Thursday 6 June 2024

Robert Towne: Remembering Chinatown

Chinatown (Directed by Roman Polanski) 


While evoking the classic detective genre, ‘Chinatown’ also distorts it, setting up another line of expectation. Unlike the classic detective whose failure to fit into the domestic world is presented as heroic, Gittes is portrayed as somewhat incomplete. We sense a sorrow under his glibness and a loss we will later learn is connected with Chinatown. Unlike the classic detective whose life, not his emotions, turns on the working out of the plot, Gittes’s whole personality is threatened by his growing involvement with Mrs. Mulwray. We don’t expect him to be sitting calmly at his desk the day after Mrs. Mulwray is shot, waiting for whoever comes over the transom, the way we do with Sam Spade at the end of ‘The Maltese Falcon’. At the end of ‘Chinatown’, we believe Gittes is emotionally destroyed. 
‘Chinatown’ evokes not only the detective genre, but also the restorative three-act genre in which a character’s vulnerability is exposed, addressed, and then overcome. This double expectation of triumph – justice will be done by the detective and he will overcome his vulnerability – is turned topsy-turvy when the criminal, Noah Cross, defeats the detective by getting away with his crimes, and Mrs. Mulwray, the only person to have touched Gittes since his last fling in Chinatown, is shot. The story gains its power precisely because of the extent to which it invites us to believe that our expectation of a happy ending will triumph over a darker reality. When our expectations are not met, the darker reality seems all that much more oppressive because it has penetrated the apparently safe frame of the story.
 – Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush: Alternative Scriptwriting: Successfully Breaking the Rules.

The creation of "Chinatown", directed by Roman Polanski, starts with Robert Towne, who was known for his creative rewrite work prior on "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) and "The Godfather (1972). His most notable successes however were his scripts for "The Last Detail" (1973) and "Chinatown," both of which he wrote for Jack Nicholson, his close friend and former roommate. 

Private investigator Jake 'J.J.' Gittes specialises in cases involving unfaithful spouses in 1937 Los Angeles. Hollis Mulwray, the high-profile top engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, is his latest target, since his wife accuses him of adultery. Gittes observes various routine business activities while following Mulwray, such as a public hearing for the building of a new dam to increase Los Angeles' water supply, since fresh water is critical for the increasing city amid the persistent drought; Mulwray opposes the building. Gittes eventually observes Mulwray with an unknown young lady who is not his wife. Once word of Mulwray's alleged tryst with this lady reaches the public, fresh evidence emerges that leads Gittes to feel that Mulwray is being falsely accused and that he himself is being set up. Gittes is supported in his study of the situation surrounding Mulwray's framing and his own setup by Mulwray's wife Evelyn, but he believes she is not being candid with him. The farther he delves into the inquiry, the more mysteries he unearths concerning the Mulwrays' professional and personal relationships, including Mulwray's prior business association with Evelyn Cross's father, Noah Cross. The unknown woman's identity may hold the key to unravelling the whole narrative.

Towne's original script was literary, meticulously researched, and brimming with surprising twists. His characters were three-dimensional — “based on reality, not other movies,” as he once put it. 

Despite its brilliance, the script was nevertheless complex and over-plotted, and lacked a logical conclusion. Evans enlisted Polanski, who oversaw Towne's revision. Additionally, Polanski insisted on a more sinister, suitably twisted climax. 

Polanski was a gifted filmmaker but spiritually troubled. Raised in prewar Poland, where his mother was killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz, Polanski's pain was heightened 25 years later when his wife, the actress Sharon Tate, was killed along with four others in their Beverly Hills home by Charles Manson’s crazed followers.

Not only did Polanski assist in rewriting the script, he also introduced a methodical and melancholic tone to the film's production. Additionally, he elicited outstanding performances from Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and legendary film director John Huston. 

