Robert Towne: Out of Towne

Q: You fought with Polanski over the ending to Chinatown and Polanski prevailed. Who was right?

A: Roman and I have been much misunderstood about this. We both agreed that it ended darkly. The only difference was I felt it was too melodramatic to end it his way. The way I had it figured was just about as dark, but Roman felt it needed that finale. I was wrong and he was right. Roman is one of the most gifted filmmakers of all time. As the years have gone by, I see that he taught me more than anybody. The best working relationship I ever had was with him. By far. He's a giant.

Q: What made Roman so good at narrative?

A: Guts is what makes Roman so good. A willingness to take the time with what other directors consider shoe leather and want to get through quickly. He understands that the credibility of a melodramatic story is to let the guy take his time.

Q: You worked with him on Frantic, which didn't turn out so well.

A: I think it would have been more interesting to make it the story about a man who goes to Paris to honeymoon with his wife to recapture something that had died with his success, then loses his wife literally, and through having an affair, remembers what it was like to love his wife. The affair should have taken place that way, and didn't.

Q: Any impressions of Harrison Ford?

A: I knew Harrison before that. He almost did The Two Jakes. Harrison's a powerful presence, a very careful, cautious, guarded man. One who, in a way that I admire, takes care of himself better than I've been able to take care of myself. He's a good man. I asked him to play the lead in Without Limits. He never read the script. He was in the middle of The Devil's Own and said he just wanted to go home. He's an actor of greater range than his choice of roles would indicate. But he does what he does better than anyone else on earth.

Q: What other writers have influenced you?

A: Like everyone else of my generation, I was profoundly influenced by J.D. Salinger. He was the first guy who used language suggestive of what I heard on the street. He used refrain and a kind of careful imprecision. Behind his constant phrase "If you know what I mean," is an unwillingness to get too specific in communicating. In life, people are very often loathe to say exactly what they mean, even if they can articulate it. Furthermore, we tend to suspect people who are too articulate. Who are the actors who seem to be the ones that we believe? "Yup," John Wayne. Henry Fonda. Gary Cooper. Clint. Monosyllabic guys. We tend to believe they're more honest precisely because their feelings are almost too important to be able to be put into words.

Q: What screenwriters influenced you?

A: One of the great scenes I've ever seen was between van Gogh and Gauguin in James Agee's [unproduced] screenplay Noa Noa. Gauguin was a tough guy who gave up banking and left his family to pursue painting. Van Gogh was in many ways a hothouse flower. There's a scene in which they're painting and a daddy longlegs gets caught in the paint on Gauguin's canvas. When he brushes it away, van Gogh goes to pieces because it loses a leg. He starts to clean the paint off the spider and says, "There, there, it will be all right." Gauguin looks at him and says, "I want to paint your picture." Then there are close-ups of the two men, with van Gogh unable to keep still, knowing he's being judged. Gauguin finishes it and van Gogh asks to see it, and now the shoe is on the other foot, it's Gauguin who is nervous: "What do you think? What do you think?" "Well, Paul, it's very good, but you painted me as if I've already gone mad." That scene floored me, because it depends in its entirety on silences, these two guys and a canvas which you don't really see.

Q: What films have most affected you?

A: Renoir's Grand Illusion. Rules of the Game. Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light, Smiles of a Summer Night and_ The Seventh Seal_. Doctor Zhivago, which one recognizes as very sloppy in terms of detail, but Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia both moved me. Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Giant--I'm always grateful for the strong emotional effect of movies. One of the best movies ever made is Double Indemnity, in terms of just dazzling skills. It ages better than Sunset Blvd., although I like that one very much too. Certainly The Maltese Falcon. I recognize John Ford as wonderful, like Milton, but like John Milton, I'm not drawn to read him. There's one movie in the last five years that's stuck with me: One False Move. It's in a class by itself. When have you ever seen a movie where for 60 percent of it you have no idea who the protagonist is? That's the advantage of a movie without movie stars.

Q: What would you like to see taught to young screenwriters today?

A: The screenwriters I've admired brought other disciplines and other lives to their writing. They worked in other professions, were exposed to walks of life which gave them a broad insight into society. That bleeds into their films, which gives them the vitality that maybe screenwriters who go to cinema school and feed on old movies could use.


Lawrence Grobel interviewed Wesley Snipes for the August 98 issue of Movieline.

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