FORGET IT, BOB, IT'S HOLLYWOOD: "CHINATOWN'S" OSCAR-WINNING SCRIBE, ROBERT TOWNE
By Tom McCurrie
"It's hard to make a bad movie. Or alternately, it's just as easy to make a good movie as it is a bad one. They're both difficult." This is the last thing you'd expect to hear from Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (BONNIE AND CLYDE, CHINATOWN, CRIMSON TIDE). But at the latest edition of the Spring Storytellers series, sponsored by the Writers Guild Foundation, the self-effacing but brutally honest Towne had much to say about his forty-plus years in the Hollywood game.
Born in Los Angeles but raised in San Pedro, Towne's love of movies led him to pursue a career in screenwriting, despite it being a "disreputable" profession in 1960s America. He did his first screenplay for exploitation king Roger Corman, a little ditty called FRATERNITY HELL WEEK. Unfortunately, his friends ended up losing the script, which was a problem "because there was only one copy." Towne had a much happier result with THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1965), a nifty horror flick directed by Corman himself and blessed with one of Vincent Price's best (least hammy) performances.
Though Towne was also doing TV work at this time, namely for THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., he soon became known around Hollywood for his uncredited rewrites, or "script doctoring," more than his actual credits. Towne first gained attention as a script doctor on BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), but his work on creating the justly famous garden scene in THE GODFATHER (1972) cemented his reputation as the go-to guy to fix troubled screenplays, even in the midst of production, for the next thirty years.
Towne tells the GODFATHER story this way: "Francis [Coppola] had called me from New York where he was shooting the movie and it was a mess from his point of view because he thought there was no way in the world anybody thought much of the movie. Actually it was [casting director] Fred Roos who called me and said, we're about to lose Marlon and we realized that neither Mario in his book nor Francis in his screenplay had a scene between Michael Corleone, the Al Pacino character, and Vito Corleone, Marlon Brando's character. Francis got on the phone and said, somehow I want to do a scene where they can say that they love each other or something. I said, Francis, you can't write a scene like that where two guys say they love each other." Towne then flew to New York and saw THE GODFATHER footage. Instead of the mess he was expecting, he thought the footage was brilliant. Francis considered firing Towne right then and there since he thought the writer was lying through his teeth.
Towne continues: "I met with Marlon and Al and Francis, and all that Marlon said was, just this once I don't want to be inarticulate. So I said, OK, you want to talk - I got it. So I went home that night because the scene had to be done in the morning as it turned out. And I looked at the cover of THE GODFATHER, the book, and on the cover is a puppeteer with strings going from the puppet's hands...and I thought about that and that was the beginning of the taking of the shape of that scene. He [Vito] calls the son [Michael] into the garden to say that when Barzini, who was the Richard Conte character, was going to call for the peace, at that peace thing [Michael] will be assassinated. That was the beginning of it so you figure you start off that way you'll have the audience's attention, and then you can say whatever you want to for a couple of pages, because they'll be waiting for the other shoe to drop. With that it was, how's your boy - it was a scene between father and son where Marlon is excessively fussy and worrisome about, did you check the calls coming in, did you check this, how's your boy, until Al finally calls him on it and says, Pop, I told you I'd take care of it and I'll take care of it. That reluctantly prompts this confession which is, I never wanted this for you...for you I thought it would be different. He said, I don't apologize for my life; I refuse to be one of those guys who's dancing on a string which is what the puppet thing is for the big shots, but for you I thought it would be different. And it continues and then Al says, there wasn't enough time, Pop. So it was a father saying, I'm sorry, I've done everything I could in my life to make sure that you didn't live the life that I lived, and now I'm asking you to live it and the son saying, Pop, you did everything you could and more. So that to me was a love scene. And then [Vito] says, and remember the guy on your side who sets up the meeting, he's the traitor and so the circle is finished. And that's how the scene got started."
The next morning, Towne showed the new scene to Brando, who made Towne read it to him (both parts) while he sat plopped in a director's chair on the set. When Towne finished, Brando said "read it again, [and] I knew the minute he said that I knew it was going to be all right." After the new scene was shot, Brando thanked Towne, asked him who he was (!) and Towne never saw him again.
