Screenplayer

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

Towne absorbed Moore's writing on the Munich Olympics, individual runners and, especially, the key character of Bill Bowerman, the dominant figure in Pre's career. (Moore's Sports Illustrated stories are collected in the volume Best Efforts.) When Moore and Towne worked together, the ruling spirit in the room may well have been that of Bowerman, who went on to mainstream fame as creator of the Nike running shoe. Pre, as a character, presented a challenge: in Towne's words, "not how to explain the source of his fire, but how to dramatize effectively the fact of its existence."

Says Moore, "You couldn't run for Bowerman and not have the ideal of running to the threshold of self-consciousness, making it the toughest race you could endure, and then going out and having a beer together. He always made you aware of a larger, Olympian sense of competition than beating the hell out of somebody and coming home with a medal and establishing godlike dominance."

The movie's poignancy rests on the fact that "Bowerman and Prefontaine are able to appreciate and learn from each other even if they don't understand each other," says Moore. "They connect to each other instinctively. They were like two prima donnas who clash, and are both vain, and both certain, both sometimes right, both sometimes wrong, but better together than they could be apart." Indeed, Moore believed that they were closer than they knew--two "rubes" from eastern Oregon who spoke their minds--and that if Pre hadn't died in a car crash, he would have grown to be even more like Bowerman, more cunning and able to hold his deck closer to his chest.

But there was still a gaping hole--the casting of Pre. Moore and Towne saw Cruise as Pre turned movie star, a can-do-anything kid who used film as a focus for his bounding, off-the-wall energy, much as Pre did running. But Cruise, at 35, felt he was too old; he was also worn out from making Mission: Impossible.

Towne started looking. He had an appointment to meet Crudup at New York's Hotel Regency, but the lobby was impossibly crowded with tourists crisscrossing in front of him. Finally, his eyes trained on a young man in a trenchcoat, sitting at a high-backed chair: "He raised one hand and smiled as if to say 'you've finally seen me, asshole'; that moment contained both a kick-backed self-assurance bordering on arrogance and a genuine sweetness." Crudup was the same height, size and weight as Pre, and had been a wrestler; he proceeded to train until he ran a five-minute mile at UCLA.

The budget for the movie was around $25 million--three times that of the limp little Disney Prefontaine (which came and went in early '97), but still peanuts for Hollywood high rollers. Jonathan Sanger, one of the film's executive producers and its second-unit director, says, "Warner Bros. loved Robert, but they were a little nervous. Their assumption was that Robert was only interested in 'champagne-level' people; since we had a relatively tight budget for a studio film, they were cautious in the beginning and concerned over who he would hire."

But with Sanger's help, Towne staffed his crew judiciously, ending up with a mix of old and new collaborators. Conrad Hall didn't want to join him at first. "We shared things on Tequila Sunrise," Hall said. "Robert grew up in San Pedro, I grew up in San Diego in '34-'35, in Santa Barbara in '39, and all along the coast. We remember the cracks in the cement with the grass growing out of them, the cactus withered and worn along the shore--the natural habitat we grew up in.

"He wanted that in Tequila Sunrise, and we worked for all those kinds of images. This was something more dear to the heart of Robert--he's done two of these track films now. I wasn't enthralled with the first draft, but in the rewrites I saw the possibilities of the coach and the runner and the kind of blind aggravation between them that causes the good things to come out."

Towne says, "The only moments I felt special as a director were the terrifying moments of the races." Towne and his crew shot bits and pieces of races, frequently changing from one contest to another as they chased light around the track. Towne saw each shot not just as a portion of a race, but as a building block in the drama. He studied all the footage of the Munich 5,000-meter race. But there was no shot of where Pre looked when he realized he couldn't win the race. Crudup decided he'd look to the stands, in the direction of Bowerman. Later, the filmmakers found undeveloped 35mm film of the race in the outtakes from the David Wolper documentary Visions of Eight. In this footage, they discovered that Pre had glanced at Bowerman, too. Editor Robert K. Lambert, who had worked on Visions of Eight, found he could intercut the staged and documentary footage without jarring, so close were the movie's runners to their real-life counterparts.

What was important to Towne was that Crudup and the others were all acting on the track. That was crucial in the Olympic 5,000 meters, where Pre wasn't running away from the pack and nearly every entrant was a standout. Towne says, "I can tell you the technical things I learned about going from high to normal speed and what angles you need to go from front to side without losing your geography. But what moved me is this other intangible, impalpable thing I saw happening in front of me. When I was preparing Greystoke, I read Eugene Marais' Soul of the White Ant, about the fact that an ant colony is one organism, one body. In a distance race, the runners are one person. They're out there suffering so closely together, sharing pain, they develop a peculiar camaraderie that you don't find anywhere else."

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