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.
I asked Towne whether he was still obsessed with the physical life and whether that was tied to his fabled affection for the unspoiled California of his youth. (He grew up in San Pedro.) "What I've always responded to," he answered, "is movement--character is automatically expressed more quickly and eloquently through movement than through dialogue.
"When I think back on the movies I loved as a kid," he continued, "to Stewart or Cagney or Fonda, so much of the way in which they expressed themselves was simply the way they moved. You think of Fonda doing the dance on the post in My Darling Clementine. The whole movie was about Henry Fonda walking up and down the street, and it should have been."
He adds, "I think it's in The Brothers Karamazov. There's that fable of the summer fool and the winter fool. The summer fool you can see right away because he's lightly dressed and he's walking around swinging a tennis racket. The winter fool, however, comes to your door in the dead of night, he's got clothes on that obscure his form--hiding his movement--and it's only when you get him inside the house and he takes off his clothes can you see that he, too, is a fool. I think if you're a Californian, you're a summer fool.
"I went to Redondo Union High School, and I remember being in gym class, in school, and it always struck me--you always wore gray shorts and a tee shirt, you always wore the same goddamn thing. But you could look 300 yards away and immediately recognize somebody by the way they moved."
There isn't a moment when you can't follow Billy Crudup's Steve Prefontaine from 300 yards away--partly because he's usually running away from the pack. But the movie isn't only about seeing him from far away, in terms of records and accomplishments; it's about getting so close to his skin that you think you can see what's inside. Crudup plays Pre brilliantly as a surly boy-man so dedicated to willing himself toward sports Valhalla that he runs over anyone in his path.
In Without Limits, he becomes the track-and-field equivalent of a youthful poet burning with a hard, gemlike flame. His soul rising up after defeat in the '72 Olympics (he came in fourth in the 5,000 meters) gives the film its emotional crest. In fact, to hear his friend and collaborator Moore tell it, the soul of Pre is what hooked Towne; Moore spun yarns about his University of Oregon pal to cheer up Towne through the turmoil of Personal Best.
To understand the impact that the delay-plagued production of Personal Best had on Towne's career, you have to appreciate the string of artistic and financial successes he was part of in the late '60s and '70s. Towne had built an enormous reputation not simply on the screenplays that carried his name but also on a number of celebrated ones that didn't. He was listed as "special consultant" for the writing he did on Bonnie and Clyde, and Francis Ford Coppola thanked him onstage at the Oscars for the work Towne did on The Godfather. Towne has a knack for taking a script's existing strengths and bringing to them a crystalline lucidity and tension. For Coppola's and Mario Puzo's Godfather script, I asked him how he came up with the final conversation between Brando's Don and Pacino's Michael--an emotional climax that sums up everything the movie has to say about family, power and corruption.
"Well," he said, "you know that image of the puppets on the cover of the novel? That was the inspiration: I knew I had to keep the thought of the Don refusing to be 'a fool dancing on the strings of all these big shots.' The movie needed a love scene at that moment, but the only way to do it was to show the Don having trouble with the succession of power, handing this viper's nest to the one son he didn't want to have to deal with it, and apologizing for doing so. His saying 'I never wanted you to have anything to do with this' is his way of saying 'I love you.'"
The Don's implicit love for Michael becomes explicit in his sorrow over his son's criminal destiny. The speech epitomizes the power that subtext can have when it suddenly and organically erupts into the text. But what floored me about Towne's description was his ability to summon from memory every pause and phrase of the dialogue (like the way Brando repeated a fragment of a sentence about his 3-year-old grandson "reading the funny papers"), as well as the strong visual metaphor he developed and pushed further, of a puppet on a string caught in a vortex.
The Hollywood powers that were--and that be--thought (and think) Towne would make a superb writer-director. As Jerry Bruckheimer says, "You've got to understand--Robert is Hollywood royalty." But even kings in Hollywood don't get free rein, and Personal Best has a typically tangled history.
In fact, his writing-directing debut was supposed to be Greystoke, a hugely ambitious Tarzan epic, funded by Warner Bros. Towne had hoped to portray a Tarzan of the apes, by the apes, and for the apes, suffusing his script with the latest scholarship on feral children and on simian behavior. But Towne turned to Personal Best as a way for him to test his directing legs before embarking on a tricky epic. Shooting a film cast mostly with real athletes and incorporating footage of actual events proved an equally tremendous challenge. Then the Screen Actors Guild struck the major studios. Towne asked for an exception on the grounds that the bulk of his cast were athletes, but the union refused. He refinanced the film with then-independent producer David Geffen and made a separate peace with the Guild. But three weeks before the end of shooting, Geffen and Towne had a fatal battle over the budget, and Geffen shut him down.
In an arduous, six-month-long effort to get his cameras rolling again, Towne gave up the rights to Greystoke--and Warner Bros. assigned the picture to Hugh Hudson, the British director of that prettified period view of Olympic running, the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire. British critic Geoff Andrew wrote that Chariots of Fire "is an overblown piece of self-congratulatory emotional manipulation perfectly suited for Thatcherite liberals. Pap. And Greystoke is no better."
