The Cinematheque Ontario Lecture Series: Robert Towne in conversation with Geoff Pevere at Jackman Hall (317 Dundas West), Art Gallery of Ontario, tonight (Thursday, February 16), 6:30 pm. $15.50. 416-968-FILM. Rating: NNNNN
Robert Towne, a screenwriter for four decades, is almost as famous for the screenplays he worked on uncredited as he is for those that have his name on them.
He won an Oscar for Chinatown and was nominated for The Last Detail and Shampoo, and more recently wrote the Mission: Impossible films.
His list as a script doctor includes what seems like half the key films of the late 60s and early 70s: Bonnie And Clyde; The Parallax View; Drive, He Said; Heaven Can Wait; The Missouri Breaks.
Having recently completed his fourth film as a director, an adaptation of John Fante's novel Ask The Dust, opening in March, Towne will be interviewed live at Cinematheque Ontario tonight. A 15-minute preview of Ask The Dust and clips from his other films will be screened.
Towne spoke with NOW from Chicago, where he's doing publicity for the new film. I asked him why so much time has elapsed between his directing stints. In the two decades since Personal Best, he's made three films.
"In the 80s, after Personal Best, I had a protracted custody battle over my now 28-year-old daughter, and under terms of my custodial rights I couldn't leave town. Divorce and custody battles are emotionally debilitating and financially terrifying. I could make more money more quickly by writing, and writing things that weren't necessarily emotionally satisfying. There's an industry around divorce in California maybe in other places, too that feeds on marriage like carrion beasts."
By 1997, his life had stabilized, and Towne was able to make Without Limits, produced by Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner. He says he got sidetracked writing the Mission: Impossible movies for them, but it's a relationship that works Cruise and Wagner also produced Ask The Dust.
It's set in Depression-era Los Angeles, a favourite subject for Towne, a native Angeleno.
"I read the novel when I was researching Chinatown. It's the story of a young writer, an Italian-American (Colin Farrell) who comes to L.A. from Colorado to write the great American novel, get rich and marry a beautiful blond.
"Then he meets Salma Hayek and they're crazy about each other, but they're both mad because of their ethnicity. As Salma's character says, "Lopez to Bandini is not much of an improvement.' The central part of the story is how they overcome that conflict."
In other words, it's a small-scale historical period film about relationships exactly the sort of film the studios want to finance today. Towne knows better than most how difficult it's become to get personal films through the system.
"This kind of picture, it's three, four, five times harder to make them today. Every one of those great 70s movies Taxi Driver, Coming Home, Chinatown, Shampoo was a mainstream film financed by the studios. The studios weren't often sure of the commercial prospects, but they thought it was important to make them even if they didn't make any money. That attitude is long gone."
I mention The Passenger, for which a major studio gave Michelangelo Antonioni money and the biggest star in Hollywood to wander around Spain.
"Perfect example. The Passenger would never get made by a studio today.
"Now you spend so much time struggling with the studio, begging for money and other resources, that it takes away from your time preparing the film. And after the movie is done, you can't even be sure it will open because the studios are always in flux.
"The people in the studio who backed your film may not even be there any more."