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First-time director Robert Towne comes up a winner

Behind the scenes of ‘Personal Best’

Robert Towne

Academy Award-winning screenwriter, Robert Towne, Los Angeles, California, 1981

George Rose/Getty

From the start, Robert Towne, widely regarded as the premier screenwriter of his generation, was ambivalent about becoming a director. “I didn’t want to paralyze people with authority,” he now says. “Movies require a great deal of skill and coordination; the director usually has to be a quasi-military figure. I was only a writer for a long time, and as a writer, you’re often in the traditional woman’s position — fretting over details at home, being supportive to the men actually making the movie. I was bothered about suddenly having to be this tough guy ordering 200 people around on a set. Then I realized that a director could also be seen as a protector.”

Towne’s gamble on his own style of authority appears to have paid off: his film, Personal Best, was earning big bucks in the big cities in its opening weeks of release and arousing controversy nationwide for its sensual depiction of women athletes. In an era when most blockbusters are machine-tooled genre items, Personal Best is one of the most personal American movies ever made. Forty-seven-year-old Towne poured all the obsessions of his life and work into this project. A lanky, bearded and brooding man who for years suffered from a complex of allergies and chronic fatigue, Towne has only recently savored full physical strength. He became physically fit by swimming, running and lifting weights. It was in 1976, while working out at UCLA, that he began befriending female athletes, including champion pentathlete Jane Frederick. Fascinated by the beauty of their deceptive strength, Towne started writing Personal Best. He spent months researching the world of women in sports and working with them on his script, insisting on athletic verisimilitude throughout the production. He thought it essential that this movie about two female athletes who fall in love en route to the Olympics — and along the way achieve emotional and athletic maturity — be filmed in an authentic milieu so that the characters’ body consciousness would seep into an audience’s pores.

Making the movie was, for him, the consummation of a fantasy. “This movie is about everything I’ve ever loved in women,” Towne says. For the screenwriter of The Last Detail, Chinatown and Shampoo (and the celebrated script surgeon of Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather), financing the film with Warner Brothers was easy. And casting the lead role, Chris, proved, to be a surprising cinch: Towne admired Mariel Hemingway’s acting, her natural athletic abilities and her willingness to train as a pentathlete. But his dream clouded when Towne began searching for a professional actress to play Tory. Determined to avoid the artificial look of doubles, Towne sought out dancers, hoping they could meet the role’s physical demands. But, according to Towne, not even good dancers can move with as much casual grace as trained athletes.

He finally settled on a friend — former world-class hurdler Patrice Donnelly, one of the women who had helped him research the script. One Warner Brothers spokesman says, “We were nervous; he wasn’t just giving a crucial role to an unknown actress, he was giving it to an unknown athlete.” Towne, too, had been uncertain at first about casting such a crucial role with a nonactress. But he changed his mind when he realized “This film would be sixty percent movement — and in that part of the film, Patrice would be completely confident. She’s the most graceful creature I’ve ever seen — except maybe for [the racehorse] Ruffian or Fred Astaire.”

Donnelly originally read for the part of Chris. She had been on the 1976 Olympic team when she was twenty-five years old and had fed parts of her own life into Chris’ character when she worked with Towne on the script. (For instance, both Patrice and Chris are part Indian and had complex coach-athlete relationships with their fathers.) “I guess I thought of myself more the way Chris does, as a reaction-type person,” says Donnelly, “but when the chance of playing Tory came up, I thought, I’ve got some Joan of Arc in me, too.” The challenge of becoming an actress fired up her competitive spirit.

As the filming went on, she began to analyze her performance in dailies the way she would a sports event on tape. “I did worse when I was trying to please everybody. Bob said, ‘Just give me what’s real.’ After a while, I could get my material down pat and let my mind go wild — reacting to the moment and using feelings from my past.”

Towne says he fostered a combination of discipline and spontaneity in front of the camera: “Most actors use their personal histories to bring characters to life, and in this movie, we went a step further. The athletes had to live their lives naturally, yet submit to the discipline of my fantasy.”

