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

All this serendipity didn't blind Towne to the finished movie's shortcomings. "What everybody learned," says Towne, "is never to lock a film so early into an opening date ever again. The fact is the editors had four weeks to go through two or three million feet of film." The racing scenes focused on spectacle and not on the narrow parameters the racers operate within, and whatever nuances and colors Towne and Cruise worked to achieve ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Still, Towne is right to say, "There were some very good things in Days of Thunder." There were deft turns by a host of canny character actors: Robert Duvall as his crusty car designer and coach, and Randy Quaid as a drawling car salesman. And there are some good lines, as when Quaid tells Cruise, "If you're from California, you're not a Yankee. You're not really anything."

"I'll prove I can do anything to get back to directing," Towne told himself, "including writing commercial movies." Like The Firm. Although he acknowledges that he and the other writers, and director Sydney Pollack, couldn't do much with the white-bread John Grisham hero at the center, he felt Cruise lent him credibility. He was proud of turning Gene Hackman's corrupt lawyer into a sad-eyed hero while filling the edges with colorful character work for the likes of Ed Harris and Gary Busey. At one point, Cruise tells a mob fat cat, "You're gonna feel like you were fucked with a dick big enough for an elephant to feel it." There's a delicious pause. "You know that for a fact?" the mobster asks. "Those lines were worth the scene," Towne says. "So often, guys with a shitload of money--abuse them at the right moment, and they just love you for it."

For Towne, the challenge of Mission: Impossible (his first Cruise-Wagner production) was to sustain suspense loaded with gimmicks and processes that warred with the characters. But Towne had fun with scenes featuring the three V's--Vanessa Redgrave, Ving Rhames and Jon Voight--as well as the sequence when Voight tells Cruise what he wants him to think happened, while Cruise, in his mind's eye, sees what did happen.

Towne took more pleasure from those films than he did from working with his sometime good erstwhile buddy Beatty on an early draft of Love Affair. "I opened it up with Warren as a former football player getting a prostate examination. Then I put him on a fat farm. Warren didn't see it that way; he thought it was too funny and unglamorous."

In the midst of all this, Towne was also contributing scenes to a series of Simpson-Bruckheimer (later just Bruckheimer) productions, including Crimson Tide, Con Air, Armageddon, and the forthcoming Enemy of the State. Says Bruckheimer: "He'll earmark certain scenes or themes that aren't dominant or prevalent enough and make the movie more cohesive and intelligent." Of course, an outsider could argue that a Towne scene like the debate over von Clausewitz between Hackman and Denzel Washington in Crimson Tide raises expectations that the rest of the film can't deliver. They make you wonder what Towne could do with one of these action spectacles if he started at square one.

Without Limits is the first Towne film in a long time that started before square one, in an initial glimmer of fascination. In fact, even before Kenny Moore appeared in Personal Best, he called Towne for advice when NBC was developing a Prefontaine TV movie. Moore remembers the first words Towne ever spoke to him: "How'd you get this number?" NBC never made the movie. An executive looking at it in treatment form couldn't abide the runner losing the Olympics race: "You've got to have him win this," he said, "or take it out entirely."

Moore knew this was the moral center of the tale: "Pre had his ears pinned back and so became a real person instead of a demigod."

Towne had urged his sportswriter friend Moore to come up with a Prefontaine script for years. "He said I should go from journalism to screenwriting, which is journalism and poetry--the mot juste of poetry with the good reporting that creates a sound picture of the world."

But Moore would qualify that: "It's a fitting definition only if you're Robert Towne. Because poetry and journalism are structures--what makes drama is a dramatic sense, knowing what human beings respond to, how to make the audience fall in love or follow along or take sides. And I know that's what Robert is wading around in."

What finally catalyzed the pair was Moore's participation in the 1995 Prefontaine documentary Fire on the Track. Towne got sucked into it, too--and began to explore the possibility of turning the runner's life into a feature film in partnership with the documentary's producers. He showed Cruise the documentary footage, too--and Cruise agreed to produce the film and even considered taking on the lead role.

The two projects eventually split: The Fire on the Track team signed with Disney, while Towne, Cruise and Co. went to Warner. The Disney film locked up the rights to the Prefontaine family; but Towne figured that with the help of Moore and his (and Pre's) athlete friends, and Pre's girlfriend, Mary Marckx, they could still tell the runner's story. So they went to work. (Eventually, Cruise and Wagner would produce, with Moore and Jonathan Sanger as executive producers.)

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