From Chinatown to Niketown

Robert Towne, the best screenwriter in the business and the man who invented Jake Gittes, is back with a bio of Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine

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 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 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."

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