“It’s just as hard every time.” Robert Towne on Screenwriting
Robert Towne discusses the rules of writing action melodramas, building character from action, and how writing never gets any easier.
By Daniel Argent.
Oscar-winning writer, producer, director and actor Robert Towne is widely considered to be one of Hollywood’s finest screenwriters, contributing to such films as Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather. In the 1990s he wrote screenplays for several of the biggest blockbusters, including Days of Thunder and Mission: Impossible, hitching his career to that of Tom Cruise, and producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with Towne in his Los Angeles home in 2000, where he discussed the rules of writing action melodramas, building character from action, and how writing never gets any easier, no matter how renowned a writer may be.
How did the writer of Chinatown get involved in Mission: Impossible II?
The way I usually become involved in it: I was asked. I discussed it early on with Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner, and then I was working on another project with him and eventually it came back to me. At least six, seven, eight months went by, then he asked me to become involved. It isn’t very interesting. Like the way I got involved with the first one, you know?
It was an interesting problem because by the time I got involved, there were certain action pieces around which the story had to be written, or, at the very least, the story couldn’t interfere with the action pieces [laughs]. These scenes, through the storytelling process, had become solidified in John Woo’s mind. I won’t say those sequences had a life of their own but they were there, and had been developed. In a movie like Mission, as in all of John’s movies, his action sequences are carefully choreographed. They were there. And the story, at the point that I came along, was not there to support the action.
So what it really came down to is somebody saying, “These are the action sequences that we’ve got. How about telling the story?” That’s unusual. That was the most challenging thing about it: starting with the action sequences and using them to tell the story.
It’s an important consideration.
Yeah, you can put it that way; and knowing that, I judged it would be a good idea to try to make the action pieces part of the story [laughs]. Now, given the alternative, that was the sensible approach, you know? I kid about it. It was very difficult, and it didn’t work right away. But after awhile, enough monkeys at a typewriter—or acting enough like a monkey on a typewriter— it actually worked. The action really became, at least I hope, an integral part of the story.
When you’re working in that situation, is there a regressive analysis that goes on, to fit a story around those scenes? Do those boundaries make the writing easier?
Well, there are certain action sequences that are there. There’s no analysis that needs to be done. That’s it, man. And you do your best to work it out. Oddly enough, Tom and I—even before other writers got involved—had talked about an approach to the story that was still possible under those conditions. I returned to that approach and talked it over with Tom and John Woo and they approved of it and we went with that. It took three drafts. The first draft was creaky because trying to make the action look as if it flows from character is very hard. It didn’t work the first time, and it didn’t work the second time.
But for some reason the third draft (when we were in Australia), I remember getting about twenty-five to thirty pages into it and thinking, “Well, I don’t know where we’re going but I know that, at least from my point of view, this is going to work.” And we all felt that this draft worked. It had a level of—I really don’t want to say reality— but it seemed organic, it started happening. And then suddenly it was fun, and I felt good about it. The first two drafts were tough, but that often happens. I would guess that the writers of Hitchcock movies, like the writers of Mission movies, well, they’re a lot more fun to see than to write.
Was it a bit daunting to come onto this project? There had been a number of writers before you and then you’re working with Tom and John. Is there a weight in that situation that you wouldn’t have if they had come to you fresh off the greenlight?
There are two ways to look at that. A lot of avenues have been explored by that time—alternative avenues—and they’d obviously not worked. So I suppose in that sense, it’s daunting. In another sense, you feel a little bit freer because this other stuff hasn’t worked. By that point they’re hoping something’s going to work [laughs].
Maybe in the sense you have a little more freedom simply because—oh, it’s partly because of the fact that other things have been explored that haven’t worked and in a sense, that’s taught you something. Also by this time we know each other pretty well and we trust each other pretty much. So if I say, “Well, let me try this,” Tom will tend to let me try it.
And in fact, that has happened once. He said, “Well, why don’t you try this?” (this is later on, in the third rewrite) about something, and I said, “Jesus Christ, man, I don’t know. I would never try that on my own. Are you sure it’ll work?” And he said, “I’m positive.” And I believed him. I believed him because I believe he really has a handle on this particular piece and what the parameters are. He has a really intuitive grasp of it, and so I tried it and it worked. So, it cuts both ways. It’s always a benefit when you’ve worked with somebody and enjoyed working together. It helps.
There’s a lot of trust between you and Tom that you don’t normally have when you’re coming into a new project. You’ve worked with Tom before; he knows the character. It sounds like the work goes more smoothly.
Yeah, there is real trust there, no question about it.
You’ve said, “What I’ve always responded to is movement—character is automatically expressed more quickly and eloquently through movement than through dialogue.” Can you give some examples of that working with Tom and how his physicality helped shape the script?
Look at James Cagney walking. Look at Jimmy Stewart walking. You’re halfway there with a character. With Tom Cruise it’s just a ferocious energy level that you see. The last shot of the filming actually took place here in Los Angeles. I’d gotten back from Australia and Tom called me up and said, “Why don’t you come out to the airport and watch the last shot?” So I ran out to the airport, went into this big hanger, got in this lift, went up seven and a half stories. Got hitched to a bar with this thing around my waist so I could lean out over the edge, which was dizzying. Tom greeted me, he said, “Hey, man, watch this!”—and with that, he dove seventy-five feet and ended up six inches from the camera. Now, of course he was on a sling, but it was a major stunt for anybody. And he did a flip in the air.
Now does that free you as a writer to explore areas you might not explore with someone less adventurous?
