Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Robert Towne

From 'Dust' to 'Dust'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Robert Towne has reached full circle.

Towne's newest film, Ask the Dust, which opens this week in Bay Area theaters, has been slowly evolving for several decades.

Arguably the most celebrated living American screenwriter, Towne, 71, began his career writing "B" pictures like Last Woman on Earth (1960) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1965) for director Roger Corman.

Like many others from the Corman camp, Towne quickly graduated to fame and fortune during Hollywood's 1970s "Renaissance." He made a good living, and developed a powerful reputation among Hollywood's heavy-hitters, as an ingenious "script doctor," or one who can cleverly polish an ailing screenplay.

Usually script doctors are well paid, but do not receive screen credit. His reported contributions include Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Jack Nicholson's Drive, He Said (1971), The Godfather (1972), Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View (1974), Arthur Penn's The Missouri Breaks (1976) and many others.

Even more impressive is Towne's list of credited works, which includes three consecutive Oscar nominees, The Last Detail (1973), Chinatown (1974) and Shampoo (1975). He won his only Oscar for Chinatown. He was nominated a fourth time in 1984 for a screenplay he disowned, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, and so his dog, P.H. Vazak, technically received the nomination.

As did Preston Sturges, Ben Hecht and Woody Allen before him, it wasn't long before Towne made his debut as a director in 1982 with Personal Best a moving story of two women athletes and their criss-crossed emotional feelings for one another.

Towne followed that with two more efforts, Tequila Sunrise (1988) and Without Limits (1998).

During all this activity, Ask the Dust sat simmering on the back burner.

Based on the 1939 cult novel by John Fante, the film revolves around an Italian-American writer, Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell), who has arrived in Los Angeles seeking fame and fortune. Spending his last dime in a coffee shop, he meets a feisty Mexican waitress, Camilla (Salma Hayek) and finds himself both enchanted by her awesome beauty and repelled by racial factors -- both her Mexican heritage and his own self-loathing.

Towne found the novel while researching Chinatown, looking for material that would honestly describe that particular era of Los Angeles. He became so entranced by it that he decided to meet with its author -- himself a screenwriter -- in person.

"I was an unknown. I hadn't written anything of note," Towne says during a recent visit to San Francisco. According to Towne, Fante greeted the young fan with accusations like "What makes you think you're any kind of judge of my work?"

"He was hilariously rude," Towne says, speaking slowly and carefully working a cigar around in his lips.

But Fante's "tall, lovely wife Joyce," stepped in to save the day, saying, 'John he's a nice boy.' He's paying you a compliment.'

Towne continues. "We talked about the book, and I said, 'John, I think this is the best book about Los Angeles ever written. It's a much better book than The Day of the Locust. And he said, 'You're goddam right it is.'"

Towne and Fante became friends, and the author gave the young screenwriter not only the screen rights to Ask the Dust, but also a first edition, "which he signed to me in the hope that I would take it to far places."

Towne says he got hung up on Chinatown, then on Shampoo and a series of other projects. The rights lapsed, and in 1993 Towne found himself working for the new owner, Mel Brooks, writing the script gratis in exchange for the opportunity to direct.

Interestingly, Towne says that very little has changed since the original 1993 draft, except for some expanded scenes in the film's second half.

In adapting the novel, Towne found that he needed to take the book's love triangle and distill it closer to a two-way romance. In the book, the Italian writer is attracted to the Mexican barmaid, and the barmaid is attracted to a white man.

"In order to deal with the themes of racism in the book and make it dramatic, I felt that it had to be a real love story," he says. "Now they're attracted to one another, but repelled by their ethnic origins, so that there was something to overcome. They had to overcome their own prejudices, which had been imposed by the culture -- their own shame at being Mexican and Italian."

Back then, Johnny Depp expressed interest in playing the role of the author, but when Towne took the script to Salma Hayek, she turned it down on the basis that, if she played an illiterate Mexican barmaid at that stage of her career, she would be stuck in that role forever.

"Finally, Colin Farrell showed up on my doorstep, only he wasn't Colin Farrell -- he was just this Irish kid who had read the script and wanted to do it. And I liked him so much, I said OK," Towne says. "We still couldn't get it made with him, but thankfully three years later he became a movie star."

Meanwhile, Hayek made Frida (2002) and earned an Oscar nomination. "I think that gave her more freedom," Towne says. "She read it years later and said, 'I don't know why I turned it down to begin with.' At this point, I can't think of another actress in the role."

Ironically, Towne was unable to shoot 1930s Los Angeles in modern-day Los Angeles, at least for the film's small budget. So he and his stars worked for no money ("I mean no money," Towne says) in order to re-create the film's world in South Africa. They even built Bunker Hill on a high school football field in Capetown.

Now that the finished project has finally arrived in theaters, Towne muses on the idea of directing his own screenplays. He has worked with some of the greatest directors in the world (Roman Polanski, Arthur Penn, Brian De Palma, John Woo, etc.) and there are always things that the writer wishes had turned out differently.

Though Towne is crafty in phrasing his answer, he admits that he prefers directing his own scripts with one respect: "It's more satisfying to the extent that, if you don't like it, there's some relief in that. There's no one to blame but yourself."

February 7, 2006

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