Saturday, December 4, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #5: Robert Towne (1988)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

One section of the book deals with film directors who began confronting the changing face of the industry in the Eighties. By 1988, screenwriter Robert Towne had become one of Hollywood's most gifted, intelligent and in-demand writers. He emerged out of the Sixties as a key "script consultant" on Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and in the Seventies on The Godfather (1972). Towne soon became an influential screenwriter himself as that decade went forward (The Last Detail, Chinatown, Shampoo) and turned to directing in the eighties (Personal Best, Tequila Sunrise). When we chatted in 1988, while he was promoting Tequila Sunrise, an entertaining romantic melodrama starring Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kurt Russell, neither of us could guess that he would make only two more movies (Without Limits, Ask the Dust) in the next couple of decades.

kc: Let's go back to your beginnings as a budding screenwriter in the early sixties. I didn't realize until recently that you were part of that Roger Corman low-budget finishing school that included Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese. How did you get involved?

rt: When I knew Roger, he was taking an acting course with Jeff Corey in the late fifties. There was Roger, Jack Nicholson, James Coburn, Sally Kellerman, dancer Barry Chase and myself. It was a time when Jeff had been blacklisted and not acting and his teaching had a degree of intensity about it that was rare. And the people that gathered there worked hard and learned from one another. I was always intending to write and Roger knew it. He came up to me in class one day and said, "Kid, I hear you want to be a writer." And I said, "Yeah." He said, "Okay, how would you like to write this for me for fifty cents, or the equivalent thereof?" That's how I got started. He just gave me opportunities where none previously existed.

kc: But what was it that made this milieu so openly collaborative?

rt: It was a collaborative effort in the sense that our ambitions, being shared ones, were healthier. You work in a certain way and you have common goals. It's all about the quality of the work. You believe in a certain kind of work and a different level of reality in it. We thought that when we grew up, we would make movies more real and they'd be better. And through our aspirations, we developed a common language about movies. Then, as we started to work together, we really did change them.

kc: The first major film you were part of and listed as a "special consultant" was Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde. How did you get involved in that film?

rt: It was through Warren Beatty. I had written a script for Roger that Warren had read. He didn't want to do my film, but he liked it and he asked Arthur about letting me do re-writes on Bonnie and Clyde. So I did.

kc: What kinds of suggestions did you give?

rt: The initial script featured a menage a trois with Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway and Michael J. Pollard, but because of it and the amount of action, it was very difficult to bring those relationships to a conclusion. It tended to be a little static. This was less a function of censorship since things were expanding rapidly in terms of what was permissive. It was more a function of what was dramatically more dynamic. So we ended up returning to the relationship between Bonnie and Clyde. And once we determined that, the real dynamic structure in the movie revolved around not if Bonnie and Clyde were going to get killed, but when. We had to decide whether their relationship, in one way or another, would be resolved before that happens. Now as simple as that sounds, that was the basic change in the directing of the course of the story.

kc: Was there any one scene that you altered in order to bring that aspect of the story out?

rt: Yeah. There was a wonderful scene that Robert Benton and David Newman had written which is in the script intact. It's the scene where Bonnie and Clyde kidnap the characters played by Gene Wilder and Evans Evans. When Bonnie and Clyde take them on this joyride, they ask them during a moment of camaraderie what this guy did for a living. When Gene says that he's a mortician, Bonnie orders Clyde to get him out of the car. Now that scene had originally come after a reunion with Bonnie's mother. I made the suggestion that the scene should come before the reunion and make that inadvertent. Picking up the mortician had reminded her of her immanent death and provided a motive for her to go back to her mother and have the reunion. Unlike in the original script, where the mother was happy to see her and has fun, the scene now has this moment where Clyde tells her mother that they'll live just a few miles from her and the mother tells that she doesn't think so because they'll end up dead. It's just providing a little emphasis to the audience that the road they were travelling on was heading to one place. Aside from what other writing I did, that was the main thrust of my suggestions.

kc: You also contributed a similar shift of emphasis during a scene in The Godfather. Which scene was that?

