Best known for his Oscar-winning Chinatown screenplay, Robert Towne has contributed to the writing of over thirty films, including Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Frantic, Days of Thunder, The Firm, Love Affair, Mission: Impossible, and Mission: Impossible II. To date, Towne has also directed four noteworthy films from his own scripts: Personal Best, Tequila Sunrise, Without Limits, and the new Ask the Dust, starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek. On his San Francisco stop, Towne told me about his inspiration in adapting John Fante's classic L.A. novel.
Groucho: In Ask the Dust, you delve into the hazing of the writer, much of it self-torture. Can you relate to that as a writer yourself?
Robert Towne: Uh-huh. Can't you?
G: Yeah. (Laughs.)
RT: I mean, you know, one of the great appeals of the book for me is his confessions as he writes about his insecurities, about his uncertainty about women, about life, about experience, about being sacrilegious, about everything. About his health. Self-absorbed, narcissistic, manic depressive, mean-spirited because he's jealous and angry that nobody knows who he is. And utterly insecure at times. How can I not identify with that? (Laughs.)
G: It's a pretty merciless self-portrait, isn't it, of the author of the novel, John Fante?
RT: But also a loving one, really.
RT: I mean, in the end the guy really comes around to a great understanding of life and what's happened. Maybe I would say "unblinking," but not "merciless." I wouldn't characterize it that way; I would characterize it as "unblinking," but "loving." And it did certainly no worse by him than John did by himself. (Laughs.)
G: Right, right, right. Certainly we take a rooting interest in him because he's got such a strong striving. Did you look at the character as one with a life of its own, or were you focusing on really projecting Fante himself?
RT: Well, it was a combination of both. To know John, which I did, is to know that Bandini and John basically are the same person. Now whether all the events in Ask the Dust the book or in Ask the Dust the movie occurred in John's life, that was John. And I knew him, and I can tell you, that was John. He was—my own experience with him was like that. And his wife, who certainly knew him the best, was the first to acknowledge that the portrayal of Bandini in the book was something that her husband—who was by then dead—would not only have approved of, but she saw John on every page.
G: Mm. I'm curious to get into a little bit the development process of the film. I know it's one you intended to make much earlier and finally, in recent years, were able to realize it at long last. Did you always intend to make it just from having read the book—is that how you first sparked to it?
RT: Absolutely. I was doing research for Chinatown. I was looking for something that had been written about the same time that Chinatown took place to pick up on, you know, the daily life of the city. Descriptions of a place that was long gone, even then, except for little bits and pockets of it. And the way people really talked to one another. And I came across this book, and it had a tremendous effect on me because it not only fulfilled all of those desires—wishes that I had in looking for something—but it jogged my memory. Things that were just on the edge of my consciousness; [the novel] brought them back for me, and I remembered—. It reminded me of so many things about Los Angeles that I actually had witnessed and seen and felt and been around and had long forgotten. So it really was like some wayward child of mine that—like all children do, if you're a parent—they remind you of your past and they jog your memory. So it was tremendously meaningful to me, that and the character of Bandini. And the attraction toward Camilla. I grew up in San Pedro, and I must confess, I was fascinated and drawn to Mexican women. I thought they were gorgeous, exotic, and dizzingly desirable.
G: And you've lived in Los Angeles, in that area, your whole life, right?
RT: Well, on and off. When I haven't been traveling, when I haven't lived in Europe and been on locations, I've lived in Los Angeles.
G: As you alluded to with Chinatown, you've plumbed quite a bit of the city's history. What makes Los Angeles a great city, if it is, or do you just show it the same devotion you'd show a family member, warts and all?
RT: I think it's much closer to being a family member than a great city. You know, I can't honestly say that I ever thought, at its best, Los Angeles was a great city. I'm not even sure it is a city.
RT: But it is a climate. It is a state of being, if you will. It is a place of illusion. And so it's in a way fitting that there's no real city there. It's a place where people go to to fulfill dreams, and those are the illusions that people have. It's a land of strangers where everybody comes from somewhere else, historically has, to strike it rich in one way or another, with gold or oil and movies. And very often are disappointed. But, you know, it's a land of sunny desperation.
G: One of the pivotal themes of the book and the film is also this racism against the immigrant strangers to L.A. And it's partly an internalized issue for the characters and also something that they use against each other—
G: Finding the sore spot, right?
RT: Yes. It's internalized because it's been imposed by the culture on them. And so they're ashamed of their own origins, and even as they're attracted to one another: "You're not going to help me improve my station in life." I mean, as she says, "I don't want to go from Camilla Lopez to Camilla Bandini. It's not much of an improvement." You know, I mean, it's that.
G: I want to talk a little bit about H.L. Mencken's role in the film. He makes a really interesting remote mentor, and I know that's based on Fante's life. What does he represent to you as a character?
