Friday, June 4, 2010

Day 57: Me & Bob Towne (Part #3)

The story so far (in case you haven’t been following assiduously over the last two days): in October of 2006 I got to work with with Robert Towne (creator and screenwriter of Chinatown [my favourite film]) on my film script, The Detective, as a mentor for one week, in Byron Bay.

I ended up having four official sessions with Robert (I never did get familiar enough to call him “Bob”), each of those sessions lasting over two hours and each time he gave me everything that he had, in his scriptwriting armoury, to help me with my writing and my script. As I’ve already said, for him to look at your screenplay in Hollywood, is reported to be $1m; it was estimated that I got about five hundred thousand dollar's worth that week. I’ll share one or two of his quotes with you, and remember, this is not me quoting a book or author quoting Robert Towne, these are things he said one-on-one with me - that’s about $10,000 a quote - and these thoughts are in light of the fact that I was writing a detective story:

“If you’re unsure as to what the next scene should be, go with the most likely event or useful connection. If in doubt, go with the most likely event.”

“Most effective ones (detective stories) tap into our deepest fears; what horrible things are going on behind dark doors.”

And a favourite of mine: “One fucking thing is for sure: the events in your dreams did not get there by put them there; so it is with detective stories.”

Out of the context told to me, they may not work for you, but I think they do, and, it's stuff straight from the source.

One thing thing was for sure about my sessions with Robert Towne was this: because the greatest film he has written - Chinatown - is a detective story and because my script that we were working on together - The Detective - is hewn from the same story stone, he would often use his own film to highlight issues and challenges that he had, with the ones that I now faced. In effect, I had my very own Q&A with Robert Towne on his Academy Award winning script Chinatown, for eight hours. At one point,we must have spent at least twenty minutes discussing the merits of moving a body from the place of death and motivations as to why you would do that; he cited moving the body of Hollis Mulwray so that it was found washed up in the dam, in his film (if you’re familiar with Chinatown, you’ll know what I mean). So if you're thinking of killing someone and need the body moved, I've got plenty of ideas.

But my lasting, most treasured memory was this: wrangling over one particularly thorny problem I faced, Robert Towne leaned back in his chair, puffed on that Cuban of his, thought long and hard, again, stared me down with that steely stare, again, and said, in that raspiness of his “You know Roger, you face the same problem that I did with Chinatown.” For a second there, we were two screenwriters yakking about tough days at the crime office of life.

I didn’t get my photo taken with Robert (I didn’t need proof), nor I didn’t get him to sign one of my copies of the Chinatown screenplay. Plenty of others were being obsequious around him and I’ve never been able to do that (for which I’m grateful), good luck to those who can. At the end of our time together, I thanked him, for giving his time to me and I thanked him for Chinatown.

I did email Robert once, sometime later down the track after Spark and Byron, and he was generous enough to respond; I doubt very much whether we’ll keep in contact and others might think that’s me missing a great opportunity or a great chance to network or something like that. But I want to stress here, that this is not why I’m writing film. I gave up a lucrative and successful career in another world some seventeen years ago; if it was about those “other things”, I would go back there and do that (if they'd have me), but it’s not. I don’t mind if anyone thinks me naive, I can only do this the way that I can do this and at the end of each day, as I turn my light out and think over what I’ve done today, I only have to answer to me; to check in with me and hope that I’ve been true to me and done the things that bring me a sense of fulfillment in the relatively short time I have here in this world, that may be of help to someone else; the same way that Robert Towne so thoughtfully helped me

Day #57 Tip: Do the Film Business Thing The Way You Need To
“Networking”.....sounds bloody horrible to me. In many ways I often think that I’m so not cut out to be in the business of film-making. The thought of befriending and making small talk with those I’d normally run a million miles from...well I’d rather sit at home sticking a compass into my arm.

But, the business end of the business, we writers must do and, at times, we must putb our compasses down and step out of what feels comfortable and safe (think of it as an excursion rather than a world cruise...just a little ferry trip). But I do it the way that I feel good about. I can’t be the ambitious gun film-maker chasing Tarantino around every time he’s in town, or the person thrusting the business card into the hand of the speaker at the end of an audience with whoever. If you can do it that way - the hustle and flow - good on you, it's not for me to "piss on your typewriter" (a great quote from Leah Purcell), it’s just not me and I’m not doing this to be someone else, I’ve already spent far too much of my life doing that.

The title Chinatown, is part metaphor, for a place where nobody knows what’s really going on, just like the film industry. Some days in this business are optimistic, positive and rewarding (like those I spent with Robert Towne), others feel like a different end of the same stick. But just like Jack’s character, Jakes Gittes, who finds himself back on Alameda, in the heart of Los Angeles’s Chinatown at the climax and denouement of this film, sometimes I don’t know one end of things from another and those are the days when I need a friend to lead me away from the smell of cordite, saying:

“Forget it, Jake - it’s Chinatown.”

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