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From Chinatown to Niketown 

Robert Towne, the best screenwriter in the business, is back with a bio of Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine.

In 1974 Robert Towne was seething about the lot of his script for Chinatown, now considered his most famous work. Released that same year, the screenplay won an Oscar for Towne. When I interviewed him at the time, he was appalled at director Roman Polanski's heavy hand, particularly his insistence that Evelyn Mulwray, Faye Dunaway's character, be killed in the ending. Twenty-three years later, as I chatted with him onstage for a Writers Guild Foundation event in Santa Monica, California, his memories had softened. 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--writer of The Last Detail and Shampoo, and writer/director of Personal Best, Tequila Sunrise, and Without Limits (which plays Thursday and Friday at the Cleveland Cinematheque)--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 the kind of images that go to the left and right sides of the brain simultaneously. Now--after years of highly paid script-doctoring and on the eve of his bravura return to the director's chair at the age of 63--his dueling tastes for street-elegant truth-telling and romantic catharsis have been amiably fused.

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

He's also aching to make up for lost time as a writer/director. A decade ago, with his career bogged down in professional controversies and personal crises, he made a concerted effort to put himself back in the game. But he wasn't able to launch his dream film--an adaptation of John Fante's 1939 novel Ask the Dust, about a struggling writer in 1930s L.A.--even with Johnny Depp scheduled to appear as the lead. He began to feel, he reflected recently, that if "[I] 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 written-to-order, seat-of-the-pants movie to wear a Towne credit since his days in the early '60s penning Roger Corman exploitation flicks, such as The Last Woman on Earth and The Tomb of Ligeia. 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 alternating 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"--the screenplays for The Firm (1993) and Mission: Impossible (1996).

His new film, Without Limits, 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--who died in a 1975 car crash at the age of 24. It's that rarity: an edgy inspirational movie, no goop allowed. "Pre," as Prefontaine was nicknamed, was a notorious front-runner--that is, he believed in racing full tilt from the starting line rather than strategizing 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 nonmoralistic trinity, with Pre (Billy Crudup) as Will, 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 Personal Best, the first film Towne directed, 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 the same 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.

At that Writers Guild event 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."

And how does that relate to California? "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 that you can see that he, too, is a fool. I think, if you're a Californian, you're a summer fool." And that, concludes Towne, makes Californians innately sensitive to movement. "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 T-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 also 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, Pre 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 co-writer Moore tell it, Pre's soul 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 Academy Awards ceremony 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. As we talked about the finishing touches he put on Coppola and Mario Puzo's Godfather script, I asked him how he came up with the final conversation between Marlon Brando's Don Corleone and Al Pacino's Michael--an emotional father-son climax that sums up everything the movie has to say about family, power, and corruption.

"Well," Towne 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 film's dialogue (like the way Brando repeats a fragment of a sentence about his three-year-old grandson "reading the funny papers"), as well as the strong visual metaphor Towne developed and pushed further--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 notes, "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 the hugely ambitious Tarzan epic Greystoke, funded by Warner Bros. With this film, Towne 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 simian behavior. But Towne turned to Personal Best as a way for him to test his directing legs before embarking on a tricky picture such as Greystoke. Shooting a film cast mostly with real athletes and incorporating footage of actual events proved an equally daunting challenge. Then the Screen Actors Guild struck the major studios. Towne asked for an exception to proceed 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 the cameras rolling again, Warner Bros. guaranteed the completion and release of Personal Best while seizing the rights to Greystoke. The studio assigned the Tarzan picture to Hugh Hudson, the British director of the prettified period view of Olympic running, the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire (1981). As British critic Geoff Andrew wrote, 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 recent book, 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 all these stories: "Bullshit!" (Temperamental artists often hold contradictory feelings toward their co-workers: When I interviewed Towne's director of photography on Personal Best, Michael Chapman, right after the film had been made, he spoke humorously and affectionately of the high-flown debates he and Towne 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 says that personal chemistry inevitably shifts "day to day"--that he could be painted, alternately, as an "incompetent sloth" and as being "brilliant," even on sets as happy as that of Without Limits. "I love [cinematographer] Conrad Hall, but when we were shooting the race scenes and he didn't know how they would cohere, he took Luisa aside and told her, 'Your husband's a magnificent writer; he should never direct.' But after he watched me prepare the actors for the crucial dialogue between Bowerman and Pre, he told me that it was the most spectacular exegesis of a scene he'd ever heard, from any director."

