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

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 who 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' 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."

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