Cover image from The Whole Equation
Alan Greenblatt, political writer and jazz enthusiast, recommends this title in his list of summer reading picks. Thomson concentrates his attention on a handful of key players, turning the lives of notable figures from Louis B. Mayer to Stephen Spielberg into deeply intuitive parables of success or disappointment, Greenblatt says.
Get more nonfiction suggestions from writer Alan Greenblatt.
On a brilliant Saturday morning in late March 2003, warm yet fresh enough to keep many Californians out in the bliss of the air itself, I was invited by the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities to have a public conversation with Robert Towne, the screenwriter, as part of a weekend conference entitled "From Sunset Blvd. To Mulholland Dr.: Los Angeles in the Cinematic Imagination."
We were in a large basement hall at the Davidson Conference Center at the University of Southern California, but it was fun, relaxed, and instructive to a degree. I have known Towne for twenty years. We have talked a good deal, and enjoyed it. We are friends, or friendly. We did our best to be serious about the beguiling gloom of noir Los Angeles, and the foreboding of Towne’s best-known movie, Chinatown.
We did a decent job, I hope, yet nothing matched the burnished day outside where, in an urban sprawl far beyond Nathanael West’s worst nightmares (to say nothing of the invasion of Iraq that had begun), some people seemed to be having a good time, or as good a time as people have had in human history; that is not to flatter L.A. or the U.S.A., and I hope it’s not being silly or sentimental about all the wretchedness there must have been in L.A. that day and others. Still, free people took their leisure–on the beaches, on playing fields, in the shops and open-air restaurants (at the movie theatres even?). Some read books, or wrote them. Some must have married, or been in love.
In the period allowed for questions, a young woman asked Towne whether there was any chance for the completion of the “trilogy” that had been begun with Chinatown. For in his mind, at least, there had been a time when Towne had hoped to follow his private eye, Jake Gittes, through the decades–1937, 1947, 1957–tracing the story of water rights, of oil, and of the killing of public transport to let the automobile own Los Angeles. There had been a second movie, The Two Jakes–much troubled and not satisfactory, and plainly removed from Towne’s control or authorship–but nothing of a third film.
Towne is a successful man as screenwriters go. He has an Oscar and a fine house in Pacific Palisades. He has been involved with the two Mission: Impossible pictures (and even a third?) at a very high salary. He has a great dream, to film John Fante’s Ask the Dust, one of the best novels about Los Angeles in the thirties–and that film has come to pass. Yet I think I know him well enough as a man who would count his losses first if you asked him to describe himself. And he lost Jake Gittes–long ago. “No,” he told the questioner. “No chance.”
That’s what I want to talk about–for if he meant what he said, we are all the losers for it.
Robert Towne is an Angeleno; he has lived there most of his life, and he wears the badge of the city on his sleeve, as it were. In the Preface to a published version of the Chinatown screenplay (and very few screenplays get published), he wrote about his memory of the childhood scents of Los Angeles, of a quality in the air now gone in the toxic rush of urbanization. He wrote about it with such warmth and
feeling and nostalgia–like a true writer would:
Chinatown is a sort of eulogy for me. It is a eulogy I’m afraid for things lost that would concern others about as much as a missing button or a dead mouse. Easterners, for example, have often tended to be a little snide about the tepid weather and negligible change in seasons–things I have loved perhaps the most about L.A. I’ve loved the first hint of October nipping thru the sunlight after school, New Year’s Day, chilly and clear as crystal as tho someone put the sun in the freezer overnight, the February rains that came with Valentines and would flood intersections with muddy waters rushing around stalled cars, vacant lots in March that overnight sprouted thousands of sharp green spears you could pull and send with a clod of dark earth hurtling at another kid, little ponds of black polliwogs squiggling like animated commas–and then spring and summer with the smell of pepper trees mentholated more and more by eucalyptus, the green lots turning to straw leaving foxtails in your socks and smelling like hay in the morning, the Santa Anas progressively drying the city into sand and summer smells.
