Robert Towne: Out of Towne

Writer/director Robert Towne, who wrote what many people think is the best screenplay of the last 30 years, Chinatown, talks about everything from how he learned to write by watching Jack Nicholson act to why Billy Crudup ended up playing the role he originally intended for Tom Cruise in his new film Without Limits.

By any standard, Robert Towne, 62, is one of the most influential and sought-after talents in Hollywood. Back when Robert Redford was one of the hottest actors in town, producer Robert Evans said, "I would rather have the next five screenplays from Robert Towne than Robert Redford's next five pictures." That was because Towne, who'd written the Oscar-winning script for Chinatown, which was destined to be one of the most-studied scripts in cinema, invariably created screenplays that breathed drama, subtlety and depth of character--and made for great performances from powerful actors.

Towne is a man who likes to work with friends, and his friends tend to make memorable movies. He worked with Jack Nicholson on The Last Detail, Chinatown, The Missouri Breaks, Drive, He Said, and The Two Jakes. With Warren Beatty he began by doing a rewrite of Bonnie and Clyde, then worked on The Parallax View, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Reds, and Love Affair. For his friend Tom Cruise, he started with_ Days of Thunder_, then did work on The Firm and Mission: Impossible, and now Cruise has produced Without Limits, the story of legendary runner Steve Prefontaine, which Towne wrote and directed. Towne has also had his hand in some three dozen other movies, rewriting scenes or entire scripts, mostly without credit. Though his name may or may not be attached, his signature is on The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), Villa Rides! (1968), The New Centurions (1972), The Yakuza (1975), Marathon Man (1976),_ Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes_ (1984), Swing Shift (1986), 8 Million Ways to Die (1986), Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987) and Frantic (1988). He has directed three of his own screenplays: 1982's Personal Best and 1988's Tequila Sunrise, as well as the new Without Limits.

Towne grew up in San Pedro, California, working summers as a commercial fisherman, dabbling in mortgage banking and even selling houses one summer in the San Fernando Valley. He studied acting with Jeff Corey, where he First met Jack Nicholson, and they both apprenticed with B-Filmmaker Roger Corman. Towne ended up behind the camera rather than in front of it, but making allowances for the differences between a writer and an actor in scale of fame, Towne's renown for finesse with a screenplay is equal to Nicholson's reputation for finesse on the screen itself.

LAWRENCE GROBEL: People outside the industry first heard of you when Francis Coppola accepted his Oscar for The Godfather and thanked you for writing a particularly important scene. Did his acknowledgement surprise you?

ROBERT TOWNE: I knew he was going to do it. Francis had asked if I wanted screenplay credit and I said, "What the fuck for? It was just a scene. When you win the Academy Award, thank me for the scene." Knowing Francis, I knew he'd do it.

Q: Did you know the film was going to be a classic?

A: It was obvious. I'd seen about 75 minutes of the footage and I was stunned. I told Francis it was the greatest footage I'd ever seen in my life. And I could see the look in his eye: he thought I was either a kiss-ass or nuts. He'd been so beaten up by other people during the course of that movie.

Q: What was the scene you wrote?

A: In his novel, Mario Puzo didn't have a scene between Michael and his father passing on the mantle, and Francis felt that their relationship was never going to be resolved without this scene. He had no time to think--he was going to lose Marlon [Brando] and the scene had to be ready for his last day of shooting. So I had to stay up all night to write it.

Q: How did Brando receive it?

A: He was in his makeup chair and he said, "Read it to me." "Read it to you?" "Yeah." "Both parts?" "Yeah." That immediately pissed me off, because I thought, "Well, this fucker's got to know that's an intimidating thing to do to anybody." I made up my mind about one thing: I ain't gonna read this well. [Laughs] Acting for Brando is one mistake I'm not gonna make. I read it and he said, "Read it again." Then he did something that only Tom Cruise has ever done since--he took that scene apart, line by line, pause by pause, word by word. He wanted to know absolutely everything in my head that I could tell him about it.

Q: You've said you believe it takes a certain arrogance to write a screenplay. Why?

A: My grandmother was a gypsy. She was sold to my grandfather. She used to read tea leaves and tell the future. Well, screenwriters have that in common with gypsies--they're trying to predict the future. What's going to happen at some unnamed time and place when people are going to spend upwards of $50 million with actors they don't know, with settings and climactic conditions that nobody knows. And you're saying that this screenplay will be an effective tale, one that will make the investment profitable. That's a level of arrogance that's foolish.

Q: You've compared movies to wars: the guy who becomes an expert is the guy who doesn't get killed.

A: That's right. And it's like a war when it's over: you can't tell whether you've won or lost. It's like trying to tell who did what to whom at an orgy when you were a participant.

Q: You've been through a number of bloody battles, particularly when you directed your first film, Personal Best. There was a writer's strike, you were losing your actors, producer David Geffen was making demands, and you sued Warner Bros. and SAG for breach of fiduciary duty and fraud.

A: I survived, but my life changed forever over Personal Best. If you're dealing with a major studio and also with a billionaire who's hell-bent on opposing you, you're not going to win that battle.

Q: What happened between you and David Geffen?

A: That's a movie--about everything that happened. This much I'll say, and it's not generally known: David had taken over the film during the strike, but I hadn't signed documents with him. The fact is, there had been a deal struck even during the strike where David had been financially covered, and that had not been revealed to me. Assuming at the time that he was at personal risk, I had verbally agreed to two future commitments he had asked from me. [Later] he wanted me to fulfill a contractual commitment that was based upon facts which [I'd found out] were simply untrue. There were rumors he was going to take away the movie until I signed the documents, so I stole the movie. I was accused of many things [at the time], including being a junkie, but I wasn't accused of the one thing that I was--which was a felon.

Q: Have you reconciled with Geffen?

A: We're cordial. You can't afford not to be cordial. David Geffen is too rich to be anything but cordial with.

Q: Was the worst result of all of this that you lost the opportunity to direct your script for Greystoke?

A: Yeah, that's the only really inconsolable event of my professional life.

Q: Do you still feel that Greystoke was the best thing you ever wrote?

A: I don't know. I think it would have been the best film I'd ever done if I'd been able to make it.

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