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, 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
recognize the juxtaposition.
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
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
put into any other film.
The result is that you have full shots of Munich stadium and shots of Steve
cut to Billy and back, and
you can't tell the difference."
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
Best" and 1988's "Tequila
Sunrise." By his own admission, "Without Limits" is closer to Towne's heart
either of his previous films,
the culmination of a journey that began some 20 years ago when Kenny Moore,
friend of the late Prefontaine
and a champion runner in his own right, approached Towne about filming
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.
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
accepted the tutelage of
legendary University of Oregon coach Bill Bowerman, played in the film
Sutherland. Equally as passionate
off the track, Pre also became one of the first and most vocal opponents
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
expected to take the gold
medal that had eluded him in Munich, Steve Prefontaine was killed in an
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
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
200 personal letters from
Steve while Bowerman, who would later found the athletic-wear giant Nike
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.
was ready to keep it alive.
And that goes to the heart of this movie. It's really about the relationship
these two men."
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
Regency to meet him on this
crowded Sunday morning. And when I finally saw him, in this chair, leaning
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,
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
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."