Go backBack to selection

“It’s People Struggling To Be Something Other Than What They Are”: Writer/Director Robert Towne on Making L.A. Movies

Ask the Dust

Legendary writer/director Robert Towne, whose screenplays include Chinatown and Shampoo and films include Personal Best and Tequila Sunrise, died yesterday in Los Angeles at the age of 89. On this sad occasion we’re reposting Matt Ross’s print edition interview with Towne from our Spring, 2006 issue. Below, the two discuss Towne’s adaptation of John Fante’s Ask the Dust, the financing difference between studio and independent films, and why Towne keeps returning to cinematic L.A. R.I.P. Robert Towne. — Editor

Every city has its quintessential storyteller. And when it comes to Los Angeles, a city whose primary business is itself the process of fantastic invention, that storyteller might well be Robert Towne. In films as chronologically disparate as 1975’s Shampoo and 1988’s Tequila Sunrise, he has explored the moral conflicts of L.A.’s moneyed classes; in star-driven assignment work like Mission: Impossible and Mission: Impossible II he’s worked as the archetypal studio craftsman, polishing a script to the demands of star and director; and, most famously, he’s penned perhaps the most apropos line ever about the city, a tautology that says almost nothing while seeming to sum up the entire history of the town in five words: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

While would-be screenwriters sit in West Hollywood coffee shops studying Towne’s now-classic Chinatown script — it’s the foundation for Syd Field’s Screenwriting 101 tome Screenplay — Towne moved on to another, more romantic view of old-time Los Angeles. He adapted for himself to direct John Fante’s cult novel Ask the Dust, a 1933-set tale of the love between a young Italian-American man and a Mexican waitress. The film opened this spring with Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek in the lead roles.

Filmmaker: I know Ask the Dust has been a real labor of love for you. What was it that attracted you to the project in the beginning?

Towne: It was the fact that I had not ever read anyone who had really captured the Los Angeles that I remembered as a child — the look, the ambience of the city, really right down to the dust in the air. There wasn’t a lot of foliage then, and the sun would beat down. L.A. was right on the edge of a desert, and its impermanence was much more apparent then. I had forgotten that that Los Angeles really existed until I read Fante. His novel really threw you into the idea that Los Angeles is, basically, a state of mind.

Filmmaker: I know you were raised in California, but did you grow up in the city itself?

Towne: No, I grew up in San Pedro, which is mentioned frequently in Fante’s book as the place where Bandini goes down to work at the canneries. San Pedro is Los Angeles’s harbor.

Filmmaker: Did you get to know Fante at all before he passed away in 1983?

Towne: Oh yeah. After I read the book, I was kind of blindsided by it. I had been doing research for Chinatown, and I was so taken by the book that I managed to run him down and find out where he was, and he was living in Malibu. Not particularly thrilled to see me. He was an irascible guy, just like his protagonist Bandini, and when I told him I wanted to adapt the book into a movie, he said to me, “What makes you think you can adapt anything? What are your credits?” And of course I had none. I mean, I’d done work on The Godfather and Bonnie and Clyde, but that was uncredited. I was as unknown as he was at that point in his life. And he wasn’t terribly impressed that this unknown writer wanted to rescue him from literary oblivion. When I told him I thought it was a great book, he sort of countered, “What makes your judgment worth anything?” And so it went. I suspect his wife interceded and probably said, “John, he’s a really nice boy, and nobody else is displaying that much interest in your work — why don’t you at least talk to him?” And then our relationship really began, and it lasted for the last 13 years of his life.

Filmmaker: I imagine the story of the ambitious writer coming out West to make it must have been pretty personal to you.

Towne: Well, of course. An unknown writer coming to Los Angeles to make his mark, to write the Great American Novel and make all of his dreams come true? I think that any writer, whether he’s writing screenplays or novels or anything else, has that same fantasy. I mean, it was heightened by the fact that he was coming to a city as a stranger when everybody at that time came to the city as strangers to make their dreams come true. And somebody who was writing about people who were there to make their dreams come true in order to make his own come true? I identified with that. I identified with the fact that he was all of those things that a hungry writer is: manic-depressive, a hypochondriac, feeling crazy, thin-skinned, constantly questioning his ability. How can any writer who is unknown not kind of relate to that? And his ability to confess those things so freely I found both appalling and endearing.

