Robert Zemeckis is something of a cinematic renaissance man. Over the years, the esteemed filmmaker has created a varied and versatile body of films that have either reached legendary heights (FORREST GUMP, BACK TO THE FUTURE), or missed the mark (DEATH BECOMES HER, CONTACT). But, to be sure, you’ll never be able to say that his films are all the same. In fact, you could argue that he’s one of the more revolutionary filmmakers of all time, constantly seeking out interesting subjects to explore. Perhaps that’s why his new film, THE WALK, is a visual masterpiece.
The movie tells the true story of Philippe Petit (the subject of James Marsh’s Oscar-winning 2008 documentary MAN ON WIRE), a French street performer and tight-rope walker who develops an obsession with walking a wire between the towers of the World Trade Center back in the 1970’s. The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Ben Schwartz, James Badge Dale, and Ben Kingsley, and we were present when the group appeared for a post-screening Q&A at this year’s New York Film Festival to talk about the project.
Here are five things we learned.
1. Robert Zemeckis has been trying to make this film for almost 10 years.
Although he’s made plenty of classic films, THE WALK appears to be Zemeckis’ passion project. The director comments on how he first became aware of Petit’s achievement and why he felt it was important to tell the story on the big screen.
“About 10 years ago, I came across a little children’s book called “The Man Who Walked Between The Towers” and was kind of intrigued by this little 8-page book. And then when Philippe actually did the walk, I wasn’t aware of it. I was, for some reason, not listening to the news or something. Then I started to research what it is that he did and I couldn’t believe the story. It was amazing. I thought it had all the elements to make a compelling movie.”
2. Joseph Gordon-Levitt had tightrope walking lessons from Petit himself.
Given the film’s subject matter, and the strenuous process of tightrope walking itself, one can assume lead actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt would employ the expertise of a double. But the actor took it upon himself to learn the skill, and he got training from the man whom he would be playing, Philippe Petit.
“Yeah, Philippe actually insisted that he be the first one to teach me 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 8 days straight. He said “By the end of these 8 days, you’ll walk on the wire yourself.” I thought that sounded ambitious, but he’s such a positive thinker.
“He actually believed that I would, and because he believed that I would, I started to believe that I would, and when you believe that you can do something, that’s when you can do it. He was right, by the end of those 8 days I did walk on the wire by myself and continued to practice as we shot. I like it. It’s actually really fun.”
3. The cast bonded over their love of previous Robert Zemeckis films.
When you work with a director as revered as Robert Zemeckis, the experience is probably fascinating. He’s made so many classic films that he could retire tomorrow and generations ahead of us would still regard him as a legend. So the film’s young cast decided to further celebrate their inclusion in one of his films by holding Bob Zemeckis movie nights while the film was shooting.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: “We did a thing on weekends sometimes – we didn’t actually tell you a bunch about this Bob – where the cast would gather together and watch Robert Zemeckis movies.”
Ben Schwartz: “Every single weekend. We’d all order food together – did you know about this Bob, or no? But every single weekend we’d get together as a bonding experience. We enjoyed spending time with each other, and watching his movies and then looking at each and being like, ‘we get to be apart of this!'”
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: “We watched BACK TO THE FUTURE, we watched CASTAWAY, WHAT LIES BENEATH… We watched ROMANCING THE STONE, DEATH BECOMES HER, it was fantastic.”
4. For authenticity, the production actually built the top two stories of one of the towers of the World Trade Center.
While watching THE WALK, I was bowled over by how perfectly the filmmakers were able to recreate the now-gone World Trade Center down to every last minute detail. Even though Zemeckis is a pioneer of CGI – and the film does use quite a bit of it – he opted to employ practical sets to accomplish his goal of authenticity.
Gordon-Levitt: “Well we were on a soundstage. They built a beautiful set of the top two stories of the tower surrounded by a bunch of green screen and hung the wire off the top of the set and 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.”
5. Don’t expect Zemeckis to go back and add 3-D to any of his old classics.
Since THE WALK used 3-D very effectively, and Zemeckis is a champion of the technology, it’s fair to question whether or not he’d ever revisit some of his older films to add in the 3-D format. Some directors have done it, so is he on board with that idea? Spoiler alert: No.
“Let’s see, alright. First of all, the answer to the first question. Yeah, when I came upon this event that I was thinking about maybe could be a movie it just called out that it would be a 3-D movie. I’ve been always searching for stories that organically lend themselves to being in 3-D. I believe that 3-D is a filmmaker’s tool that is a decision that’s made at the very beginning based on the story and the screenplay. Just like a decision you would make to shoot a movie in color or black and white. In my opinion, it should be used to enhance the emotion in the story.
“For example, I never thought FLIGHT should be a 3-D movie. There’s nothing that 3-D would enhance. That answers your last question which is no, I would never think of converting any of my movies to 3-D because they were never designed that way. You have to make a 3-D movie constantly. It changes your editing pace, the way your camera moves, the lenses that you use, it’s all gotta be thought through from the beginning. Am I a fan of native 3-D or conversion? I think the technology, if you’re going to do a 3-D movie, conversion is the only way to go, unless you’re shooting water. That’s the one thing that doesn’t convert very well.
The Walk is out in UK cinemas on the 9th of October.