rt: It was the scene between Vito and his son Michael in the garden. It was done to illustrate the passing of power from one generation to the other. I was called in to do it because it was a longer scene that required a good deal of talk between the two men. In the novel, there wasn't a scene between Michael and his father at that point in the story. Francis [Coppola] realized that he needed something in the movie where Vito tells his son that he loves him. But that wasn't very dramatic. So when it came to that part of the movie, I invented a scene where the father, in a rambling discourse, is trying to tell his son that he's sorry that he hasn't been able to free them from his gangster past and that Michael will have to continue as Vito had.

kc: Ironically, when you wrote the screenplay for Roman Polanski's Chinatown, you were suddenly the one who had a key scene altered by the director. At the end of the movie, the detective Jake Gittes is unable to save the abused heroine, or her daughter, from her land baron father. I gather you had a different idea in mind.

rt: What I wanted was something a little more complicated. I wanted the Faye Dunaway heroine to kill her father and go to jail for it because she wanted to protect her daughter from her father. But she didn't want to reveal that her daughter was part of the incestuous relationship the father and she had. Since Dunaway knew that the old man was completely corrupt and perverse, she knew the only way to protect her daughter was to kill their mutual father and have Gittes get her daughter to Mexico. In fact, in the back-story that's part of the sequel I plan to make called The Two Jakes, you discover that he did get her to Mexico. I mean, it was in a certain way as bleak as Roman's ending was, but I wanted a little leavening to the darkness of the story. I thought it needed a little innocence, or an attempt to preserve something and not as relentless as that ending actually was.

kc: At the time, I couldn't decide whether or not that ending was just a reflection of the darkness in Roman Polanski, or a reflection of that whole post-Watergate mood?

rt: I think that it was part of a feeling that all of us had. It's just that Roman took it to the clearest extremes that he could. And I was notorious for shading even black visions. I was always one for giving a shade of grey - if only to make it more credible.

kc: Part of that shading you describe is very evident in the way you created Gittes.

rt: That's very true. Gittes is a man who knows better but can't help acting as if there's the possibility that someone will do something decent. He's both a pragmatist and a smart-ass, yet he's also a romantic. He's always hoping for the best knowing that he should expect the worst.

kc: In The Last Detail, you wrote another character with complex shadings who was also played by Jack Nicholson. Nicholson is a blowhard sailor who is taking some young turk to the brig. But what's interesting is that we come to see that he's more imprisoned than the guy he's taking to jail.

rt: That's right. He's locked into the conventions of his life. He is a blowhard and he swears like a sailor should. But what's underneath it is that he's a lifer in the navy. He is imprisoned by the regulations and simply lacks the belief in his own ability to affect a change. Therefore all he can do is swear about it. He can only express his feelings of impotence with strong language, but with no actions. He'll still take that kid to jail. The kid will still unjustly serve eight years for stealing twenty dollars. And there's nothing this navy lifer will do for him ultimately because he's trapped in a jail of his own. Freedoms are illusory. And by inference, those of us who do jobs that allow us to rationalize our behaviour by saying we're just doing our job, are also imprisoned. That's also part of the theme of The Last Detail.

kc: You wrote another picture for director Hal Ashby - who did The Last Detail - and that was Shampoo. One of the peculiar things about this movie is how misunderstood I think it is. I have friends who feel that the film was just Warren Beatty proving that he's a stud. I know others who feel that George's sexual escapades should have warranted punishment, in fact, they thought that the ending provided it. But I got the feeling that you weren't making those kinds of moral judgments.

rt: No. I wasn't. You want people to come to an understanding of these things for themselves. If you look at Shampoo, you'll see that George is not an exploiter. He's not even being exploited. George is just caught and lost in a time when there was a great deal of sexual and political hypocrisy. The corruption is pervasive and he's a good-natured and sweet kid. Some serious critic, I forget who, was struck after a passage of time about how sad the movie was. I think it is sad. It's like a European comedy of manners. When you think about it, nobody really gets what they want. In the end, the characters are left entering an era when everybody started settling for less. That's what makes it so sad and nobody is really blamed for it.

kc: When you turned to writing and directing in Personal Best, it's funny that there is very little dialogue. Why did you want to make this movie about two female athletes who are in love and yet also competing to take part in the summer Olympics?

