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BBC Motion Gallery treads the red carpet with Man on Wire

23 April 2009

Interview with film researcher Liz Fay

How did you come to work on this project?
I saw the ad on the FOCAL International Researcher Job finder (an invaluable resource for archive researchers when jobs are thin on the ground.) I googled Philippe Petit and remembered reading about the walk in the dim distant past. I was hooked on the idea and applied for the job immediately. In October 2007, I met with producer Simon Chinn and co-producer Victoria Gregory in Wall to Wall's Kentish Town offices. We discussed the project and some weeks later, I spoke with director James Marsh on a very crackly line from New York. I really liked his ideas, his film inluences and his incredible enthusiasm for the project. After an anxious few days (I really wanted this job) I heard back from Simon that they wanted me to do it.

What was the brief?
The film was going to be very archive heavy. I was contracted for about three months and most of my work was carried out during the period in which the live action shoot was taking place in Paris and New York. The challenge was to recreate New York as it was in the 1970's - a period in which the city was bankrupt with rubbish littering the streets. My greatest challenge was to find footage of the Twin Towers under construction. The archive of the buildings owners, The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, had gone down with the towers but miraculously one 20 minute BETA (presumably out on loan to someone at the time) still existed. Beautifully shot on 35mm, it saved the day. The footage of Petit and his walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge was shot by a then recently graduated film student James Ricketson and had never previously been seen, nor had the film of Philippe and his co-conspiritors rehearsing the walk in an idyllic French rural setting.

What were the particular challenges?
Mainly to make up for the fact that the actual walk was not filmed.
There were lots of stills used, intercut with news footage shot on the day by CBS and NBC. BBC Motion Gallery's archive of CBS News clips was invaluable in this instance and its New York office were able to give me lots of very good material both of the aftermath of the walk and of New York in the period. The publicity surrounding the walk was short-lived. The next day President Nixon's resignation speech knocked Philippe's walk off the airwaves.

How involved are you in how the footage gets used?
At the outset I bombarded James with footage (he was working on the shoot in NY - I was in Kentish Town). James had so many ideas as to how we would build up the background to the illegal invasion of the twin towers by Philippe and his co-conspiritors. Lots bit the dust. Unusually, both James and award-winning editor Jinx Godfrey viewed every frame I sent before the edit actually moved to London. I spent a good deal of time in the edit as changes continued to be made right up until the the final cut (which was almost exactly a year after we went into production) never having been deeply involved with a feature film before I was surprised at the amount of work involved in post production which carried on long after my role ended.

Man on Wire is now in receipt of a total of 28 film awards including the Oscar for best Documentary Feature and BAFTA for most outstanding British Film.