Nicholson, perhaps the most gifted actor of the era, veers between the comedic and tragic in probably his best performance. Gittes' self-assurance and cynicism serve as a front for a profoundly wounded persona with an innate sense of honour. Dunaway first seems to be a traditional femme fatale but reveals herself to be a distraught woman harbouring her own secrets. In the end, Gittes’s attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery, his relentless quest for the truth, merely serves to expedite her fate.

Often cited as a ‘perfect’ script in terms of its structure, characters and dialogue, screenwriter Robert Towne was nearly 40 and Chinatown his first produced original screenplay, his previous efforts having been literary adaptations such as 1973’s The Last Detail. Robert Towne spoke to Alex Simon of The Hollywood Interview about his discovery of Los Angeles’ hidden past, the novels of Raymond Chandler and how his reworking of the classic detective story was created:

Let’s start at the beginning. How was ‘Chinatown’ born?

Robert Towne: There are so many moments that contributed to the ultimate birth, if you want to call it that, of Chinatown, but it had its origins in the fact that the script of The Last Detail was having trouble getting made because of the (profanity) in it. There was kind of a counter-reformation going on in Hollywood at that time. Richard Hefner was head of the ratings board, and I guess they had the feeling movies had gone too far, too fast with this newfound freedom we suddenly had. There was a hilarious moment with (Columbia Pictures Chairman) David Begelman where he asked ‘Bob, would 20 ‘motherfuckers’ be more dramatic than 40 ‘motherfuckers’?’ To which I responded ‘Yes David, but the swearing is not used for dramatic emphasis. It’s used to underline the impotence of these men who will do nothing but swear even though they know they’re doing something unjust by taking this poor, neurotic little kid to jail for eight years for stealing 40 bucks.’ So I felt sort of hamstrung. Then I saw a copy of Old West Magazine that was part of the L.A. Times, this was about 1969. In it, was an article called ‘Raymond Chandler’s L.A.’ I don’t remember the copy that well, but the part that got me were about half a dozen photographs taken in 1969 meant to represent L.A. in the ‘30s. There was a shot of a Plymouth convertible under one of those old streetlamps outside of Bullock’s Wilshire. There was a shot of a beautiful Packard outside of a home in Pasadena. There was another shot of the old railway station downtown. I looked at them, and realized ‘My God, with a selective eye, you could recreate the L.A. of the ‘30s.’ Then owing to a number of other experiences – walking on the Palisades and things like that which brought back a lot via sense memory, I began to realize and reflect upon how much I felt had been lost about the city in the intervening 30-35 years. ’37 was just beyond my recall, but the ‘40s weren’t, and pre-1945 they were basically the same thing. So I thought about that, and then, since we were stuck in limbo on The Last Detail, I went to Jack (Nicholson) and said ‘What if I wrote a detective story set in L.A. of the ‘30s?’ He said ‘Great.’ The one feeling I had was a desire to try and recreate the city. But that was just the beginning. Then owing to a building project near where I lived, I got a chance to see the corruption of city hall first-hand, which is where that element of the plot got into Chinatown. I then had to go to Oregon where Jack was filming Drive, He Said. I hadn’t really read Raymond Chandler at that point, so I started reading Chandler. While I was there at University of Oregon, I checked out a book from the library called ‘Southern California Country: Island on the Land.’ In it was a chapter called ‘Water, water, water,’ which was a revelation to me. And I thought ‘Why not do a picture about a crime that’s right out in front of everybody. Instead of a jewel-encrusted falcon, make it something as prevalent as water faucets, and make a conspiracy out of that. And after reading about what they were doing, dumping water and starving the farmers out of their land, I realized the visual and dramatic possibilities were enormous. So that was really the beginning of it.

When you wrote it initially, you did so specifically for Nicholson to play Gittes, and Jane Fonda to play Evelyn Mulwray?

Well with Jack, yes, I wrote the part for him, in his voice, so to speak. We'd been close friends for a long time. But with the part of Evelyn, there were several actresses at the top of the list, and Jane was one of them. But Jack was Gittes. I could not have written that character without knowing Jack. We had been roommates, and we’d studied acting with Jeff Corey for years, so he was, in a very real sense, a collaborator. 