RT: As a character? I think he represents sanity. And hope. That somebody who is real—even though he's not there; you know, he's just a portrait on a wall—and who is an icon, who is a touchstone, that [Bandini] can respect and that he can believe when that icon says, "Good job, Mr. Bandini." It's almost his reason for living. You know?
G: Who was that for you, when you were on your way up?
RT: A crazy German doctor. That I knew. That would reassure me from time to time that I had something.
G: Hm. Donald Sutherland plays another kind of mentor in the film, much more dissolute than his character in Without Limits, Bill Bowerman, but both wise men, right?
RT: Yes, I think that's true.
G: Or maybe a holy fool.
RT: Yes, he is somebody who is wise. A wreck, but a man not without wisdom. That's true.
G: But also represents the fear of dashed dreams, right?
RT: That's exactly what he does. And in the end, he says, "Keep going," you know. "Or you'll end up dying in L.A. like the rest of us."
G: Right. This film, I think, also proves your assertion that political incorrectness has become more shocking than profanity.
RT: Well, duh, it is! I mean, it's just amazing. It's one of the reasons why we couldn't get it made, almost. "Oh my god," I thought. "Wait a minute." You can get major actors to practically fuck on screen. You can spill guts and blow brains out. And use every form of language possible. But you use one politically incorrect word, and everybody goes to pieces. What is that shit? And it's also true that I think that it's kind of a tonic for us today. That racism then was so blatant and so—that it was practically funny. It was practically like a Lenny Bruce routine. I mean, it was so ridiculous—no less painful—and people didn't react in some passive way. They fought back, and it was dramatic. And you know, today, I think many if not most of the same prejudices exist; it's just that they're buried under, I think, a patina of political correctness, which makes it potentially sicker for the society than just having it out in the open.
G: Maybe it's a function of the rise of the focus-group mentality—
RT: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
G: 'Cause it is very bracing in the film. Those are very lively conversations—
RT: (Laughs.) Yes.
G: That you're not seeing in all films. How did you find yourself in the position of go-to script doctor, earlier in your career?
RT: Like all these things, it was an accident. I ran into—I'd written a script Warren Beatty had read, and he liked the writing in it. Didn't want to do the movie because of the director. But struck up a friendship with me and started showing me screenplays, among which [was] Bonnie and Clyde, to which I responded very strongly. And I loved it. And nobody else liked it. It was a little bit like Dust today. I mean it was too callow kids who would shoot people and not feel bad about it. Nobody's going to like these characters, and I think, "No, no, this is really something new." Structurally, it had certain problems. But it was terrific. And he asked me—I mean, I sat with him while fifty directors turned it down, while Tuesday Weld turned it down, while Natalie Wood turned it down, while Jane Fonda turned it down. And so it was stuck, and I use that word advisedly. But an unknown actress, Faye Dunaway—and as so often happens, he just happened to get stuck with the perfect person to play the part. And the same with the directors. He got—it was thrown back on Arthur Penn, with whom he had done Mickey One and had not been a commercial success, and he was worried about it. But Arthur's such a bright man. And [Warren] asked me to read the script, and Arthur asked me to read the script, and asked me what I thought of it 'cause Warren had been after him. And I outlined what I felt—I didn't even know I understood it—what I felt some of the structural problems were. And he said, "I think," he said, "I think you're right." And I said, "Okay, good." And he said, "I'd like you to rewrite it." And I thought to myself—well, first of all, I mean, I'd be cheating Benton and Newman, and they felt for a variety of reasons they didn't want to. And I was so surprised, so I began work on it and began reworking under Arthur's direction and, for that matter, under Warren's, and stayed with the film very much from that point on to the end.
G: Was the writer's access to production more of a given then than it is today?
RT: No, it was unusual then, but that was the way we were working it. But you hit upon a telling point. That made me understand what was important in rewriting a script, and the importance of having access to a production. And I did pretty much ever after that.
G: You have a gift for tailoring to actors.
RT: Yes, but I had worked in an acting class for seven years, so I had that particular facility developed by that time. And I think that that turned out well. People heard about it. And so I was called upon repeatedly.
G: Did you ever feel that having such great success as a script doctor was hindering your ability to promote your own material?
RT: No, it didn't work out that way. I knew that was entirely dependent on my finishing a script that was any good and that was mine. And that eventually happened.
G: In recent years, there's been an enduring nostalgia for films of the '70s, when art and commerce seemed not to be mutually exclusive, maybe. Maybe that's rose-colored glasses, looking back—
RT: I don't think so.
G: To exceptional films. What do you think about the difference between then and now: can Hollywood ever turn back the clock?