Still, back in '82, Hudson was in the catbird seat, Towne in the doghouse. Stories swirled about the writer-director's supposed eccentricities and excesses. Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls promulgates many of them anew, depicting Towne as a frantic, indecisive coke fiend often absent from the set and the editing room. Towne's friend Moore, who both acted in Personal Best and wrote a persuasive eyewitness account of its making for Sports Illustrated (ignored by Biskind), has a word for those stories: "Bullshit!" Biskind's portrait is too rigid and unforgiving to be believable. And temperamental artists often hold contradictory feelings toward their co-workers: When I interviewed Towne's director of photography, Michael Chapman, about Personal Best at the time, he spoke humorously and affectionately of the high-flown debates they had over his choice of lenses; he even gave Towne credit for pulling together a couple of the non-actors' performances in the cutting room. By contrast, Chapman's quotes in Biskind's book are cranky and accusatory and all about Towne's looniness.
Towne himself is philosophical about the bile. "It's like the whole history of theatrical art," he says. "Look at All About Eve as an example of three people beating the shit out of each other and then taking vows, or the end of The Bad and the Beautiful. It's the joy and agony of show business--as in Alexander Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock,' there's a huge bloody battle and nobody dies. And it changes day to day. One day I'll come off as a loathsome, incompetent sloth, and the next day I'll be described as brilliant."
You can't deny the stature of the finished work. Among those wowed by Personal Best at the time was an actress-playwright turned agent named Paula Wagner. "It awed me," says Wagner, "and it marked Robert as a visionary filmmaker." She would eventually become the agent for Towne and for Tom Cruise, and in 1993 left agenting to join with the producer-star on Cruise-Wagner Productions--the team behind Without Limits.
Although it was a first-run commercial failure, Personal Best immediately fell into the pop Zeitgeist. TV-commercial directors ripped off its shimmering, long-lens views of sweaty, rippling flesh as soon as it appeared. Even last year, Ellen DeGeneres, in her coming-out episode, could jokingly chalk up her lesbianism to seeing Personal Best and know that everyone would get the joke. (Towne scowled when I brought up Ellen, since he never meant the film to be a brief for lesbianism--not that there's anything wrong with it. I told him to relax and be flattered.) A small consolation may well be: Personal Best is now a household phrase. Who today thinks of Greystoke?
What's tragic about Greystoke is the waste of Towne's magnificent script. I've read it, and it's mind-blowing. The jungle scenes detail an orphan boy's maturation under the loving eyes of an ape mom named Kala; he gradually realizes that, far from being a retarded ape, he has powers simians don't have. With the hero perceived as a misfit until he discovers he can outthrow, outrun, and outthink his furry brothers, it's an anthropoid version of an ugly duckling story, and it called for the imagistic vibrancy of silent fantasies or the best cartoons. "What a pity he didn't get a chance to direct that film!" sighs cinematographer Conrad Hall.
Towne was also developing the techniques to make his wild vision take root. Hall (the acclaimed lensman of Fat City and The Professionals) went on to shoot Tequila Sunrise and Without Limits with Towne. He called me from his Tahiti home to describe the Greystoke tests he shot for Towne: "We shot a scene with an orangutan and a gymnast in a gorilla suit--like in 2001: A Space Odyssey--and they looked like a child and his mother holding hands and walking through the forest together. Robert loved what I shot. They got into some real beefs, which I caught on film. The orangutan would bite and wrestle and grab and run away and climb trees, and the 'mother' would climb after him, and together they'd go swinging through the trees. It looked very violent. There were real bites, and the gymnast had to fight for life. That's what made it real. And I was on the perimeter kicking dust up and making it look more violent."
There have been other losses along the way, but Greystoke, Towne says, "is the only one that left me inconsolable." Presumably that includes the public breakup of his Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes, with studio dish again placing the blame on Towne's indecisiveness, this time over whether producer Bob Evans could return to acting and pull off the second lead. (Nicholson himself went on to direct it as a 1990 release, but only semi-coherently.)
With the gossip mill still churning, Towne wasn't about to get final cut on his next film, Tequila Sunrise (1988), a heady romantic comedy-drama starring Mel Gibson as an almost-retired cocaine dealer; Kurt Russell as his best high school buddy, who happens to be a star narcotics cop; and Michelle Pfeiffer as the chic Manhattan Beach restaurant owner who gets caught between them. Towne wanted Gibson to go up in smoke--literally--at film's end, but one of the conditions Warner Bros. set was that Gibson had to live. "Gibson's character was supposed to be a moth in the flame," says Towne. "The real high for him was never doing the drugs, but the danger of dealing the drugs. I made the guy too earnest and hangdog. He should have been more like the racehorse attached to the milk truck--he hears a bell and he's off!
