“Before there was IMDB or any way to find out who did anything,” said Matthew Weiner MFA ’90, “we all knew the name of one movie writer — and it was Robert Towne.”
Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, was on campus Feb. 19 to moderate a discussion with the legendary screenwriter. The evening began with a screening of Chinatown, which is considered Towne’s masterpiece, and was the first film of a three-day retrospective featuring screenings of Towne’s other famous works such as Tequila Sunrise, The Firm and Shampoo, among others.
Professor Ted Braun moderated the Feb. 20 conversation with the guest of honor following Without Limits, and he returned Feb. 21 with WGA President and fellow USC School of Cinematic Arts Professor Howard Rodman to conclude the special weekend.
I am so honored because I get to sit and talk with Robert Towne about Chinatown.
“This whole weekend is obviously a celebration of all [of Towne’s] work,” Weiner told a packed audience in Frank Sinatra Hall. “But I feel like the luckiest person in the world, and I am so honored because I get to sit and talk with Robert Towne about Chinatown.”
The excited audience greeted Towne with a standing ovation as he took the stage for the first time that weekend.
The Academy Award-winning Towne has long been considered one of Hollywood’s elite screenwriters. Chinatown, the 1974 neo-noir mystery about deceit and corruption in 1930s Los Angeles, was the second of three consecutive nominations Towne received, sandwiched between The Last Detail and Shampoo. (It won Towne the best original screenplay award.) He was also nominated in 1984 for his work on Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.
Towne told the audience he wrote the part of J.J. Gittes for Jack Nicholson, whom he had worked with on The Last Detail and who was also his roommate for “a good portion of that time.”
While it’s common for writers to create roles designed for a specific actor, Towne said the film’s writing process was anything but ordinary. He was not paid to write the script in the traditional sense.
“What I asked for was enough money to [allow me to] write the script, because I was quite broke,” Towne explained. “So I got [producer Bob] Evans to advance me $25,000 to write it … and I offered a 30-day option.”
Evans needed little convincing that Towne had something magical in the works with Chinatown. “I tried to explain [the story] to Bob Evans,” Towne told his rapt audience with a chuckle. “But he stopped me and he said, ‘[Forget] it. I’ll never understand this. But I like the title so go ahead and do it.”
No rote scripts
Towne’s scripts are known to diverge from screenwriting traditions. Especially when it comes to what might seem like small details, he is known for preferring the authentic to the poetic.
Weiner mentioned the frequent mispronunciation of Gittes’ name as a particularly amusing example of this because it’s a common reality that “people don’t call you by your right last name — at least in my experience.”
Towne said it came from his impatience with stock scenes and phrases in the movies he watched growing up.
“When I was seeing movies as a kid … there were several things that one noticed almost immediately,” he said, listing examples such as married couples sleeping in separate beds and characters telling vendors to “keep the change” in a scene, even while Americans were still recovering from the Great Depression.
Even something as simple as there always being parking available whenever a character arrived somewhere.
“And I remember thinking as a kid, ‘jeez, I’m never going to let that happen in a movie.’ And before I knew what I was doing, I was thinking that what I was going to try to do was bring movies a little more in line with the reality as I knew it on a day-to-day basis. So I was already arguing with movies at a very tender age.”
That was just one reason why Towne was so excited when Chinatown director Roman Polanski pointed out that if they were to slit Gittes’ nose in the scene, he should be wearing a bandage for the remainder of the film.
“I loved that,” Towne said. “It doesn’t take much to observe the difference between the realities you live in every day and cinematic tradition. And once you break that tradition, whatever it is, you’re bringing a greater level of reality to the experience.”
In addition to his participation in the weekend retrospective, Towne has donated screenplays, personal correspondence and notes to the USC School of Cinematic Arts, which are on display outside the Ray Stark Family Theatre in the George Lucas Building.