NYFF: Joseph Gordon-Levitt Talks Tightrope Act In ‘The Walk’

Joseph Gordon-Levitt The Walk

At the New York Film Festival, PopCrunch reporter Niki Cruz sat down with Joseph Gordon-Levitt to talk about his latest project, The Walk, a film that centers upon a tightrope walker’s dream to traverse the twin towers on a tightrope.

The Walk is so much more than the event of Philippe Petit’s tightrope across the twin towers. While much of the film is set up to build up to that specific moment, at the heart of the story, The Walk is a sentimental love letter to the twin towers that once stood. The film treats them with identical reverence that Petit does as he prepares to do the impossible.

In the film, based on a true story, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Philippe Petit. Petit, a struggling artist, learns about the towers by seeing an article about the construction of the buildings, and is immediately transfixed by them. Throughout the film, he romanticizes about their architecture and graceful beauty that enhanced the New York skyline in the most marvelous way. Soon he decides that he must make the towers his greatest tightrope achievement.

Even though the film teeters to the gimmicky side, the film, as well as Petit’s spirit, are anchored by the unwavering conviction of expanding on artistic expression. For Petit, the walk across the twin towers wasn’t just a sport for the spectators but a chance to really delve into his artistry.

In today’s world where art and commerce are constantly at each other’s throats, it’s interesting to see that The Walk is available to see in 3D IMAX. It may seem like a typical studio move, set to bump up box office numbers, but if there was ever a film that could benefit from 3D, it’s The Walk. The film, directed by Robert Zemeckis, is a rare case where the 3D adds another dimension to the story, making the heights that Petit conquered much more terrifyingly real.

It’s not just about the jump-out-of-your-seat moments that 3D gives thrill seekers, but about the real anxiety it inspires in audiences, and about the depth it lends to the towers themselves—a depth that the film just wouldn’t have in 2D. We all know what the historical twin towers used to look like, but to feel the enormity of what Petit is doing on this level is unexplored until now. In a way, Petit’s walk seems just as sacred as the towers themselves.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt sat down with the rest of the cast at the New York Film Festival to discuss what it took to be the man on a wire.

Approaching the character of Philippe Petit:

For one, Joseph Gordon-Levitt actually did learn how to walk a tightrope:

Philippe actually insisted that he be the first one to teach me to walk on the wire. He doesn’t do anything half way, so he orchestrated this really elaborate workshop, where it was just me and him, all day long for eight days straight. He said, ‘By the end of eight days, you’ll 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 so because he believed that I would, I started believing that I would. When you believe you can do something, that’s when you can do it. He was right. By the end of those eight days, I did walk on a wire by myself, and continued to practice as we shot. It’s really fun. It’s a painful art form.

Tightrope walking as an art form vs. an occupation:

Gordon-Levitt doesn’t think tightrope walking falls exclusively in either category:

I don’t know if there’s a real answer to that. You can argue that [to] 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 really good about it.

Tackling wire walking:

JGL was determined to learnt the craft as best he could:

I think everyone in the production was saying, ‘Don’t worry if you can’t really walk on the wire. It’s all going to be movie magic, anyway.’ I really wanted to do it. Philippe really wanted me to learn how to do it, so I did it, but I should also say while there are quite a few shots of me in the movie, there’s also quite a few shots of my wire walking double.

Wire walking as a subversive piece of art:

Ideally what an artist can do is build a bridge, and bring someone over, and make them appreciate something they might not have appreciated before, as opposed to going so far as it keeping the sides split, in which you’re preaching to the choir. For me, that’s the greatest success in subversive art, is when someone might not have appreciated it at first is won over.

The technical aspects of walking on wire:

We were on a sound stage. They built a beautiful set of the top two stories of the towers. They surrounded it with green screen, and then hung the wire on the top of the set, and then out into a green abyss that was anchored on a pole. That wire was about 12 feet in the air. When I walked out, I had to walk backwards to get back.

Visiting The Original World Trade Center:

Gordon-Levitt spoke about the first time he visited the World Trade Center:

I actually went in the summer of 2001, to the top of the World Trade Center towers. I had just moved to New York, because I went to Columbia starting in the fall of 2000. It was my first time living in New York after my first freshman year in school. It was touristy but I wanted to go do it, and I remembered it distinctly. It felt more like being in the sky than it felt like being in a tall building. I did the walk at the memorial, because the 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. It’s a long walk.

Independent film vs. epic studio films:

To me, having worked in both really low budget independent films, and having worked on bigger budget studio films, the important thing is not the budget. The important thing is the motivation of the filmmaker and everyone who is working for the filmmaker. You can find indie movies that are being derivative, and you can find studio movies with a sincere heart. It’s really about the individual people rather than the corporate infrastructure.

The Walk Opens in theaters on October 9, 2015.

About The Author
Niki Cruz
Niki Cruz is a Freelance Entertainment Journalist based out of New York. With a passion for Film/TV she often contributes to Paste, amNew York and Interview Magazine. Niki spends her time off learning life lessons by binge-watching Dawson’s Creek.