Now according to Towne, not all script doctoring is the same. "Some scripts you need to restructure [like BONNIE AND CLYDE], some scripts there are critical scenes that you need to have to place in there...if you're a script doctor they're more like spot surgery, like a surgical strike just on the one spot, which is the case with THE GODFATHER and CRIMSON TIDE." In CRIMSON TIDE (1995), Towne added a scene contrasting the Manichean world-view of Gene Hackman's skipper to the more humanistic philosophy of Denzel Washington's XO, the scene "...in which Denzel eventually says the only real enemy we have in the post-nuclear age is war itself. So they had that conflict, [and] without that conflict, I didn't feel the rest of the movie had a place to take place." Ultimately, Towne's rewrite "...was just doing a couple of scenes, just looking at a script and feeling, what's missing. Something so they can subsequently fight. And it was a scene where their differences of opinion had to be expressed kind of genially but forcefully, over the mess table in an officer's mess."
Towne finally became known for more than script doctoring with his Oscar-winning screenplay for CHINATOWN (1974). And if CHINATOWN is Towne's greatest script, then detective J.J. Gittes is his most brilliant creation. But this creation had as much to do with real life as the imagination, a hallmark of Towne's writing. As Towne explains, "The Gittes character was a combination of Jack [Nicholson], having watched him improvise for 6 or 7 years in Jeff Corey's [acting] class and a reaction to Raymond Chandler, whose tarnished knight was someone who always refused to do divorce work when I knew in fact that detectives at that time did nothing but divorce work. The character was partly formed by Jack, partly formed by a reaction to the genre that never included a character like Gittes that did those things [like divorce work.]"
Towne continues: "To me it has always been useful to have an actor in mind [when I write] because you're going to use that person's physical instrument and the way they talk and everything about them in the service of that character. So it can be invaluable, particularly in the case of an actor who you've seen improvise year in and year out, you're at the point where you're setting up a scene, and you've seen him improvise, you can well imagine what they would say, how they would say it and all the kinds of quirks in their characters. Jack, for example, at a very early age, I've known Jack since he was eighteen and I was twenty, Jack very quickly was someone who really cared about clothes and the way he looked, both as an actor and just as Jack. That was something you could very easily incorporate into a character like Gittes, with the shoes and everything else."
At the core of Gittes' character is "a feeling that he can control the situation; whatever situation he was in he felt that he knew what was going on, when in his heart he had to face the fact that at a critical moment in his life in Chinatown he didn't know what was going on. And indeed the whole point of the title is a place where you think you know the rules but you don't. As I've often said before...the significance of the title really is the futility of good intentions."
Legend has it that Towne locked horns with director Roman Polanski over whether Faye Dunaway should live or die at the end of CHINATOWN. While Polanski wanted Dunaway to die, Towne wanted the happier ending of Dunaway living. But Towne tweaks this legend a bit: "I wouldn't put it that way. It was less a matter of her living, than a matter of our approach to how things turned out to happen. Mine was an approach that had her survive and had her kill her father but had her be unable to tell why she did it and Gittes unable to tell why, so she went to jail. It was not a happy ending. I had felt at the time that the starkness of her getting killed seemed a little too melodramatic. But on reflection, I think my approach was more literary and I think Roman's was right. In any case, I ended up writing what he wanted me to write for the end. I thought it was terrible, and he said it was perfect and it got shot. And that's how it came out. And I think in the end it was the better ending."
Towne goes on: "There was a lot of contentiousness [on CHINATOWN], but it was fruitful. No matter how much we were in conflict, we always at the end of each day felt that pretty much always that the better way had survived. It takes a lot of energy to fight that much and it also takes somebody to whom you're very close and that you like a lot, because you can't survive the kind of fights that we had unless you cared about each other. It's just not possible. I think...what doesn't kill us makes us stronger; well, you can say the same thing about the script. And Roman is nothing if not contentious. It was good. I still think it was probably the best working relationship I ever had with a director. And the most fruitful for me."
With an Oscar behind him, the directing bug began to bite. Towne set his sights on helming GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES (1984), but after eight years of development he lost control of the project, and was so dissatisfied with the final script he gave his sheepdog the credit (the script was later nominated for an Oscar). "I don't think you ever get over it, to tell you the truth. I think it's like a first love that you lose, I think it's like losing an animal that you love...It's just a loss that's there. I think the only thing you can hope for is that the curiosity and passion that informed your desire to do that doesn't die with the project. I think the hardest thing to do is to remain hopeful, that if it didn't work this time it'll work next time. It's very painful. I think there was a time when I could not speak this long about it. And as far as that goes I've never seen the movie; I've been unable to bring myself to do it."
