A Minute With: Robert Towne 35 yrs after "Chinatown"

LOS ANGELES (Reuters Life!) - Few screenwriters exemplified the renaissance in Hollywood filmmaking that took place in the 1970s more than Robert Towne.

Scripts such as “The Last Detail” made him a rising star among writers. When “Chinatown,” which was directed by Roman Polanski, hit theaters in 1974 it won Towne an Oscar, and has become a classic tale of crime, corruption and sordid family affairs.

On Oct. 6, Paramount Pictures is releasing a 35th anniversary special edition DVD of “Chinatown” and Towne, who at 74 years-old is still active in Hollywood, talked with Reuters about the movie and screenwriting.

Q: In the comment section of the DVD, (cinematographer) Roger Deakins talks about “Chinatown” being a modern film noir of its time. How is the story you wrote one for all times?

A: “It’s a combination of things. We didn’t try to focus on period objects as such, very often when people do a piece in the past, they will focus on things like a hood ornament on a car to let you know this is the period. But it was shot in such a way that no particular attention was paid to that. I also think the nature of the story itself is one that -- corruption is kind of a timeless subject, isn’t it?”

Q: When you sat down to write “Chinatown,” did it come easy or take a lot of work?

A: “It was a struggle because of the construction of the story. You have two major threads, one being the water scandal and its conspiracy and the other being the relationship of father to daughter in which there had been incest, which needless to say had been covered up ... Do you start with the water scandal or the incest? Of course after the fact, it was very apparent once I hit on it: the water scandal was the more important. It was the major plot and the subplot was incest.”

Q: How much of the script made it on the screen and how much was changed in the production?

A: “Once the script was set, after my final rewrite with Roman (Polanski), nothing was changed. It was changed less than any script I think I’ve ever written or been part of the writing of. It survived intact.”

Q: Why?

A: “Because of the extensive preparation and collaboration with Roman. Once we had gone through it, we had agreed on everything and there was no reason to change. It was a story that, because it was tightly constructed, it was critical that the pieces of that particular puzzle were not messed with.”

Q: What did the actors, principally Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, bring to the characters that wasn’t on the page?

A: “A lot, but I can’t say that surprised me ... (Jack) was basically my closest friend. The character was written with him in mind, sensing that I would know things he would do. In that way he was a collaborator whether he was there or not when I was writing. He was an inspiration. And Faye, Faye brought a kind of neurotic elegance that I can’t say was unexpected.”

Q: So much is made of 1970s filmmaking and its humanist stories. What is the difference between writing then and now?

A: “The principle difference is the fact that studio executives, once they pulled the trigger on something, they pretty much left it to the filmmakers. Nobody sat there and second guessed: ‘Should we have a different ending? Are the characters likable?’

“All of those things are grist for the mill of many executives at a studio now who sometimes think they should put their imprint on a script whether it should be there or not. There was more trust for the filmmaker, then. It was your show: ‘you go ahead and do it. If we don’t like it, you won’t be hired again in a hurry, meanwhile the show is yours.’”

Q: There has to be good and bad to both, being a lone filmmaker versus working a script by committee.

A: “There isn’t a ‘lone filmmaker.’ The thing that makes any film work is a strong collaboration among the people making it. If you have strong points of view from the director, writer and producer, they occasionally clash, but it sharpens the story and makes the film what it is ... with minimal interference from people who are not as familiar with it.”

Q: Those people would be the studio executives.

A: “Right (pauses) and they didn’t have as many of them back then. That’s not to say there aren’t executives who can’t make invaluable contributions, but you really have to be close to the material. They didn’t consider that their job then.”

Q: What did they consider their job?

A: “Betting on the right horses. It’s an easy thing to do.”

Editing by Patricia Reaney