Book Excerpt: How Writer Robert Towne Crafted 'Chinatown' for Jack Nicholson

'The Big Goodbye' Book Cover — Publicity — H 2020
Flatiron Books

'The Big Goodbye' author Sam Wasson, whose history of the 1974 film goes on sale Tuesday, previously penned the biography of Bob Fosse that inspired the FX series 'Fosse/Verdon.'

After tackling a biography about Oscar, Tony and Emmy award-winning Bob Fosse — the book ultimately inspired the FX series Fosse/Verdon New York Times best-selling author Sam Wasson is ready to give readers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into another Hollywood story: Chinatown. 

In The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood (Flatiron Books, on sale Tuesday, Feb. 4), Wasson details the story behind the production of Chinatown, which came amid the "New Hollywood" era of filmmaking. Throughout the book, Wasson chronicles the stories of four influential men in 1970s Hollywood including Jack Nicholson, Roman Polanski, Robert Evans and Robert Towne during a time when the Manson family unleashed a nightmare. In his nonfiction account, Wasson details Towne conceiving an idea for a detective story for his best friend, Nicholson. After the story caught the interest of Paramount head Evans, Polanski (Sharon Tate's widower) joined the project to direct the film that would go on to receive 11 Oscar nominations and star Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. The film won for best original screenplay in 1975. For the book, Wasson utilized extensive reportage, existing interview material and conducted some of his own interviews with experts. Of the four men, only Evans and Polanski participated. 

Below, The Hollywood Reporter shares excerpts. 

Roman Polanski Learns of Sharon Tate's Death 

Polanski, caught up in script problems, further postponed his return to Los Angeles, and Sharon grew impatient: He was missing it, the crucial final stretch of the pregnancy. Suddenly the baby was due in two weeks. Couldn’t he finish the script at home in Los Angeles? Would he at least be home for his birthday? Bitterness edged into her voice and they were strange again. The double intrusion of a Southern California heat wave and ill-timed houseguests, Roman’s friend Wojciech Frykowski and his girlfriend, Abigail Folger, only increased her irritation. When was he coming home? She couldn’t ask them to leave, she said, they were her friends. . . .

"That’s it," Polanski told her. "I’m coming. I’ll finish the script over there. I’ll leave tomorrow."

But it didn’t work out that way; it couldn’t. Polanski still needed a U.S. visa, and the consulate was closed on Saturdays.

That day, Friday, August 8, 1969, they spoke again.

She told him she and Wojciech and Abigail had found a kitten in the hills and were feeding it with an eyedropper. They were keeping it in the bathtub.

"I’m coming Monday," Polanski said, "whether I’m through with the script or not."

That night Polanski and his friends Andy Braunsberg and Michael Brown were discussing the script. A whiz with story and a first-rate screenwriter, Polanski was pacing the room in thought, gesticulating his ideas into a potential scene, when the phone rang. Braunsberg reached for it.

"Hello?" Braunsberg could hear something was wrong. "What is it?" Suddenly overcome, he passed the phone to Polanski.

"What is it?" Polanski lowered himself into a chair.

"Roman." It was Bill Tennant, his agent. "There was a disaster in the house."

"Which house?"

"Your house."

Had the hillside collapsed?

Roman held the phone to his ear. "Sharon is dead," Tennant said. "And [Wojciech] and Jay and Abigail."

"No . . . ," he said. "No, no, no. . . ."

A landslide. It was a landslide. They had been crushed.

"How?"

"I don’t know," returned Tennant. "I don’t know..."

When they cleared the rubble, Sharon would be rescued.

"This is insane...," Polanski pleaded. "This is insane..." He kept saying it.

Finally Tennant said, "Roman, they were murdered."

"Shove off," his father had said. "Shove off." The phone slipped from Polanski’s hand. He was crying, banging his head against the wall. He did not understand. They had just spoken. He heard the words, but he did not understand, because the words were not true. They had just spoken. She found a cat.

Jack Nicholson: "You're Going to be a Movie Star" 

Watching Nicholson, a natural, Towne learned "that what an actor says is not nearly as important as what’s behind what he says, the subtext." Towne literally studied Nicholson. Amazed by his staggering ability to draw out the shortest line of dialogue, to make a long meal of crumbs, he realized that Nicholson’s innate mastery of suspense, of making the audience wait and wait for him to reach the end of a line, added drama to the most commonplace speech, and Nicholson’s monotone, rather than bore the listener, inflected the mundane with an ironic tilt. With a great actor like his friend Jack, Towne realized a writer didn’t have to force depth and emotion into his dialogue. In fact, movie dialogue itself, "in a certain sense, is insignificant," Towne concluded. "I think that’s important when it comes to all forms of dramatic writing, but probably even more important for screenwriting, because the overwhelming size of the picture conveys so much information that it’s almost impossible for dialogue to add anything to it."

