The man behind Britain’s other Best Picture

Slumdog Millionaire wasn’t the only big UK winner at the Oscars. Simon Chinn’s documentary, Man on Wire, also picked up a golden statuette.

By Alex Kasriel, March 12, 2009
Simon Chinn (left) with fellow filmmaker James Marsh at last month’s Oscars

Simon Chinn (left) with fellow filmmaker James Marsh at last month’s Oscars

Simon Chinn has been making dramas and documentaries for television for the past 10 years. In all that time, the closest he has got to the Oscars is watching the event on TV. But, a fortnight ago, that all changed.

The 39-year-old film producer (son of Sir Trevor) won Best Documentary Feature for his film Man On Wire at last month’s Academy Awards.

“As a documentary-maker you never expect to be breathing the same air as Brad and Angelina,” he reflects, having returned to his north London home, swapping the glitz and glamour of

Tinsel Town for the more mundane pleasures of Tufnell Park.

“I went to the Vanity Fair party after the ceremony and I spent quite a lot of time hanging out in the comedy corner with Sacha Baron Cohen and Seth Rogan and the Knocked Up crew — it seemed to be a room full of Jews! It was bizarre.”

Man On Wire tells the story of French acrobat Philippe Petit and his death-defying tightrope walk in 1974 between New York’s Twin Towers. Using real-life footage, dramatic re-enactments and interviews with Petit and those involved in the illegal stunt, Man on Wire uncovers the extraordinary lengths Petit went to in order to travel between the tops of the world’s tallest buildings, on a wire erected in the middle of the night to avoid detection.

“What was particularly gratifying was that all those people [at the Oscars] were huge fans of Man on Wire,” continues Chinn on his mingling with the stars. “It was completely surreal, but at the end of the day they’re all normal people.”

At the awards ceremony itself, Petit stole the show by balancing an Oscar statuette on his chin after impressing the audience by making a gold coin disappear. It appeared to be a moment of spontaneity but, true to form, the stuntman had been rehearsing for weeks. “He actually borrowed Woody Allen’s Oscar for about 10 minutes and practised with it,” laughs Chinn.

“He’s an obsessive technician and found out all the dimensions of it beforehand and built himself a replica statue. Everything he does, he does with huge passion, bordering on obsession. He’s a completely fascinating study.”

But this obsessive behaviour made Petit a very difficult subject to work with. From their very first meeting, things were not exactly straightforward. “It took about eight months to get the rights from him,” says Chinn.

“There had been a number of other film makers before me who tried to get the rights and he’d felt for one reason or another he didn’t want to sell them. He’s extremely protective of his story and how it’s told and his involvement in its telling.

“We had a very bad first meeting. I was an hour late because I was stuck in traffic, which was very unprofessional of me,” adds Chinn, who was the co-producer of 2006’s award winning TV drama The Government Inspector.

“It was not a way to impress someone for whom punctuality is a life-or-death issue. He didn’t know who I was or what I was doing there. I walked away from that meeting kicking myself, which made me more determined to see him again. I didn’t let go. Tenacity is something he also appreciates. He saw that I was passionate and determined, and made a leap of faith.”

But even after the maverick Frenchman agreed to go ahead with the low-budget film, he was a challenging partner to work with.

“He insisted on being in control,” admits Chinn, who made the documentary with his company Red Box in partnership with leading production company Wall to Wall. “I was careful to ensure in the contract with him that I, and the director James Marsh, had a duty to listen to him. But it was never easy.”

Chinn describes how in one of the re-enactments, the film crew had completely rebuilt the 52nd floor of the World Trade Centre. But Petit felt the windows were not the right size and wanted to re-shoot all the scenes where those windows appeared, or have them altered using CGI effects.

“I knew what I was getting myself into from the word go,” says Chinn, “but I always felt that he was going to worth it.”

Chinn was right. Not only has Man on Wire won an Oscar, it also has been given a string of other awards, including a Bafta for Outstanding British Film, and the Sundance Festival Grand Jury and Audience prizes.

“The Baftas were a complete shock because there’s no documentary category in the Baftas,” says Chinn, who describes himself as culturally Jewish.

“We were up for two awards. One was for me for making my first feature film [best newcomer] and the other was in the best British film category against Slumdog Millionaire and Hunger. We went to the Baftas expecting nothing, so it was a complete shock. James Marsh and I were totally unprepared for the acceptance speech.

“We brought Philippe up on stage, which is a big breach of protocol, but I felt it was a documentary very much celebrating the lifetime achievement of this man who is absolutely centre stage in the film. It felt very odd to us but he revels in all of that. James and I are not performers and the idea of speaking on stage in front of 2,000 people and millions more on TV, is kind of scary to us. He’s a natural performer. He’s absolutely brilliant.”

Last updated: 2:56pm, March 31 2009