You can't deny the stature of Personal Best as a finished work. Among those wowed by it at the time was an actress/playwright turned agent named Paula Wagner. "It awed me," recalls 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 star/producer to form 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 of Ellen, 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 his 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 that 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. 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 Hall.

There have been other losses along the way, but Greystoke, Towne confides, "is the only one that left me inconsolable." Presumably that includes the public deterioration of his production on The Two Jakes, the sequel to Chinatown that he was supposed to direct in 1985. With regard to what went down there, the studio dish again placed the blame on Towne's putative indecisiveness, this time over whether producer Robert Evans could return to acting and pull off the second lead. (Jack Nicholson himself went on to direct it as a 1990 release, but only semicoherently.)

With the gossip mill still churning, Towne wasn't about to get final cut on his next film, Tequila Sunrise, a heady romantic comedy-drama starring Mel Gibson as an almost-retired cocaine dealer; Kurt Russell as his old best buddy from high school, who happens to be a star narcotics cop; and Michelle Pfeiffer as the chic Manhattan Beach restaurant owner who gets caught between them.

Perhaps because the elements were so irresistible, 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 remembers, "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 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 (Days of Thunder), 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 (1975's Shampoo) among them. But in the late '80s Tom Cruise 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 actor. And if Towne's work has brought new subject matter into the movies and revitalized celluloid sexuality and profanity, it has also been rooted in the traditions of heightened emotion and flamboyant storytelling that old-fashioned stars made possible. Towne made me realize anew that '30s films had their own sparkly kind of subtext, expressed in cleverness and fun. At the Writers Guild appearance in Santa Monica, to illustrate the idea that repetition can define a change in character, Towne brought up James Cagney's recurring motif in 1938's Angels With Dirty Faces--"What do you hear, what do you say?"--which the actor spits out as a kid, as a young man on the move, as a big shot, and as a dead man walking who's ready to sacrifice his tough-guy image. These are the kind of things that Towne carries in his head, along with military history and Mark Twain and whatever real-world topic is seizing him at the moment. On Days of Thunder it was stock-car racing.

The rugged intertwining of Towne's hunger for reality and yen 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 racers ("the best people on earth, so gutsy and superglamorous and everything else"), and Cruise, and working with Bruckheimer and his late partner Don Simpson. "Don would fume and carry on beyond unreason, go into black rages," Towne recalls. "But if you told him he was so full of shit, he'd say, 'OK, I stand corrected,' and turn on a dime. He was great that way."

Bruckheimer, noting the extensive research Towne does "once he gets the story in his head," began thinking of him as "the godfather of verisimilitude. If the script called for a bloodhound, and [Days of Thunder 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 the production a huge favor. According to Bruckheimer, it was Towne who saw the 1989 Australian thriller Dead Calm and told him, "You've got to hire Nicole Kidman." She was hired.

All this synchronicity 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 drivers operate within, and whatever nuances and colors Towne and Cruise worked to achieve ended up on the cutting-room floor.

For Towne the challenge of Mission: Impossible (the first Cruise-Wagner production) was to sustain suspense in a format loaded with gimmicks and processes that warred with the characters. But he had fun with scenes featuring the three V's--Vanessa Redgrave, Ving Rhames, and Jon Voight--as well as the sequence in which 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 these two films than he did from working with his sometime good buddy Beatty on an early draft of 1994's 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 (eventually, just Bruckheimer) productions, including Crimson Tide, Con Air, Armageddon, and 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 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,'" Moore remembers him saying, "'or take it out entirely.'"

