High-Wire Scenes

'The Walk'

Ahead of the film's world premiere, the star and the director explain how a combination of digital painting, "an elaborate workshop" and "a green abyss" aims to give audiences "the feeling of vertigo."

“Right behind us, there’s a 50-foot drop, which is hilarious for this type of movie where we’re on top of towers the whole time — and this is the most petrified I’ve ever been in my entire life,” joked Ben Schwartz during The Walk press conference, sitting next to a gap just in front the AMC Loews Lincoln Square’s 3D Imax screen.

Ahead of the Sony film’s world premiere at the New York Film Festival, director Robert Zemeckis and the cast spoke to reporters after the Saturday morning press screening about making the film that chronicles Philippe Petit's walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. Unaware of Petit’s performance beforehand, he began developing the film after reading the children’s book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, which led him to secure the rights to the French high-wire artist’s story. He said he had been actively looking for material that lends itself to 3D specifically as a storytelling tool.

“I thought it had all the elements to make a compelling movie,” he said, “that lets you in to see what all the real characters were thinking." While praising the overlapping Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, Zemeckis added that "the thing I always wanted to do was present the walk itself, and of course that can’t be done in the documentary because there’s no video footage of the walk ever recorded. … [The goal] was to evoke the feeling of vertigo. We worked really hard to put the audience up on those towers and on the wire.”

With no prior high-wire experience, star Joseph Gordon-Levitt trained directly with Petit, who optimistically insisted that the actor would be able to walk on the wire alone after “an elaborate workshop” for eight days. “He’s such a positive thinker, he believed that I would and because [of that], I started to believe I would,” Gordon-Levitt said. "When you believe that you can do something, that’s when you can do something — and he was right. By the end of the eight days, I was able to walk on the wire by myself, and continued to practice while we shot. It’s actually very fun, if painful.”

Gordon-Levitt also walked the distance between the World Trade Center memorial’s two pools, which are located where the Twin Towers stood before the Sept. 11 attacks — “just to see what it was like,” he said. He visited the original observatory once before, in 2001, during his first summer in New York City. “It was touristy but I wanted to go do it. I remember it distinctly. It felt more like being in the sky than being on a tall building.”

Along with a stunt double, the actor shot the climactic wire-walking scenes on a soundstage consisting of re-creations of the top two stories of the towers with a wire set approximately 12 feet off the ground. Said Zemeckis of transforming the set into what you see onscreen: “I think I ended 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 would do, you don’t want to let them see the effects, but the majority was digital [painting].”

Aside from wire-walking, Gordon-Levitt also learned to speak French fluently, perfecting a Parisian accent policed by co-star Charlotte Le Bon and some of the other “very honest” French actors on set. “I don’t know if I fooled French people, but I fooled Americans,” he laughed.

So is wire-walking actually an occupation or an art form? “I don’t know if there’s a real answer to that. You could argue any of those categories, but in my experience, if you focus too much on labeling things, you probably aren’t paying attention to what’s good about it," said Gordon-Levitt.

Zemeckis, referring to lines in the film, added, “All artists are anarchists in some way — some more extreme than others, but it’s something that I think artists are supposed to do. We’re supposed to present a different angle on everything, and I certainly think it is [art] as much as poetry, in my opinion.”

The Walk opens in limited theaters Sept. 30 before expanding wide on Oct. 9.

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