Robert Towne has become synonymous with smart, ambitious, adult screenwriting. Like many of his peers, he started his career working for B-movie icon Roger Corman, for whom he wrote and starred in 1960's The Last Woman On Earth, acted in 1961's Creature From The Haunted Sea, and wrote 1965's Tomb Of Ligeia. Then, in 1967, Towne's uncredited rewrite of Bonnie And Clyde jump-started his career and cemented his fruitful partnership with Warren Beatty, who shared an Oscar nomination with Towne for the screenplay to 1975's Shampoo. Beatty's pal Jack Nicholson starred in two of Towne's signature '70s films: 1973's The Last Detail (directed by Hal Ashby) and Chinatown (directed by Roman Polanski), which won Towne an Academy Award for best original screenplay.
In 1982, Towne embarked on a directing career with Personal Best; since then, he's alternated between relatively impersonal scriptwriter-for-hire work on blockbusters like The Firm, Days Of Thunder, and Mission: Impossible, and directing intensely personal, relatively low-budget projects like 1998's Without Limits and the new Ask The Dust, a literate, accomplished adaptation of John Fante's autobiographical novel about the relationship a hungry young Italian-American writer and a Mexican waitress share in 1930s Los Angeles. The A.V Club recently sat down with Towne for a discussion of Los Angeles, the primal charisma of Colin Farrell, and working with Roger Corman and Vincent Price.
The A.V. Club: Do you have any amusing Corman anecdotes to share?
Robert Towne: Well, when we were doing The Tomb Of Ligeia—which is actually a favorite of Martin Scorsese, who was also a Roger Corman alumnus—I said "Roger, please, do me a favor. This is a bit different from the other Poe films. So we need a new leading man. I mean, I love Vincent [Price], but this is a dark, brooding, tormented soul who's tortured and diabolical, but also very attractive to women. I think I even mentioned Maximilian Schell for the role. Roger said okay. Then he came back and said, "Bob, listen: we got Vincent Price for the part, but it's okay, because we've got Marlene Dietrich's make-up man." I don't know what the fuck he meant by that!
AVC: You also appeared in some of Corman's movies. What do you remember about appearing in Creature From The Haunted Sea?
RT: I remember very little about it, only that it was a lot of time spent on a boat, and I was hot, sweaty, and completely embarrassed, and I'm embarrassed that you even brought it up.
AVC: Most writers say that even the most respected screenwriters have very little power in Hollywood. Have you found that to be true?
RT: Well, relative to the power that movie stars have, and producers and directors, I would say that's true.
AVC: Why do you think that is?
RT: Everybody recognizes "in the beginning is the word," and all that fucking lip service, but I don't think it's in the nature of the writer's profession to go after that power. Writers spend their time alone, hallucinating, writing, making these things up, while these other people are out schmoozing, making connections, meeting each other. They are trotting the corridors of power and making sure they've put their own imprints in it. And they're promoting themselves and their images, as they should. But writers, by temperament, by talent and by time, don't have the opportunity or the inclination. And even if they had the inclination, which some of them do, they don't have the opportunity, because they're too busy writing alone. They're not social creatures.
AVC: Have you always wanted to direct?
RT: No. I first started to feel that I had to direct when I wrote Greystoke, which is not the script that got shot, although my dog [P.H. Vazak] is credited with it. [Towne's dog scored a best adapted screenplay Oscar nomination. —ed.] I suddenly realized that I'd written a bunch of descriptions without much dialogue to go along with it. I'd reached the age where I realized that I couldn't necessarily just turn that over to a director and say "Don't fuck it up." It's just a bunch of descriptions, and then it became embarrassingly apparent to me that those were what I saw when I wrote them down. There was nobody else who could see them, so I needed to direct.
AVC: So it was kind of a compulsion to protect your work?
RT: You can say protect it, but also to just communicate it. Because the one thing you know when you're shooting a script—and I've been on a lot of sets—is space is in a script, and the distance between the page and the stage is so enormous that it is unbelievable how even the brightest people can misread your intent or not see it altogether. Scripts have air in them. Scripts are supposed to leave things up to interpretation, but people can misread things enormously, so sometimes it's just a matter of wanting to put on the screen what you had in mind.
AVC: Does the reverse ever happen? Does the director ever bring more to a script than you thought was there?
