Sarah Morris

34 minutes:26 seconds

“Robert Towne,” 2006, is the sixth film directed by Sarah Morris. This time, the lens shifts from a wide view onto a city to an up-close and intimate portrait of the legendary screenwriter and script doctor, Robert Towne. An interview with the subject covers topics ranging from his Academy Award-winning screenplay for “Chinatown” (1974), the role of authorship, his relationship with colleagues such as Robert Evans, Warren Beatty, Pauline Kael, and the reoccurring themes in his film work - conspiracy, paranoia, corruption, and power.

Robert Towne
Robert Towne
Robert Towne
Robert Towne

Sarah Morris

"Robert Towne"


Robert Towne:

Well, you’re talking about the role of the script doctor as it relates to me and, I suppose it came about really with Bonnie and Clyde. I had been a big fan of the script of David Newman’s, and nobody had been a fan of that script that Warren wanted for the movie; everybody was turning it down--oh gosh, Tuesday Weld, Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood, all sorts of actresses, and the directors who turned it down were legion, really. And I was sort of a cheerleader in saying I still think it’s great, and urging Warren to continue with it. And then Arthur Penn came on board, and I didn’t know Arthur at all, and he for sure didn’t know me, and he asked me to read the script; I had read it, and he asked me to read it again, and I didn’t know what to say, and almost as an afterthought, and at the time I mentioned that what I felt what was wrong with the structure of the piece, was that everyone knew, who would see the film, that Bonnie and Clyde were going to die. That sense that the road that they were traveling had fewer and fewer outlets and it was only heading in one place, and they were going there, that sense of going down a road to their doom, I felt should be emphasized. It’s one of those things that I hadn’t really thought about until somebody asked me. It was, you know, like most things that I think, at least that I think of, I don’t know that I’m going to think of it until somebody asks me, and then I find out what’s on my mind, its sort of reflexive rather than reflective. 

As far as the title of special consultant is concerned, by best recollection of that is that Warren came up with that title, whatever that meant, we weren’t going to arbitrate it. I think that he probably assured Benton and Newman that it wasn’t going to be arbitrated. And I think that’s right, it could have been arbitrated, I suppose if I had been on the arbitration committee, I don’t think I would have given myself screenplay credit. I did a lot of work on the script, but the conception, the characters, the tone--I was simply enhancing them. 

(View of Creative Artists Agency book resting on a drum.)

(Switch to inside)


There’s a phrase that’s used in Shampoo, where Warden says “Are you anti-establishment?” and the hairdresser George says “I’m not anti-establishment, I want to join the establishment!”. But clearly all of the film has an underpinning of a keen awareness of sexual and political hypocrisy. In Parallax View, All the Presidents Men, Chinatown, even The Godfather, they were all based—what else did you mention--well certainly Shampoo too, they were all based upon the disparity between the way the establishment said things were, and the way the filmmakers, and for that matter, an increasing audience, felt they really were, the disparity between “bring us together”, as Nixon said, and the divisive means that they were using to conceal from everyone what was really going on, both in the country, and in the world. There may even be a line in Godfather where Michael Corlione says to a politician, “we’re all part of the same conspiracy senator”. That was, I mean, I suppose it had its origins in the assassination of JFK, and the assassination of Malcolm X, and the assassination of Bobby, and the Vietnam War, and then of course in Watergate. It finally reached a boiling point with All the President’s Men, where what was implicit became explicit. And in a strange way, the films that you are asking me to talk about did their job too well. There was nothing left to expose.

7:36 (Smokes a cigar)

Those people who influenced the course and the thrust of these films in the 70s, and I mention directors like Scorcese and Ashby, and Coppola—neglected to mention The Conversation—again all these movies are revolving around one kind of conspiracy after another—again they’re all remarkably congruent, in that you can’t find one that doesn’t have at its center a conspiracy—Chinatown with water, the murder conspiracy that is uncovered painstakingly in The Conversation; the conspiracies that exist between the government and gangsters in the Godfather  films, the whole conspiracy of the mafia itself, the conspiracy of the assassinations in Parallax View--there’s just not one that doesn’t deal with it. And…. the studios just kept saying yes. 

