One morning in April 2005, Simon Chinn of London-based documentary production outfit Red Box Films had the good fortune to oversleep. He woke up to the sound of Philippe Petit's voice on the BBC's Radio 4.
'I was incredibly struck by him, his impassioned and completely unique view of the world,' Chinn recalls. 'Here was a guy who was happier on a wire as big as your thumb, a quarter of a mile in the sky, than he was on the ground.'
He bought Petit's book, To Reach The Clouds, which recounts the story of his 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York. 'It read like a treatment for a caper movie.'
Chinn tracked the Frenchman down and set up a meeting. He learned from Petit's partner and production director Kathy O'Donnell that Petit was already working with a couple of young producers on a film project. 'There was an element of, 'Join the queue,' but I had a feeling it was still all to play for,' says Chinn.
Although the pair got off to a bad start as Chinn was late for the meeting after being stuck in traffic, Petit agreed to a second Paris meeting. Chinn had discovered Petit was an obsessive colour coder and produced 50 pages of colour-coded notes he had made on Petit's book and flicked through them in the meeting. 'Philippe leaned across and saw my notes and he said, 'Oh, you're a colour coder.' By the end of the evening, I pretty much knew I had it,' Chinn recalls.
It took a further four months for an option agreement to be signed. 'Philippe feels very protective of his story and emotionally it was a huge leap of faith to trust in someone he had never met before,' Chinn explains.
The Frenchman wanted to be a central creative collaborator and a clause to this effect was included in the contract.
'The process of consulting with Petit became one of the big challenges of the project,' says Chinn. 'He made his views known freely and abundantly. The challenge was to harness his best ideas and to disregard the ideas that we didn't think would work in such a way that would not piss him off unduly. James bore the brunt of that.'
'James' is director James Marsh, who was brought on board six months later. Jonathan Hewes, deputy CEO of UK film and TV production outfit Wall to Wall and executive producer of Man On Wire, had recommended Marsh, whose credits included Wisconsin Death Trip and The King, to Chinn. Marsh, who lives in New York, says Chinn sold the project to him within seconds. 'The moment I realised it was an illegal performance, I latched on to those two things.'
The £1.1m budget ($1.9m in October 2007) was raised in equal parts from the BBC, the UK Film Council (UKFC) via its New Cinema Fund (then run by Paul Trijbits) and the US-based Discovery Channel.
Chinn met with Nick Fraser from Storyville, BBC TV's documentary strand. 'I pulled the book out and Nick saw its potential from the word go.' Although Chinn had approached Storyville, he obtained the BBC funding from Richard Klein, who at the time was the broadcaster's head of independent commissioning.
Chinn was determined to attract the UKFC. 'Their involvement positions the film as a movie rather than a TV film. The fact it was a documentary for us was always incidental. It was much more a caper film than anything else.'
UKFC senior executive Himesh Kar says Marsh's pitch document was 'a really sensational piece of material'. Unlike many documentary film-makers who approach the New Cinema Fund, Marsh had a clear idea of the material he would get, and highlighted potential gaps and how to address them.
The New Cinema Fund decided to invest following a letter of interest from a UK distributor, and with The Works on board as sales agent. Wall to Wall and Discovery retained UK and US sales rights respectively (US sales agent Submarine Entertainment went on to broker a US theatrical deal on behalf of Wall to Wall).
'Chinn and Marsh gave us a 25-page pitch-perfect document which supplemented what they were saying to us,' says Lenny Crooks, who took over from Trijbits as head of the New Cinema Fund in the summer of 2006. 'It was dramatically engaging, intoxicating, detailed, and so focused it even had music cues.'
Ahead of filming, Marsh worked out the structure: 'I had written a detailed outline based on Philippe's book and some provisional phone interviews with people involved in the story. I'd worked out this heist structure with flashbacks,' Marsh explains.
The archive footage in the documentary originated from nine cans of film that Petit kept in his garage. 'I had to sign all kinds of bits of paper, literally in blood, to take them off with me,' says Marsh.
In October 2006, filming began in New York. Petit had remained in contact with all his French accomplices so Marsh was able to track them down quickly. His US helpers were more elusive and some lateral thinking was required to find them.
Petit himself was determined to be interviewed - and act out his feat - in his barn and Marsh agreed reluctantly. He was surprised by the result. 'It was great to cut that interview in the edit room. I wasn't sure we could use it because it was pretty crazy but it's one of the aspects I'm most proud of.'
Filming 'went at some lick from the first shoot,' and Man On Wire was delivered to Sundance in December 2007. The film generated a huge buzz and went on to win the Grand Jury prize and the audience award.
Shortly after Sundance, Magnolia Pictures picked up the US theatrical rights. Hugo Grumbar, head of UK distribution at Icon Film Distribution, saw the film during the Berlinale and agreed to buy UK rights.
Icon took Man On Wire to the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June 2008 and Petit was on hand to entertain the audiences. Icon then released the film in the UK on August 1, 2008 on 41 screens.
Man On Wire's worldwide box-office stands at $4.8m, boosted by its best documentary Oscar win as well as a string of awards, including Outstanding British Film at the Baftas.
'I ended up in the most extraordinary places with the most extraordinary people, wielding my Oscar like a magic wand,' says Marsh of Oscar night. 'It was the most brilliant night of my life.'