At the recent New York Film Festival press screening of The Walk, director Robert Zemeckis spoke about adapting his film for the screen. Based on the book To Reach the Clouds by Philippe Petit (the tightrope walker), The Walk is written by Robert Zemeckis and Christopher Browne.
Zemeckis: “I came upon the children’s book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers; it had eight pages of illustrations.”
Written and illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein in 2003, the book recounts Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the top of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.
Zemeckis: “I started developing this project and Philippe’s story, almost 10 years ago, way before the documentary ‘Man on Wire’ was made. It was a great documentary; it lets you in to see what all the real characters were thinking and how they did this, but the thing I always wanted to do was Philippe’s story. I wanted to present the walk itself, and of course it couldn’t be done in the documentary because there were no moving pictures of the walk ever recorded.”
In researching Petit’s true life story, Zemeckis found a passionate and driven character who performed the walk because he had to, purely for self-expression.
Zemeckis: “Petit is an anarchist who pulled off an artistic coup.”
Finding the dramatic elements of the story
There were all the elements in this real life story and in the children’s book already built-in for a compelling screenplay: a unique protagonist and his unlikely gang of international recruits to help make the actual walk a reality. It’s a caper film, except there is no theft. The adventurous goal that drives the narrative forward is for the protagonist and his gang, to plan, execute, and to survive the walk between the Twin Towers.
What to Keep and What to Cut
There were some elements from the actual coup that that were condensed, such as in real life, Petit made eight crossings, but in the film he does six.
Breaking the Fourth Wall
In the film, Petit’s character, speaking from a perch on the Statue of Liberty, talks directly to the screen, a choice Zemeckis says he made to keep the audience emotionally connected to Petit in order to convey how his character is feeling.
Zemeckis: “All artists are anarchists in some ways, some more extreme than others.”
Screenwriting is — and forgive the metaphor — like walking a tightrope. There are only so pages you have to convey your compelling story and characters, as you make every word count. It is always a balancing act, deciding what to include and what to cut from the original source material, while conveying the strongest elements of the story onto the page in an engaging and unique way.
Go forth on the screenwriting tightrope and bring out your inner artistic anarchist!