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"What I am thinking about is, I am not thinking."

Philippe Petit, man on a wire.

"Man on Wire," one of the most talked-about documentaries of the year, tells the story of how a young Frenchman named Philippe Petit illegally walked on a tight wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center on Aug. 7, 1974. It won the audience award and the best documentary prize at Sundance 2008, and is a superb film that works like a thriller.

But what kind of man would be brave enough, or foolish enough, or confident enough, to attempt such a feat? As someone who is himself afraid of heights, I wanted to ask Philippe Petit, and I did. My questions are pretty obvious. His replies are remarkable for their thoughtfulness, and his poetry of expression.

RE: You would have achieved your objective by crossing once between the two towers. Why did you do it eight times?

PP: My objective was not to cross once between the two towers. My objective was to venture through the negative space offered by the two towers and discover what kind of ephemeral, improvised theater I could write in the sky. My audience? Taken by surprise. My performance? A dot in the sky.

Why did I cross eight times? I did not plan to cross eight times, I was called by the towers, by the void, by my instinct to perform one more crossing...and one more...and one more... My friends, watching from the street told me later, "You stayed on that wire for forty-five minutes. You did eight crossings." I didn't have a pedometer. I didn't carry a watch. Actors who rely on those impediments should be thrown off the stage!

RE: Have you ever been blown off a wire by high winds, or been injured in a fall? How or when?

PP: If I had, I wouldn't be here to answer the question! As a high wire walker, I do not allow myself to "leave the wire" during a performance. However, during the months of apprenticeship (I was a self-taught wire walker at 17), and during the years of practicing I have had numerous "defeats" on the wire and that's good. That's how one learns.

On a very long and very high wire, I will not hope to not be blown off by high winds. I will have the certitude that such could not happen. By practicing for months before the event on a low wire oriented along the axis of the predominant winds, I put Aeolus on my side. I am not up there by chance. I am there by choice. And I know the wire. And I know my limits. And I am a madman of details. And to use one of your words, I cannot "fall."

RE: The film does a remarkable job of seamlessly merging actual and re- created footage. What was your contribution to this undertaking?

Thank you for your opinion. My contribution was to try to have the recreated footage reflect the truth of my story. I failed!

RE: The film speaks of the intense concentration in your face during a crossing. Is this a Zen-like state of concentration? What are you thinking about?

PP: It's always easy to describe something complex by applying to it an already known label. So, the "Zen-like state of concentration" is what people are inclined to say about my state of focus. But I would rather struggle for my description to be honest.

What I am thinking about is, I am not thinking. I am tremendously focused. I have reduced the universe to the state of non-existence. Only me and the wire. Except, my concentration carries no horse blinders. I have to feel, see, taste, hear, touch, and smell everything to the utmost, so I can catch any sign of threat before any threat appears.

RE: Is there a challenge still before you?

I use the word "challenge" only when referring to intellectual challenge, to artistic creation. Physical challenges do not interest me if they are not mingled with individual expression. What interests me is to inspire the onlooker. So yes, there are a thousand intellectual challenges still before me. I continue to street juggle, I continue to wire walk, to write books, to lecture around the world. As you can see, I don't like to give one-liners as answers in interviews!

RE: Would you describe your emotions on the day the towers fell?

PP: I prefer not to. It's too personal.

"Man on Wire" opens Aug. 8 at the Landmark Century and Renaissance theaters.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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