RT: I don't know, Peter. I mean, it's—you know, there was a confluence of events, as I look back on it. I mean, history is so often the result of perspective. Films were struggling with the fact that television had made such serious in-roads. And they tried VistaVision and they tried spectacle and they tried this and they tried CinemaScope. And none of it really seemed to stem the tide. And then they decided: "Well, if all else fails, we will give up our morals." And loosen the Breen Code, which had been so stringent. You gotta have something different to get people into the theatres. And that was exhilarating to have that sense of freedom, to be able to bring things to film that had never been done before. And I'm not just talking about shooting somebody in the same frame. Before you couldn't—shoot them in the same frame. People going to sleep in the same bed. Language. But it was so much more pervasive than that. It was dealing with issues. And about that time Vietnam, the Beatles, Elvis had started to pave the way. A whole new counter-culture was springing up. And a whole new generation, some of whom were bound to be affected by—many of whom—by this burgeoning war in Vietnam. That what they needed, and wanted, and were longing for was to hear something, some voices other than what the established order was saying, which they felt quite rightly was hypocritical. And a generation of filmmakers and the audience had a common cause, common ground. And they spoke to each other. Audiences were excited about seeing things that had never been put on film before. And issues that were contemporary, whether they were put in the past, or there was All the President's Men or Chinatown or Godfather: they were dealing with the disparity between what we believed the way things were in the country and the way the government said they were, which is by no means the same thing. And while there are certain parallels today: we have a President, and we have Iraq, and we have an imperial-casted mind in the government with—I want to say Talleyrand in Cheney; I mean, just a horror behind the scenes, and a man who is literally dividing the country and polarizing it in so many ways. The audience is also polarized and split and splintered. There's no common counter-culture; there is a Christian right, who will support The Passion or Chronicles of Narnia over King Kong. There are young filmmakers who are doing autobiographical films. But there's no kind of common issues that have coalesced so far. It may happen! It may happen, because things, I think, are in such a state of flux that if you go that way, I can't—
G: It's partly—I think you also raise the point that it's not only the artist's responsibility but partly it's the timidity of the audience that creates that environment.
G: The studios won't take the gamble if they don't see the money in it.
RT: Well, then, too—look: inflationary costs aside, two things have made studios so much more timid—and largely of their own doing. And they largely stem from one thing. And that is: when films were released in those days, they were released in four or five theatres across the whole country. And then they were allowed to play. And print was the means of conveying to the country what these films were about. And word-of-mouth was allowed to spread very gradually. You know, it wasn't uncommon for a movie to play for three or four months in a theatre before it went broader in a so-called "mini-multiple" and "platforming." And so expense there was minimal. Well, when Jaws came along, and it was released in a then-unheard-of number of five hundred theatres and the movie made something like a hundred million dollars in six weeks, it sent all these executives scrambling and figuring out how to get situations where they could get a fast return on their dollar. That meant pre-sold projects. That meant movie stars that they felt would bring people into the audience, bring people into the theatres. That meant, you know, franchises, sequels, comic books, all of what we have today, and it all comes down to a single roll of the dice on a weekend. And therefore you spend a hundred and fifty million dollars on a movie and another hundred million dollars to advertise it; the investment is enormous, and it makes for very timid people. Whereas in those days, Midnight Cowboy would go out in two or three theatres, and let it grow. Hugely successful. These guys are spending tremendous amounts of money, sometimes to make returns that I think are—the game does not seem to be often worth the gamble. Whereas if you're willing to release a movie more slowly, and you're willing to let it attain a life of its own, you can end up spending a much more modest amount of money. And make a great deal of money at much less risk.
G: Yeah, and that smaller scale allows for idiosyncracy.
RT: That's right. Exactly so.
G: I look at your resume, and I'm always struck by so many iconoclastic or anti-heroic characters, though you've also dipped into old-fashioned good guys and bad guys in the Mission: Impossible films.
RT: Oh, yeah, well—
G: But that's a very distinctive character to your films, I think. Maybe it's like you said before, a kind of counter-cultural expression.
RT: Yeah, also—look: I remember, for example, when I was rewriting The Firm, and the studio read the first pages of it and said, "This guy's not likeable."
RT: And I said, "Wait a minute." I mean, Paula Wagner—no, it was Sydney Pollack came in and—"Jesus," I said, "Sydney, who's playing the fucking part? It's Tom Cruise!" You know? I mean, you know, we got to make it dramatic, to the extent of: you've got to give the actor something to earn the affection of the audience. In a word, you don't want them to think they're a cheap fuck, you know? I mean, you've got an issue: you've got a venal, mercenary lawyer who is played by one of the most charming men in the world, so, you know, that's good! Because, you know, let the audience worry that he's not going to turn out to be such a nice guy 'cause he certainly is in the end, you know? I mean, it makes for better drama. You know, have a compulsive Don Juan, like the Beatty character in Shampoo, and in the end, he kinda gets his comeuppance. And he's not an indecent fellow. I think it's just more interesting and truer to life.
G: Yeah, right, yeah. Who among us is not rife with idiosyncrasy? Boy, I feel like we're just getting started. There's so much more I wanted to talk to you about, but I think I'm getting the hook here.
RT: Oh, Peter, I'm such a—
G: It's been a pleasure.
RT: It has been fun.
G: Thank you.
RT: Thank you. Take care.
[For Groucho's review of Ask the Dust, click here.]