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With an Oscar on his desk for Chinatown and his name on such classics as Bonnie and Clyde and The Last Detail, screenwriter Robert Towne is assured a place in movie history.

He was part of the cadre of 70s iconoclasts who took advantage of a Hollywood system that was still willing to let young filmmakers call the shots. Nowadays, it’s much harder to get studio funding for a movie, but for Towne, persistence has paid off. With a little help from Tom Cruise, Towne’s long-time dream project, Ask the Dust, is now reality.

He recently spoke about his early career, about the writing life, and about the book that took 35 years to make into a movie.

Now 71, Towne has a handsome mane of white hair, looking fully the part of artist and intellectual. He smokes thin cigars, speaking between puffs, which makes his speech slower, more deliberate, and more confident.

Early and Earlier

Towne can identify with Bandini. And what writer can't?
Towne can identify with Bandini. And what writer can’t?

He recalls the first rays of sunlight in his career. “The first breakout came in ‘67 with Bonnie and Clyde. I rewrote that and got a little reputation. Then in ‘71 I did a rewrite on The Godfather. Meanwhile I had written Last Detail and Shampoo and was about to write Chinatown, none of which I could get made. I remember thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, who do I have to fuck to get one of these things made? Or is my life over with?’”

And then, within about a year, three of his screenplays (The Last Detail, 1973; Chinatown, 1974; Shampoo, 1975) were produced and well-received, and Towne became a name, not just a struggling writer.

One of Towne’s projects from that era — one that never got off the ground — was a screenplay based on John Fante’s book Ask the Dust, a semi-autobiographical account of a young man trying to make it as a writer in Los Angeles in the 1930s.

Not Starving. Hungry.

Asked about his own days as a starving writer in L.A., he responds “‘Starving’ is perhaps too strong a word.... Hungry.” Nevertheless there were parallels to his own life and that of Arturo Bandini, the protagonist in Ask the Dust.

“First of all, he is a writer, in Los Angeles, hoping to become rich and famous, hoping to live the Great American Dream. He’s also self-absorbed. He’s narcissistic. He’s manic depressive. He’s thin-skinned. He’s hypochondriacal. I can identify with all of those. And what writer can’t?

“And also he feels nuts being unknown and being in a room and calling himself a writer. That’s something with which I can identify perhaps more than anything else. I was unknown when I read the book. I’d had a number of screenplays that I couldn’t get made. I felt unappreciated. All those things.”

Ironically, Towne was still a struggling “Bandini” when he approached Fante about adapting the book, a fact that Fante held against him. Towne recalls their first encounter: “I was looking for material that could fuel my recollections of an early Los Angeles, and I found it [in Ask the Dust]. I was immediately struck by it. I found out that John was alive and well and living in Malibu. I told him that I wanted to adapt his book into a movie. He was less than thrilled. I was utterly unknown, and that was part of it. I mean...

“— Who the hell are you that says you can adapt anything. What have you done? I’ve written screenplays; you’ve done nothing.

“— But I think your book is great.

” — And who are you to tell me what you think of my book?

“So we started out that way, and I must say I liked it. If there was any doubt as to who wrote this book... I’m facing Bandini - right now; absolutely this is John [Fante]; this is Arturo [Bandini]. In a strange way, as abusive as he was, I kind of fell in love with him the way I did with Bandini in the book. Because you suspect that underneath he was a very sweet man. And he was.”

Happy Endings

Luckily, Towne persisted. He also probably got some help from the inside. He says “I think [Fante’s] wife prevailed on him, said ‘John, it’s not like people are beating a path to your door, and he obviously admires you. [He] seems like a nice enough boy; why don’t you just talk to him?’

“I thought of John and Joyce in the end of [Towne’s adaptation] when Camilla says ‘Arturo, in the future, be nicer to people when you meet them.’”

Between those early meetings and finally producing Ask the Dust, Towne has had quite an interesting and successful career. In the 1980s Towne broke into directing. His debut was 1982’s Personal Best, about two lesbian Olympic hopefuls trying to emotionally support each other while still having to compete. The frank sexuality was groundbreaking and much-discussed at the time, but even with that novelty 25 years gone, the movie is still excellent; it has aged very well.

Towne went back to writing screenplays in the 1990s, including several for the Tom Cruise machine, including Days of Thunder and the first two Mission: Impossible movies. In fact, it was Cruise (as producer) who helped Towne finally bring Ask the Dust to the screen.

You can see for yourself what Towne’s 35-year labor of love looks like when Ask the Dust opens this spring. It was written and directed by Towne, and produced by Cruise/Wanger (et al.). It stars Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek as the aspiring L.A. writer and his muse.

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies