'Chinatown' Screenwriter Robert Towne Offers Pearls of Screenwriting Wisdom in WGA Interview
The two screenplays that I had to constantly study while in college were Casablanca and Chinatown, the latter of which was written by masterful screenwriter Robert Towne, who also penned Mission Impossible I & II, as well as Without Limits (which was filmed in my hometown of Eugene — no big deal.) The Writer’s Guild Association sat down with Towne for an almost hour-long interview, in which he talks at length about his childhood, how he fell in love with the cinema, and how Roger Corman helped him get his big break. Hit the jump to watch the interview:
In its structure, dialog, and characters (who can beat the iconically mangled Gittes?) Chinatown is regarded as the “perfect” script. In 1974, the film was nominated for 11 Oscars — everything from Best Picture, Best Director for Roman Polanski, Best Actor/Actress for Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, to Best Art Direction, Cinematography, and Score. However, the only Oscar the film won was for Best Original Screenplay, which went to Robert Towne.
Check out the interview below. If you’re in a hurry, you can scroll down to read a few selected highlights:
Interested in writing at an early age, Robert Towne grew up in San Pedro, CA near Warner Bros. Theater, which he says dictated his future in the industry. Check out the highlights from the interview below:
5:55: Towne initially wanted to be a journalist, which, in his mind, isn’t that far off from where he ended up. He says:
Screenwriting is something that is very well served by a knowledge of the world and its textures, and journalists do nothing so much as — in reporting stories, they report on all aspects of life and society and work.
14:17: Before this mark, Towne talks at length about his time as a tuna fisherman, but here he relates it to writing, saying:
I’ve identified fishing with writing in my mind to the extent that each script is like a trip that you’re taking — and you are fishing. Sometimes they both involve an act of faith — I mean you’re looking at the fucking water and assuming that there’s something underneath it that you’re going to catch — Sometimes it’s sheer faith alone that sustains you, because you think, “God dammit, nothing — not a bite today. Nothing is happening.”
15:56: Towne talks about how his participation in blacklisted actor Jeff Corey’s acting class helped him learn what was dramatically effective, which influenced the way he wrote dialog.
18:00: He talks about his experience working for/with Roger Corman, who helped him get his big break.
25:10: On research and learning about things he wrote about:
I think that’s one of the main benefits of screenwriting, is being able to delve into worlds like a journalist and often to be able to travel to places. Writing screenplays has taken me all over the world — Screenwriting can take you around the world and then to worlds you would never ever be able to approach — I think to try to immerse yourself in those worlds is, I think, critical to the process.
27:30: Towne talks about what drew him to movies. He describes coming across 2 books by James Agee: one on film criticism from his work at Time and The Nation and the other was a compilation of his screenplays. He remembers Agee writing that he’d never been bored by a bad movie, which triggered Towne to become a “disreputable” screenwriter.
33:05: He talks about collaboration and its importance, saying “It’s what makes movies work so well.”
42:08: Since Towne’s screenwriting was geared more towards cerebral drama, he talks about his experience writing big action pictures, like Mission Impossible I & II.
47:45: Towne talks about his experience film doctoring. He offers a great anecdote about how he considers screenplays, referring to Plato’s concept of alternate worlds, the “real” world that is unchanged and unchanging, and the world we experience, which is the world of “becoming.”
In the real world there’s an ideal chair that never changes, and if you can buy the idea that if all the chairs in the world were destroyed there would still exist the idea of a chair. Some people don’t think that’s true, but I do. I think that a screenplay — is something that exists in that world to be discovered, and the act of writing is not so much an act of invention as it is an act of discovery — at least for me.
50:27: Where should we pull information and inspiration from for our films? Towne says that we should use whatever we have accessible to us, including our crews, actors, even our girlfriend’s hairdressing husband.
What do you think about Robert Towne’s interview? What stuck out to you? Let us know in the comments.
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