Perhaps because the elements were so irresistible--Robert Towne directing Gibson, Russell and Pfeiffer in a California crime film--an aura of disappointment settled over Tequila Sunrise, no matter how engaging, and profitable, it turned out to be. (Made for less than $20 million, it grossed $100 million worldwide.) "After that and Personal Best," Towne says, "I was so busy trying to pay for my life and make sure I could see my older daughter [he was in a custody dispute at the time] that directing was almost not an option."
Ironically, the power and gutter grace of his earlier works made them contemporary classics--and made Towne fear he was "becoming a museum piece." That's a natural fear for any popular artist, even if, as his collaborators protest, it's a ludicrous one for Towne. So when then-agent Paula Wagner, banking on Towne's "mental and spiritual daring, his love to try new things," put him and Cruise together to work on a stock-car racing story, he was ready to give it a try. Two things convinced him: He sparked to Cruise, and he fell in love with the stock-car world.
Towne had written for big stars in the past--Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty among them. But he was friends with Nicholson before they worked together, and his relationship with Beatty was complicated, as a mild tweak indicates: "After Promise Her Anything," Towne says drolly, "it was questionable how big a star Beatty was." In the late '80s, Cruise, however, was a luminary whose power was still developing. And the concept of stars has always intrigued and stimulated Towne. In an oft-quoted 1995 article for the script-anthology magazine Scenario (since reprinted as the introduction to the Grove Press edition of Chinatown and The Last Detail), Towne wrote:
What was once said of the British aristocracy, that they did nothing and did it very well, is a definition that could be applied to movie actors. For gifted movie actors affect us most, I believe, not by talking, fighting, fucking, killing, cursing, or cross-dressing. They do it by being photographed. It is said of such actors that the camera loves them. Whatever that means, I've always felt their features are expressive in a unique way: they seem to register swift and dramatic mood changes with no discernible change of expression.
In Towne's eyes, Cruise, at his best, is that kind of an actor. And if Towne's work has brought new subject matter into the movies and revitalized celluloid sexuality and profanity, it's also been rooted in the traditions of heightened emotion and flamboyant storytelling that old-fashioned stars made possible. While strolling through the Santa Barbara Zoo with Towne and his family during one of his tribute weekends last spring, I laughed as he broke into the scene of Leslie Howard first confronting Raymond Massey in The Scarlet Pimpernel. Howard re-ties his foe's cravat after telling Massey, the agent of the guillotine, that the French "have the cleverest heads in the world; the only trouble is you all go to pieces around the neck." Towne made me realize anew that '30s films had their own sparkly kind of subtext, expressed in cleverness and fun.
The rugged intertwining of Towne's hungers for reality and for voluptuous escape is what gives his work its sinew. Even on Days of Thunder, he wasn't sold on the project until he and Cruise immersed themselves in the stock-car world. The resulting script never got beyond the tale of the brash young man who flinches in the face of mortality and has to restore his own confidence--the hot dog who becomes an underdog. But Towne grew to love the gutsy racers and their glamour, and Cruise, and working with Bruckheimer and his late partner, Don Simpson. "Don would fume and carry on beyond unreason, go into black rages; but if you told him he was so full of shit, he'd say, 'Okay, I stand corrected,' and turn on a dime."
Bruckheimer, noting the enormous research Towne does "once he gets the story in his head," began thinking of Towne as "the godfather of verisimilitude. If the script called for a bloodhound, and [director] Tony [Scott] brought out a dog that wasn't a bloodhound, Robert went nuts. He's a stickler." He also proved to be a speedster and a utility player, banging out scenes overnight and directing a lot of the second unit. And he did his star another favor. According to Bruckheimer, it was Towne who saw the Australian thriller Dead Calm and told him, "You've got to hire Nicole Kidman."
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.)
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."
What impressed Sanger was that Towne "had real style as a director, and was absolutely as relentless about images as words." During the racing scenes, Hall never thought the film would cut together; Lambert, who came onto the movie during postproduction, says that some of the crew found it hard to grasp that Towne's shots were based on emotional principles. But by the end, they got it--and the audience gets it.
Bowerman's eulogy for Pre ends the film. He says that Pre persuaded him that "the real purpose of running isn't to win a race--it's to test the limits of the human heart." It so perfectly sums up what we've seen that it carries no trace of sap or pretentiousness. We tear up from the shock of recognition.
Lambert says they played with diverse ways of handling Pre's memorial service before deciding the simplest was the best--keeping the camera trained on Sutherland's restrained yet spellbinding delivery of Bowerman's eulogy. It's also the most honest tactic: Unlike the guests at a wedding, people at a funeral or memorial service don't dart around to look at other people crying.
Conrad Hall says that when "Robert sees something happen with actors or the camera or from any venue of the production, he responds like a lost soul who's just found the truth." Hall echoes the maxim that Towne says he learned from Mark Twain: as Towne remembers it, "When in doubt, tell the truth."
Robert Towne's Without Limits is scheduled to open in Phoenix in October.
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