* * *

Those who worked on the movie pooh-pooh the notion that it’s about lesbianism. “I had to believe that I could be attracted to Mariel’s character in order to play those scenes,” says Donnelly, “but that doesn’t make either me or my character a lesbian. I think Tory may have affairs with men after she gets over Chris. The movie made me confront all sorts of feelings.” Personal Best saved Donnelly from the depression that many athletes fall into when they stop competing: “It was like being born again…It made me contemplate the meaning of competition and redefine it for myself as the pursuit of excellence.” It also left her with a beatific vision of sportsmanship. Donnelly has often experienced the double bind, depicted in the movie, of being a good friend to a close competitor. On Personal Best, she says, “All the athletes, including Mariel, banded together instinctively. They understood the pressures I was working under and wanted to support me so that the film would be authentic.”

Donnelly agrees with Towne’s opinion that the world of female athletes is significantly different from the world of male athletes: “For most women, becoming an athlete is a more difficult decision — there’s less of a tradition. A decade ago, we couldn’t even get athletic scholarships. It’s been my experience that female athletes need more initiative and are generally more intelligent. They’re not treated as well, so they tend to band together more. I think there’s less chance they’ll admire someone just for beating out somebody else.”

When I asked Patrice whether the movie’s “wild party” scenes were realistic, she said, “None of what showed up on screen equaled the parties we had when we weren’t working. It’s like that with athletes — you need a huge release from all that concentration.”

Like Donnelly, Scott Glenn felt his role touched off reverberations in his own life. “My starting-off point was my own two daughters. My problem as a coach in the film is the same as my problem as a father: how do you teach someone to survive and be better, wiser if not smarter? At what point does teaching stop being profound and become manipulation? In some ways, the coach has the same qualities as a mother bear — the same combination of love and brutality. Bob and I talked about this … to some extent I play him in the film. The coach could appear to be cold, but to me there’s a thread of love in his character that’s clear all the way through. All of Bob’s scripts are about love in a pressure cooker. The coach’s attitude toward the girls is: if you and I have a relationship, and you come out stronger and more honorable — regardless of what I might have done to you — then our relationship has been a good one. When the coach blows up at Tory, it’s because she wants to quit. She’s been with the coach long enough to know the one rule of his life, the one thing this man is all about, is the determination to follow through.”

* * *

The first shot of Personal Best will probably become a classic: drops of water form a pool on the surface of the track — it could be a leak from a canteen or a carburetor. Then the camera rises in slow motion, revealing Mariel Hemingway as she moves into starting position, as Towne describes it, “like a racehorse sweating at the withers.”

When they were filming on location during and after the 1980 Olympic trials at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field, no one was more crucial in helping Towne than cinematographer Michael Chapman (Raging Bull). Quick and pragmatic, this red-haired, fast-talking Bostonian developed just the right opposites-attract chemistry with the more laid-back, philosophical Towne. “I showed him that he could do what he wanted,” says Chapman, “and I toned down some of his wilder fancies. If we’d done everything he wanted, we’d all still be in Eugene, Oregon.”

The debates between the cinematographer and the director went beyond temperament to first principles. Towne loves long lenses, which isolate figures in a landscape and lend a special soft shimmer to the imagery; Chapman prefers wider lenses, to show individuals in a broad context. “I came out of a sensibility bred on Thirties B movies,” says Chapman, “the kind with hard, flat images of people working. I find great poignance in their ordinary reality.” To Chapman, his debates with Towne have value as high camp. Towne remembers Chapman telling him, “You’re an educated man — how can you not see that long lenses are elitist, romantic and possibly immoral and corrupt?” The finished movie’s look combines lyricism and poignant ordinariness. (A couple of the more lyrical scenes were shot by Black Stallion cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who filled in when Chapman had to leave to shoot Steve Martin’s latest film, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.)

Chapman is astonished at some of Towne’s achievements. “One or two of the performances are really good pieces of work on Robert’s part: he pulled them together in the editing room.” Towne’s major coworkers there were the wiry-haired, bespectacled Ned Humphreys and the gaunt, almost courtly Jere Huggins — whom Towne says look, respectively, “like a wild, nineteenth-century radical and photographer Walker Evans.” Historically, editors have played the same “feminine,” subservient role in movies as writers — they are, in effect, the movie’s final rewriters — and some of the most famous editors are women. But having been a “mere” writer himself, Towne didn’t make his editors feel that their main function was to be “supportive.” According to Humphreys and Huggins, the trio had a full partnership in the editing room and even learned a thing or two from their novice boss. “Robert has the rare ability to visualize a film in his head,” says Humphreys. “He was never surprised watching dailies, and he was able to make cuts in his mind. We had to go ahead and do them to see what he was talking about.”

