Box Office Online
 
September 1998 

Back on Track 
by Wade Majorr 
 
Screenwriting Legend Robert Towne Returns to the Director's Chair for "Without Limits" 

With the scripts for such legendary and classic films as "Chinatown," "The Last Detail," "Shampoo" and "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan" to his credit, Robert Towne has no shortage of accomplishments of which to be proud. On this day, however, it is a remarkable bit of directorial prowess that has him beaming. He fast forwards a videotaped dupe of his latest film, "Without Limits," based on the life of famed distance runner Steve Prefontaine, to the climactic 5,000-meter race at the 1972 Munich Olympics. As the race nears its final stages, Towne calls out the cuts, which alternate seamlessly between actual 35mm footage of the race and his own recreation of the event. "That's Steve. That's Billy. And that's Steve. Now, that's Billy." 

Billy, in this case, is Billy Crudup, a previously little known Broadway star hand-picked by Towne to incarnate
        one of the most admired and beloved athletes of all time. So flawless is Crudup's mimicry of Prefontaine's
        unmistakable running style, and so meticulous is Towne's staging of the race, that most audiences will likely never
        recognize the juxtaposition. 
           "Because Disney wouldn't let us use ABC's coverage, we were stuck for footage of the race," he explains.
        "But then we found, in the vault at Warner Bros., outtakes from [the 1972 Olympics documentary] `Visions of
        Eight.' Among them we found two sections that were never done, and one of those was of that 5,000-meter
        race. So we were very lucky because we found perfect, unexposed 35mm film of that race that had never been
        put into any other film. The result is that you have full shots of Munich stadium and shots of Steve waist-high that
        cut to Billy and back, and you can't tell the difference." 
           Towne's perfectionism as both a screenwriter and a director is legendary, despite his infrequent efforts from
        behind the camera. "Without Limits," in fact, marks only his third outing as a director after 1982's "Personal
        Best" and 1988's "Tequila Sunrise." By his own admission, "Without Limits" is closer to Towne's heart than
        either of his previous films, the culmination of a journey that began some 20 years ago when Kenny Moore, a
        friend of the late Prefontaine and a champion runner in his own right, approached Towne about filming Steve's
        story. Preoccupied with another project, Towne let the idea lapse until he and Moore met again three years later
        on the set of Towne's track-and-field themed "Personal Best." As Towne's and Moore's friendship matured, the
        film that would emerge two decades later began to take shape. 
           Known as simply "Pre" to his friends and fans, Steve Prefon-taine would have been an anomaly in any sport.
        His mercurial personality, spirited arrogance and dazzling style had made him a rising star even before he
        accepted the tutelage of legendary University of Oregon coach Bill Bowerman, played in the film by Donald
        Sutherland. Equally as passionate off the track, Pre also became one of the first and most vocal opponents of the
        now defunct Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), challenging what he considered its questionable methods and
        shady ethics at a time when the organization was thought respectable. But Prefontaine would never live to see his
        prime or the AAU's demise. Just one year prior to the start of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, at which he was
        expected to take the gold medal that had eluded him in Munich, Steve Prefontaine was killed in an automobile
        accident. 
           "If he had won the big race and if he'd gotten the girl and if he'd survived," reflects Towne, "it wouldn't be a
        story worth telling. He was a tragic hero, really, in the sense that his reach always exceeded his grasp. That's the
        thing people loved most about him. Unlike most distance runners, he wasn't introspective, he was not shy. He let
        it all hang out. He let them see the pain that he was in and the effort he was making. And he hit them with the
        incandescence of a rock star." 
           Key to the success of "Without Limits," says Towne, was the close involvement of both Bowerman and
        Prefontaine's then girlfriend, Mary Marckx, both of whom cooperated closely with Towne and the film's
        producers to help lend the film the greatest possible sense of authenticity. Mary provided Towne with more than
        200 personal letters from Steve while Bowerman, who would later found the athletic-wear giant Nike based on
        his homemade running shoe designs, went so far as to volunteer his home as a shooting location. "If Bill had not
        lived and been so conspicuously the giant that he is," says Towne, "Steve's legend would not have survived. Bill
        was ready to keep it alive. And that goes to the heart of this movie. It's really about the relationship between
        these two men." 
           Nor does Towne shy from sharing the glory with Crudup, whom he graciously credits with literally bringing
        Steve's legend to life. "I'd heard that Billy had been on Broadway in a play called `Arcadia,' and that he'd won
        Best Newcomer of the Year, although that meant nothing to me because I hadn't seen him. So I went to the
        Regency to meet him on this crowded Sunday morning. And when I finally saw him, in this chair, leaning up
        against a wall, he just waved. There was something so sweetly arrogant about him watching me try to find him,
        that in that moment I said, `You're cast.'" 
           Summing up the essence of the film's message, Towne defers to a line from the film in which Sutherland says
        that there is "more honor in outrunning a man than killing him." Says Towne, "I believe that's what the Olympics
        are about. I believe that sport, at its best, is the development of a ritual with very specific rules that allow men to
        take out their hostility, their anger, their aggression by celebrating their respective skills and not by doing physical
        harm to one another. I don't know a better thing to do."

 
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