Hollywood's legendary script doctor Robert Towne won an Oscar for writing Chinatown and polished films from The Godfather to Armageddon; now he helms Without Limits, a film bio of an Olympic runner

In 1974, Robert Towne was seething on the lot where his most famous script, Chinatown, was being shot. When I interviewed him at the time, he was appalled at director Roman Polanski's heavy hand, particularly Polanski's ending where Evelyn Mulwray, the Faye Dunaway character, gets killed. Twenty-three years later, I chatted with him onstage for a Writers Guild Foundation event in Santa Monica, and his memories were softer. He said, "Roman and I never really had any arguments except one, and that was over the ending. And it wasn't that I wanted a happy ending; I had felt that his was excessively melodramatic.

"The way I had seen it was that Evelyn would kill her father but end up in jail for it, unable to give the real reason why it happened; and the detective [Jack Nicholson] couldn't talk about it either, so it was bleak in its own way. Evelyn was in jail and never coming out and he was responsible for it, so the dynamic was the same." Two more decades of work taught him that "with a story of that complexity, the simpler, more brutal ending is almost the only thing possible. It needed a simpler, starker resolution, and I think Roman was right."

Towne--also the writer of The Last Detail and Shampoo, and director of Personal Best, Tequila Sunrise and the new Without Limits--long ago proved himself the master of the American screenplay. He knows how to use sly indirection, canny repetition, unexpected counterpoint and a unique poetic vulgarity to stretch a scene or an entire script to its utmost emotional capacity. He's also a lush visual artist with an eye for images that go to the left and right sides of the brain simultaneously. Now, after years of high-paid script doctoring and upon his bravura return to the director's chair, his dueling tastes for street-elegant truth-telling and romantic catharsis are comfortably fused.

These days, living comfortably in Pacific Palisades, he's a disarming mixture of contentment and ambition. He's devoted to his wife of 14 years, Luisa; their 7-year-old daughter Khiara; Katherine (or "Skip"), his grown daughter from his first marriage; and their dogs--a border collie named Angus and a kuvasz named Aprod. (He's not nuts about Luisa's corgi, Florence.)

He's aching to make up for lost time as a writer-director.
A decade ago, his career bogged down in professional controversy and personal crises, he tried to put himself back in the game. But he was unable to launch his dream film--John Fante's novel about a struggling writer in '30s L.A., Ask the Dust--even with Johnny Depp in the lead. He began to feel, he reflected recently, that if he "wasn't able to do something that was considered a big box-office, star-driven vehicle that was supposed to appeal across the board, then I would be severely hampered in some of my more unconventional ventures."

His way out of the cul-de-sac, the script to Days of Thunder (1990), might have been the most formulaic, seat-of-the-pants movie to wear a Towne credit since his days writing Roger Corman flicks. But it forged partnerships and friendships with Jerry Bruckheimer, today's reigning action-spectacle producer, and with the star and co-author of the story, Tom Cruise. And it showed that, rather than just alternate between being the invisible script doctor and the driven artiste, Towne was willing to throw himself into what old-timers would have called honest "jobs of work," like The Firm and Mission: Impossible.

His new film, Without Limits, set to open in Phoenix in October, is no job of work. It's a labor of love, the second screen biography in as many years of the late Steve Prefontaine, the legendary distance runner often called the James Dean of track. It's that rarity: an edgy inspirational movie, no goop allowed. Pre, as he was nicknamed, was a notorious front-runner--that is, he believed in racing full-tilt from the starting line rather than strategize his way to victory. A close friend of Towne's, the empathic sportswriter Kenny Moore, was an Olympic teammate and friend of Pre's. With Moore's help on the script, Towne depicts his rebellious hero as an icon of youth who shows he has the mettle to grow up, then dies before he gets the chance. It's almost a secular Passion play, as Pre nails himself to a cross of his own making: his belief that he can achieve anything through resolve alone. You might say that his gethsemane comes after a heartbreaking loss in the 1972 Munich Olympics. The movie has its own non-moralistic trinity, with Pre as Will, and his University of Oregon coach Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland) as Reason, and Pre's Catholic girlfriend Mary Marckx (Monica Potter) as Faith. Their conflicts get articulated in dialogue but played out in motion. Usually on the track.

When Towne's writer/director debut, Personal Best, premiered in 1982, fans of his earlier screenplays were both overwhelmed and perplexed by the film's torrential physicality. Some balked at the idea that two female athletes who throw off inhibitions (and authority figures) and have a lesbian affair could lead us into a rediscovery of our everyday physical universe. Some may respond that way to Without Limits. Without sentimentalizing distance runners, the film treats their eagerness to push past the boundaries of known pain as the purest of crucibles. Viewers who can let their guard down will find themselves caught up in an eddying whorl of passion and beauty.

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