Robert Towne: Out of Towne

Q: Your next stab at directing was Tequila Sunrise with Kurt Russell, Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfeiffer. You've said you hated making it, and you hated looking at it. Why?

A: Tequila is a movie whose parts are better than the whole. There's some fine work--[cinematographer] Conrad Hall's work, Kurt's work, Mel's; even Michelle's is good. Michelle has been vocal about disliking the movie and disliking me.

Q: Why?

A: She wanted to do it, but she questioned why her character had to sleep with the two different male characters. I said, "That's the character." She wanted to change it. At that point I was quite willing to let her go--no harm. But she said she'd do it. The difficulties started there.

Q: Do you feel the end result didn't work?

A: It could have worked better, but I wouldn't attribute that to her performance. The underlying problem with Tequila Sunrise is that for the movie to make sense, either Michelle's character was going to be killed or Mel's character would have to die to prevent it. Like the moth to the flame, he was attracted to that way of life [high-stakes cocaine dealing], and it ends in death. That was always the intent--to show that you can't get away with it. The studio would not allow the movie to end that way. I figured I could make it work [their way], but I don't think I quite did.

Q: What did you discover about directing from these two films?

A: That directing is more feminine than a lot of people think. You're so passive when you're directing. When you're writing, you've got this whole world in your hands, but when you're a director, from the minute you say "Action," you're the only one on the set that doesn't have a job. You are doing nothing but watching. All you're doing is allowing yourself to respond to what's going on in front of your eyes--quickly enough that you're not only able to feel, but to articulate how you feel in time to tell the actors before the next take.

Q: Do you agree with Movieline's assessment of your new film, Without Limits, that runner Steve Prefontaine's story is ultimately about the triumph of losing?

A: It's a very good way of putting it. Here was a guy who didn't win the biggest race of his life, didn't end up with the woman he loved, and died. And yet his life was a triumph. The voyage of self-discovery may end in victory or in defeat, it doesn't matter as long as you squeeze as much living into your life as you can.

Q: Is the heart of the movie about the relationship between Prefontaine and his coach, Bill Bowerman?

A: Oh yes.

Q: Was Donald Sutherland your first choice for Bowerman?

A: No. I didn't want him. I wanted Tommy Lee Jones. And then a number of other people. I knew I wanted Billy Crudup [to play Pre] the minute I laid eyes on him. But I was very lucky, because I don't think I could have had anybody better than Billy and Donald.

Q: You never considered a more recognizable face than Crudup's for Pre?

A: I had seen a couple of people. For silly and not so silly reasons, Tom Cruise was originally going to do it. He loved the story and I wrote the script right after he finished Mission: Impossible. But he said, "I'm in my 30s, I've got a wife and two kids, everybody knows who I am, they're not going to believe I'm 16." And he said, "I do love it and I promise you I will make sure we'll get it done. I'll produce it if you'd like." And indeed, without Tom, this movie wouldn't have had a chance.

Q: When did you first get to know Cruise?

A: On Days of Thunder. We became instantly friendly. Where we really became close was on Mission: Impossible. I was there for five weeks rewriting, and he and I worked by phone and by fax every night. Under that tremendous pressure we really got to know each other. He was just fun. There's nothing like a guy who's a champ under pressure.

Q: What did you think of the film?

A: I liked it. I had warned him, "I don't think it's going to be perfect in five weeks, but it's a start." I was trying to do more than could be done in that time frame.

Q: You're a man who has cultivated friendships with some pretty impressive people--do you consider Cruise among them?

A: The relationship I have with Tom is in some ways the purest I've ever had with anybody. I always feel there's nothing extraneous in my relationship with him.

Q: Do you ever talk about his beliefs or interest in Scientology?

A: If Scientology is what makes Tom Cruise what he is today, I feel about it exactly the way Lincoln felt about Grant and booze: let's give it to my other generals. Any question that I've ever asked Tom regarding our work has been answered with wit, humor and candor. That's all I need to know.

Q: Let's go back to some of your earlier friendships. How close were you with Jack Nicholson back in the '60s?

A: Jack and I were roommates. We were at the same level on the Hollywood food chain, the very bottom. The good-looking girls in our acting class would not go out with us. So we shared dreams and hope for the future. In that sense I was never much closer to anyone than to Jack.

Q: Did you ever predict that Jack's career would exceed his ambitions?

A: Part of my vanity is being able to say that I saw this kid of 18 improvise for the first time and I said to him, "You're gonna be a movie star." And he said, "Yeah?" And I said, "And I'm gonna direct you."

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