Robert Towne Fiddled With ‘Chinatown’ While Roman Was Away (Exclusive)

When Roman Polanski went to Europe during the filming of “Chinatown,” Robert Towne, Jerry Goldsmith and Bob Evans tweaked the film’s score

"Chinatown," the 1974 film classic released this week on Blu-ray, was forged by a grand design and a series of fortunate accidents.

That's one of the takeaways from Paramount’s feature-laden Blu-ray version, for which its Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne oversaw the color timing work. The Blu-ray version does full justice to every artful detail, right down to the rich tapestry of browns that was the original.

Also read: Robert Towne to Write 'Battle of Britain' for GK Films

Even more importantly, along with a nice array of extra features, this Blu-ray boasts a tandem commentary from Towne and a certain fan of cinema named David Fincher. The sometimes reclusive Fincher is in full, incisively witty mode here and is a knowledgeable craftsman. 

Other extras include earlier DVD versions' making-of material and well-informed discussions from such admirers as Steven Soderbergh, Kimberly Pierce, James Newton Howard and cinematographer Roger Deakins.

An example of Fincher’s drolleries comes when Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes arrives at a ransacked apartment and is tracked into the kitchen by Roman Polanski’s camera: “I think this is the most terrifying head of lettuce in the history of cinema.”

Towne seems content to hang back and be oracular and amusingly informative. When he relates that he always intended the Gittes part for his friend Nicholson, we’re ready for Fincher’s enthusiastic addition, “This for me is the defining Jack Nicholson role.”

Towne, who’s currently at work on a saga about the Battle of Britain for Graham King’s GK Films, took time to speak with TheWrap about the heady days of 1974 when he and his friends Nicholson, Polanski and Evans dared to break some of the industry’s more constricting rules while making what almost accidentally became a film classic.

TheWrap: You had done enough un-credited and not-yet-released work in Hollywood to be known to a coterie, but at the time you wrote this script, had a lot left to prove, yes?

Towne: Oh, I didn’t have a very prominent career, except as an underground character. “The Last Detail”  (awaiting release at that point) and “Shampoo” (1975) were not done, so I was counting a lot on this. And during the shooting of it, I was rather discouraged. I didn’t like our dailies, I thought things were missing. But the weird thing is, it was one of those movies that when the dailies were put together, suddenly it looked great.  

You say in the commentary that shortly after you all decided the initial score was weak, it was fortunate Roman went off to Italy so Evans could hire Jerry Goldsmith and you three could tinker at will — for all of nine hurried days.

Oh my God, you have no idea — because Roman wasn’t anxious to change the scoring. I was there for the entire scoring of the movie, we went through it cue by cue, me and Evans and Jerry, and I thought we got real lucky — from the first time we heard it, I thought wow, this score may save our ass.

And the other thing was Roman color-timed the movie with a lot of cyan blue because he wanted it to look like a modern movie — and it looked like a television show. Because he wasn’t here, we timed it back to the work print.

I’ve heard Nicholson called the medium’s “indispensable” actor — certainly that is accurate in terms of this film.

So much of that character comes from having observed Jack for seven years in an acting class, improvising—the hidden anger and indignation, the cockiness, the vanity, being a bit of a clothes horse– all that stuff, and Jack made fun of it himself, in his life.

Of course, without dismissing the earlier “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces,” it was really his arrival into stardom, too.

I think it did vault him into that, or solidified him. Time Magazine did their cover story on Jack that came out concurrent with "Chinatown" so…

And yet, Art Carney won Best Actor for “Harry and Tonto.” In fact, despite 11 nominations, you’re the only one who took home a statuette — which you kept stashed out of sight on the shared ride to the Governor’s Ball.

Jack was disappointed, of course. He did have a comment that was interesting– that `If I ever win this goddamn award  [he’d eventually win three] it will probably be as a memorial', because — as he observed then and I think it’s kinda true now — you never win for your best work.  They give it to you because of your best work, but sometimes it’s in a year where the work isn’t up to your best.

It’s a good teaming with Fincher. How did that come about?

He had read “Ask the Dust” (Towne wrote and directed it) and liked it, and we met and we worked together on the screenplay of a World War II film called “Fertig”, that unfortunately didn’t get shot. When I finished it and David said, I want to shoot it and Brad Pitt said, I want to be in it, the studio, Sony, said among other things it was too expensive. Another thing they were concerned about was the Japanese didn’t come off too terribly well in it.

You’ve mentioned the casual biases of the day, thus the "Chinaman" dirty joke to which Jake unintentionally treats Faye Dunaway’s character.

An old writer friend of mine told me that story one day as joke. It was such a blatantly racist time, and the film has those references to Jews and "Chinamen" — people were rather cavalier about that and somewhat insensitive.  So I looked for a place to have it and thought, it would be great if he was telling this joke oblivious of the fact that this woman who’s about to sue him is just standing there watching him.

In the barber shop scene, Gittes upbraids the disapproving mortgage banker — “I make an honest living pal…how many families did you foreclose on today?” Care to take credit for some historical prescience that's reverberating loudly here and now in 2012?

Well, I suppose so.