Towne and the editors studied a few other movies while working on Personal Best, notably Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad and Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion. “He tried to work slow motion into the texture of the whole film, as Riefenstahl did,” says Huggins.

Huggins’ favorite example of Towne’s imaginative use of slow motion is how he handled the shot-put competitions: “The clichéd way of doing the event is to show the preparation in normal speed and then go into slow motion as the athlete begins to release the shot. But Bob did the reverse.” Towne sees the event as a metaphor of Everywoman’s emotional extremes: at the start, the images of the women caressing the shots are almost motherly; then they put the shots ferociously — as their coach suggests, it’s as if they’re tearing pieces out of themselves.

Towne had a drive and intensity that worried sound mixer Bruce Bisenz when he first started working for Towne. “Bob wanted me to record so many natural backgrounds that I thought he might be one more Hollywood director with tunnel vision,” says Bisenz. “He cut quite a bizarre figure. He was wearing binoculars so that he could see the expressions on the athletes’ faces even from a distance, and he used headphones so he could hear what his soft-spoken actors were saying all the time.”

Bisenz possessed the sophisticated technical know-how Towne needed. “By using small inductive cueing devices that fit entirely in the ear,” Bisenz explained, “Towne could motivate actors with mood music, talk them through difficult moments and still only record dialogue.” But he feels that perhaps his crucial contribution was pointing out to Towne how quickly he had jumped from plateau to plateau in filmmaking. “By the end, he was teaching us! He destroyed a lot of my own preconceptions. When the coach instructs Chris on the high bar, you hear music, natural sound, their steps moving in sync — and no dialogue. That’s the kind of thing you’re only supposed to do in dream sequences.”

Towne was equally innovative in the dubbing process, laboring with his team to build associations into the soundtack that would embellish the images. They end Tory and Chris’ relationship with the sound of a car sluggishly starting (which is how they signal its beginning), then they have her open the door to a swimming pool, where she meets her new lover, against a rolling silence that’s like a hole in the sound. The turn of the key, Towne says, emphasizes that Chris is “Alice, looking through the looking glass into a new world.”

The eclectic group behind the camera melded into what Michael Chapman referred to as “the classless society.” Everyone I talked to who was involved in the production speaks of the experience in close-knit, family terms. Towne says that the presence of his infant daughter, Katharine, nicknamed Skipper, made a significant difference in the atmosphere on the set. “Skipper was in my arms one day, playing with the binoculars — she must have been about two years old — and after one of the shots, it just seemed natural for me to tell my camera operators, ‘No print-ee, Eric-ee,’ and, ‘Print-ee, Lance-ee.’ Chapman asked me what I thought I was doing. I said, ‘She’s got to understand, too!’ After that, the whole crew took up baby talk. It was like watching Hell’s Angels in tutus. And it was all to the good.”

* * *

An eloquent sketch hangs on the wall of Towne’s office in his bungalow at Burbank Studios, portraying him as a Hollywood St Sebastian. Each piercing arrow is labeled for a trial he endured making Personal Best.

One prime barb is reserved for the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) strike, which shut down production in July 1980 after only three weeks of shooting. Towne felt he had more reason to be frustrated than other filmmakers forced to halt work: “SAG signed up all the kids in the movie a week and a half before it knew there would be a strike.” Towne protested, fearing that in the event of a prolonged strike, his young athletes would be forced to leave the film to continue their athletic and college careers. “The guild had an affirmative duty,” he said, “to advise its members of the potential hazards of being a member.”

When Warner Brothers refused to join Towne’s protest — it didn’t see Personal Best as a special case — Towne sued the company and SAG for “breach of fiduciary duty and simple garden-variety fraud.” Towne dropped the suit when Warner Brothers agreed to let him refinance the film as an independent production. This permitted his athletes to continue their work with SAG’s go-ahead. Towne’s new source of funding was wealthy rock and film producer-executive David Geffen.