The actual writing of the script was very difficult for you. The first draft took you nine months?

Oh yeah, that was due to a combination of things. I had to get out of my house. I was having domestic difficulties, so I took myself and my dog over to Catalina, and worked at The Isthmus for several months, then was reduced to finding places around the city: Curtis Hanson loaned me an apartment… but just moving around wasn’t the sole problem. It was also that the writing of it was just tough: writing scenario, after scenario, after scenario was just so complicated that after a certain point, I thought I’d never get through it.

The first draft ran 180 pages?

I think so. 178, maybe. Not that bad, actually. I mean, the final draft was 140-something.

In the final draft that you published, there were lots of snippets of little scenes that, if there were actually filmed, were cut from the final film.

I think they were filmed, yes, and it’s a shame that they destroyed them, but most of them weren’t bad.

The one ‘lost scene’ that really sticks out in my mind is when Gittes is flying to Catalina, and the pilot gives him all this backstory on Evelyn and the Cross family.

Yeah, I miss that one, too.

That’s another thing about the film that has always made it stand out: you populated it with all these great little throwaway characters that are so memorable, even if they have just one or two lines. This, coupled with the casting that Polanski and the casting director pulled off, with actors who all had such great faces…

Well, those secondary characters were, I think, effective because they all had detailed backstories, some of which actually came out briefly in the movie, like when Gittes is talking to Mulvihill outside the elevators, and Gittes asks ‘What are you doing here?’ Mulvihill answers ‘They shut my water off, what’s it to you?’ And we learn that he’d been a rum runner when he was Sheriff of Ventura County. Escobar also had a very lengthy backstory, that he’d lost family in the Owens Valley dam disaster, and wasn’t too sorry to see Hollis Mulwray go.

It was also an interesting choice you made to have a Mexican police lieutenant, because in 1937, I’m sure Escobar would have been one of the first.

Yeah, probably and again, that was a deliberate choice.

And Perry Lopez, what a terrific actor.

He was very good, wasn’t he? He passed away last year. His health was failing for a while. I think he had lung cancer. It was a real shame. But part of writing those backstories for all the characters, they were very detailed, and that also contributed to how much time it took to write the script.

I also loved Wally, the mortician. Again, he only has one scene, but his character stays with you.

Yeah, that was a guy named Charles Knapp. Terrific character actor.

Even the players who didn’t have any dialogue, like when Gittes turns to his right during the city council meeting and sees those two old farmers in the audience whose faces looked right out of a Matthew Brady photo from the 19th century.

Roman is a very meticulous filmmaker and really took his time when it came to the casting, down to the smallest roles.

Let’s talk about the look of the film. You had the best in the business in charge of production design and costumes: Richard and Anthea Sylbert.

Yeah, all those fine details were very important to us. They were old friends, too. Really, we all knew each other on the film pretty well.

That’s another interesting detail. You were all part of the same social circle, so much so that you named a lot of the characters after friends: Gittes, Mulvihill…

Well, Gittes was named after my friend (producer) Harry Gittes, but Muvihill wasn’t named after my friend Charles Mulvihill, which is an understandable conclusion you would have. He was named after a real estate broker that had worked with my father. I liked the name. There was another one, an old-time salesman my father knew, called Bagby. He became the character of Mayor Bagby.

Another interesting thing is that when you initially showed the script to both Evans and Polanski, they couldn’t make head or tails of it.

Yeah, that was truer of Evans than Polanski. Roman picked the first two drafts apart so we could start rewriting it. While Roman was still in Europe, I did a second draft, and those two drafts were the drafts off of which we worked to create the shooting script, which was the third draft.

And how long did that third draft take?

We spent nearly every day together for about six weeks. I brought my dog, Hira, with me to a lot of our initial meetings. Hira would go lie on Roman’s feet, which would drive him crazy, and finally he said ‘That’s enough of that dog!’ (laughs)

What was Polanski’s creative process like, and what elements did he bring to the story? I know the biggest bone of contention the two of you had was about the film’s ending.

