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TOWNE ROBERT: Without Limits

ANDREW L. URBAN meets one of America’s most respected screenwriters, Robert Towne, who is in Australia to a) promote his latest film, Without Limits, and b) polish lines in his script for Mission Impossible II.

It’s different: a 10 day adventure cruise through the Caribbean in January 1998 marked the world premiere of Robert Towne’s Without Limits, at the one and only Floating Film Festival – with Towne on board to personally introduce the film. Organised by Toronto entrepreneur Dusty Cohl, the festival was small but well received – as was Towne’s film, one of the most popular of the fest. "One of the reasons the film has a strong emotional effect on people," says Towne, "is that it is a way of saying that the dream did not necessarily die, that the dream never dies. The film gives people hope, even in tragedy."

"A career that itself seems to be without limits"

Well, this is perfectly in tune with the ambitions of American filmmaking – an up ending, as they say, is what audiences want. And Towne – born in the town that manufactures all these dreams, Los Angeles - has been delivering screenplays that satisfy the American need to dream good dreams ever since 1960 or so, in a career that itself seems to be without limits.

Even a cursory look at his credits (some of the writing has been uncredited where he has worked as a script doctor – in some cases as ‘resurrector’, like Mission Impossible II, but we’ll come to that in a minute), suggests a writer of extraordinary diversity: The Last Detail (1973) and Chinatown (1974) with Jack Nicholson, Shampoo (1975) and Reds (1981) with Warren Beatty, Tequila Sunrise (1988) with Mel Gibson and of course, Days of Thunder (1990) with Tom Cruise – which leads us to Mission Impossible I and II.

"White tousled hair and white beard add the air of gravitas"

Now if you look up the latter on IMDB, you’ll find two other writers credited, but it is Towne’s script: "They rang me and said we need a script and we’re shooting in two months," he explains, smoking his trademark black cheroot, looking like a weary teacher, in a dark blue sweatshirt, pale old jeans and brown sandal-sneakers with socks, an air of low combustion about him. White tousled hair and white beard add the air of gravitas, but while Towne speaks quietly and thoughtfully, the eyes shine and dance, suggesting mental agility. Without the Hollywood swagger he may have earned, Towne is positively normal – at least as far as I can tell. Talented, but not temperamental.

No, we’re not on a cruise ship: we’re in a dull meeting room inside the converted Pyrmont warehouse office building that houses Roadshow’s Sydney film distribution operation. Towne, still occasionally tinkering with the Mission Impossible script three months after shooting started (and six months after he began the re-write) is spending a bit of time talking about Without Limits, the story of American track star Steve Prefontaine, a long distance runner with an exceptional heart and high pain threshold, who died in a still unexplained car crash before he finished his career.

"This was different for me," he says, a puff of cigar smoke adding some atmosphere to the room, "in that the characters are or were alive. So you immerse yourself in their environment and get to know them."

"How do you compete against someone you love?"

The seeds for this film were planted in 1982, while Towne was making Personal Best, which he also wrote and directed, a film about lesbian lovers who were competing runners. "The issue in that was how do you compete against someone you love? And the answer was: you don’t, you compete against yourself." Towne had heard of Prefontaine, and his involvement in the world of track athletics triggered an interest in the runner, "who was a real legend in sport."

Famous coach Bill Bowering, who took Prefontaine to the top often amidst personal conflicts, was at first wary of Towne’s intent, but the finished result moved him, reports Towne, who spent much time with the man. "I can’t say every line of dialogue in Without Limits is exactly what was said, although there are a few…But it’s all as accurate as I could make it."

Towne’s approach to screen writing is "not dissimilar to a reporter’s…I learn about my subject and even immerse myself in it. What inspires me is curiosity, even in fiction."

What about a film like Mission Impossible, then? Towne says he researches in allied areas, and has used reality that approximates the film’s characters and plot. "it’s baseed on a recognisable reality. . . and contains what Hitchcock called the McGuffin…" But as he says, every film is a unique challenge.

"It puts me in some significant company," on winning the Screen Laurel Award

In 1997, Towne’s body of work was recognised when he was handed the Writers Guild of America’s highest honour, the Screen Laurel Award, joining such past winners as Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Billy Wilder. "It puts me in some significant company," he says quietly, "and it’s difficult not to feel that it’s quite an honour…but I also accepted it with some ambivalence, a mixture of pride and mistrust."  Indeed; he has to live up it.

Even as he is finishing up on the Mission Impossible set, he’s getting ready for another movie with Tom Cruise, possibly early next year, titled Dead Reckoning, which he has written and will also direct. "It’s an epic, a tale of love, revenge and high adventure…it’s an ambitious piece," he says with a little grin. Not bad for a guy celebrating his 65th birthday in November 1999.

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