Robert Towne looks back on ‘Chinatown’

“It would be impossible for it to be a mainstream movie today”

Robert Towne looks back on 'Chinatown'Chinatown is one of Roman Polanski’s most celebrated pictures. But the ‘auteur’ who tends to be most closely associated with it is screenwriter Robert Towne, who won the only Oscar among the movie’s 11 nominations. In screenwriting classes, Chinatown is often held up as a model script, which is ironic considering that anyone trying to pitch something that dark and complex in today’s Hollywood would be told to forget it. Towne’s dense plotting requires you to pay scrupulous attention, yet  the mechanics of the plot seem less important than the mystery they evoke. The story is like a mobius strip. You have to keep turning it around your mind: it’s impossible to hold it all in your head at once.  And the film is even darker than Towne had imagined it—Polanski famously changed Towne’s ending to make it more downbeat.

Chinatown is a paradox of style. It’s written with hard-boiled inflection of Raymond Chandler, but Towne’s script, which originally ran to 300 pages, is so elaborate that Nicholson had to speed up his usual laconic delivery just to keep the movie from turning into an unwatchable marathon. And although the film’s style is deeply noir, Polanski dragged it into the unforgiving light of the Los Angeles sun, which makes sense because the city’s landscape is in the end the central character.

Cruelly coinciding with Polanski’s recent arrest, Chinatown is now available on a double-disc 35th anniversary DVD, which allows other filmmakers to pay tribute to this landmark of American cinema. The special features include a frame-by-frame commentary by Towne and director David Fincher, plus some astute appreciations by other filmmakers—including Steven Soderbergh and Kimberly Peirce—who dissect the movie’s esthetics and talk about why they found it so influential.

For more on Roman Polanski and Chinatown, pick up this week’s issue of Maclean’s, on newsstands now.

I interviewed Robert Towne just before the Polanski’s arrest, which explains why the event doesn’t figure in our discussion. An edited transcript:

Q: What is it like for you to revisit Chinatown after all these years?

A: There are a lot of feelings that I have. When you see the film, as you do with most films with which you’re closely associated, you look at the fictional life onscreen and remember the real life you were living at the time. It brings to mind all sorts of things, how scenes were done, how they were written, where they were written, right down to looking at the film through the dailies. It brings your own personal history back to you in a way that is affecting.

Q: Has your perception of the film changed? Are there things that surprise you now?

A: As I look at it now, I remember the feelings I had the first time I saw the completed film, and all of the chaos attending the completion of the film. The answer print didn’t work; it had to be re-timed. Up to three weeks of the film’s release, we had no score. It was just a maelstrom of activity and one thought it was impossible to end up with anything other than a mess. And I then I remember seeing it for the very first time. I was sitting in a theatre with a Variety reporter and a Hollywood Reporter reporter thinking, “Maybe we’ll just get away with this. It’s a little better than I thought.” And now when I see it I think how remarkably sure-footed the film seems. But it all came together just at the end. And I mean at the very end.

Q: Chinatown now seems very prescient, with the whole theme of power and water and environmental corruption.

A: Yes, I guess it is. I had always been concerned with the environment. It was just an ongoing concern of mine. The destruction of the city had been affecting me even then. That city was so naturally beautiful, seeing it indiscriminately chewed up . . .  I mean, Los Angeles, more than most cities, seems to me to have always been a place where people never thought they would come to live but had to strike it rich and get out of there. It was a place to be mined, whether for gold or oil, or fame and Hollywood. You make your bundle and get out regardless of the collateral damage that’s done to the city. I thought, “My God, it’s my home. It’s disgusting.”

Q: The Jack/Jake character has real a double-edge. He’s our hero, but he’s world-weary and cynical and not half as smart as he thinks he is.

A: I wanted him to have the sensibility of that time and place. He was a guy who felt he knew all the answers. He did divorce work, which gave him great reason to be cynical about human behavior. He felt he knew all the answers, whereas in the end he’s confronted by the enormity of the water scandal and the corruption that’s involved, the rape of that land and then the rape of this man’s daughter. That revelation for him was as a shock. The phrase “You think you know what’s going on but you don’t” has an intentional irony.

Q: You wrote Jake Gittes’s character for Jack Nicholson, your former roommate. But Faye Dunaway’s was cast after Julie Christie turned down the role. How did Dunaway mold what you put on the page.

A: She brought a kind of elegant neuroticism to the part. That’s how she molded it.

Q: What most changed from the script to the screen, aside from the ending, which has been much discussed?

A: Not much. Once Roman and I had agreed to that rewrite it was shot as scrupulously close the script as anything I’ve ever done. I actually wrote the ending that’s there at Roman’s request and then felt it was excessively melodramatic and he said, “No, I think it’s perfect,” and in the end I think he was right.

Q: Could a film like Chinatown be made today?

A: The main thing was, it would be impossible for it to be a mainstream movie today. It would have to come from a specialty division. And it wouldn’t be give the treatment it was given then. Secondly, the studio executives, of which there are far fewer, tended to place their bets squarely on the filmmakers, and then they’d leave you alone. There would be no discussion about what the ending would be like, or how much will we like our guy. The nature of Gittes’ character would have been: “Can we do something to make us like him a little bit better.” All those things would come into play now. It was left to us, whereas today there are a whole new mid-level group of executives who are obliged to put their imprimatur on the film and I think it makes it difficult to maintain a consistent vision. What is not realized sufficiently is what audiences are drawn to—they can sense the conviction of the film, the passion with which it was put together. It’s there in the film, and in any film that’s done that way. And I think that’s what’s most attractive to an audience.

Q: I’m sure today’s studio executives would question the notion of having the star’s nose bandaged for half the movie.

A: Oh yeah. All of those things that give the film a level of reality that they’re not accustomed to, those are the things that make the movie distinctive.

Q: What are you currently working on?

A: I just finished a script for Sony called Fertig. It’s about an American mining engineer in the ’30s in the Philippines who ends up, when the war breaks out, because most mining engineers had commissions. He becomes one of the handful of Americans who refused to surrender and ended up leading a resistance movement that grew to 38,000 men. He wasn’t by any means a traditional military man. It’s directed by David Fincher. It’s a very big movie.

Q: When you look back at Chinatown and the kind of artistic license you had back then, is it not discouraging to work under less ideal conditions?

A: Oh yes. [laughs]

Q: So what do you do?

A: Well, I’m working with David, and David has the ability, more than most, to control material. But there’s no easy answer to it.

Q: Finally, when you look at Chinatown, what level does serendipity play to make it all come together. What’s the secret to creating something like this?

A: You’re familiar with The Seventh Seal, the Bergman movie? Where the knight is playing chess with death, and he asks death “What’s your secret?” And Death says, “I have no secret.” There is no secret to it. We were all growing up in a certain time and a certain place, reacting to the world in similar ways, and we were lucky enough to be pulled together, to work together at that place. It was all our respective sensibilities occurring in the same time and the same place. That confluence was certainly serendipitous.

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