Towne soldiered on as a helmer, eventually directing PERSONAL BEST (1982), TEQUILA SUNRISE (1988), WITHOUT LIMITS (1998) and this fall's ASK THE DUST starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek and based on the classic 1939 novel by John Fante. Towne has an almost counter-intuitive take on the differences between writing and directing: "I think in a strange way, directing is...that for me directing is in a way a more passive experience than writing, because you are reacting to the people in front of your face that are performing. And you are obliged to be in touch with yourself on a moment to moment basis and to try and gauge how they make you feel and then to be able to speak succinctly and quickly enough to communicate something to them that's worthwhile before the next take. As against an experience where you are creating characters and even though at a certain point in the writing of a script, those characters will lead you, it's still a more active process to me than directing, which I think is more passive in that way. Although it certainly doesn't require less energy...but within the narrow definition of the word I'm talking about, I think that's one difference..." To Towne, directing is more a "matter of discipline" than creativity; "so many questions are being asked of you, to try to be able to think under those conditions is sometimes difficult." Towne continues: "If you like high-pressure situations, if you like stressful situations, [directing's] enjoyable, yes."
But screenwriting is where Towne is in his element. For one who's such an ace at dialogue, Towne feels talk isn't always necessary to project character. Writing a character's movement is just as important. "The image that I have is being in high school in gym class. Where I went to high school, everyone had to wear grey shorts and a white T-shirt. Everybody was the same...and I remember looking across the football field and realizing that at 200 yards away I could identify everybody immediately and I didn't know what they looked like, because of the way they moved." Whether it was the apes in GREYSTOKE or the athletes in PERSONAL BEST, Towne wrote scenes so that "just in an instant, you could see the different personalities take shape around physical movement. So all of [Gary] Cooper or [Henry] Fonda in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, that's all the way he moves, walking up and down those long porticos you know so much about him. He's determined but shy. And it's in his walk. It's one of the problems with contemporary movies that don't allow an actor to move as much in the frame. Cutting to close-up really is having the editor do the work instead of the actor or the audience. It's not as effective."
Names are also pivotal to Towne. "I worry about names a great deal, and in the case of [TEQUILA SUNRISE] I worried about them a lot. Frescia was a Slavic name coming out of San Pedro; and there's just something about the sound of it that sounds right for a fresh cop, a self-assured cop. McKussic, ‘Mac' was a kid that I went to high school with, and the name stuck with me because there just seemed something right about it. Vallenari was the name of my wife's grandmother. But coming into contact with a name isn't enough...It's a combination of the sound of the name and its appropriateness. It's a good Italian name. Frescia is a good Slavic name from down in San Pedro. McKussic's a good name for a kid who probably came out from Missouri, or his folks came out from Missouri during the time of the Dust Bowl and settled in the South Bay, which a lot of kids did, a lot of families did. So it's that combination of the right sound and it being authentic."
But there's more to character than a good name, so sometimes character bios come in handy. "I certainly did that in the case of TEQUILA SUNRISE...Yes, I think you [need bios], particularly in the case of anything that requires the characters themselves to be ballast for the structure of the story...When you're doing something like MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996) you don't go into the characters in as much depth. I don't mean that badly, but it's just the case. When you're dealing with action, then you're dealing with things that just don't...have that much detail as a movie."
What is Towne's advice to new screenwriters? "I don't know if I have any advice. You're all lucky to be getting any kind of employment doing what we're doing. I think that the best thing that you can say [to new writers] is writing about something that, I guess you kind of say the same thing you do about people who write first novels, it's something that you know about or whatever you're writing about you can infuse an awful lot of what you know into a script." As Towne admits, "The journalist's approach to bring something fresh to film that is not just simply cannibalizing other films requires the need to engage in outside experience. And paradoxically, the more successful you get, the less there is an inclination or even an ability to do that," because "the more you work in movies the less you work somewhere else."
But if Towne had to give any tips, it's that passion makes for the best work, and that the writer must at all costs "keep the story going."
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A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked as a development executive and a story analyst. He is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles and is currently working on his first novel.