The boy noticed; the man learned to write. Towne’s parents were well off, but he attended Pepperdine College, up on the way to Malibu. And he drifted into screenwriting, by way of acting classes–the place where he first met Jack Nicholson. He still likes acting and actors, and even in private talk he has a way of being that is casual but intimate, like the best sort of naturalistic acting. I like this quality in him, and others, but I know some who feel it is just a touch too calculated, too stylish, too unreliable. Make up your own mind. But still its ease and attractiveness, and its worldliness, are deep at the heart of this book’s subject.
Towne worked for Roger Corman. He did a few scripts for exploitation films. And then he began to demonstrate, or act out, one of his most vital traits: he made friendships in which his discreet touch, or treatment, was highly esteemed. He had met Warren Beatty–some have said that he and Beatty learned their stylishness in the course of long telephone conversations, absorbing it from each other. Whatever, when Beatty came to make his first movie as a producer, Bonnie and Clyde, no matter that he had a highly original script (by Robert Benton and David Newman), and a very good director (Arthur Penn), still Beatty hired Towne to go on location with the film to Texas to work on the script, to touch it up, to give it what Beatty wanted, to doctor it. To make sure Warren was in charge.
When that film opened, and eventually enjoyed its outstanding success, Towne had a most unusual credit on it: Special Consultant. I’m not sure that a writer had ever had so secret yet so public a credit, though very often in Hollywood history, writers had done uncredited work doctoring or rewriting scripts. Towne’s insider status was confirmed when it became known–and somehow it did slip out–that he had joined The Godfather at short notice to “help” with the final scenes of Vito Corleone’s life.
It’s worth stressing (with what I have in mind) that up to this moment (1972), Towne was most illustrious for his imprecise intervention, doctoring, or help on other writers’ scripts. Which would not always have left those other writers feeling better, happy or well treated. But it was Towne’s way to success, and I do not doubt the value of what he brought to those two films. Still, I want to underline his ghostly presence, for it is close to the odd avoidance of responsibility in Hollywood.
By the early seventies, therefore, he was in a position where he could expect to get assignments to write whole films, big pictures, worthwhile ventures. In fact, he wrote three scripts in a row–The Last Detail, Chinatown, and Shampoo–that all received Oscar nominations. It was the peak of his career, with the Oscar going to Chinatown, and to him as the sole writer of an original script.
No one has ever argued but that Chinatown was his idea. Towne has said that in April 1971 his wife brought him a copy of Carey McWilliams’s book, Southern California Country, which held the germ of the story of how William Mulholland had secured water for a growing Los Angeles from the Owens Valley, 250 miles to the north. Around the same time, he saw a magazine article in which a photographer had re-created the late-1930s mood and look of the Raymond Chandler novels.
He had begun work (on spec), or he looked forward to beginning it, when he had dinner with Robert Evans, a key figure at Paramount, and the executive who had had The Godfather made. Evans had come to the table to ask Towne to take over the script for The Great Gatsby, but all Towne wanted to talk about was Chinatown. It’s about how Los Angeles became a boomtown, he said–incest and water. It’s set in the thirties. A second-rate shamus gets eighty-sixed by a mysterious broad. Instead of solving a case for her, he’s the pigeon. I’m writing it for Nicholson.
This was more or less so. Nicholson and Towne had talked about Chinatown. But Nicholson had not purchased the idea or the script, or Towne’s time. I know, that sounds crass when a person is gently nursing a great story and his fondness for a lost city into being. But writers have to eat.
Evans, acting for Paramount, offered Towne $25,000 to do Chinatown; he had been ready to pay him $175,000 to doctor Truman Capote’s wretched Gatsby script.
Towne created it–but Paramount owned it. Yes, such formulae operate all the time in Hollywood, so let me explain the setup carefully. Suppose Chinatown was a first novel. That is a little far-fetched, because Towne had done several things already. Nevertheless, in terms of how far the material was autobiographical in feeling, Chinatown was like a first novel, in which case he might well have written the book in private, on his own time, and only then offered it to a publisher. Or he might have secured a modest advance on account of promise.
In which case, the deal would have gone thus: for an advance of, say, $5,000 (generous for 1972), Towne would have delivered a novel. When it was published, he would get a royalty of, say, 10 percent of the selling price on the first 5,000 copies; 121⁄2 percent on the next 5,000; and 15 percent after that. There would be provisions in the contract for sales of paperback and other subsidiary rights including, perhaps, a sale to the movies. Towne would have retained the copyright.
