Seeing the World Trade Center again is bound to rouse strong emotions, but Robert Zemeckis’ upcoming drama, The Walk, aims to make it nostalgic instead of distressing—like discovering a new photo of someone who’s gone forever. The story is set nearly three decades before 9/11, and the tale is both true-life and death-defying. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Philippe Petit, the French high-wire walker who, in 1974, strung a cable between the two 110-story skyscrapers and walked across it, 1,350 feet above Manhattan.
“Re-creating the Twin Towers in a photo-real way—only movies can do that,” says Zemeckis (Flight). “The towers are definitely characters in the movie, and Philippe loved them and spoke to them as if they were partners, accomplices, as if they were living, breathing things.”
The production built replicas of the rooftops on a stage in Montreal. The rest of the image—the dawning sky, the mist and dust, the tiny cityscape below—was all “digital extensions,” as Zemeckis puts it. What’s not CG is the man on the cable. Gordon-Levitt did have a safety rig, but he trained with Petit to balance without falling.
During the actual stunt, Petit, who was the subject of the Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire, walked between the towers for about 45 minutes, putting on an awesome show. During shooting, Gordon-Levitt would balance for hours. “When Joe was walking on the wire, it was 12 feet off the ground,” Zemeckis says. “We had to be able to get the cameras under it and over it. You usually only get to see a wire walker by looking up, but our camera is looking down, so everyone gets that magnificent sense of vertigo.”