Robert Towne: Out of Towne

Q: You once said that when you're writing it's hard not to think about Jack even if you're not writing for him.

A: Sure. We were in that class for seven years. I watched him improvise twice a week. I improvised with him. I learned to write as much by watching Jack as anything else. He was so gifted. He drove home the point that what an actor says is not nearly as important as what's behind what he says, the subtext. Also, you could not write a sentence too long for him to say. His cadences were such that he could carry it on and on and it would get funnier and better. Even if I'd say, "I once drilled a whore with a glass eye who would then wink you off," Jack would say "and wink you off for a dollar." Part of it is that his seemingly monotone delivery isn't monotone at all. I learned to listen to other actors' cadences.

Q: Do you agree with what Bob Evans once told me, that Chinatown made Jack's career?

A: Chinatown allowed Jack to take his place in a pantheon of movie stars, in a way, because of the maturity of the part. It suggested both his cruelty and his warmth.

Q: Are you estranged from Nicholson now?

A: Yeah.

Q: Since the failed Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes?

A: Yeah. Does that affect my admiration for his work or the fondness of my memories of him? Not at all. The Two Jakes wasn't what caused the falling-out. It was all the events that led up to it. Jack and I have been, at different times in our lives, as close as brothers. I loved him so much--I loved his art, I loved his spirit, I loved everything about him. And I know so much about him. I can't honestly sit here and tell you for public consumption what went wrong with our relationship without adopting a posture that would [unfairly] suggest it was his doing and not my doing.

Q: Would you say the same things about Warren Beatty, with whom you were also very close at one time?

A: Yes. Both men have had such powerful influences on my life that what went wrong is much less significant than the years we were friends. With Warren, I became very close on Bonnie and Clyde. I championed that script when 50 directors turned it down. So our closeness began on a professional level, whereas Jack and I began on a personal level. I can say in general that ours is a business where all of us are tempted to confuse the personal with the professional, and a lot of mischief occurs there.

Q: Is fame part of the problem?

A: Yes. I mean, look, you are so close to someone every day of your life and then suddenly they become famous. A year or two will go by and you don't realize you haven't seen them because you're seeing them in everyday life the way the public is seeing them--on TV, in the movies, in magazines. You run into each other and say, "Let's catch up and talk." You think you're the same people, but time has gone by and you're not.

Q: Warren used to be talked about in political circles as a potential candidate. Did you ever think he'd run for office?

A: Warren's skills have always been at their peak as a diplomat rather than as a politician. His is the force of personal persuasion. Get him in a room of his peers and he can dominate. Get him in a public forum and he'll worry about saying the wrong thing.

Q: Who among today's younger actors would you compare the early Nicholson and Beatty?

A: Johnny Depp has something in common with early Jack. Jack started with Roger Corman, not as Warren did in pedigreed plays and with Kazan as his first movie director. Jack was an outsider and Johnny was in 21 Jump Street.

Q: Have you ever wanted to work with Depp?

A: Depp should be one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Everyone seems to know it. The difference between Tom and Johnny is that Johnny's a little vainer than Tom. Johnny does not want to be caught dead in something that looks like he's pleasing an audience. [Laughs] Tom doesn't mind.

Q: You're also close to Kurt Russell.

A: Kurt and I talk often. Both Kurt and Tom are possessed of more physical courage than any two men I've ever met. Tom is more discreet than Kurt--by that I mean his choices are more careful. Tom makes choices that he thinks will work and will be challenging. With Kurt, I have teased, "You're the best actor with the worst taste that I've ever seen." And he laughs. He's a ballplayer who's been obliged to become a movie star now making $10, $15 million a movie, having been derailed in his basic, true job.

Q: Is there anyone you had a preconception about who turned out to be completely different?

A: Bob Evans is an example of a guy you can't believe isn't a flaming asshole [laughs], and he comes to be one of the best people in the world. He's surprisingly insightful and even brilliant on movies.

Q: Back when you were going to be the director on The Two Jakes, which Nicholson eventually took over, you cast Evans, who'd only been a B actor before he made his career as a producer, opposite Nicholson. What were you thinking?

A: Oh jeez ... I cast him because if Bob could have behaved on-screen the way he behaves on any given day of his life without acting, he'd have given one of the great performances of all time. It was my arrogance to think I could get him to behave and not act. But he acted.

Q: Did Evans get angry with you over this?

A: Oh yes. But who gives a fuck? I love Bob. He's got one of the great hearts.

Q: Was it Evans who got Polanski to direct Chinatown?

A: He forced Roman into material Roman might not have picked himself: Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown. Roman [himself] picked Fearless Vampire Killers.

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