That means the author owns the work and is simply licensing the publisher to sell it. His editor at the publishing house might fight tooth-and-nail for a year or more trying to get Towne to rewrite the book, to make it clearer, to make it more saleable. (In fact, on a $5,000 advance, that kind of striving is unlikely–it’s not practical or rewarding. An editor works hardest on a book he expects could be a bestseller. If you can’t understand a first novel when you read it that first time, why publish it?)
Still, there could be editorial work, and rewriting, and fights before a novel is printed. But they get settled because, once the contract is signed, it is acknowledged that the book belongs to the author. If it goes out of print, and stays out, the author can regain the rights he licensed. He can try to get a new publisher. When he is dead, for at least seventy years, the copyright and any income the book earns go to his heirs or estate. Only after that does a book enter what is called public domain.
The script of Chinatown that Towne delivered perplexed its best supporters. Evans and Nicholson joked together how they couldn’t follow its twists and turns. Roman Polanski, the director Evans had hired to make the film, was equally at a loss, and sure that he had to take drastic measures to make it “work.” Rewrites from Towne didn’t clarify enough. Executives at Paramount were advising Evans not to make the picture, or not to attach himself to it so personally. And, of course, Paramount could have elected not to make the movie–they owned it, and thus they had the right of refusal. Evans stuck by it: “I knew I had Nicholson locked, and, even though I didn’t understand the script, I knew Towne was a great writer. I felt like a blind gambler wanting to throw back-to-back sevens.”
Several important points come from this. Scripts are not easily read, and possibly the richer a film, the harder it is for “outsiders” to detect its quality. It’s not going too far to say that in the history of the movies, many semiliterate people (or disadvantaged readers) have had to make a judgment on a hundred or so pages of single-spaced typing, laid out in a strange and inaccessible way. That is one reason why some of those men, the executives, have thrown away scripts in despair and told someone to just tell them the damn story. To this day, “the pitch” telling a movie story in a few persuasive minutes–is vital to getting projects made. It follows therefore that many scripts are never actually read. In turn, this encourages everyone’s assumption, or hope, that they can exist in a state of continual rewrite.
But note Evans’s attitude. “I knew I had Nicholson locked. . . .” He saw himself as if not the film’s proprietor, then its skipper, assembling units of talent and identifying the picture with his ego and status at the studio. Chinatown would not have existed without Robert Towne. Roman Polanski became the project’s director, and perhaps the best-known theory of film production is that everything depends on the director, the auteur. When the general public says Chinatown to itself, it sees the sour smileon Jack Nicholson’s face; not to mention Faye Dunaway or John Huston (hefty presences in its story and mood), Richard Sylbert (its production designer), John A. Alonzo (the cinematographer), or Jerry Goldsmith (who wrote the memorable theme
music at the last moment, in just ten days, after another score had been dropped). Still, Evans felt sure and safe in thinking the picture was his because his peers–the powerbrokers of Hollywood–would expect it of him. Studios own movies. Producers make them.
And then there was the longing in Evans to see the whole enterprise as a gamble: not just in terms of winning big as opposed to losing; but because to gamble is to defy all those sacred American codes of hard work and just reward; it is believing in magic. Nearly everyone important in the old Hollywood gambled several nights a week, as if they dared not lose touch with magic.
Towne and Polanski sat down together to convert the script into a shooting script–the one is a dream, the other is a precise plan of action to determine which sets are built and costumes ordered, and how time and money are scheduled. The two men got on very badly. Towne was hesitant, Polanski aggressive. In a story that had so many hints of rape, Towne felt he was being robbed, or got at. Polanski was intent on the bare practicalities, and he felt Towne was clinging to obscurity and doubt. Writers and directors are not always alike, which is one reason they envy each other.
The decisive battle concerned the ending of the film. Towne’s initial concept and the story he had sustained throughout his writing process was gentler than the film we know. Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway) and her daughter were to get away. Noah Cross (Huston) was to be killed. Jake Gittes was left as the patsy.
Excerpted from The Whole Equation by David Thomson. Copyright © 2004 by David Thomson. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.