But Moore understood that this was the moral center of the tale: "Pre had his ears pinned back and so became a real person instead of a demigod. That marked a great turning, a great self-examination. I remember Pre saying three weeks before Munich that if he didn't get some medal, he wouldn't go home. What was unusual is that he didn't have his ears pinned back until he was 21 and in the Olympic final."

Talking to NBC alerted Moore to what was simultaneously tricky and compelling about Pre as a subject: "No other runner got the reaction he got from a crowd. What you saw him do was run harder, and people responded, and he responded to their response--so they cried out to him louder. The Olympic motto was Citius Altius Fortius--'faster higher stronger'--but the word for Pre was deeper. The deeper he went, the more the crowd responded."

For years Towne had urged his sportswriter friend Moore to come up with a Prefontaine script. As Moore explains it, "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 adds a qualification: "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 the Pre experience, 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, and Cruise agreed to produce a feature film version, going so far as to consider taking on the lead role.

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

Towne absorbed Moore's writing on the Munich Olympics, on individual runners, and, especially, on the key character of Bill Bowerman, Pre's coach and the dominant figure in the runner's career. 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." What Bowerman presented, notes Moore, "was a style or method that meant whether you win or lose, you should be better for either the next day. 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."

What makes the movie so poignant is that Bowerman and Pre are able to appreciate and learn from each other, even if they don't understand each other. They connect to each other instinctively. Towne gawks at what he terms "the wonder and the mystery of it. They weren't like teacher and student or father and son--unless you call Diaghilev and Nijinsky father and son. They were more 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 the pair 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 better able to hold his hand close to his chest.

But a gaping hole remained--the casting of Pre. Cruise had been of critical help in the molding of Pre's character. Indeed, Moore as well as Towne saw Cruise as Pre turned movie star, a can-do-anything type who used film as a focus for his bounding, off-the-wall energy, much as Pre did with running. But Cruise felt that at 35 he was too old for the role; he was also worn out from making Mission: Impossible. Towne started looking around. He had an appointment to meet Billy Crudup at New York City's Hotel Regency, but the lobby was impossibly crowded with tourists crisscrossing in front of him. Finally, his eyes trained on a young man sitting in a high-backed chair and wearing a trench coat: "He raised one hand and smiled as if to say, 'You've finally seen me, asshole.' That moment contained both a kicked-back self-assurance bordering on arrogance and a genuine sweetness." Crudup was the same height, size, and weight as Pre, and had once 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. Co-executive producer Sanger, who also served as second-unit director, says that "Warner Brothers 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 whom he would hire."

But with Sanger's help, Towne filled 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 says. "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 [Without Limits] 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 notes that "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. He saw each shot not just as a portion of a race, but as a building block in the drama. He studied available footage of the Munich 5,000-meter race and could find no shot of the moment when Pre realized he couldn't win. Crudup decided he'd look toward the stands, in the direction of Bowerman. Later, the filmmakers found undeveloped 35mm film of the actual race in outtakes from the 1973 David Wolper documentary Visions of Eight. In this footage they discovered that Pre had in fact glanced in Bowerman's direction. Editor Robert K. Lambert, who had worked on Visions of Eight, found he could intercut the staged and documentary footage without interrupting the flow, 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. "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," Towne says. "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's The 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."

Moore explains that rewriting occurred throughout shooting. But 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 doubted the film would cut together; Lambert, who came onto the movie during postproduction, points out that some of the crew found it hard to grasp that Towne's shots were based on emotional principles. But by the end he sensed 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 approach 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. 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: "When in doubt, tell the truth."

Without Limits. 8:40 p.m. Thursday, January 7, and 7:30 p.m. Friday, January 8, Cleveland Cinematheque, 11141 East Blvd., 216-421-7540.

More by Michael Sragow

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