Robert Towne - From Chinatown to Hollywood.
By Dov Kornits
Posted 08/27/99 03:19:26
Ever heard of a script doctor? Meet the one Warren Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola and Tom Cruise turn to when they need a check-up. Let's be honest - the only reason we started this thing was to meet legends like Robert Towne. Not only is he an accomplished director, with films such as Personal Best, Tequila Sunrise and now Without Limits under his belt, but he's the guy who started the trend of paying screenwriters their due.
A survivor of Hollywood's turbulent seventies, he emerged as a contemporary to mavericks such as George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Evans, Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Paul Schrader, Roman Polanski and the late Hal Ashby. Let's not beat about the proverbial, these are also names that play a major part in a controversial book called Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind. In it, Biskind, a veteran features writer for Premiere, alludes to uncovering the behaviour of these legendary, almost mythical figures, and the picture he paints, no matter how appreciative of the resulting films, is damning. And of course, Towne plays a major part in the proceedings.
Like a lot of seventies players, Towne got his start with B-grade master Roger Corman. His earliest claim to fame was a rewrite of Bonnie & Clyde, one of the first films to shake the Hollywood Studio establishment, and prove that a new kind of movie could make bucks in the States. This made Towne a man on counterculture's pulse, renowned for turning boring scenes into sizzlers. Five years later, his script doctoring on The Godfather, cemented his reputation. Then two classic films in consecutive years, bearing his name as the screenwriter, gave him the kind of clout he still rightly carries as his badge of honour. Chinatown and Shampoo were acclaimed hits and the kind of films that changed Hollywood forever. This was the thriving time of the auteur, and although directors took top credit; within the industry, Towne was a force to be reckoned with.
Towne continued to write script polishes. Uncredited turns on Marathon Man, The Missouri Breaks, Reds, Swing Shift, Eight Million Ways To Die and Frantic, were done as well paid favours for his friends. But the directing bug started biting. In 1982, Towne took the reigns on Personal Best, a critically acclaimed story of a love affair between two female athletes, which bellyflopped at the box office. At the time, Towne was also planning to direct his long in waiting Tarzan script Greystoke, but Personal Best's 'failure' didn't fare well. When Towne wasn't allowed to direct Greystoke he credited his dog as the writer of the film, and to this day laments losing this personal project.
Hollywood is a town where who you know counts for more than what you know. But Towne's longevity within the industry proves that he's adept at both. After hanging out with Hollywood heavyweights Warren Beatty and wild man producer Robert Evans in the '70s, he now calls Tom Cruise a personal friend. Towne's actually in Australia for two purposes, both related to the Cruiser: to promote the release of Without Limits, which Cruise produced, and to hang out on the set of Mission Impossible II whose final draft Towne had written a few months back.
When we meet, it's not surprising to see the 65 year old leaning back in his chair chomping on a cigar. The Orson Welles and John Huston aspect of Hollywood is still very much alive. But it's also exactly the image you'd hold for any of his '70s contemporaries. Knowing that none of them have approved of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, I hide my copy under my research and decide to thrust it at Towne after the pleasantries.
He doesn't flinch, puffs on the cigar, and explains away in flat tone - pausing often - his thoughts on the past, future and myth of Hollywood.
EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS
"The comments in the book are actually under the guise of interviewing me about Without Limits. So they're really out of context. There's not much to say other than that it's... I used this quote once before, it's Nietzsche: 'Sometimes our loathing of dirt is so great, it keeps us from washing our hands.' People like Marty [Scorsese] and myself just don't want to bother. Here's a guy who wrote hype pieces for 25 years and decided to try to hit it big once in his life. Aside from the inherent inaccuracy of some of his stories, not just in terms of me but in terms of other people. But you know it from show business, from Shakespeare in Love, from All About Eve, the fact that everyone at some stage says, 'You're a complete arsehole, I don't want to work with you again.' And ten minutes later you're saying, 'the guy's a fucking genius and I don't see how I can exist without him.' So you can pick one of the statements as being true, and only publish that, but that's only part of the truth. It just depends on what you want to record. There's also fallacies in the book, like when he describes that I made my wife ride in the back of the car after I'd won an Academy Award and had my dog in the front. And I thought, what a good idea. Geez, I wish I'd thought of that. It's that kind of thing. It's pretty awful."
"I first heard about Steve when I was doing Personal Best. It stayed with me for the next 20 years. Knowing Kenny [Moore, who co-wrote the script and was a colleague of Prefontaine] and Bill [Bowerman, Prefontaine's coach and creator of Nike], I went about it by immersing myself in their lives, getting to know them. I'd sit with these people at their house and chat, even while we were shooting."
"At a certain point Tom was going to play Steve, and then when he read the script he said, I'm 35 years old and I've been around for a while, nobody is going to believe me as a 17 year old. He was right. But Tom was instrumental in the way the character was written; he was wonderful in the editing room. In fact, when he was filming Eyes Wide Shut the dailies would get shipped to him by air every day. It's surprising how much input he had. I think he's interested in the running but more than anything else it's about Steve's spirit to perform to the best of his abilities. Hopefully next I will actually get a chance to direct Tom. We're planning a big project together at the moment."
"I think today there's more of it. I don't know what exactly I had to do with it. In America, it's always been there. There's Jo Mankiewicz and Preston Sturgess. There's always been a precedent for it, I think that it's just more pervasive now. It doesn't mean people can make sense of it. In America, from the time of the studio system in the '30s, there was an industry that valued the writer. With the breakdown of the studio system and the influence of French theorists and filmmakers and the whole Cahiers Du Cinema thing, the auteur term became more fashionable. Sometimes at the expense of the writer, and I think that there's been a natural movement towards merging the writer/director ever since. It's a natural step. Not to say that the other way doesn't work very well."
"Critics don't matter as much today as they once did, but they still matter. It still helps, I think. It might improve the film's release. The distributors initially release films wide for star power or hype or large concept ideas, but there are companies like Miramax that will hang in there and keep a different type of movie out there until it finds its audience and its good reviews. With those types of movies critics will make a difference."
"Oh hell. I fell in love with movies during the '70s. I'd like to think that there's plenty of great filmmaking still to come. I don't think Armageddon is the Armageddon of filmmaking. I saw Eyes Wide Shut last night. It's such a good movie. It's a killer and it's very effective. It's not about sex. It's about the enduring power of the imagination. I suppose it's a work of art, and a movie people will react to. It's a very good movie, so I'm hopeful."