If Jack was improvising a seduction, he’d talk about anything but seduction. He’d interrupt the mood with an emotional outburst. He’d play against. The sheer surprise of his changes — as funny as they were uncomfortable, as intense as they were human — added the sense of unpredictable real life to the scene. He was alive. That was character. "I learned to write as much by watching Jack as anything else," Towne said.

Those outbursts — "Jack’s capacity for indignation," Towne said — revealed a very real side of Nicholson. One night at Pupi’s, Mrs. Pupi got mad at Jack for hanging out so late without ordering more than a cup of coffee. At her reprimand, Towne watched Jack’s smile fade. His face fell. He turned slowly to Mrs. Pupi, took up his napkin holder, and threw it down on her pastry tray.

"One more word out of you," Jack drawled, "and I’ll kick your pastry tray in."

Towne loved it. For all his bravado, Jack’s outraged Don’t-Fuck-with-Me contained a little secret — a dose of futility. Anyone could relate to that.

"Kid, you’re going to be a movie star," Towne offered one day.

Jack grinned.

"And I’m going to write scripts for you."

It happened. In 1969 Nicholson appeared in Easy Rider, and he became, if not quite a leading man, a name costar. His touch of rebellious everyman howled out the national ethos, the distress of an entire population waking up from a happy dream. The end of the sixties, the beginning of Vietnam, of blatant and widespread corruption, the end, in short, of the just American promise, had a surrogate in Nicholson’s impotent outrage, the way his characters, standing for the oppressed good, could do nothing but rail — absurdly, pitifully, triumphantly — against the organized bad. He went on to star in Five Easy Pieces for his friend Bob Rafelson, and Carnal Knowledge for his friend Mike Nichols, and after writing and directing Drive, He Said, would star in The Last Detail, written by Towne and directed by Hal Ashby, good friends both. Success, his oldest allies discovered, did not sway Nicholson’s loyalty; if anything, success enhanced it. Nicholson shared. He opened his home to all in his circle, gave them work, looked after their interests. They were his family, but better; family was fate; friends chose one another. In gratitude, the Weaver kept his chosen safe.

Safe in their hotel room in Oregon, Towne and Payne settled in for the evening. "I want to write a movie for Jack," Towne told her. That is, he wanted to write a leading-man part for Nicholson, his first. Jack had had his share of big roles in small movies and small roles in big movies, but he never played a big part, the romantic lead, in a big Hollywood movie. Towne would change that.

"What kind of movie?"

"A detective movie. Maybe Jane Fonda for the blonde."

"What’s it about?"

"Los Angeles. In the thirties. Before the war." He was still thinking about Raymond Chandler, about the Los Angeles they had both lost.

"What happens?"

"I don’t know. That’s all I know."

"I’ll go to the library," she said. "Let me see what I can find."

Robert Towne Writes Screenplay 

Towne was in agony. Writing Chinatown was like being in Chinatown.

A novelist could write and write — and, indeed, Towne wrote like a novelist, turning out hundreds upon hundreds of pages of notes and outlines and dialogue snippets — but a movie is two hours; in script form, approximately a minute a page. What could he afford to lose? He needed to be uncompromisingly objective, but not so hard on his ideas that he ended up losing what may have been good in them — that is, if there was ever anything good about them to begin with. Was there? The question had to be asked. Was any of this good, and if so, would anyone care? A civics lesson on water rights and the incestuous rape of a child? From one vantage point, it was dull; from another, obscene. Who would even make such a movie? Columbia wouldn’t even let him write forty fucks

Maybe he was wrong to attempt an original screenplay. Acting as both creator and executioner of this swiftly expanding entity, surging and swirling its squelchy way to incomprehensibility — it was almost too much for one mind to hold, let alone master. And then — worrying ahead — there was the dialogue. When — if — he nailed his story and its structure, he still had to write the actual scenes. Who says what to whom? And how do they say it? Precisely what words do they choose to speak? Moreover, what don’t they say? (This was writing for the screen, after all.) A screenwriter had to ask: what faces, behavior, gestures, clothing, and scenery can say that can’t, or shouldn’t, be put into dialogue? And as for that dialogue, how to be witty without being arch, wise without pretension, emotional without sentiment, principled without pedantry?

In 120 pages?

He would have to borrow money. From whom? Not his father — he had borrowed enough already. If only he were a faster writer. But Towne knew what he was, and that was slow, and slow was expensive.

Edward Taylor would help.

EXCERPTED FROM THE BIG GOODBYE: CHINATOWN AND THE LAST YEARS OF HOLLYWOOD. COPYRIGHT © 2020 BY SAM WASSON. EXCERPTED BY PERMISSION OF FLATIRON BOOKS, A DIVISION OF MACMILLAN PUBLISHERS. NO PART OF THIS EXCERPT MAY BE REPRODUCED OR REPRINTED WITHOUT PERMISSION IN WRITING FROM THE PUBLISHER.