Even so, any athlete was free to call a halt to things if he or she saw authenticity about to be abused. Before a scene in which the athletes, on tour in Cali, Colombia, have arrived to find the dormitories unfinished, Seidler and Watson went through a carefully dressed set hurling suitcases and sweatsuits from beds and lockers. "We were at the Pan American Games in Cali in 1971," they said.
"Go to it," said Towne, restraining his set decorator. As well, athletes watched the dailies, searching for little mistakes, and helped, sometimes with memos to Towne, in blocking out sporting sequences. "I have to admit," admitted Cindy Banks, "the guy did his homework before he got here."
A great deal was shot in slow motion, Towne's conviction being that that was the way to enhance and make clear the usually invisible power and near-eroticism of muscular effort. He also came to see high-speed photography as a dramatic instrument. "A half-second in slow motion allows you to read a face better, in less time, than regular speed. It's as if you slow down the wind-ruffled surface of a pond and can then see into the pond. You find yourself looking at the souls of these women. It is a profoundly reassuring human beauty."
No one could teach him how to do this. "I asked for someone knowing more than I," he said. "I got it. The film, looking back at me."
We were uprooted before we were finished in Eugene, having to use locations in L.A., and would return later in the summer. As I was the only athlete cast against type, or at least against sport, I had no scenes with the other athletes. I came to the Burbank studios alone at the appointed time and was told what you were always told when you got there—"We don't need you until tomorrow." I was driven to the Safari Motor Inn, about a mile from the studios. The desk clerk was a slender man wearing a clingy silk shirt and a chest chain upon which swung a mace. He had a hooked nose, flaring nostrils, a vacant giggle and several inch-long fingernails. These he raked over my forearm and wrist and palm, finally taking the credit card which had been there all the time between my thumb and forefinger. "You're in such luck" he said. "Today we are opening a new wing. Your room has never been used before." He leaned near. I leaned back. "A virgin room," he breathed.
The door of this was ajar. The room had no phone, no sheets, no towels. Workmen had just installed the carpet and were sweeping up the scraps. Dust rose.
I ran in the hills. There was smoke everywhere, Southern California being in its flammable phase. Above DeBell Golf Course I was hailed and asked to come help prevent a brushfire from crossing a gully and endangering a house. I leaped at the chance, fighting it with wet burlap and a spade. I noticed a couple of my hosts had already had their eyebrows singed. Wax or fire, I knew, wouldn't be a crucial distinction for Towne. But soon the blaze was under control.
Jogging back, I was like Frederick with her raspberry pies, uplifted to have done a tangible service. But the hills, brown where there had been fire, were just as brown where there had not. When I went to draw the drapes in my room a piece of hardware gave way and I was buried in dusty folds of fabric. Seidler, on her way to the airport, stuck her head in. "Looks like Cali, Colombia in here," she said.
In the studios, where most interiors were shot, or on the fields of Pierce Community College in Woodland Hills, things could never be called tranquil, but progress through the charts of scenes was steady. There were even days, a few, when the experience bore some resemblance to movie imaginings: a rehearsal in Towne's trailer or office, a stroll to the set, being dressed and coifed to Towne's specifications, being arranged in pleasing positions before the cameras (taking the places of stand-ins, those poor, patient people on whom the cameramen framed shots), doing the scene, then again, finding the work similar to writing, at least that stage of writing where one refines tone and cadence to heighten an effect. Then a break while grips and carpenters knock out a wall, rearrange the lights, reset the camera. I felt oddly sultanlike seeing these labors performed all for the fanciful notion that I'd look better from the left, with the light filtered slightly.... Then Hemingway and I (all my scenes were with her) would be called in, find our marks and share my Chapstick or a tidbit of gossip, and when we performed sometimes I would be so entranced by her acting, so close, so real, that I'd go slack. Then Towne would make me do pull-ups or jog around the building. At the end of the day I was always astonished at how tired I was. At the time, those days didn't seem exceptionally rewarding; survival was my focus. But they were the best we would ever have.
In July 1980, the Screen Actors Guild struck all the major studio productions over the issue of sharing future videocassette, disc and pay-television proceeds. Towne asked for an exception because Personal Best's athletes, though Guild members, weren't really actors. The Guild said no. Strangely, Warner's resisted this as well. Towne sued them both, struggling, he said, "like a fly in amber," against the industry's abandonment of the athletes. If the strike went on very long, it was clear that the athletes could never be regathered.