Robert Zemeckis’ new movie The Walk is not the first full-length movie to chronicle Philippe Petit’s 1974 hire-wire walk between the World Trade Center towers. That distinction belongs to James Marsh’s award-winning 2008 documentary, Man on Wire. Naturally, the first audience question for Zemeckis at a recent post-screening Q&A was about the relationship between The Walk and Man on Wire. Namely, how influenced was Zemeckis by the earlier film?
“I saw it once. I think it’s great,” Zemeckis told the crowd at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “The documentary is wonderful but the one thing it couldn’t do was the actual walk itself, and I thought that was Philippe’s entire artistic achievement.”
Since no footage exists of Petit’s real-life walk, both Man on Wire and The Walk had to improvise. But where Man on Wire resorts to still photographs and voiceover descriptions of the act, Zemeckis’ film uses all kinds of special effects to digitally recreate 1974 New York – and the lone, possibly crazy Frenchman walking a thousand feet above it.
“It was very painstaking,” Zemeckis said of the recreation. “Our visual effects team pored over thousands of photographs. One great thing about New York is that it’s photographed quite a lot. And the Towers in particular were photographed quite a lot. So we took that and started painting a 3-D visual recreation, always going back and checking — Was that building there?. We wanted to be accurate.”
Zemeckis also noted that he started working on The Walk a decade ago, years before Man on Wire was completed. The level of special effects in the film suggest he may have been waiting for technology to catch up with his vision (a la James Cameron and Avatar) but the director insists The Walk’s tone — playful, nostalgic, slightly whimsical — was actually the bigger barrier to completion.
“It’s hard to get movies made that don’t fit into a box. It’s tough now when you’ve got a film with a different tone, a different style,” Zemeckis said. “But because it took so long, the technology kept improving. From a philosophical standpoint, it almost feels like this is when it was supposed to be made.”
Tuesday’s screening marked the kickoff of a major Zemeckis retrospective at MoMA; “What Lies Beneath: The Films of Robert Zemeckis” runs until Oct. 18. This seems fitting. To hear Zemeckis tell it, The Walk is the culmination of his work to date, at least technically.
“The only visual effect that’s not in this movie is cartoon animation,” the Who Framed Roger Rabbit director noted. “I just couldn’t find a place to put it.”
Special effects aren’t the only thing The Walk has in common with Zemeckis’ previous work. Like Flight, The Walk is haunted by the memory of a plane crash. Like Forrest Gump, it’s a period piece.
“I enjoy looking back at history,” Zemeckis said. “That’s one thing movies do great. You get to look back at time through the lens of history because years have passed. We don’t really know at the time what’s important, what’s going to resonate. That’s very poignant in this story because things have changed so drastically.”
Like Cast Away’s Chuck Noland, Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a loner hero — surrounded by helpful accomplices, yes, but almost incapable of ever thanking them. And of course, all their plans are in service of getting Petit alone, up there above the clouds.
The moment when Petit achieves that transcendental solitude, when he first steps onto the wire between the Towers, is one of the most beautiful shots of the movie. CGI clouds rise, obscuring Petit’s co-conspirator and everything else except the man on the wire. Zemeckis said that moment came directly from Petit (who attended the Tuesday screening, standing up to accept applause after he was recognized).
“That was inspired by Philippe,” Zemeckis said. “He told me that before he stepped on the wire, everything vanished except him and the wire. I thought, ‘That’s really great. How am I going to do that?’ I didn’t just want to fade to white, even though that’s probably what happened in his mind’s eye. My visual effects supervisor Kevin Baillie thought, ‘What if we just have clouds come in?’ The effect is extremely emotional.”
The film’s climactic wire-walking sequence is also marked by long, sweeping takes, which Zemeckis said were both poetic and practical.
“I approached it like a ballet or a choreographed dance, so I thought it appropriate that the camera becomes a partner with Philippe on the wire,” the director said. “What doesn’t work in 3-D is fast editing, quick cutting. To slow everything down is crucial to effective 3-D.”
That shot is in keeping with Zemeckis’s reputation as one of the most visually innovative directors. Naturally, he took time at Tuesday’s screening to ruminate on the future of digital effects.
“Once things became digital, it changed things real fast. Now they’re changing faster and faster,” he told the crowd. “Being able to do visual effects quickly is becoming less expensive, since we’ve got so much processing power now. I go to the USC film school and there are guys rendering 3-D worlds on desktops that rival the big effects houses. When digital effects become part of every movie and directors are limited only by their artistic ability, I’m hoping it all gets back to being about story.”