- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

Robert Towne, lanky, weather-beaten and silver-maned, is no stranger to quixotic movie projects. When last seen in Washington on a professional call, he was advancing his 1998 biopic about distance runner Steve Prefontaine, eventually titled “Without Limits.” Written off as a first-run prospect by Warner Bros., the movie ended up without play dates in this market.

Mr. Towne returned recently to help promote the opening of another deserving underdog: “Ask the Dust,” a deft and stirring labor-of-love adaptation of a semi-obscure novel of 1939 by John Fante (1905-1983), a writer whose body of work tends to loom larger in California, the site of most of his fiction. He also had a parallel career as a screenwriter from the 1940s through the early 1960s, often at Columbia, which did right by one of his comic novels, “Full of Life,” filmed in 1956 by Richard Quine with Judy Holliday and Jose Ferrer as the leads, expectant parents surrounded by Italian-American in-laws.

When Mr. Towne was researching his most famous screenplay, “Chinatown,” in the early 1970s, he made the acquaintance of Mr. Fante, by then a diabetic septuagenarian with failing eyesight.

“I was looking for things that had been written about Los Angeles in the 1930s — things that might evoke a sense of locations and the way people really behaved,” Mr. Towne recalls during a recent conversation at the Fairmont Hotel. “I was born in San Pedro in 1934 and preserve a keen sense of loss about places I used to know, but John’s book, which someone urged on me, dredged up a lot of impressions. So much of the literature of the period was preoccupied with the movie business, and I didn’t want that. He reawakened other things: the immediacy of ethnic L.A. neighborhoods and characters, the feel of L.A. during the Depression.”

At the outset, Mr. Towne encountered a reluctant mentor. “John was a practiced curmudgeon, and I was a nobody,” he explains. “Fortunately, he also had a lovely, genteel wife named Joyce, herself a talented writer and an indispensable editor of his work. She put in a kind word for me, and he mellowed.”

Mr. Towne first acquired film rights to the book in the late 1970s. By that time, Mr. Fante also was close enough to relish his admirer’s success as the credited screenwriter or co-writer on “Shampoo,” “The Last Detail” and “Chinatown,” which won the Academy Award for best original screenplay. Before that, Mr. Towne had been the most prestigious script doctor in the business, having rewritten “Bonnie & Clyde” extensively for director Arthur Penn and supplied Francis Ford Coppola with a great clinching scene for “The Godfather” on short notice. (Mr. Coppola even thanked him on the Oscar show, where the scene — the farewell encounter between Al Pacino and Marlon Brando — had been excerpted earlier in the ceremony.)

The options on “Ask the Dusk” lapsed from time to time. For a period in the 1980s, Mel Brooks acquired the rights, but no one’s plans came to fruition. Mr. Towne became a director in the same decade, completing his own originals “Personal Best” and “Tequila Sunrise” but losing control of two auspicious projects that ended in other hands, “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan” and “The Two Jakes,” the sequel to “Chinatown.”

“Ask the Dusk,” a tempestuous love story about an aspiring young writer named Arturo Bandini, John Fante’s alter ego, and a waitress named Camilla Lopez, a proletarian Lady of the Camellias, kept rebounding to Mr. Towne. His initial screenplay draft dated to the 1970s, and he needed three decades to realize the movie, shot in 2004 on locations near Capetown, South Africa, which turned out to be an invaluable sun-drenched double for Los Angeles.

“A budget of $15 million won’t go too far when you’re trying to re-create 1933,” Mr. Towne observes. “Fortunately, the locations were so redolent of California that Caleb Deschanel, the cinematographer, and Dennis Gassner, the production designer, and I could count on a wonderful convergence of vision about the way things should look. The desert regions resemble the Mojave, except for the occasional baboon, which you need to keep out of the shots. A long stretch of beachfront is a ringer for Laguna. We built the replicas of downtown L.A. and the Bunker Hill district on a high school soccer field in Capetown. The scenes of Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek skinny-dipping in the surging surf had to be faked a little because the sharks are too … aggressive in South African waters. So we borrowed the huge wave-making pool at the Sun City resort in Capetown and got our shots safely.”

Mr. Towne credits Colin Farrell with resurrecting a project that had been languishing since the previous prospective leading man, Johnny Depp, had lost interest. Also an ardent admirer of “Ask the Dust,” Mr. Farrell initiated contact with Mr. Towne. A half-hour get-acquainted meeting turned into an all-day celebration of common enthusiasms and intuitions. Mr. Farrell needed to complete his disillusioning collaboration with Oliver Stone on “Alexander” before turning to “Ask the Dust,” but his commitment to the Fante project was sufficient to guarantee a tightly budgeted expedition to Capetown.

Miss Hayek became another loyalist. The co-stars and the writer-director kept the budget in line by deferring their own fees. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get paid,” Mr. Towne remarks. “Under ideal conditions, the 10 [to] 20 cities we’re in now would justify a broader release, and in a year or two, we might see something. But that’s a tall order. Colin, Salma and I aren’t holding our breath. On the other hand, that’s not why we made the movie, and this is the movie we set out to make.”

Mr. Towne has made himself useful to a number of successful producers, from Roger Corman to Robert Evans to Jerry Bruckheimer, not to mention a number of stars, from Warren Beatty to Jack Nicholson to Tom Cruise, whose company is sheltering “Ask the Dust” as a Paramount Classics specialty item. Yet despite his continued success and access, Mr. Towne discovers that getting offbeat projects on the screen never ceases to be a struggle.

“The dichotomy between so-called tent-pole movies — the biggest hits — and so-called independent features grows more and more daunting,” he says. “The studios just don’t [care] about the small change. It’s not necessarily bad to gross $50 million on a film that costs $15 million. You should be able to net $15 million from a decent theatrical release, and you’ll have a property with a long shelf life. ‘Chinatown’ continues to make money for Paramount, and it cost relatively little in 1974 dollars. But after ‘Jaws,’ which demonstrated that you could gross $100 million in just six weeks, the way was paved for a more exaggerated blockbuster mind-set, in which you expect to gross $125 million in the first weekend. Even worse, the studios will spend that much to advertise a tent-pole title’s opening weekend.”

Mr. Towne prefers the leisurely patterns and expectations of the 1970s. “A good picture could start in two or three theaters and play for months,” he recalls, “allowing public awareness to build and favorable reviews to saturate the country. Remember? There used to be people who’d travel a long way to see something that still hadn’t opened in their towns.”

Because “Ask the Dust” remains an elusive payday, Mr. Towne says he feels it’s imperative to “do something that contributes to my income.” His association with the “Mission: Impossible” thrillers seems to be at an end. He wasn’t involved in the upcoming sequel.

Mr. Towne may have reason to return to Washington more frequently because he’s contemplating a World War II saga: the exploits of Wendell Fertig, an American mining engineer who was stranded in the Philippines after the Japanese conquest and organized a guerrilla army on Mindanao.

“They were insanely inventive,” Mr. Towne comments. “Constantly thinking outside the box long before the cliche was envisioned.”

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