Chinatown At 40: The Making Of Polanski's LA Noir

Nicholson and crew remember high tempers, a script nobody understood, and the time Faye Dunaway threw a cup of piss over Roman Polanski.
Publish date:
Updated on

No one in Hollywood was surprised when Robert Evans announced that he wanted to produce his own pictures. As head of Paramount, between ’66 and ’74, he’d bankrolled major hits like Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story and The Godfather, almost single-handedly saving the studio from ruin. His desire to make films under the aegis of his own company was easy to understand, and Paramount readily agreed to back him, guiding Evans towards The Gambler, a poker picture written by James Toback and set to star James Caan and Lauren Bacall.

Instead Evans chose Chinatown, a story he’d received from Robert Towne, a gifted script doctor and TV writer then locked in a stalemate with the producers of The Last Detail over repetition of the word ‘motherfucker’ in his original screenplay. Set in ‘30s Los Angeles, Chinatown was a dense, layered thriller in the tradition of Hammett and Chandler. It followed the Byzantine investigations of Jake Gittes, a Marlowe-esque gumshoe who becomes embroiled in an elaborate scam to profit from the city’s water supply. Initially, Evans was baffled by Towne’s story, but there was a quality about the script that appealed to him, even if it completely escaped almost everyone else in the business.

Yet if his choice of script was perplexing, Evans’ intended cast and crew were positively bizarre - Faye Dunaway, a leading lady famed for her quick temper; Jack Nicholson, a rising actor who had yet to deliver a real hit; and Roman Polanski, a director whose eccentricity was eclipsed only by his meticulousness. When Dunaway clashed furiously with the filmmaker during the shoot, Evans measured the line of people queuing up to say ‘I told you so’ in “miles rather than metres”.

It was only when the film reached the theatres that the producer was able to face his critics. Chinatown became a massive box office success and received 11 Academy Award nominations – although only Towne’s script won an Oscar. And 40 years on, it remains the quintessential Hollywood thriller, classic in style and modern in outlook. Many films have to tried to better it – some, like LA Confidential, have come surprisingly close – but none has out-stripped Chinatown’s near-mythical reputation. As the New York Times observed, “In the years since its release, Chinatown has grown into something more than even its glowing reviews and Academy Award nominations promised.”

Robert Evans (Producer): The first production of Robert Evans Productions had its origins over dinner with Robert Towne. Having just read Truman Capote’s disastrous script for The Great Gatsby, I’d asked the best script doctor in the business to meet me for dinner. Before I could get into Gatsby, Towne began telling me about an original screenplay he was working on. “It’s about how LA became a boomtown – incest and water. It’s set in the 1930s. A second-rate shamus gets 86’d by a mysterious broad. Instead of solving a case for her, he’s the pigeon. I’m writing it for Jack Nicholson.”

Robert Towne (Screenwriter): There was a photo essay in an old colour supplement that had pictures of ‘Raymond Chandler’s LA’ and I thought it would be possible, with a knowledge of the city, to recreate the past. That coincided with me reading Carey McWilliams’ Southern California Country, which contains a chapter called ‘Water! Water! Water!’ about the despoliation of the Owens Valley by big investors buying out the San Fernando Valley, stealing water from the north, bringing it to the south and doing so by claiming the city was suffering from a terrible drought.

Evans: Six weeks after our meeting, Towne delivered his first draft. No one understood it, especially me. Just like the title, it was pure Chinese.

Towne: A friend of mine who’s a vice cop once said to me, “You don’t know who’s a crook and who isn’t a crook. So in Chinatown, they say, ‘Just don’t do a goddamn thing’”. That gave me my title.

Evans: I wanted Roman to shoot the picture. So I watched What?, his latest movie [a camp sex comedy]. It may be the worst piece of shit I’ve ever seen. Roman said, “I own 50 per cent of this. It’s gonna make a fortune.” I said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll pay you for Chinatown exactly what you make on this picture. If you make $15 million, I’ll pay you $15 million. If you make $15, I’ll pay you $15.” Roman shook on the deal. Next day I got a phone call from his lawyers. They were pissed off.

Roman Polanski (Director): No one else has an ear for dialogue like Bob Towne – this phenomenal verbal memory. It had the taste and the smell of the place.

Evans: One afternoon Frank Yablans [head of distribution at Paramount] and Gary Chazan [Evans’ assistant] cornered me in my office. “If you want to make Chinatown, you’ve got my OK,” Yablans said. “But do you understand the fuckin’ script?” I couldn’t lie – “Nope.” “Don’t feel bad about it. No one else does either. Don’t make it, please. I don’t want you to fall on your ass first time out.” Gary interrupted: “Frank’s right. See if you can lock up The Gambler as your first picture.” “Chinatown’s my picture, fellas. That’s it.” “With everything at your disposal, Evans, you pick this piece of shit,” Yablans chided. “It’s fuckin’ suicide!”

Towne: Roman and me went to war over the screenplay. He, Evans and Jack all wanted to tinker with it. I liked it just fine.