rt: True. It was a film that depended more on the action. I felt that the characters had to be depicted for the way they moved. I wanted to depict character through movement as Jody Anderson, the black athlete, moved like a female John Henry. Mariel Hemingway moved like a graceful but ungainly colt. Patrice Donnelly embodied the title "personal best" because she attained a certain perfection within the limitations of her own body. I mean, she was all she could be, which was not a world champion, but the maximum of her potential. Now because of the amount of time needed to depict character through movement - rather than dialogue - I felt that I had to direct it.

kc: Yet there is a casualness in the dialogue you did write which I enjoyed for both its humour and how it revealed the strength and weaknesses of the two women - How important is that casualness in your work?

rt: It's very important. You can take certain chances with dialogue. If you know you're not going to be harsh in the way the actor says it. For instance, Julie Christie has that famous scene in Shampoo where she tells someone at a dinner table that she wants to fellate Warren. Those lines could be crude, strictly speaking, but coming out of her mouth with her face registering pain and resentment over how she's being treated as Jack Warden's mistress, it means something entirely different. It's an act of defiance and rebellion from someone who is very hurt because she feels degraded. Paradoxically, the scene becomes funny rather than lewd. You're in sympathy with her.

kc: In Tequila Sunrise, which resembles a number of forties melodramas, did you want to add more complexity to a genre that seldom accommodates it?

rt: I wanted to take a melodrama and show, while still keeping the characters' emotional lives clear and easy to follow, the practical complexities of what they're dealing with. Kurt Russell plays a good cop who thinks that drugs are a scourge that has to be obliterated. As a practical matter, there is a very real possibility that all he'll do by trying to affect a change in the situation, is to get his best friend, played by Mel Gibson, a former drug dealer who is innocent, put in jail and the woman he loves killed. All of this in the name of doing his job. He's also dealing with a villain who will be replaced by someone else. And that villain will probably have the support of the United States government. A good cop like Kurt Russell runs the risk of being privately corrupted. He lies about what he's doing to the people he cares about most. Sooner or later, he has to corrupt his own feelings. He perverts traditional human values and the strongest human feelings - friendship and love - in the name of a job that won't bring him any more progress than Gittes archived in Chinatown. He may think he knows what's going on, but in fact, he doesn't know what's going on. Whatever his set of assumptions, he's forced to make choices. And, in life, our actions always catch up with us at odd moments.

kc: What constitutes loyalty and friendship is certainly a large part of what concerns you then?

rt: In Tequila Sunrise, the Gibson character is manipulated by the villain and the cop. Both claim his allegiance as fast friends. Kurt, as the cop, suggests to Mel that if he's really his friend, he'll turn in his other friend and get him busted. The villain, on the other hand, thinks that if he really was a friend he'd kill the girl so that he won't get busted. I mean, the kinds of things that are evoked in the name of friendship is one of the central themes in Tequila Sunrise. I wanted to look at the idea that your job is more important than your personal life. And once you accept that, you can use your personal life to do your job. You can either get a guy busted, or get a girl killed - or do whatever you want. Once you feel that what you do is more important than who you are, or what traditional values you uphold, you can manipulate and pervert any values that you want.

kc: That sounds like a ripe metaphor for the movie business and what has happened to the quality of movies this past decade.

rt: I come from a town that is making movies in a time when the thing they understand best, because they've done it so much, or the times demand it, is a Rambo, a Superman, a Chuck Norris and they feel that they need a low-key Superman like Crocodile Dundee who's never wrong. They need a high-key comedian like Eddie Murphy who - as bright and as brilliant as he is - has an unsettling underlying facet in his work. And that is, that the joke is on everybody else but Eddie Murphy. I mean, he is always right. He's a smart-ass who is the absolute reverse of Chaplin's tramp. We've gone a long way. Comedians used to play victims and now we need superheroes and supervillains. I don't think it's a healthy view of life and it's ultimately not healthy for movies. If you want to get rid of a problem like drugs, you're going to have to accept the proposition that there won't be supervillains doing the dealing. It's far more complex. There's goodness in the darndest places. Unless you're willing to deal with that kind of complexity, you're either not going to solve the problems, nor in my view, are you going to make movies that will hold your interest indefinitely. Sooner or later, you're going to get tired of seeing Superman.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011, Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir at the Revue Cinema in Toronto (see

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