8:58 (Switch to outside)

It puts pressure on you.  I guess it was Walter Raleigh that said “The clarity of a man about to be hanged—its wonderful”. The knowledge that you’re going to be hanged really clears your head. And the knowledge—“take your time but we’re shooting in 10 minutes”--it focuses you. I’ve always felt pretty lazy, so I kind of welcomed the pressure, you know? If you’re talking about freedom, I think the pressure itself is a funny kind of freedom because you don’t really have time to be inhibited as a writer, and if you have a highly developed critical sense, the needs of a casting crew who are standing by and waiting, override your inhibitions, you know, because you’ve got to give them something. So in that sense I think the freedom comes from the fact that originally its not your material, so you don’t feel quite as precious about it, and the fact that you were really more focused on delivering something for somebody else. 

10:25 (Switch to inside)

I mean, with the film industry there’s perception, there’s reality and there’s illusion. Illusion is a good thing, I mean that’s what we create. Perception and reality—perception is not necessarily a good thing, that’s what people believe in and it’s not necessarily so. But the notion of playing fast and loose with reality is something that has always been the case here. The way in which people related to California began there, with the discovery of gold, subsequently with the discovery of oil, with the discovery of the importance of real estate, of movies, where people came here to strike it rich. This was not a place to live in, but a place to be mined, get yours, and get out. And that was, I think, the abiding cast of mind in California, and you could see it in the way in which the central plot of Chinatown was revealed. Evans had a significant affect on my life, and he’s someone to whom I will always be grateful in that way. Silly, vainglorious, and insightful, full of energy and life and enthusiasm. And Evans, I don’t think Evans would say he was great on story; he was great on post-production. He really knew when there was too much music in The Godfather, or too much pizza eating, and he knew when the score of Chinatown was wretched.

12:29 (Lights a cigar)

How he affected me economically? Well Bob is an interesting case.  I had first met him when I was doing a film called Villa Rides—re-writing it in Spain. And he came over there with, I think, Bud Orenstein. A few years later he took over Paramount and everybody thought that was droll because the last thing that they’d remembered him from was his shaky performance as Irvin Thalberg in Man of a Thousand Faces. And they thought “This guy who couldn’t play a studio head in a film is now going to be a studio head at Paramount?” and he turned out to be a superb studio head, he and Yoblans.

And he’d come to me about writing The Great Gatsby and I was unknown but had a sort of subterranean reputation based on Bonnie and Clyde and a couple of other things. And they’d offered me a lot of money, I think it was almost 0,000 which then was a tremendous amount of money and I turned him down because, for two reasons; one, because I felt that nobody would ever make a good movie out of the Great Gatsby, it was an illusion, the character was an illusion, on paper he was interesting but if you started to take it apart, the interesting thing was how Gatsby was perceived by others. Gatsby is a guy who tries to create an illusion about himself and who is in fact an elusive figure and of course in any case I thought I would just be an unknown writer who screwed up an American classic and I just didn’t want to do that. And I was working on something else and he asked me what it was and I told him and he didn’t know anything about it but he liked the title. In any case, in spite of the fact that there was a delay because of the strike, they went ahead with Chinatown and Evans, who really believed in the project, or at least I don’t know if he really believed in it or not he will tell you himself that he had no idea what it was about, he just liked the idea of it, and he brought Roman on board, Roman and I had been good friends, so again all of us were working with people that we knew and knew well by that time, I mean I knew Roman, socially, personally; Jack and I, at this point, had been friends and collaborators for years and there was Dick Silbert who was a production designer—we all knew each other. And he made a financial arrangement with me that changed my life, it was then and now probably the most generous financial arrangement that anybody ever made with me and it was based on the fact that I took virtually no money for the script so that when it was made, I made money on it. And so that changed my life considerably both financially and reputation-wise. That in tandem with, there were three films that were released within a year, Last Detail, Shampoo and Chinatown--two by Hal Ashby, and one by Roman, great directors--but Evans was the one who sort of led it with the deal that he made it, with me and for me.

(View of study; scene plot cards on wall; portrait of RT as a saint; Warren Beatty speech about Robert Towne.)

16: 38 (Switch to outside.)

