Robert Towne Masterclass

Hugh Farley took copious notes at Robert Towne’s Writers’ Masterclass at the Galway Film Fleadh, 2006. This article will give you a taste of what it was like to be there.

In a coup for Screen Training Ireland, the veteran screenwriter, Robert Towne, took the stage at this year’s Writer’s Masterclass at the Galway Film Fleadh. A Donald Sutherland look-alike with flowing grey locks and beard, the 71 year old Towne, whose films include Chinatown, The Last Detail and Shampoo, entertained and intrigued an audience of over 70 people.

Displaying the iconoclastic ease of a master, Towne subscribes to no theory of Story: “Good is good”. He believes most of these approaches are applied retrospectively to successful films which are created much more organically. He recounted that the central idea in Chinatown (that it is a place where it is best to do nothing because you have no idea what is really going on) was given to him by a Los Angeles cop who worked that district from whom he bought his dog.

In the 80’s and 90’s, he turned to directing his own material in films like Tequila Sunrise, Personal Best, Without Limits and recently Ask The Dust, frustrated by what he saw as ham-fisted attempts of others. “The most important thing for the writer is to see the scene as you have imagined it.” He illustrated two concrete pieces of screenwriting craft.

He talked about the challenge of providing a scene at short notice for The Godfather (he did re-writes. The screenplay is credited to Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola). Coppola was nearly finished the shoot and realised that he needed a final scene between Michael and the Don where they could express their love for each other. The problem was how to motivate a scene of such intimacy.

Towne’s solution was elegant. At the top of the scene, he plants a juicy story hook: Barzini will try to have Michael assassinated. Then Don Corleone digresses: “I don’t know your wife and children, you’re happy with them?” Thus the conversation moves from business to personal and they share some intimacy til Michael asks: “What’s the matter? What’s bothering you?” Don Vito confesses that he regrets getting Micheal mixed up in the mob because he had hoped his youngest son could achieve high office in his own right. The Don reflects ruefully: “There wasn’t enough time, Michael.” “We’ll get there, Pop. We’ll get there” Micheal replies. Then the Don returns to the assassination threat: “Now listen, whoever comes to you with this Barzini meeting. He’s the traitor. Don’t forget that.” The audience has been seduced into sitting through a long character scene in order to get more information about the assassination plot set up at the start.

A propos the old screenwriting adage: exposition should always be revealed under duress, Towne talked about the famous scene in Chinatown where Faye Dunaway’s character Evelyn Mulwray finally reveals the truth to Jack Nicolson’s Jake Gittes that she and her monstrous father Noah Cross (played wonderfully by John Huston) have a daughter.

The problem, Towne notes, was that this is a highly melodramatic piece of information to get across and Mulwray is particularly emotionally reticent character. The solution was to get Gittes to “literally beat the sh*t out of her” so that the audience will be convinced that it must be true. The session, at Galway’s Radisson Hotel, was moderated by Declan McGrath and was received enthusiastically by the large crowd.