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Both riffing on film noir and exploding it, Chinatown is often cited for having one of the greatest scripts ever written. Born and raised in Los Angeles, screenwriter Robert Towne approached the city with a native’s knowledge of its hidden places. Where Raymond Chandler evoked the city’s atmosphere, Towne explores its dark, sordid history. As a working-stiff P.I., Jack Nicholson hollows out the grandeur of old Hollywood, spending a large part of the movie recovering from a slit nostril inflicted by a rat-faced thug played by Chinatown director Roman Polanski—himself no stranger to the city’s dark side. Rather than a priceless statue or a fugitive murderer, Jake ends up chasing the city’s water supply, uncovering the brutal machinations that allowed a major city to flourish in the midst of a desert. John Huston, who directed several classic noirs, plays a wealthy industrialist whose corruption goes even deeper than his slithering frame suggests, but Towne’s approach is more melancholy than moralistic. This, the movie suggests, is the history we share, and no amount of self-deception can erase it. With the film now out on DVD in a new special collectors’ edition, Towne spoke to The A.V. Club about his discovery of Los Angeles’ hidden past, the trouble with Raymond Chandler, and his original plans to make Chinatown the first part of a film trilogy.
The A.V. Club: The extent to which screenwriters are involved in Hollywood productions varies wildly, so it’s difficult to know how much credit or blame the writer deserves for any given film. To what extent does Chinatown still feel like the movie you wrote?
Robert Towne: Well, look, I was intimately involved in the process from the time that the equivalent of the light bulb went off in my head through production and even post-production. I had a very close relationship with Roman, and it was written for Jack. I very much identify with the movie. It was about the city I grew up in. And in some ways it was an attempt to recreate that city. It’s very personal to me.
AVC: By 1975, you’d had The Last Detail produced from your script, but before that, you spent many years doing uncredited rewrites. Did any of that frustration find its way into your protagonist’s frustrations with the system in Chinatown?
RT: Oh, I don’t think so. A lot of what was behind that movie was the realization of the amount of destruction and corruption that went on to create the city as it was—my being introduced to that. Becoming aware of it, and then having my own experiences with City Hall. I just thought so much was laid waste to for the sake of greed, really. I think that that’s behind it. Also a sense of loss, and I don’t know what you would call it—the elegance. A kind of odd beauty in a place that was neither city nor country, somewhere in between, that had elements of both that was being lost.
AVC: The movie is a period piece, but some of the elements, in particular where you’re dealing with the private ownership of a public utility, are almost prescient, give how many of our formerly public institutions have been turned over to for-profit corporations.
RT: Well, I remember that. At the time, the DWP was very put out about the movie. The Department of Water and Power. I guess it was, but I found it an extraordinary notion that private individuals had owned such a public commodity as the city’s water.
AVC: The movie is very much in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and movies like The Big Sleep. But it also undermines it. Philip Marlowe gets beat up on a regular basis, but he doesn’t have a big hunk of gauze strapped to his face for half the movie. Is it easier for you to have a genre to push against when you’re writing, or is it more restrictive?
RT: Well, exactly. You hit upon something I think really is central to the working of something like that. As much as I loved reading Raymond Chandler, and in particular his love of the city, or his appreciation of those elements of the city that he found memorable—he’d write about the tomcat smell of eucalyptus and things that were part of my consciousness growing up, my sensibility growing up. But, having said that, his hero, Philip Marlowe, would never do divorce work. He considered it beneath the dignity of a tarnished knight. His mode of dress was careless at best. And the kind of crimes that he dealt with were usually one way or another like The Maltese Falcon—there was nothing about public corruption, or almost nothing I can recall. I knew that detectives in the ’30s and ’40s that were successful did nothing but divorce work until they got to be successful. And they were flashy. They were clotheshorses. And also when people get hurt, they don’t recover right away. So it was just an attempt to bring a level of reality to life at that time that the conventions of cinema had sort of obliterated.
AVC: The way Nicholson plays the scene where the fake Mrs. Mulwray comes in at the beginning, and he’s saying, “Do you love your husband? If so, get out of here,” you can’t tell whether he’s being sincere or he just doesn’t want trouble down the road, and wants to make sure she’s really committed before he starts on the case.
RT: Yeah. One suspects that that is a standard treatment for someone in that position. The last thing he wants is difficulty. It’s a way of testing, as he said, I think he says in the scene, “This can be rather hard on your pocketbook.” He’s testing, I guess, the depth of that pocketbook.
AVC: In the movie, things don’t have to be morally one way or another. They’re often both at once.
RT: He definitely has a hidden idealistic streak in him, which is why he got in trouble in Chinatown in the first place.
AVC: John Huston’s performance is probably the best of his career. Just his posture is unnerving. He seems at times as if he doesn’t have a spine.
RT: I think without John Huston, that movie would collapse, because… Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but the sense of evil against which the detective is pushing, which is so much more overwhelming than he has any idea, could not have been better suggested by anyone than it was by John. There’s just something about him that is both grandfatherly and malevolent.
AVC: Were you in on the discussions to cast him?
RT: Yes. Yes, I was.
AVC: Was he someone you knew before then?
RT: No, John and I did not know each other.
AVC: There doesn’t seem to be anything in his work as an actor that foreshadows it.
RT: Well, you wanted someone with the real power that he had.
AVC: At one point, you intended Chinatown as the first act of a trilogy, and your third act was going to focus on 1953, when no-fault divorce became law in California. Why did you focus on that as the subject for the third film?
RT: Well, that was only part of it. There was, I think, some public corruption that was being dealt with as well. But the irony of a man whose entire professional existence was based upon divorce where blame could be assigned to one party would be virtually the last person on whom that law could be used, before it was obliterated from the books and really making him lose his profession as he knew it.
AVC: So the idea is of him being put out to pasture, or made obsolete by that change?
RT: Well, yeah, or having to deal with that.
AVC: Have you ever seen the SCTV homage to Chinatown? Polynesiantown?
RT: No, I haven’t. I’d love to see it. That sounds like fun.
AVC: They apparently blew all their budget recreating the crane shot at the end.
RT: [Laughs.] That’s really funny.
AVC: You mentioned being inspired by what real detectives were like at the time. To what extent does research come into your writing? Is there a point where you have to consciously depart from it in order to follow the story you’re creating?
RT: Well, that’s true, there was. But to have the information as to the way they worked really enforced whatever plot point I wanted. If you wanted to follow somebody, you knocked out a taillight. If you wanted to surveil them, you put cheap watches under the wheels of their cars so when they’d break, you’d know what time they left. Those sorts of things were nothing but helpful.
AVC: Those were all factual things you just got from accounts of the time or interviewing people?
RT: An old detective, yeah. You realize that even in a non-Internet world, people still had ways of dealing with things.