A couple of powerful flashbacks to the Los Angeles of his childhood persuaded Robert Towne to write "Chinatown."
One flashback came during a walk along the ocean in the early 1970s, when the quality of the light, the sea air and the smell of eucalyptus sent him into a reverie. "I remember thinking, 'I'm 11 years old again,' " Towne says, on the phone from his Los Angeles home to talk about the 35th anniversary of "Chinatown."
The other transporting moment was prompted by a newspaper article that focused on the 1930s and '40s Los Angeles of crime novelist Raymond Chandler and included photos of a period convertible at historic buildings.
"I'm very susceptible to the sights and sounds of the city," says Towne, who will turn 75 in November. "I realized all those parts of the city that I have loved and missed so much were still there to be had on film. I just needed the story."
He found his Los Angeles story in Oregon, where he'd gone with his friend and former roommate, an up-and-coming actor named Jack Nicholson, to appear in Nicholson's directorial debut, "Drive, He Said," released in 1971. Looking for a way to pass the time, Towne read Carey McWilliams' "Southern California: An Island on the Land," published in 1946. Still in print - "There's never been a better book about Southern California," Towne says - it contains a chapter about Los Angeles' infamous water scandal at the beginning of the last century, when shady if legal dealings allowed a core group of already wealthy men who controlled Los Angeles to become even richer by diverting water from the Owens Valley, 230 miles to the northeast.
Towne had his setting and his subject, and he and Nicholson wanted to make a classic murder mystery with contemporary sensibilities, a modern noir.
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