Man on fire

Director James Marsh's career is heating up
March 1, 2009

If there’s anyone that’s racking up frequent flyer points lately, it’s director James Marsh. In the past two weeks he’s traveled from Europe to Los Angeles for both the first screening of his latest film, Nineteen Eighty (produced through Channel 4 and to air in the UK later this year) and for a little gathering called The Academy Awards. It was the latter trip and the reason behind it – the Oscar-winning documentary about daredevil Phillipe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk across the Twin Towers, Man on Wire – that’s put Marsh in the spotlight recently. Man, a Wall to Wall production in association with Red Box films, Discovery Films, BBC and the UK Film Council, has deservedly reaped a fair share of accolades since its release but Marsh is by no means sitting on his laurels. Realscreen tracked him down in Denmark, to talk about working with a mischievous daredevil, traversing between docs, features and commercial work, and what his next plunge into the abyss will be.

Have you been at all surprised by the reaction to Man on Wire, from the industry and otherwise?
It’s a big surprise to be at something like the Oscars, and to become the favorite. But going into the ceremony we thought we were going to lose as we’d been so lucky so far. You look for little clues – the seating arrangements, who’s talking to whom, any sorts of omens. We’d been to two or three ceremonies so far and had nothing prepared, so for the first time we actually had something prepared. And it’s the best moment of your life really, and then it becomes the best evening of your life.

Were you at all worried when Philippe did his little Oscar trick? [He'd balanced the Oscar statuette precariously on his chin during the acceptance speech]
I had a rough idea what he was going to do, and I knew he’d pull it off. He’s walked between the Twin Towers on a tightrope, so a billion people watching him balance an Oscar on his chin wasn’t going to faze him one bit.

How did the project originate?
I was aware of his story because I lived in New York at the time. Simon Chinn was pursuing Philippe to option his book, and so Simon asked me to meet with him. We had a couple of what I’d call cagey meetings – he knows the value of his own life and story and he didn’t want to give it away to anybody. He’d had several approaches over the years. But I was quite dogged in my determination and so I wrote him a long letter and the second meeting went very well. It became a long process of him divulging his secrets and showing me things he’d kept – not the least being 10 rolls of unexposed film that he’d shot in France. What you see in that film is the preparation of these people about to do this madcap, audacious thing, and it became the heart of the film. I didn’t get that for some time, so it was a very slow, interesting dance I had to do with Philippe. But it wasn’t torture, it was more mischievous teasing.

So eventually it became more of a collaboration as the film unfolded. I needed him to tell me his story the way he wanted to, so I allowed him to act it out for me on camera. That was an interesting choice, as it’s quite an unusual thing to do and it gives the film a very personal energy – only he could’ve done this.

You’ve said that the plan was to structure the film like a heist movie, which makes sense given that anyone seeing it already knows the outcome.
The challenge was to structure the film – to make the journey to this amazing performance – like a heist film, with shifting timelines. You go through it in present tense, where you’re part of the event unfolding day and night and then flashback to find out how these people met each other, where they’d been. I’d worked the structure out on paper going in, and it actually held up – sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t in documentaries. But it held up nicely up to the final edit. It allowed us to create a certain amount of suspense around the setbacks and the conflicts that occurred.

The other challenge that must’ve reared its head was how to contend with the fate of the Twin Towers…
As the story happened in 1974, the film builds up to it and we don’t really venture further than that. But being a bit of a New Yorker and someone who witnessed the Towers going down with my own eyes, I was very conscious of the weight of the imagery of those buildings. I felt that someone needed to free them from that tragic association – not permanently or in any disrespectful way.

I was also aware that the Towers, as characters of the film, had a charge or a weight to them – everyone was aware of their fate and people will be for the next however many years. So I thought why bother to have any crass moralizing on my part – you feel that the audience is smart enough to draw their own conclusions. I think that’s why the film has struck a chord, particularly in New York. It’s been playing for seven months in the same cinema, which is pretty unprecedented. Maybe it’s because it’s given the city something back, something that was taken away. Not to make bold claims for it, but it does show some joy that happened around those buildings.

You’ve done feature work [The King, the upcoming Nineteen Eighty], you’re working in commercials [through boutique branded content prodco Maximum Content and London-based Stink outside of the US], and you make docs. How do you negotiate the different demands of each?
As a director I approach everything from the same way – you’re making imagery. I love to work and obsess over whatever it is I’m doing, and with features and documentaries there’s so much down time while you’re struggling to get financing or struggling to come up with an idea. I just think the more productive you are the better you get as a director and you get to try things out. Commercials can be incredibly creative and persuasive with their imagery. Whatever you’re doing, you always have a great opportunity to fill this blank canvas in the best way that you can.

We’ve heard a little bit about your next project with Wall to Wall, based on the dream diaries of a Canadian man that you discovered. What more can you tell us about it?
It’s a challenging notion to construct a film narrative out of someone’s dreams that were written down over the course of a lifetime. The dreams were all about one person – the person that the dreamer was in love with. I’m still not sure how to do it, but if I get it right it’ll be pretty interesting and fairly original. It’ll be something we haven’t seen before. If I get it right it’ll be interesting and if I get it wrong it’ll probably be unwatchable.

Sounds like you’re a bit of a daredevil yourself.
I’ve worked this way with a few films – you just sort of step into the abyss, with no anchor or narrative to hang onto. You just have to find it. It’s like jumping off a cliff – you don’t know where you’re going to land, but you know you will land. It may not be where you expected and you may not bring anyone else with you. But as a filmmaker I’m always sure I’m going to land somewhere.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.