Polanski: Bob had this terrible dog – huge, a monster. The goddamn thing would lay one my feet in this hot room. Bob would smoke his pipe, and there was the dog on my feet and this smoke in the room and the drooling… It was really a hard re-writing experience, eight weeks of that. And Bob would fight for every word, every line of dialogue, as if it was carved in marble.

Jack Nicholson (JJ ‘Jake’ Gittes): Roman loves to argue. The average person, he has two arguments and if there’s no movement, he stops having arguments. But Roman will go on forever.

Towne: We fought every day over everything. Over names. “No, her name can’t be that, it’s too Jewish.” “Who says it’s Jewish?” The biggest arguments of all were over the final scene. My ending had Evelyn Mulwray killing her father, Noah Cross, during a downpour in Chinatown. Roman hated that ending. He wanted Evelyn to die and Cross to live. His argument was: that’s life. Beautiful blondes die in LA – Sharon Tate [Polanski’s actress wife] had. He didn’t say that, but that’s what he felt.

Evans: Jane Fonda was everybody’s first choice to play opposite Jack. There was one problem: she was hedging, not sure she wanted the part. Understandably, she didn’t understand the script. Concurrently, giving me heartburn was Susan Mengers, Faye Dunaway’s agent. She pushed her client on me to the point of blackmail.

Faye Dunaway [Evelyn Mulwray]: Robert Evans told me that Jack Nicholson had said, “This is about Chinatown, a state of mind. And there’s something unpredictable about Faye. You never know quite what’s going on in her head.” I guess that was a compliment. Either way, it goes me the part.

Polanski: Bob Evans was warning me against Dunaway, saying that she’s impossible. I thought, she may be impossible with other people but not with me.

Dunaway: The friction between Roman and me began from the start. During the make-up test Lee Hermon, who was my make-up man, finished his work and Roman came by to check it. He wasn’t happy – he wanted me paler that I already was, though my skin is extremely pale to begin with. Instead of explaining what he wanted, he started striding around saying, “No, no, no! I want it like this.” And he grabbed the powder and began covering my face with it. The effect was awful, but his methods were worse. I came away from the encounter thinking he was a bully. I think what he did to me throughout the film bordered on sexual harassment.

Evans: On September 28 1973, World War III started – Chinatown’s first day of principal photography.

John A Alonzo (Cinematographer): Roman used Frisbee-size rubber plates on the floor so that Jack would have to hit the mark dead-on. Little things like that could drive Jack crazy.

Howard Koch Jr [Assistant Director]: Jack would say, “I don’t want to stand there.” “Stand there! That’s where you should stand! Roll the camera! Jack, just say the fucking line!” We’d roll the camera, and Roman would bark “Action!” and Jack would look into the camera and go, “Hi, I’m Jack Nicholson and I’m doing a movie.”

Nicholson: Roman’s an irritating person whether he’s making a movie or not making a movie.

Alonzo: Roman is a stickler for details. He wanted everything just right: Faye’s fingernails, Jack’s ties and coats, the colour balance of the clothing against the wall.

Dunaway: Roman was very much an autocrat, always forcing things. It ranged from the physical to the mental. He was very domineering and abrasive and made it clear he wanted to manipulate the performance. That approach has never worked with me.

Polanski: The problem with Faye was she would always want to change the lines. If I didn’t want to take out a line she would say that I was destroying the part.

Dunaway: The little shit wouldn’t talk to me about the part. He just kept telling me, “Just do it the way you feel.” He would explain nothing and give me no clue as to the motivation of the character.

Polanski: We were working in a restaurant, shooting a two-shot favouring Faye. There was one hair that would stick out from her hairdo and catch the light and we were trying to get rid of it, trying to flatten it, and it wouldn’t stay down. When you have the shoulder of an actress very near the camera, every inch makes a tremendous difference because it’s in the foreground. So I went over behind her and plucked the hair.

Koch Jr: I was standing next to the camera, and I saw Faye’s face. Before anything, I didn’t even say “Cut!”, I just went “Lunch!”. But it was too late.

Polanski: Faye screamed, “That motherfucker plucked my hair!” and stormed off the set. I said, “That’s impossible! The director is never wrong!” and walked off as well.

Koch Jr: I had to call her agent. She said, “How dare he touch a hair on her head! You have to have Roman make a public apology!”

Polanski: I couldn’t see what I had done wrong. Pluck one hair? Christ, she plucked her eyebrows for the film. I don’t know, maybe she was getting bald at that time.

Evans: The set closed. A summit was called. I had meetings with Roman, Faye and Freddie Fields [head of Dunaway’s agency, Creative Management Associates]. Freddie said, “Get rid of Polanski! He’s crazy.” I said, “Fuck you, Freddie! Polanski’s my choice and Dunaway’s my star. I’ll handle it.” Then I said to Roman, “Faye isn’t comfortable with you controlling her every move.” He said, “That’s the way I direct. She’s a piece of chess.” She said, “He’s crazy. See why I can’t work with him?” I said, “Faye, you did something which wasn’t very nice.” She began complaining. To calm things down, I said that if either of them did not get an Academy Award nomination, I’d buy then a Rolls Cornice. Roman said, “Make it a Bentley and you can bring Dunaway back on set”.

