Screenwriter Robert Towne on Chinatown

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GETTING NOSY Jack Nicholson smells a scam.

Jaws, Rocky and the era of the blockbuster were just around the corner. But in 1974, Hollywood was still riding a crest of uncommon ambition when it released Chinatown. Robert Towne’s paranoid original script—a dense combination of 1930s nostalgia, noirish romance and real-life corruption—is still considered the gold standard for dramatists. We caught up with Towne, 74, by phone at his home in Pacific Palisades, in L.A.

So I’ve listened to this new commentary track you recorded with David Fincher. It’s fun to hear him geek out so thoroughly.
I’m a huge fan of David’s work. I enjoy the meticulous way in which he attacks material. We’re trying to make a movie together.

What was going through your head when you decided to dive into Los Angeles’ history of landgrabs?
I’d been feeling nostalgic about the way the city had changed. Plus, I had a terrible experience in City Hall with a property development in Deep Canyon—which was a kind of mini version of what was once pervasive.

You created an immortal villain in real-estate magnate Noah Cross, played by John Huston. Who was he in real life?
It’s an amalgamation of people: Los Angeles Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis; his successor, Harry Chandler; those who treated the city as their own private fiefdom.

Did you have contemporary politics in mind when you were writing it?
No. Watergate was on its way, but it just happened that contemporary events were parallel to what was going on in Chinatown.

Do you see new movies that remind you of Chinatown—or is that even possible these days?
Not lately. In the 1970s, studios really placed their bets on the filmmakers. If you weren’t successful, you weren’t likely to be hired again. But while you were working, you were left alone.

How difficult was it to convince Roman Polanski to return to Los Angeles post-Manson?
Roman had bitter memories of Los Angeles; he was coming back to a place of real, horrifying tragedy. Our producer, Bob Evans, got on him and said, “Come on, why don’t you just do a commercial movie for a change.”

It’s funny to think of Chinatown as “commercial.”
Right. But it was, oddly enough.

It was nominated for 11 Oscars. You were the only one to win. Awkward?
Very. I couldn’t believe Jack didn’t win. I was stuck with having the lone Oscar at the postawards party and feeling very guilty.

Did you try to hide the statuette?
It’s a tough thing to hide.

Chinatown is available Tue 6 on Paramount’s Centennial Collection.

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