RT: Absolutely. It can happen. They can change the vision, they can change a number of things. But it's not frequent. I remember Hal Ashby in The Last Detail. We were talking about casting, and he said, "I know you wrote [Larry] Meadows [the character Randy Quaid went on to play] to be a tiny little guy, but I've got this kid who's great and who is 6'4". I said, "Say no more," and it really embarrassed me, because I thought, "What a brilliant idea." Here's this helpless little guy, and he's going to jail. There's a real poignancy to this huge guy's helplessness that's great. I thought it was a fantastic choice, and I'd never thought of it.
AVC: Can you discuss your relationship with John Fante and his work?
RT: Well, it goes back 35 years. It started when I was young and unknown. I hadn't written anything, and nobody had ever heard of me. I think I'd maybe done some rewrite work on Bonnie And Clyde. It started because I had written The Last Detail, and Jack [Nicholson] and I could not get it made because of the language. People would say that the characters were using language like sailors. 'Cause, you know, they were sailors. That was the whole point, wasn't it? I remember talking to an executive who told me "Bob, wouldn't 20 'motherfucker's be more dramatic than 40 'motherfucker's? And I said, "No, they wouldn't." The whole point of the swearing in The Last Detail is that it's not an expression by characters who are about to act. It's an expression of powerlessness. It's not Clark Gable cracking wise. These are lifers, and what they do is paradigmatic of all us lifers.
These are people who are struggling to hold onto their jobs, people who do their jobs no matter how distasteful they find them, even if it's the injustice of sending a kid to jail for eight years for stealing 40 bucks, a miscarriage of justice that makes what happened to Jean Valjean look almost reasonable by comparison. And they'll swear about it and swear about it, but then they'll go ahead and do it. In time we'd get to make the movie, but in the meantime, I saw an article in the Los Angeles Times called "Raymond Chandler's L.A." The thing that was really interesting about it was that it was accompanied by these photographs that were taken in the 1970s, but they looked like they could have been taken decades earlier, in the Depression-era '30s and '40s, when Fante's Ask The Dust was written. They were of a side of Los Angeles that was rapidly disappearing. I was fascinated by this milieu, and for a variety of reasons, I wanted to use it to tell a detective story. [Which eventually became Chinatown. —ed.] So I was looking for a book or anything that might have been written at the time, or was redolent of that era.
And in my research for it, I stumbled across Ask The Dust. And I was amazed, affected deeply by it. It jogged my memory about my own experiences. I know the streets. I know what the fishermen are like. I worked as a commercial fisherman. I knew the little brown brothers who emigrated from Mexico. I knew there were memories that had all been lost, and now the book itself was making me remember these things I didn't even know I knew. And add to that a young writer in Los Angeles coming here to make his fame and fortune, and he's obsessed and narcissistic, self-absorbed, manic-depressive, insecure, like all of us who write, sitting in a room alone, feeling like the world was going by him and along with it all of its experiences. He's thinking that what he's doing is kind of crazy. So I related to it right there and then. There's his obsession with this Mexican waitress. There were all of these things that just made the book seem so much more personal to me than I had any idea it could. So I determined, before I even wrote to Jack [Nicholson], "I'm gonna try and go meet this guy [John Fante] and see if he's alive and still writing." I think my agent or somebody ran into him, and he was living with his family in kind of a curmudgeonly retirement.
He was a very angry little man who felt that he had been roundly ignored by life. He was pissed-off and not very happy to see me. When I told him I wanted to make a movie out of his book, he said to me, "What the hell have you written? Can you even write a screenplay? What are your credits? I've written screenplays. Worst fucking job in the world." And that was what his attitude was: "How would you know how good my book is?" It made me laugh, because he was just like Bandini. [Fante's alter ego in Ask The Dust and several other novels. —ed.] His wife was a lovely woman, slender, tall, blue-eyed, blond and beautiful, and he had his teenage kids there. When I told him I liked the book, she told him, "John, he's just saying he liked your book. Why don't you try to be a little nicer to him?" You know how in the movie, I have Camilla [Salma Hayek's character] say, "Arturo, why can't you just try to be nicer to people?" I had his wife in mind, and I had John in mind, when I wrote that.