Yeah, but in the end, that was such a small part of our daily working relationship, and it only came up at the end. We didn’t spend a lot of time on it, to be honest. Roman said ‘I want it written this way,’ and I responded ‘I think it would be very bad if I wrote it that way.’ He said ‘Well, try it anyway.’ So I did, and brought it back to him and said ‘See, it’s so melodramatic.’ Roman said ‘No, it’s perfect.’ We said more about it, but not much. That was that. We sat down, and I don’t remember what draft, probably the first because there were things about the first draft that were much better than the second, although there were individual scenes in the second draft that may have been used. So we sat down, and we wrote a one-sentence description of each of the scenes that we were working on. We then pasted those onto the door of the room where we were working, and we just moved these little strips of paper up and down, readjusting the structure, to see where there were holes, adding scenes, and that’s how we worked on it. And what changes were made in the dialogue were made as I wrote. Roman, with rare exception, did not have any difficulty with the dialogue.

That was always one of your strengths though, as a dialogue man.

Yeah, I mean I guess you’d have to say that. The structure was extremely difficult, though, as it would have been for anybody.

But what resulted from all that work was that the screenplay for ‘Chinatown’ is now regarded by most film and film writing scholars as the paradigm for the perfect screenplay, in terms of its structure.

Well, I don’t have to tell you that we weren’t trying to write a screenplay that was perfectly-structured. We were just trying to make it make sense. I remember, even without Roman, the first structural question, which may seem absurd now after the fact, was the question of which revelation comes first, the incest or the water scandal? And of course, it was the water scandal. When I realized that, I realized how foolish it was even to have asked the question. But the water scandal was the plot, essentially, and the subplot was the incest. That was the underbelly, and the two were intimately connected, literally and metaphorically: raping the future and raping the land. So it was a really good plot/subplot with a really strong connection. In the first draft, as I recall, it was pretty much a single point-of-view. And in the second draft I tried changing that for purposes of clarification and I think in the end, that’s what made the second draft weaker than the first draft. It’s one of the very, very few detective movies, including The Maltese Falcon, which has a singular point-of-view.

But in detective fiction, almost all of it is written from a singular point-of-view.

Yeah but remember, I hadn’t read much detective fiction up to that point. I had to take it upon myself to read Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. But of the two, I think Chandler was the more influential, probably because his stories were set in L.A.

Chandler was one of the great 20th century writers.

Oh yeah, he was a wonderful prose stylist. He was very useful to me in one sense in that Gittes is the sort of opposite of (Philip) Marlowe: the tarnished knight who wouldn’t do divorce work, who didn’t really care about his physical appearance. Where Gittes was more than something of a dandy, a clotheshorse, absolutely vain, and Jack playing him that way was half-kidding. Jack was a great-looking kid, but he wasn’t considered a leading man until he did Chinatown.

But the great thing about the ‘70s was that you had guys that weren’t pretty, who were just good-looking the way normal people are good-looking, being cast as leading men.

Yeah, that’s true. Jack would actually joke about his looks. He’d say ‘I have perfect tear drop nostrils,’ (laughs) shit like that. He was kidding, but that aspect of his character certainly found its way into Gittes.

The other thing that struck me, especially with this new high-def transfer used on the DVD, was what a perfect profile Nicholson had then. It would have made the Barrymores jealous.

He had a great profile.

He was all right angles, as a young man.

Yeah, he was a great looking kid.

Let’s talk about some more of the casting. I know she won the Oscar for ‘Network’, but I think this remains Faye Dunaway’s best work. She had such a haunting look in the film, almost as though her face was a death mask, showing that she was dead inside.

Yes, you know almost as soon as you see her that she’s damaged goods, you just don’t know how. She evokes mystery, but doesn’t tip it off.

Another detective story cliché which you turned on its head is that the woman is always the Black Widow, whereas in Chinatown, she turns out to be the victim.