At the time, Geffen was a god-send; however, their financial agreement became one more barb in St. Robert’s side. In the middle of December 1980. Geffen, embroiled with Towne over the details of their agreement, ordered the production stopped. Neither Towne nor Geffen will comment on the specifics. All that’s clear is that, after seven months of wheeling and dealing, two friends of Towne’s — comedienne-filmmaker Elaine May and another rock magnate, Allen Klein — negotiated to get the film back into production. (Along the way, Towne lost control of another dream project, Grey-stoke, an ecological recasting of the Tarzan myth. His script is now set to be filmed for Warners by Chariots of Fire director Hugh Hudson.)

Despite the delays, the atmosphere on the set remained, according to Caleb Deschanel, “amazingly sunny.” Patrice Donnelly says that few of the film’s athletes comprehended what their writer-producer-director was going through: “We didn’t understand the movie business, so we didn’t know how serious these delays were. I suppose we had such tremendous faith in Bob that if he said we’d finish, we felt it had to happen.”

* * *

Twelve days before the premiere of Personal Best, Towne was in a state of elation and exhaustion. He’d astounded himself with the “radical” nature of his film. “I’ll probably surprise people who expect a more verbal movie. But I’ve always felt, in movies, that language itself is less important than the moments it helps to create.”

Towne was raised in the Southern California coastal town of San Pedro; he feels that this background heavily influenced his highly visual style of filmmaking. “My impressions of my early life are not primarily verbal,” he explains. “My image of growing up is of watching some kid in gym shorts standing in front of a limitless expanse, standing like this.” Towne puts his hands on his slouched hips and pushes his face forward like a benign sort of bully boy.

“I once took a year off movie work to negotiate between tuna fishermen and environmentalists, to prevent dolphins from dying in tuna nets. What fascinated me about the dolphins was their sound. The bleeps we pick up from them on sonar tend to have a kind of uniformity. One scientist has conjectured that the sounds themselves are less important for communication than the configuration of the bodies in the water in conjunction with the sound.” His favorite scenes in Personal Best are like that. When Tory comforts Chris in the shower room, the scene is composed almost entirely of the girls’ postures and the sound of drops of water. “I spent days searching for that drop,” he adds, “and it says more than any line of dialogue.

“For a long while,” he continues, “I was fascinated with J.D. Salinger and the way he caught the cadences of a generation. With my generation, it would have been words like far out, wow, bitchin, no eyes for that — like song lyrics that reduce words to sounds, language to ritual. Salinger helped me see that any experiment to make language too precise could limit the range of feelings and meanings it could express. The danger of this [demotic] approach is that it could lead to antiintellectuality, sloppiness and sloth. But, positively, it can be more evocative and inclusive than normal literary language.

“In Personal Best, I know I’ve caught how the characters talk. But what’s just as important is how they move.” He recalls how, through his daughter, Skipper, he kept rediscovering the reasons for his fascination with female athletes: “I’d be running along the beach with my baby in my arms, and I’d turn her upside down; she’d giggle, and she’d open her little doll eyes wide, as if she already knew that she was defying the natural law of gravity. I saw that athletes must experience this delight every time they do a high jump.

“Aristotle thought character was action; to me, character is movement. It’s Patrice submitting to the discipline of the race with her head lowered, as if she’s submitting to an execution. The traditional drama’s fight between plot and character is not altogether appropriate to the movies. A movie should be more like a melodic variation of movements.

“Some people, I know, find the characters in Personal Best too simple. But, to me, they’re infinitely complex. Do you know Hart Crane? That line from ‘Voyages?’: ‘Bequeath us to no earthly shore until/Is answered in the vortex of our grave/The seal’s wide spindrift gaze towards paradise.’ I sometimes use slow motion in the film simply to capture the intense beauty of the athletes’ faces. The slow motion turns the human face into a still pond; emotion ripples through it. There’s something in the very simplicity of these athletes’ eyes that makes you feel that they’re in touch with more basic truths — like ‘the seal’s wide spindrift gaze towards paradise.”‘

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