So we met again, and he was really on his best behavior. He was in his 60s, and I'd started to get a reputation, that might have been part of it. And we started talking about the book, and I asked him about what happened with it. The book had been pretty much buried. His publisher had published Mein Kampf without permission, and Hitler sued them, and they went bankrupt and stopped distributing his book, and it nearly ruined his life. So Hitler had ruined John's life along with everybody else's. He was really bitter about it. It was just really fucked. We struck up a friendship, and he gave me the rights to the book for nothing because I had nothing, and he even gave me a first edition and signed it to me. So I went back and I wrote Chinatown. I'd already written The Last Detail and was working on drafts of Shampoo. So at this time I was going a little crazy too, because I had these three scripts. And then somehow they all came together and then came out all at once, and I had a reputation. And that wasn't lost on John: He knew that this kid actually had written stuff.
We remained friends over the years and talked about it. He was encouraged to begin writing again. He was working on a new book and he would call me to talk about it, and that was the first time in my life that I was able to treat a grown man in his 70s like a little kid. He'd say, "Jesus Christ, Bob, I'm writing about my father's death, and I just can't get through this chapter." I said, "John. Just go ahead and write the fucking thing. Your father's already dead. You're not going to kill him by writing about it." And he did. And then Francis Ford Coppola and I were able to get the book published by swearing that we'd make a movie out of it after it came out. And time went by, and I got caught up in the '70s, and he got very sick with diabetes and had to go to the Motion Picture Home. And then suddenly he died, and his wife called me, and I felt so incredibly guilty that I hadn't gotten the film made. But I still love the book and kept in touch with it.
I ran into some problems of my own in the '80s. By 1993, I was in a position where I could afford to set aside some time and write the script. But there were some problems with the rights. Somebody else had them by that point. I wrote the script really quickly, and his widow was very happy with it, but then there was the problem of getting it financed, which ended up taking 10 years.
AVC: What was the biggest holdup in terms of getting it funded?
RT: Getting money. The studios didn't want to make the movie. It was set in the Depression. It's about two characters who are mean to each other. They thought they were unsympathetic characters, and that it was racist, no matter how many times I explained to them that it was the opposite of racist. They didn't want to hear it. They said, "Look at what names they call each other." Johnny Depp wanted to star back in 1992, but he wasn't a big enough movie star at the time to get it made. So another 10 years went by, it's 2002, and while studios didn't want to make it, talent was very responsive.
So I had this agent call me up and say, "I've got this kid. Nobody knows who he is, but he's damned good and he's right for the picture. Colin Farrell." So we had a party, and this kid shows up at the door wearing a cowboy hat and walks in and says "Ya got a fucking beer?" and I say, "Yeah, come in," and the minute he walked in, the atmosphere became charged. Nobody knew who he was, but there was something magnetic about him. A friend of my wife's said to me, "I don't know who he is, but whatever he wants, give it to him!" He just had that effect. He was supposed to stay for just a half hour, but he ended up staying all day and all night. We drank, we talked, he hung out with me and my family. It was one of those things where a member of the family that you didn't know you had came to the house. I said, "Look I'm not gonna ask you to read for this. Do you want to do it?" He looked Italian. He reminded me of early shots of John [Fante], who was very handsome when he was younger. He said "Yeah." And I said, "Okay, that's it. If I get this fucker made, you'll do it." And I still couldn't get money for it.
But then this Irish kid named Colin Farrell became a movie star. Suddenly, we began to get the financing for it, but the budget was constrained. We all had to do it pretty much for nothing. Then there was the business of Camilla. When I showed the script to Salma, she read it and said, "What are you trying to do to me?" I said, "What are you telling me?" She said, "It's so hard for me. I came here from Mexican soap operas, and I'm trying to get a job in gringo-land, and now all I need is to get typecast as a Mexican waitress."
It's hard, you know? There was a story about her trying to get a role in a science-fiction film and getting turned down and told that they didn't have Mexicans in outer space. She was having the same problems that Camilla had, in a different way but no less bad. I understood it. But the years went by, and by the time Colin became a movie star, Salma had done Frida and had gotten recognition and acknowledgment. I asked her to look at it again and she read it, and she really embraced it this time.
AVC: Ask The Dust deals a lot with race, and so does Crash, the big buzzed-about movie of the moment. How much do you think racial attitudes have evolved or not evolved since the period Fante was writing about?
