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Lessons from a Legend: Robert Towne

Last night, screenwriter Robert Towne spoke in between a presentation of his two LA masterpieces, Chinatown and The Two Jakes. Disarmingly honest, funny, and quite wise, he shared his writing philosophy and answered some questions about the movies from the audience. Sure, the questions were fawning, and the answers were not always straightforward, but here are the lessons I gleaned from his talk.

1) Don’t be afraid to write more than necessary. Protagonist J.J. Gittes makes many allusions to Chinatown in the movie, but we never really learn what went down there when he worked for the district attorney’s office. Towne shared the subplot, something to do with a failed truce between rival gangs that he mediated, but even he wasn’t sure. Yet as moderator and film expert F.X. Feeney pointed out, “All of the stuff you write makes it into the movie in some form” and it’s true here. The story is richer for this complexity, even if it doesn’t affect this story. Gittes becomes an even more complex character, one we can’t help but wonder about.

2) It’s a collaboration. Without the sublime score by Jerry Goldsmith, this would not be the same movie. In fact, an earlier score made the film painful to listen to. Without the production design by Richard Sylbert, the sets would have appeared corny instead of classic. And without the influence of director Roman Polanski, the film could not have embraced the screenplay’s complexity and would instead forgo it. And let’s face it, no one could have played Giddes with the same charm and passion as Jack Nicholson. It’s an excellent script, but an even better movie.

3) Let the story take you. Towne alluded to the fact that at a certain point, writing Chinatown became like a dance when the partner, his script, takes over. The characters, story arc, background, all pointed to one way of telling. This metaphor feels apt. My best writing never feels like writing, it feels like taking dictation from a story I know by heart. This may rarely happen, but when the story takes you, let it. He compared his writing process to building inertia. It sure is hard to get started, but when things do start, let it roll.

4) Don’t be afraid of a second draft. I don’t remember the exact number of drafts that Towne and Polanski worked through (Peter Bart writes on this in his new book, Infamous Players) but there were a lot. Yet in the end, all of that work paid off. While Towne didn’t talk about it so much last evening, it’s true; Chinatown would not be the same movie if the shooting script were the rough draft. It takes time and patience to write a truly great story.

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