L.A. Stories, Continued

Robert Towne’s Ask the Dust Kicks Off the Film Fest

Ask the Dust premieres Thursday, February 2, 7:30 p.m., at the Arlington Theatre; A Conversation with Robert Towne, Friday, February 3, 5:30 p.m., Victoria Hall Theater.

Even if Robert Towne had decided to quit the business a quarter century ago, his significant place in film history would have been secure and his epitaph would have read: “Here lies the creator of one of film’s most perfect screenplays.” But the screenwriter best known for his astonishingly fine script for Chinatown moved forward, working steadily over the years as a coveted script doctor and writer for the Mission: Impossible franchise, among other artier fare, even if never reaching the rarefied air he attained with his Chinatown script.

Also during the last 25 years, Towne has become a now-and-then auteur, and his fourth film as a writer-director — Ask the Dust — kicks off the Santa Barbara International Film Festival tonight in a gala world-premiere screening. Based on a novel by pulp writer John Fante, Towne comes home again, in a sense. Like Chinatown, it’s another period-piece about Los Angeles, Towne’s hometown. The roots of the original idea run deep, as he explained in a phone interview from his home, somewhere within easy driving distance of Chinatown.

Was Ask the Dust sitting long on your list of projects to eventually undertake? Yes it was — since 1971. It’s been a long time coming. There may have been projects that have had a longer gestation, but not by me. I read this book when I was doing research for Chinatown, and was looking for something of the period. I fell in love with it. I had wanted to find something to give me a feeling for the way people spoke then, if indeed there was any difference. This book was so immediate and so vivid in its dialogue. You knew right away that this was the real thing.

I was in the middle of writing Chinatown, but I made a point of meeting John, who was a cantankerous fellow. He was cantankerous and mightily pissed-off at having been ignored as an artist. It was a long time coming for a variety of reasons. I got swept up in Chinatown and one film after another. But I never lost my interest in it. In 1993, I finally wrote the screenplay, and people liked it. There was still difficulty getting it made.

That went on for another 10-year struggle, until this Irish gent showed up on my doorstep about four years ago, and said he wanted to do it. He literally showed up at my door. He was unknown, but I liked him. Two or three years later, Colin Farrell became famous and the movie became finance-able.

Once Colin became the catalyst, did it come together pretty quickly? No, it still took two or three years of me struggling while he became well-enough known before people said, “Okay, we’ll finance it.” It’s nothing short of a blessing that we were able to also have Salma Hayek play the part of Camilla. I don’t think there’s a person alive who better suits the part. I don’t know what we would have done without her. She is altogether amazing, and she will be in Santa Barbara (at the screening).

You’re actually from Los Angeles, in contrast to the archetypal dream-seeker heading west and falling flat, like this story’s protagonist. Have you always had a kind of perverse fascination with Los Angeles and what it means? It just sort of crept up on me. I realized that not that many people knew about the place where I grew up. I guess that led to it. It’s a place that is exotic and vulgar and glamorous and dusty, with palm trees from Egypt and people from everywhere. It’s that kind of place. There’s nothing quite like it. You don’t realize there’s nothing quite like it until you get old enough to have visited lots of other places, and you realize, “Christ, this is kind of a unique place.”

You’ve managed a neat trick of working both commercial and artistic ends of the Hollywood machine. Is that something that keeps you in balance? Well, it’s something that certainly pays the bills. In a way, it’s good, because you find yourself doing things that you never thought you were capable of. And that’s always a good feeling. Well, I can’t say I honestly enjoy every moment of every movie, but I enjoy the challenge of doing different things, and going into different worlds. How can you not?

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