Filmmaker: It’s interesting that you said that you hadn’t seen Los Angeles portrayed in the way that you remember it, because perhaps the only film that comes to mind that maybe approximates that would be Chinatown, which you wrote. How is the Los Angeles of Ask the Dust different from the Los Angeles of Chinatown?

Towne: Well, the Los Angeles of Chinatown is a city of much more menace. Jake Gittes is going up and down those riverbeds looking for a crime, or a conspiracy — basically the foundation on which the city was built. But the Los Angeles of Ask the Dust is a much more quietly desperate place, a place of a kind of sunny desperation.

Filmmaker: In this film especially, it seems that Los Angeles is as much a character as any of the leads.

Towne: Yes, it really is right up there with the major characters. It is the character that informs all of their actions. It’s a place of illusion and hope and, as that old Dr. Demento song “Pico and Sepulveda” says, where nobody’s dream comes true. [laughs]

Filmmaker: What is it about Los Angeles that makes you keep coming back to it as a filmmaker?

Towne: I suppose that it’s a place that continues to have a habit of erasing itself from decade to decade, and yet it’s still classically that dream factory where, since 1848, people have come here to strike it rich with gold, with oil, with real estate, with becoming a movie star, creating a religious cult, leaving old identities and old problems behind and hoping that you can reinvent yourself. Robert Frost once said, “In New England everybody had to eat their pack of dirt, but in California I was told we all should have our pack of gold.” It’s people struggling to be something other than what they are.

Filmmaker: It’s interesting because there are other great filmmakers who have defined a specific city. Woody Allen and New York, for example. They seem to have a boundless affection for the place that they’re working in. Whereas in your work, you seem to be struggling with your affection for the place.

Towne: Well, my feelings are much more ambivalent, yes. I guess a painter paints in the available light, and it’s the light he’s used to. He can both love it and hate it, you know?

Filmmaker: The film is so visually astonishing. What was your directorial point of view of how to portray the city? What were your guidelines?

Towne: Well, we wanted to create our own city. There was none of the Los Angeles of that period left. It had been basically demolished 30 years before. Downtown Bunker Hill — you can see it in some old movies. We looked at old photographs and a few old sketches. With Dennis Gassner, my production designer, and with the input of Caleb Deschanel, our d.p., we decided to distill downtown Bunker Hill as much as we could into the set that you saw, with the Third Street Tunnel, the streetcar and the old buildings. The goal was that the audience would really assume that it was practically a photographic rendering of that time period. And in fact it was kind of a distillation of that city. We built it on two football fields in downtown Capetown, South Africa.

Filmmaker: What kind of budget were you working with?

Towne: A very slight budget, to say the least. Or to say the most.

Filmmaker: How did you manage to maximize the production values? It looks like an expensive film.

Towne: None of us took any money, and all of the money went into the set. I mean, literally all the money that we had available to us went into recreating our vision of L.A.

Filmmaker: What was this production like in comparison to your other work as a director?

Towne: Well, it was very, very tight. We had a 50-day schedule. And we were working in a strange country. But in a way that was a very beneficial thing that we were working in a strange country because it made us feel that we had created our own Los Angeles. There were none of the anomalies of contemporary Los Angeles that we had to face at the end of a day’s work. We went into our city, and that was our city.

Filmmaker: You’re an essential member of that generation that really ushered in the last golden age of Hollywood in the late ’60s and ’70s. What’s your perspective on how Los Angeles as a capital for art filmmaking or challenging filmmaking has changed over the years?

Towne: You are really talking about major studios then and now. And I think that there’s been an increasing split between tentpole movies and independent movies. These so-called independent movies today would have, back then, been made under a major studio’s wing. They would have been supported by the studio during production, and [the studio would have] basically provided the financing, however wary they might have been of a given project. Once they’d agreed to do it, that was that. And that’s not the case anymore. The process is very wearing on the filmmaker, just the process of getting the financing together, holding on to it, being able to get to that first day of principle photography, because a film is never really underwritten until that first day comes if it’s an independent film. And for example, in the case of Ask the Dust, that meant we had to have our set built, and we didn’t really have the money until the first day of principle photography. That’s a very frustrating and draining process.

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham