‘Chinatown’ screenwriter Robert Towne talks about movies, history and Los Angeles
Photo by Everett Collection
"Chinatown" racked up twelve Oscar nominations — including for best picture, best direction, best actor and best actress -- but in the end, the only person to take home a trophy was the screenwriter, Robert Towne. In terms of pacing, dialogue and especially structure, Towne's final script is considered a masterpiece in its own right. "Chinatown" was the first script I read for Screenwriting 101 back in film school.
This week, the Blu Ray for "Chinatown" finally hits the shelves. I talked with Towne over the phone the other day about the movie and about some of the real life LA history that the movie is based on.
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Jonathan Crow: What was the inspiration for "Chinatown"?
Robert Towne: Well, it was a number of things. There was an article in the old L.A West magazine that was kind of an appreciative nod to Raymond Chandler. It was called "Raymond Chandler's L.A" and I hadn't really read much of him, but they did send us some photographs at that time in 1970, the stand for 1936 or 1937. And one was a beautiful Pasadena home with Packard in the porte-cochere. They were noir shots of L.A taken in 1970 and it made me realize that it would be possible to recreate the city of that time period in a way that it would not be possible today. And that got me started thinking about it. "The Last Detail" was stuck in development hell and I was casting them out for something to do and I thought, "I'll try a detective movie." I went to Jack [Nicholson] and talked with him. That was the beginning of it and how the story developed. From there, it was a very lengthy process.
JC: I understand that the first couple of drafts of the script were really painful for you. Is that correct?
Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images
JC: You've made at least three films about the history of Los Angeles. What is it about L.A that draws you?