Yes, just as in many ways, Gittes is also the opposite of the hardboiled detective. He’s cynical, but with his own kind of idealistic streak.

Tell us about John Huston, whose Noah Cross is one of the great screen villains of all-time.

John and that performance are absolutely central to that movie. His weight, his sort of patina of grandfatherly charm is a perfect receptacle, if you will, for the evil that is at the heart of Chinatown.

This is what makes him so dangerous: his charm. He’s not like Darth Vader or even someone like Gordon Gekko, both of whom are clearly evil from the get-go. It’s like the old saying ‘When the devil comes at you, it will be with a smile, not with a sneer.’

Yes, exactly. And the story never could have succeeded without John Huston playing that character as you described.

And his mispronunciation of Gittes as ‘Gits’ was an honest mistake that Huston made?

Yes, that’s right. That came out on the set, and then Roman kept it in. That was Roman as much as it was Huston. It’s a great touch: he’s so rich, he doesn’t give a shit if he gets your name right or not.
(laughs) Yes, and you never knew whether he was doing it out of carelessness or perversity. That’s the point.

Did you get to know Huston at all during the shoot?

A little bit.

What was your involvement in the actual filming once you turned in the final draft?

Not much. I would watch the dailies every day, but I stayed off the set.

You mentioned when we spoke before that everyone was expecting the film to be a disaster.

Initially, the shooting of it was going badly with Roman’s first cameraman, Stanley Cortez, and he replaced Cortez with John Alonzo, which was very fortunate. It just seemed that it was one series of difficulties after the other, and we didn’t know how it was going to hang together. Then, the score that we had written for the film (by Phillip Lambro) was an abomination, and we had to bring in Jerry Goldsmith at the last minute, who did that amazing score that’s on the film now, which is also part of what makes the film work so beautifully.

I wonder if that original score is what plays on the trailer? Because it sure isn’t the Goldsmith score.

It’s possible, but I’m not sure. I don’t remember the music from the trailer.

And Goldsmith did the score in six days?

No, no. Ten. (laughs) There was no time at all, and Evans and I were on the scoring stage while Jerry was doing it. Roman was actually in Italy, directing an opera.

Did Polanski involve you in the casting process?

Oh yeah, and I was thrilled with the choice of Huston. Actually, there was a point where we were hoping to get (director) Bill Wellman for Mulwray, but I think he died shortly before we started pre-production (Wellman died in December, 1975). He was an amazing man, Wellman. I never got to meet him, although I did sit next to him at a screening once.

When did you realize that not only was ‘Chinatown’ not a disaster, but something very special?

The first time I saw the completed film was at a screening for Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. The score was there, the print was there and I felt, when the lights went up, ‘Well, maybe it’s not a complete disaster.’ (laughs) The first inkling I had was when The Reporter critic ran up to me and started gushing about the film, and I thought ‘Well, that’s nice. It’s probably an aberrant reaction, but I’ll take it.’ (laughs) Then the reviews came out, and… you know the rest.

‘Chinatown’ was nominated for 11 Oscars and you were the sole winner of the group. Not bad for your first produced original screenplay.

No, that was nice. That was very nice.

So what was it like for you when, finally, you made the transition from being struggling writer to being one of the top dogs in town?

It happened so fast, almost overnight. One minute I was broke, and then these three movies got produced back-to-back, almost simultaneously. Then within a year, all three were released.

Did it take some time to process that new position?

No, not really. My main feeling was a tremendous sense of relief. There I was 37, 38 years-old and feeling like a failure with nothing produced, other than having a position as sort of a subterranean character who’d done some uncredited work on Bonnie & Clyde and The Godfather. I’d done a re-write of The New Centurions, but took my name off it. It was just a sense of relief that I’d finally had a body of work produced that I was proud of before I was 40. I remember talking to my dad, who was always very worried about me, and saying ‘Dad, I finally have a place in this business,’ and it happened before I was 40, and it didn’t look like there was a snowball’s chance in hell that was going to happen a year earlier. Above all, I was relieved for my dad, that he knew his son was going to be okay.