RT: The difference is that—with some exceptions, like the Matt Dillon character in Crash, who was really at the outer limits—it's less out in the open today. I remember when the cop in the O.J. Simpson trial said racist, derogatory things even off the record, he lost his job, he lost everything. It has evolved to the extent that it is so politically incorrect that people are scandalized by it. But I think the same attitudes are just underneath the surface. Then, it was right out in the open, and there was something bracing about that, and even funny, like a Lenny Bruce routine. You see these two people wildly attracted to each other, and both of them are angry in that way that you can be angry about being attracted to someone, and you don't know if they'll be attracted to you, but you're dependent upon them. You see these people whose feelings are enslaving them in that they can't control their attraction to the last fucking person in the world they want to be attracted to. It's like Camilla says to Bandini late in the movie, "The truth of the matter is, you're too ashamed of being an Italian to want to marry a Mexican." She brings that up. You know, it's like, "Why can't you have a last name like White?" They both wanted to trade up for blondes and live the WASP life. It's a love story as well, because people have to overcome their respective prejudices.
AVC: It seems like the American dream is still to be a blue-eyed blonde, in spite of how multicultural the country has become.
RT: But it was more of an uncomplicated reaction [in the past]. The dream was more "If you can be similar in that way, you can be American and have equal opportunities." Whereas today it's, how can I put it? It's kind of Balkanized: Black pride. Gay pride. White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant pride. All of these things, you know, they're more polarized, aren't they? The red and blue states. Christians, that's the most insidious aspect of it, giving into this great Christian image of America. That's the most frightening thing of all. Whereas [in the past] they're trying to find things that unite us, to minimize the differences. Whereas today there's this belief in empowerment and entitlement by maximizing differences. I'm not so sure that that's healthy. I don't mean that it's not healthy to want to hang onto your culture. But I think it's unhealthy to set it up against somebody else's and say "ours is better." Then there's the Christian Right saying that this is a Christian country when it's not. When I was a kid, when we pledged allegiance to the flag, there was no "under God." Tom Paine, Ben Franklin, they were Deists. This was not started as a Christian country.
AVC: In the press notes, you talk about how in Ask The Dust, Los Angeles is still an adolescent city. Do you think L.A has grown up yet?
RT: I think it certainly grew out and grew up, but I don't think it matured. It lost the appeal and the hunger and the beauty of its adolescence and went straight to a middle-aged ugly, overfed monster seeking mindless pleasure and being obsessively acquisitive. It's so materialistic. It grew up, but it didn't mature.
AVC: What are some of your favorite books and movies about L.A.?
RT: I came to it, as I said, rather late, with that article on Raymond Chandler: his descriptions of the city had some of the same effect on me that John did with Ask The Dust. There were Billy Wilder's seminal noir films—Double Indemnity and others—and James M. Cain. I like, to a lesser degree Nathanael West's Day Of The Locust. I find The Last Tycoon interesting, but not as interesting as a lot of other people do. Offhand, that's pretty much it.
AVC: What's the most surprising thing you learned about Los Angeles when you were preparing for Chinatown?
RT: Well, how much I knew. 'Cause I was going out with a production designer, brilliant, Richard Sylbert, and he said, "What do you have in mind for here?" Every location that I pointed to, they said, "Okay, we'll go with that." And I thought, "These fucking guys are really lazy." I didn't realize that I just knew the city much better than even I thought I did. And that was kind of a revelation to me.
AVC: Do you think part of that comes from being from California?
RT: Well, sure. Part of it came from when I was writing it, I used to drive around the city at night trying to find pieces of its past that would be similar to things that I remembered even if the things that I remembered were gone.
AVC: How has the business changed since you began?
RT: It's very schizophrenic. There are the big tent-pole movies and the struggling independents. All these movies that we've spoken about, like Chinatown and Last Detail, would probably be independent movies today, and would not be financed in the normal course of things. And that's unhealthy. The amount of ancillary effort unrelated to what goes up onscreen by filmmakers, all of us, having to beg, borrow, and steal to finance, to go out there with hat in hand, the struggle we have to do in preparation just for the movies to happen, is a drain. It's like I was saying to George Clooney at a film festival recently, it's a drain on you, it's time-consuming, it's energy-consuming. You get to the point where you're so fucking tired you feel like you've already done the movie, just trying to get enough money to make it. In the old days, the amount of time it took to make Ask The Dust, I could have made three movies and not been so tired and thought, "God, I never want to do this again."