Some directors have become inexorably linked with certain locales. Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen have explored their own aspects of Manhattan, while Barry Levinson and John Waters have returned to Baltimore time and again for their stories.
Writer/director Robert Towne has always found inspiration in his hometown of Los Angeles. In films like Chinatown (1974), Shampoo (1975) and Tequila Sunrise (1988) the City of Angeles is as much a character as the people who inhabit it. With his latest film Ask The Dust, adapted from a novel by John Fante, travels back to 1930s Los Angeles for the story of an angry young writer (Colin Farrell) who falls into a tempestuous affair with a beautiful Mexican waitress (Salma Hayek). Ironically, it was while he was researching the city’s history for a script early in his career that he first came across Fante’s novel.
“This project started at about the time I was writing what came to be Chinatown,” Towne states to an advance screening audience in Philadelphia, a month before the film’s premier. “I was looking for something that would give me some sense of what the 30s were like. I was just too young to remember what it was like. I stumbled across this book and it was a shock to me because it really was about a Los Angeles that I actually remembered more of then I knew.”
For Towne, born in Los Angeles in 1934 and raised in nearby San Pedro, the book reawakened in Towne recollections of his childhood.
“My memories sort of merged with John [Fante],” Towne says. “Not only that, but it kind of pointed the way I would work, chronicling Los Angeles in Chinatown, Shampoo, Tequila Sunrise and other movies.”
Towne arranged to meet Fante in 1971 and found in the writer a kindred spirit.
“He was a very cantankerous man, angry about not having been recognized for what he thought was a terrific novel, and he was right,” explains Towne. “My identification with John, who was an unknown writer who felt that his great work went ignored – the proverbial flower that bloomed in the desert that no one saw – came at a time in my career when I had written three scripts that I couldn’t get started. I suppose I wanted to rescue him in myself.
“Also, the film is about a writer in LA, writing about Los Angeles, to make his dream come true, writing about people who are there to make their dreams come true. He’s self-absorbed. He’s narcissistic. He’s insecure. He’s a manic depressive. He’s volatile. He’s scared. He’s in a room worried that he doesn’t have any experience or the wherewithal to write. It’s hard if you’re a writer to not identify with him.”
However, it would be over three decades before Towne would begin the process of bringing Fante’s novel to the silver screen.
“I got hung up doing other things in the 70s,” Towne understates about the decade where he won an Academy Award for Chinatown and grabbed two other Oscar nominations for The Last Detail (1973) and Shampoo. “When I finally wrote the script in 1993, no major studio wanted to do it. They thought the people were unpleasant. It was set during the Depression and nobody wanted to see that. The only people I could get interested in it were the talent. Johnny Depp at one point early on wanted to do it, but we couldn’t get it financed.
“It took about ten more years until an unknown, at the time, Irish actor showed up at my doorstep saying he wanted to do it. Of course, that actor became Colin [Farrell]. I said ‘Look, if you want to do it, then by hook or crook, we will.’ Then he did himself and me the favor of becoming a movie star. That allowed us to begin the financing.”
For the role of Farrell’s love interest, Towne had eyes for only one actress, Selma Hayek, though she initially wasn’t interested in the project.
“The reasons why she turned it down were very interesting and not related to the movie,” says Towne. “She had just come up from Mexico and from doing Mexican soap operas and said ‘Robert, I’m trying to, in effect, be able to play the Gringo parts, if you will. All I need to do is to play a Mexican waitress.’ But in the interim, she had done Frida (2002) and had acquired a serious reputation. At that point she reread the script and realized that she really wanted to do the film very much.”
With his stars on board, Towne struggled to put together the money needed to finance the film. Shot on a fraction of the budget of a mainstream Hollywood film, Towne took his cast and crew to the opposite side of the world from Los Angeles to find the right place to recreate the city in the Depression.
“Part of the reason for filming in South Africa was that that was the least expensive place to do it,” explains Towne. “It had an ancillary benefit in that there was nothing left of Los Angeles and the iconic places we were able to location scout for Chinatown. Everything is gone. But South Africa had the climate that was reminiscent of southern California. It had a coast line that looked more Laguna Beach than anything that is left in California. It also had a wonderful dessert. For downtown Los Angeles, specifically the Bunker Hill area, we found two football fields at a high school and we built Bunker Hill there. It was a very limited budget, but everyone was very dedicated to the film.”
But for all the struggle and sweat that Towne poured into the project, he feels it was worth it.
“It was a labor of love that was a long time coming.”