‘The Walk’ mirrors the high-wire act of Robert Zemeckis’ career

Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) steps out onto the wire in ‘The Walk.’
Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) steps out onto the wire in ‘The Walk.’ SONY PICTURES

Robert Zemeckis, the director of The Walk, wasn’t paying attention on the morning of Aug. 7, 1974, when a Frenchman named Philippe Petit strung a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center and spent 45 minutes walking back and forth between them without a net.

Back then, Zemeckis, who had just graduated from the University of Southern California’s film school, was too busy hustling for work to pay attention to the news. He would make his directorial debut four years later, with the manic comedy I Wanna Hold Your Hand, about a group of diehard Beatles fans hellbent on meeting the band by whatever means necessary during their 1964 visit to New York City. Steven Spielberg was one of the film’s executive producers. The movie flopped.

Zemeckis’ next big break came as co-writer of 1941, the sprawling 1979 comedy about the night the citizens of Los Angeles thought they were under attack by Japanese forces. This time, Spielberg directed the picture, with a huge cast and an even bigger budget. The movie flopped.

The filmmaker got another shot with Used Cars, a raucous, R-rated comedy starring Kurt Russell and Jack Warden as warring car salesmen. Released in July 1980, Used Cars was eclipsed by movies released the same month, Airplane! and Caddyshack.

When Zemeckis, who had spent a year developing Cocoon for 20th Century Fox, showed the studio the final cut of his still-unreleased next picture, Romancing the Stone, executives thought it was so bad they fired him and signed Ron Howard to direct the aliens-meet-old-people comedy instead.

His career might as well have been over. Except Romancing the Stone, released in 1984, was a big hit. And after the success of his next movie, the time-travel comedy Back to the Future starring a TV sitcom actor, Zemeckis had finally made it safely to the other side. He had wobbled, but he didn’t fall. He completed his own walk.

“What Philippe Petit did is way bigger than life,” Zemeckis says. “His story is almost like a fable in terms of its size and magnitude. He risked his life to do it. But everyone can identify with his passion, his creative drive, his need to do what he did at all costs. It’s a universal feeling, whether it’s baking a cake or singing in a choir or writing for a newspaper. At some point in your life, you get the feeling that you have to do this thing.”

Zemeckis first heard about Petit’s outrageous stunt in the aftermath of Sept. 11, when the World Trade Center’s history was widely recounted. Mordicai Gerstein’s illustrated children’s book The Man who Walked Between the Towers gave Zemeckis the idea to turn the feat into a film (some shots in The Walk were clearly inspired by Gerstein’s artwork). He met with Petit, who still lives in upstate New York, and with his blessing started developing the project.

In 1997, Zemeckis founded the film studio ImageMovers, which produced several of his live-action films (including What Lies Beneath and Cast Away). Zemeckis also began experimenting with motion-capture technology (or mo-cap), in which flesh-and-blood actors are filmed against green screens with sensors covering their bodies and faces, then rendered into animation via digital technology.

The filmmaker disappeared down the mo-cap rabbit hole. The Polar Express, released in 2004, starred a cartoon version of Tom Hanks that was disturbingly similar to Tom Hanks. Beowulf, a retelling of the epic poem scripted by Neil Gaiman and released in 2007, featured Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins.

In 2007, the Walt Disney Co. partnered with ImageMovers, believing in Zemeckis’ vision for the future of animation. Out of that union came 2009’s stunning A Christmas Carol, starring Jim Carrey, and 2011’s Mars Needs Moms, which cost $150 million and grossed $40 million worldwide — one of the biggest box office catastrophes of all time. Disney pulled the plug and the mo-cap studio was no more.

But Zemeckis’ fascination with the technology remained, and now that he had produced or directed several animated films using it, he decided to incorporate it into a live-action feature.

The Walk cost $35 million — in Hollywood terms, that’s practically a low-budget production — but the visual effects are seamless. Your brain knows everything you’re looking at is fake, beginning with the towers, which are practically supporting characters. But the illusion is thorough and complete, particularly when seen in an IMAX 3D theater, where the movie is currently playing (it will open in regular theaters on Oct. 9).

The shots of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Petit, teetering while walking suspended 110 stories above the ground induce such stomach-tickling vertigo, some audience members at the New York Film Festival premiere threw up.

Zemeckis takes that as a compliment.

“From a visual-storytelling standpoint, I think I can honestly say that everything I’ve done in my career until now has prepared me to make The Walk,” Zemeckis says. “It’s all in there, including all the performance capture stuff. We did a lot of animatic work and spent a lot of time studying and thinking about the best way to present images that would really evoke the feelings of height and vertigo.”

Gordon-Levitt, who was taught how to wire-walk by Petit and does an uncanny imitation of his thick French accent and animated manner, says he knew the movie would work from the moment he saw an unfinished rough cut.

“One of my favorite things Bob ever said to me was ‘My favorite special effect is a close-up,’ ” Gordon-Levitt says. “What he meant by that is no matter how expensive or slick your special effects are, if the audience doesn’t care about the human beings in the story, then that’s all they are — just special effects. Bob has made a lot of visually spectacular movies. But what makes those spectacles come to life are the characters. The close-up is the most intimate moment possible between the character and the audience.”

“The close-up is the real visual special effect,” Zemeckis says. “That’s the spectacle, because that doesn’t exist in real life. We go to movies to see things that don’t exist or to see stories presented to us in a way that’s bigger than life. One of the greatest tools we have to do that is the close-up.”

But the most dominant sight in The Walk is the World Trade Center. The buildings are filmed from every conceivable angle (including a stunning shot from street level that cranes all the way to the top) and they grace the film’s final image, lingering for a couple of seconds after the screen fades to black — a moment of simple, heartfelt testament.

“We were very sensitive to the tragedy of 9/11,” Zemeckis says. “Whenever I talked with Philippe about what he did, he always referred to those towers as living, breathing accomplices. They were part of his team. He had such a respect for those towers. They were the reason why he did this. I told myself early on that was the key to the movie: To present the towers as Philippe sees them, without doing any editorializing. This is how this man felt about them. Hopefully all of that comes through.”

Rene Rodriguez: 305-376-3611, @ReneMiamiHerald