How They Write A Script: Robert Towne | Go Into The Story

The screenplay for Chinatown (1974) is considered one of the greatest scripts of all time (it was named the #3 best script in the WGA?s 101 Best Screenplays list). The script was written by Robert Towne, who also received writing credit for a slew of other movies including Shampoo, Tequila Sunrise Mission Impossible, and Mission Impossible II. Towne is also one of Hollywood?s busiest ?script doctors? having worked on yet received no credit for a host of movies including Heaven Can Wait and 8 Million Ways to Die .

Here are some of Towne?s reflections on screenwriting as a craft and a profession, excerpted from interviews in books and magazines I?ve read over the years.


?Generally speaking, if you don?t set everything up in the beginning, you?ll pay for it? in the middle or in the end. So I would rather pay for it at the beginning. It?s not television and they?re not going to go off into the icebox, or they?re not going to change channels. An audience in a movie will forgive you for just about anything for the first 10 minutes or so. But really nothing at the end. So it?s the time to prepare? the beginning.?


?I don?t think there are principles, other than asking yourself over and over again what?s going to happen next? and seeing if you?re interested in what?s going to happen next. I?m upset if what I think is going to happen next or I think should happen next, there?s something about it that doesn?t, I guess, ring true. That?s not quite real.?


?The single most important question, I think, that one must ask one?s self about a character is what are they really afraid of? What are they really afraid of? And if you ask that question, it?s probably for me the single best way of getting into a character. That finally is where stories are told? with a character that?s real.?


?In rewriting what you have to be able to do is read a piece of material, say what?s wrong with it, know how to say what?s right with it, and then be able to do it yourself. That?s really what it comes down to. Some people say what?s wrong with something, some people can even say what?s right with it, and some people can do all three. but, you know, the more things that are required, the fewer people can do it. I think I can do it.?


?Watching Jack improvise really had an effect. His improvisations were inventive. When he was given a situation, he would not improvise on the nose. He?d talk around the problem, and good writing is the same way: it?s not explicit. Take a very banal situation ? a guy trying to seduce a girl. He talks about everything but seduction, anything from a rubber duck he had as a child to the food on the table or whatever. But you know it?s all oriented toward trying to fuck this girl. It?s inventive, and it teaches you something about writing.

?Most scenes are rarely about what the subject matter is. You soon see the power of dealing obliquely or elliptically with situations, because most people rarely confront things head-on.?

[Originally posted June 26, 2008]


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