YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections
(Page 2 of 4)

Cover Story

Sleuthing 'Chinatown'

Director Roman Polanski and writer Robert Towne fought and fought over the script and yet produced a classic.


"I finished the film and I looked at the rough cut, and as usual the rough cut is this very depressing moment for a director," Polanski recalls. "And a director who does not have experience [with] it is close to suicide at that stage. But even knowing that that very difficult moment would pass, I still was tremendously depressed seeing the rough cut. I showed it to a friend of mine . . . and was so ashamed when the lights came up. And he said, 'What a great movie!' I said, 'Is something wrong with him?' I truly didn't think that he could be right."

Polanski says he never once thought during the making of the movie that it would become a classic. Neither did Paramount's head of production, Robert Evans, who produced the film through his own production company.

"Up until the time the reviews broke, we weren't sure whether we had a disaster on our hands or something that was just different," says Evans, 70, adding that most Paramount executives openly predicted the film would fail.

Polanski Was Reluctant--at First

From its birth as a sprawling first-draft script in '73, "Chinatown" was never considered a commercial sure-shot. At first, even Polanski passed on it (at the time, he was busy in Rome).

"I really felt happy in Rome," he says. "I was working there, I had a great house and a bunch of friends with whom I worked. It just wasn't interesting for me to go to make a film in Los Angeles."

Besides, Los Angeles reminded him of personal tragedy; four years earlier, his wife, Sharon Tate, pregnant with their child, was sadistically murdered by members of Charles Manson's gang.

"I had too vivid memories of all those events of '69 and I didn't feel like going to work there," he says.

But the calls from Hollywood to Rome kept coming, first from Nicholson, who personally asked Polanski to direct, and then from Evans, who apparently made the director an offer he couldn't refuse. Polanski was soon on a plane to LAX.

What eventually followed was a pivotal eight-week writing session in which Polanski and Towne dismantled Towne's script and then painstakingly rebuilt it piece by piece. Their writing workday would begin around 9:30 or 10 in the morning and would last until around 7 or 8 in the evening--and was usually followed by a night of hard partying.

"I don't think there was a day that we worked that we didn't go out and play at night," Towne recalls. "The mood at night was--it was the 1970s. We had a good time. Fooled around. I'll leave it at that." Apparently, the after-hours carousing continued even during the shooting: "[Nicholson] could stay up until 6 in the morning but he would be [on the set] at 8 or 9 knowing his lines like nobody else," Polanski says. "There was never any kind of problem with him."

Turning the muddy draft into a filmable script proved an enormous task.

The first draft "was gigantic and could not actually be shot the way it was written," Polanski says. "But there were terrific things in it. The second draft, I remember Robert took a long time and then it was even longer. There were many more characters and it was quite convoluted. We sat down and with discipline tried to combine some things."

Towne concedes that if his first draft had been filmed as it was, "it would have been a mess." Most of the rewriting consisted of re-sequencing scenes while organizing and clarifying the complicated plot.

"We took the script and broke it down into one-sentence summations of each scene," Towne says. "Then we took a scissors and cut those little scenes . . . and pasted them on the door of the study at his house where we were working. And the game was to shift those things around until we got them in an order that worked.

"At an early stage in the writing of it, I remember . . . thinking, what should be revealed first: the real estate scandal, the water scandal or the incest? As obvious as the answer became, that was the first question I dealt with. And I did realize the water scandal had to come first, a fairly obvious choice when you stop to think about it. But beyond that, the rest of the structural changes of significance took place with Roman, shifting them around back and forth."

Polanski says he "did more of a construction, the shaping up of the plot. . . . And also I worked on the dialogue in a way that people can go crazy sitting with me because I like eliminating every unnecessary word."

He says he also put Gittes into sharper focus, partly by using a radical style of subjective point-of-view (in which he filmed much of the movie over Nicholson's shoulder). "The events that happen are really only seen by [Gittes]," he says. "You never show things that happen in his absence."

Writer and Director Fought Over Ending

Towne and Polanski argued frequently during their collaboration. "We fought every day," Towne says. "We'd fight about how to get to a restaurant."

"Chinatown's" success "happened through a lot of arguments, fights," Evans agrees. "There was warfare throughout the picture, but that's healthy."

Los Angeles Times Articles