Alonzo: There was a scene where Faye gets in the car and Jack is there and scares the shit out of her. Faye kept saying, “Roman, I have to pee.” He’d reply, “No. You stay there. We shoot.” Then he said, “Roll the window down, I got to talk to you. You’re turning too far right. Don’t look at Jack, just look ahead.” Faye had a cup of something, and when I turned back I saw a wet Roman. Roman yelled, “That’s piss!” And she said, “Yes, you little putz!” and rolled the window back up.

Nicholson: One of the secrets of Chinatown is that there was a kind of triangular offstage situation. I had just started going out with John Huston’s daughter Angelica, which fed the moment-for-moment reality of my scene with his character, Noah Cross. So when he asks, “Are you sleeping with her?” in the film, it has a nice double meaning.

“You know what happens to nosey fellas?”

John Huston [Noah Cross]: The scene of Jack getting his nose slit was not in the original screenplay. If they had shot later scenes prior to shooting this one, they would have had to re-do them, showing the sutures in his nose. But even more important is that sense of storytelling – the cadence and rhythm that’s in the director’s subconscious.

Alonzo: It made a good scene because Nicholson was really frightened. He kept saying to Roman [cameoing as the assailant], “You little fucking Polack. You’d better watch what the fuck you’re doing.” Roman would just look at him and smile.

Koch Jr: We used a real knife, the last quarter inch of which was on a hinge. The first take worked absolutely beautifully. But Roman kept going. I think we ended up with 12 takes. I’m not going to say that Roman just loved doing it.

Dunaway: There did come a time when Roman pushed it too far with Jack. Jack’s a huge fan of the LA Lakers and on this day the Lakers were playing on the East Coast. Roman was fussing about on the set, so Jack borrowed a TV from Howard Koch and watched the game. The game was just coming to an end when Roman summoned Jack from his trailer.

Koch Jr: Roman says, “Where is Jack?” I went back to Jack and he went, “Howie, it’s overtime. I’m not leaving now. Just tell Roman I’ve been waiting an hour-and-a-half. Let him wait for a few minutes.” So Roman has a cow, and then the game goes into double overtime. We’re all basketball fans, so nobody’s upset except for Roman who could give a fuck about the Lakers. “Where is he?” I said, “Roman, it’s double overtime.” He’s like, “WHAT THE FUCK IS DOUBLE OVERTIME?!”

Polanski: Once the scene was shot, I grabbed a mop and ran inside Jack’s trailer to smash the TV. But I didn’t have enough room and the damn thing wouldn’t break, so I grabbed the TV and tossed it out the trailer. I saw Howie Koch wince.

Koch Jr: Jack looked at Roman and said, “Who do you think you are?” Roman said, “I am the director and I’m trying to get the fucking shot.” And Jack starts to take off his clothes. He throws his tie at Roman, he throws his jacket at Roman. Meanwhile, he’s heading closer and closer to the stage door. Finally he’s naked, and he leaves the set. Then Roman went after him.

Roman: We got in our cars and drove off the set. We were at a red light when I looked left and saw Jack in the car next to mine. We both started laughing. And Jack said, “It’s Friday. Don’t tell them anything. Let them worry.”

Evans: Chinatown’s last scene brought with it the heavy luggage of dispute and second guesses. To this day, Towne vents his anger towards me. How could I have sided with Roman?

Polanski: Towne and I couldn’t agree on an ending. Towne wanted a happy ending. I knew that if Chinatown was to be special and not just another thriller, Evelyn Mulwray had to die.

Nicholson: You have to remind yourself that Roman comes from Poland, a country whose national pastime is resistance.

Dunaway: When Chinatown wrapped, we all knew something special had been created. But you still never know if the public will take to it.

Nicholson: When I saw a rough cut, I said to Bob Evans, “We got a hot one. Get those cheques ready – we’re on our way!”

Evans: Chinatown had a gala screening at the Directors Guild. When the final credits began to roll, there was no applause, but no one stood up to leave. It was more eerie than the film itself. A pal grabbed me and said, “Imagine, you could have done The Gambler instead of this, you schmuck!” Freddie Fields, unable to hold back his smile, waved. “Sorry, kid.” When the reviews broke, chicken shit became chicken salad.

Polanski: As usual, I conveyed more violence than was actually seen, for many of the preview reports – while enthusiastic about Chinatown as a whole – complained of too much gore. In fact, discounting Jack’s nose and the brief death scene at the end, the picture has absolutely no bloodshed in it.

Evans: Chinatown was honoured with 11 Academy Award nominations. To Roman’s chagrin, the one Oscar went to Robert Towne.

Towne: When the movie won the British Academy Award for Roman and me, they flew me over there and seated us at separate tables. I said, “How come I’m not at the same table as Roman?” They said, “Well, you said you wouldn’t work together any more.” I said, “I wouldn’t work with him but that doesn’t mean I won’t have dinner with him.”