EXCLUSIVE: I went out on a limb in January reporting how badly director Robert Zemeckis and TriStar head Tom Rothman sought out Joseph Gordon-Levitt to play the role of Man On Wire subject Philippe Petit for the 3D feature To Walk The Clouds, and now I can tell you that the young actor has committed to playing the French high wire artist who made a daring cross of the World Trade Center in 1974. Production will begin in May on this 3D experiential film that will be done with the spectacle of Avatar, Life Of Pi and Gravity, with a fun daring subplot that makes the film one part Ocean’s Eleven as Petit and his cohorts snuck to the top of the towers and managed to shoot a line across and get the rigging ready in time for Petit to shock the world in what is also a love letter to the Twin Towers and a simpler time gone by.
So this will be the first project to come from Rothman, who at Fox was smack in the middle of Avatar and Life Of Pi, and who really wanted to find something exceptional to brand the label he revived at Sony. This certainly fits the bill. It has also been a passion project for Zemeckis and his ImageMovers cohorts for several years. While Gordon-Levitt will have to adopt the accent, the fact that he was a gymnast in his teen years will help the cause in what will be a technically challenging film to pull off.
To Reach The Clouds is the title of Petit’s memoirs, and that is the working title of the film, and the director of Forrest Gump and Cast Away has already co-written the script with Christopher Browne. Zemeckis is producing with ImageMovers partners Jack Rapke and Steve Starkey. It’s one that Rothman grabbed onto after he watched Gravity in a theater and decided he wanted to launch with that level of difficulty, something that really had to be seen in a theater to fully appreciate the 3D. Rothman worked with Zemeckis on Cast Away and What Lies Beneath, so there is a long relationship there. Rothman’s lieutenant, David Beaubaire, ran point as an exec on the Zemeckis-directed Flight when he was at Paramount.
Here’s how I described the plot when I wrote about this last month. The actual tight rope walk, called the “artistic crime of the century”– doesn’t occur until the third act of a film, which is one part protagonist chasing a crazy impossible dream, and another part caper pic. After Cuaron’s accomplishment in Gravity, the prospect of seeing that famous tightrope walk orchestrated by Zemeckis in 3D seems to me like a recipe for spectacular film, particularly resonant in that it is framed around the iconic Twin Towers, shown in a simpler time in history. Much of the movie is about how Petit, guided by a mentor, managed with a small band of relatives and his girlfriend to carefully plan this, sneaking up to the top of the Towers at night. They hid until late evening when they strung a 450-pound cable from one building to the other. Petit then stepped off the South Tower for a 45-minute walk to the North Tower, using a custom made 26-foot long balancing pole. The feat was the subject of James Marsh’s 2008 Oscar-winning docu Man On Wire.
Gordon-Levitt will begin shooting this in May, and after that he will re-team with 50/50 cohorts Seth Rogen and director Jonathan Levine in the Christmas Eve comedy for Sony and Good Universe. After that, Gordon-Levitt will begin the second season of HITRECORD On TV, his open collaborative variety show for Pivot. In fact, knowing Gordon-Levitt and his love of social media, I believe he will be Tweeting this to make it official momentarily. He is repped by WME and Karl Austen.