How Warren and I met was bizarre, and you know, I don’t know that, I’ve ever… either of us have ever talked about it. It was in an office, it was somewhat awkward, because I wasn’t expecting anybody to be in the office, and he wasn’t either, and we ran into each other and were introduced. It was a doctor’s office. That opened up a dialogue, and we began to see each other, and socialize a bit, and he had spoken to me, and he spoke to me about doing something else, with him. What’s New Pussycat ? had just been a disappointment to him because he’d been working on it with Charlie Feldman, and I think the title of it, the idea of the compulsive Don Juan, all of these things were something that he’d worked with, and Feldman threw it another way, and it ended up with, I don’t remember who it ended up with, was it Peter O’ Toole, was that it? 

Anyway, he was still interested in that, and I had mentioned a play called The Country Wife, which is a restoration comedy about a man who has been a rake about town, a London town, and who had, in order continue his amorous adventures, he let it be known through his doctor—Dr Quack-- that he, Horner, I think was the name, had been rendered an eunuch, and therefore was no longer a threat to all of the married men in London. And I think the couplet that was in the Wycherly play was:

He who aims by women to be prized, first by the men you see must be despised. 

And he immediately thought, well maybe its an actor, I said “I didn’t think so” and he said “Well, who do you think he should be?” And I thought for about 5 seconds, because it was something that had been roiling around in my mind for a long time without my knowing about it--again it was reflexive--and I said “No, I think it should be a hairdresser”, and he looked at me for about 5 seconds, and he said “You’re right”. And that was the beginning of Shampoo. I’d had a girlfriend who had been married to a hairdresser, and when she’d told me that, I was shocked, first of all I couldn’t have been more than 22 or 23, at that time, and the fact that I was going with a girl who’d been divorced--which, I didn’t know she’d been married--and that she’d been married to a hairdresser, and that she was still seeing the hairdresser every week to get her hair done, really shocked me! And I said “What were you doing with a hairdresser?!”, you know I was very contemptuous, and she said “Well he’s a good hairdresser”, and then she added, “You oughta hear what he says about you”, and I said “What are you talking about?” and she says “You know, ‘You’re an unknown writer and you’ll never make it’”, and it was very disparaging, and I said, “Well, I want to see this guy”, so I went one day to pick her up at the beauty shop--it was Gene Shacove’s shop, she had been married to Gene Shacove--and it was a revelation, because, here was this guy, with the most beautiful women in the city, and there he was with his blow dryer, going from one to the other, and the only rooster in the henhouse, and he was no threat, because he wasn’t part of the power structure.

Shots of bookshelf, United Olympic Committee letter .

21:10 (Switch to inside)

Pauline Kael affected the perception of films as a critic. She was responsible for being one of the individuals who rescued Bonnie and Clyde from what would have been a premature death. When the film came out Time magazine panned it, Newsweek panned it, the trades panned it, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times panned it, I mean, it was really, could not have looked worse, but Warren was persistent with the film ‘cause he knew it was good. And it was Pauline’s review, who, as much as anything else, that changed the perception of that film; and the subsequent week, Newsweek actually recanted, and Joe Morgensten wrote another review saying he was wrong, ignore the first telegram, you know, and within a month, Bonnie and Clyde was on the cover of Time magazine as the vanguard of the new cinema, and everything had changed, and I think that she was as responsible as any critic has ever been for a real sea change in film, and looking at it differently.  She was an incalculable help to Altman, and to many filmmakers, and as far as that goes, her influence on critics can be felt to this day, really; she elevated the level of criticism, I think. Whether you agreed with her or not, she could write.

The nature of the people running the studios: Their job was to line up the talent, get them to say yes, and then let them go do what they wanted to do. And if it didn’t work, then they just wouldn’t hire you again. But they didn’t try to influence the content of the film when you were making it-- they didn’t conceive that to be their job, and there weren’t numbers of people in between. Movies were not so expensive—I mean the negative cost of Chinatown was 3.6 million dollars. The negative cost of Shampoo was higher—like 4.4.  A filmmaker then asked himself, “What do I want to see? That’s what I think I’ll make”.

23:55 (Switch to outside)

I had been in an acting class with very close friends--people who became close friends; my roommate at that time was Jack Nicholson--and I think the ambition was to write the best movies I could, and I think that we, I mean, at the time that I started writing screenplays, it really didn’t have the kind of, I suppose, cultural cache that it does now. It was still considered disreputable, as far as serious writers were concerned. I mean, the great work had been done, and I think that writers had known when the work was great, whether it was Mankowitz, or Anita Loose, everybody knew that it wasn’t an easy thing to do, but it wasn’t something that—that era when Parker and Fitzgerald and Willliam Faulkner and all those people came out here to pick up a few bucks between novels or plays.