Your dad was in the apparel business, right?

Yeah, he owned a store that sold ladies’ apparel, and then went into the real estate business, and my familiarity with the real estate business as a result of his profession, actually found its way into Chinatown.

Let’s talk about some of the real-life counterparts to the characters in the film. I know that Hollis Mulwray is based, loosely, on William Mulholland.

Yeah, very loosely. With Noah Cross, I’m not sure who he was based on. I was probably thinking of the Chandler family and Harrison Gray Otis, people like that. He’s one of those guys that was a member of the Tuna Club and the California Club. The old saying was that the Tuna Club ran L.A., and that’s what the Albacore Club was based on, in the movie. They ran the city, like an oligarchy.

You once described the Mulwrays as ‘California Yankees.’

Yes, it’s a very particular subculture that exists here. A kind of casual elitism, I guess you’d say. It doesn’t have the intellectual bent that you’d find in a place like the Harvard Club in New York, or similar places.

How do you feel Chinatown holds up 35 years later?

Well, I like it a lot more now than I did 35 years ago (laughs), that’s for sure. I think it’s a good film.

Could ‘Chinatown’ be made today?

No. It would cost too much money, and no major studio would want to deal with a story of that complexity.

At least one of the advantages you had was that your producer, Robert Evans, was the studio’s head of production, and he stayed out of the way.

Yeah, it would have been tough even then without Evans, that’s true, maybe even impossible. I think (then-President of Paramount Pictures) Frank Yablans always thought it was a fucked-up project. I think they were all very pleasantly surprised at the success of it, though.

This was originally planned as part of a trilogy, with ‘The Two Jakes’ being the second part, and ‘Cloverleaf’ being the third.

No, I don’t know where the title Cloverleaf came from. It was actually supposed to be Gittes vs. Gittes, took place in 1968, and was about the era when no-fault divorce became legal in California.

Is there any chance this will ever see the light of day?

No, I would have to say no chance. I mean, anything is possible, but I doubt it.

Another thing struck me: your social circle made this film, made ‘The Last Detail’, made ‘Shampoo’, and that’s something you don’t see much anymore.

I don’t know. What about Judd Apatow and his group?

I don’t know them, so I can’t speak with any real authority, but I get the sense that all those younger guys he works with have more a student-teacher relationship with him. You, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Polanski, Hal Ashby, you were all contemporaries, all equals, all collaborators, and after you were done shooting for the day, you’d have dinner together. Has Hollywood changed that much socially since then?

Well, I can’t really answer that. We were all friends, and collaborators, that’s true. The guys hung out more than the girls did. Our wives and girlfriends really weren’t part of the equation at that time.

Brian De Palma made an interesting comment once about his group that hung out in the Malibu Colony during the ‘70s: him, Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Margot Kidder, that once the era of the blockbuster started after the mid-70s, and people began making astronomical amounts of money, as opposed to just making a comfortable living, that’s when the fractures started, in terms of their relationships with each other.

That’s quite possibly true. I think the promise of making money split a lot of us up.

Who’ve you remained friendly with over the years?

You mean those of us who are still alive? (laughs) Well, I don’t see him much, but I’m friendly with Jack, very friendly with Warren (Beatty).

Do you talk to Polanski at all? 

Oh yeah, we’re still very friendly. I forgot to mention him. I’ve managed to see him once a year or every couple years when I go to Europe.

Any comment on his current situation?

No, I’m sure you know how I feel about it. I love Roman. I have an enormous respect and affection for him. I’ll tell you my favorite story about Roman: when we started working on the re-write of Chinatown, Roman presented me with a book, a gift, called How to Write a Screenplay. He inscribed it ‘To my dear partner, with fond hope.’ (laughs)

– Alex Simon: Forget it Bob, it’s Chinatown. Robert Towne looks back on Chinatown’s 35th anniversary. For the original article please check out Alex Simon and Terry Keefe’s great collection of interviews at


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