The Walk feels like the closest director Robert Zemeckis will ever get to a superhero movie. Across his filmography, he's worked at the highest levels of cinematic razzle-dazzle: Think of the jokey hologram shark advertising Jaws 19 in Back to the Future II, the breathless plane crash in Flight, or even Tom Hanks seamlessly shaking President Kennedy's hand in Forrest Gump. Yet, Zemeckis's use of cinematic special effects always seems in service of his stories.
And never more so than in The Walk, his expansive, breathtaking biopic about Philippe Petit, the French high-wire artist who illegally strung a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center early in the morning of Aug. 7, 1974, and proceeded to walk back and forth between the towers for nearly 45 minutes. The Globe spoke to Zemeckis about the film, the towers and the challenges of sustaining tension when an audience knows how a movie's going to end.
The Walk just opened the New York Film Festival. Given the subject matter, did you always intend for the movie to be a – and I sort of hate this phrase – "love letter" to New York, or to the World Trade towers themselves?
Certainly, we were always respectful of the memory of the two towers. I took my marching orders from Philippe Petit. In the early days when I started talking to him about his story, he always referred to the towers as these living things. They were always partners of his, in his adventure, in his art. He always referred to them as his "co-conspirators." I always thought that's how I'd have to present them in the movie, and that's basically what he did.
Petit views the towers as a source of wonder and beauty. Apparently at the time of their construction, New Yorkers did not see them this way. They were regarded as sort of an eyesore.
Right. And he did this thing where he joined them. He did this beautiful thing by joining them together and putting his physical self between them. It's actually extremely poetic when you think about it.
Was it one of your goals to put across this sense of wonder that he felt?
Of course. And passion is another thing I saw talking to Philippe. He had this unshakeable belief. He was going to do this no matter what. Nothing was going to stop him from accomplishing this dream he had. He's extremely passionate about his art. I identified with Philippe.
You seem like a very technologically forward-thinking filmmaker. But you always find a way to marry the effects with the story. I'm wondering if you think there's a trend in Hollywood toward showing off the special effects and technology just for the sake of it?
Well, yeah. I mean … yes. Look: All I can do is speak to how I work. I love François Truffaut's quote about what makes a good movie. I remember reading this when I was in film school. He says that a really good movie is a perfect blend of truth and spectacle. I think that's the mission of movies. It has to be about human truth. It has to be about something we can identify with at a human level. But then, also to entertain at the highest level, a movie also has to show us something we can't see in real life. There has to be spectacle. And that's not just special effects. A close-up of a magnificent actor is spectacle. Close-ups don't exist in life.
Were you influenced at all by James Marsh's documentary about Petit, Man on Wire? Both his film and yours are structured almost as heist movies.
The thing that's really cool about what Philippe refers to as "the coup" is that it was this anarchistic thing. They came in and did this illegal thing and put this wire between the two towers. It is a heist film, except nobody gets hurt and nothing gets destroyed and nothing gets stolen. There's a heist element. But I started developing this nine years ago, way before they made Man on Wire. And as wonderful as the documentary is, it couldn't present the actual walk itself, because there was no footage ever shot of it.
What are the challenges of making a movie like this, where the audience knows what's going to happen? How do you draw out that tension when the conclusion is foregone?
It's a wonderful conundrum. Even if you don't know it's a true story, and even if it's a complete fictional story, you know that Hitchcock is not going to kill Cary Grant or Eva Marie Saint. You just know that. When you're really with a character, even if you know what's going to happen, you're there identifying with him and saying, "What's he going to do? What would I do?" You're with him in that moment of tension.
Although Hitchcock did, to his credit, famously kill off Janet Leigh in Psycho.
That's true. But he did it in the first 30 minutes of the movie!
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The Walk opened in IMAX 3D on Sept. 30, and will expand wide Oct. 9.