To be a screenwriter is an end in itself—I don’t think that was common, but that was my goal. The guy who I guess talked me into it was James Agee when I read his criticism and I read his screenplays, which were wonderful, and had actually been published. He confessed in the way of it being something of a guilty pleasure, about his love for film.

As far as authorship is concerned, my experiences both in television, which I’d had a brief exposure to, and in film, had been that nothing that I wrote was shot the way I wrote it. And it began to make me feel a little insane because it was all bad, and I couldn’t tell if it was bad because it had rewritten me or it would have been bad in any event. And the great experience of Bonnie and Clyde was that, however I had written or rewritten a scene, that was the way it was going to be shot. And so I had had the opportunity to imagine in advance what it would play like with actors that at that point I knew—I knew that Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons and Warren and Faye and Michael J. (Pollard) and Gene Wilder and Evans Evans—were all going to play those parts--so I could imagine what I hoped it would be like when it was shot, and then I got to see what it would be like when it was shot, the next day, very often, and that was very exciting because I thought “Well I’ll be damned, you know, I guessed right”, the scene played the way I imagined it would play and that was the most encouraging thing that had ever happened to me as a writer up to that point.

I was also keenly aware of the fact that I was collaborating, that I was part of this huge Rube Goldberg machine that makes up a movie with 70 or 80 or 90 or 100 people or more, trying to put it together, so that affected my view of authorship. I mean I knew that I was making a contribution, but I knew that…I knew how many different ways it could go and I knew that, unless every contribution contributed to at least what I thought was the right approach to the scene or the film, that authorship as such was meaningless, that it was a collective enterprise.

Don’t misunderstand me--I certainly have pride of authorship. But at the same time, my entire experiences, which were not typical of a screenwriter, were working intimately with actors, and my training in acting class, and improvising--really made me include, in my writing, what I imagined the actor--who I knew--would be doing with my script, or my writing, how they would play the scene, and I’d had a fairly good idea. In that sense they were my collaborators, whether they were there or not or in some cases, whether I was there or not. 

(View of Personal Best poster; Warren Beatty speech.)

29:32 (Switch to inside. Lights a cigar)

I really had no preconceptions, and decided to go along with it, and just, you know… The exchanges seemed sane and intriguing enough. I guess you are performing in a way as a director.

Your job is to appreciate the situation, and that’s what you do as a director, you appreciate the situation; you just have to appreciate it very quickly, and very viscerally, in time tell somebody between takes, what you think and what you feel. 

The great thing about working with athletes in Personal Best, was the realization that 75% to 80% of what you were asking them to do, was what they did every day of their lives. As long as you put them in situations with which they were intimately familiar, and created a setting as much like a real workout session as possible, when they were working and competing, you were going to get very naturalistic behavior. And I realized in terms of the athletes, you simply couldn’t get actresses to do the things physically that athletes could do, so with the sole exception of Mariel, every other actor was an athlete. The need and the desire to compete at a certain point with great athletes is a kind of seamless blend with the need to perform. 

The fascistic mantle that you have to assume as a director is something with which I was uncomfortable. And (Roger) Vadim said to me “Look Robert, for a director, one may, it iz not necessary to be as ze father, one may also be as ze mother”. That struck me forcibly as a great truth. And it relieved me hugely. I very often directed with my daughter in my arms. And so, (laughs) you know I tried as much as possible to remove the kind of authoritarian stigma. As long as you’re comfortable with knowing what you want, then you shouldn’t be anything but comfortable with getting all the feedback that you can. You become a writer because you don’t really like to be told what to do, and you don’t really like to tell other people what to do, you’re really telling it to be a piece of paper. You know basically you’re an anarchist who wants to control a fantasy world, and so, I guess the job for me was to figure out how to deal with my own inherent psychodynamic as a director. And that’s the way I did it. I did say at some point that it does take a certain kind of a sadistic temperament to do this job. And I don’t see why I can’t learn to do it. Other sadists do.