It focuses me as a writer to explore those areas. I don’t know that you can call that freedom. It certainly is a stimulant. Look at the title of the piece. Mission: Impossible. There’s a guy who’s always trying to prove that something can be done, and doing it. That’s his history. You just see it. It’s this irrepressible thing about his nature. Tom, inside, knows he can accomplish anything, even if he has never tried it before. Tom is somebody who never gives up on anything. He just knows he will triumph. That is Ethan Hunt. And that “peskiness” and persistence also has its comic side, and so it’s highly suggestive.
Tom started parachuting onto the set of Days of Thunder. He’d parachute out of the plane and hit the Daytona track, then get in the car and drive 200 miles an hour. People were doing it, but not many, and it took a good deal of skill. So about two or three days after his last jump (he didn’t do it every day but he did it more than once, put it that way) some guy jumped, got caught in a downdraft, hit the pavement, and got killed. And I said, “Hey man, aren’t you worried about that?” And Tom said, “No, no, the guy didn’t know what he was doing.” He had it worked out where this guy just didn’t operate within the parameters of what he knew himself to be workable, and from his point of view, that could not and would never happen to him. And you know, it never did. You think, “Maybe this guy obviously knows something I don’t.” But to see that in him…it’s really there. You are building a completely fantastical character on a piece of someone who really is there. It’s amazing how helpful that is.
That sounds like it gives you a lot of strength as a writer. When you put something down on paper, you know Tom can do it.
It’s all an illusion. But it gives you strength because you know he is doing it. It gives that odd little extra bit of conviction because you think, if there really was an organization like this, and there really was somebody maniacal enough to do it, it would be Tom. And so in that sense, it makes you believe. In another sense, it’s helpful because it goes to the motivation. Why do guys do that? Because they like to. You can see the great, good fun.
I remember once years ago, when my older daughter was about eighteen months old, I was running with her on the beach, carrying her. And I turned her upside down when I was running and she giggled. It was as if she was a little doll that was programmed. Every time I turned her upside down, she would giggle, automatically. I realized that that little child instinctively knew that she was defying gravity when I was turning her upside down, that it dramatized the fact that she was defying gravity because people can’t be upside down normally without falling on their head. But something was aborting the rules of gravity and it delighted her. Defying the laws of gravity, both literally and figuratively, is something. That childlike delight is at the heart of somebody like Tom. It’s a very simple thing, but it’s genuine. It gives you something that’s real, to build your illusion on.
And that also plays to the audience because they want to see that.
Yeah, they want to see it and they want to believe it, and in this case, their desire to believe has a foundation. Whether they know it or not, they sense it. It instinctively helps them to be transported into this fantasy world, this ride that they want to take, and to feel that, ‘Well, maybe something like this could really happen.’”
That’s the best of all worlds. Tom trusts you as a writer, you trust him for his input, and you can identify his personality with that of Ethan Hunt. And the audience trusts both of you. It’s that pact that’s made in the filmmaking and viewing process.
I certainly think that’s true with Tom and me. There’s a real desire on all our parts to play fair with the audience, to give them the best possible ride, and not to cheat. To try, within the fantastic rules of Mission: Impossible, to abide by those rules. Every genre has its discipline. And so you say, “Okay, once you enter this world, this world will have its rules and we will abide by them and he will succeed within the context or fail within the context of that world, with its rules. Some of them are a bit heightened from the real world but those will be abided by.” That’s what I mean by playing fair.
Does the audience implicitly know those rules?
Well, they know the rules are there. They’ve known them from the beginning, from the television show, from all the rules spoken and unspoken that melodrama over the years has been codified into. Generally speaking, and even in an action melodrama, there are no extraneous elements. A guy can’t be in the middle of running down villains, and in a car chase out of one of those voyeuristic television shows about cops, run around the block, hit somebody and get killed. That can’t be part of this world. This world is a dream world and in a dream, everything has a place and advances the action.
As opposed to those weird things that just happen in real life. There were those three great Greek tragedians, and one of them—I think it was Aeschylus—died because he was walking along a road and his bald head looked like a rock to an eagle who was carrying a turtle. The eagle was looking for something to crack the turtle’s shell on and he dropped it on the head of arguably the greatest tragedian in the history of Western civilization. Of course, there is a poetry about that, but you can’t have those kinds of odd events in an action melodrama. It has to be relevant to what the villain and the hero do. They are demiurges, they are forces strong enough so that they control the action, the action does not control them.
Within those rules, how do you build characters in an action melodrama—and a sequel at that—who can stand on their own within this film and yet do not get in the way? We know that at the end of Mission: Impossible 2, that Ethan Hunt is not going to sacrifice himself for the greater good even though he might want to. They need to be able to make Mission: Impossible 3.
What you’re saying is that you know he’s not going to die. I think that’s right and I think that’s one of the critical problems. However, that doesn’t mean that a very important or critical secondary character or co-lead can’t die, or that doesn’t mean that he might not, for example, pledge to protect or save somebody or fail. There would be the possibility of his failing to do so, which would, in a sense, kill his character, even if he doesn’t physically die.
So the point is that you have to set up situations where you fear, if not for Ethan Hunt’s life, then for the life of somebody that he feels that he must protect. How he reacts to that is the crux of the situation. How he reacts, let’s say, to a situation where he’s torn between what he has to do to get his job done or saving that person’s life—the classic conflict between love and duty. In other words, there are other ways to create a drama with a character other than whether he’s going to physically survive or not.
Do you think that modern-day audiences have the willingness to believe, as much as they used to?
Oh, sure they do. Audiences want to believe that as much as they ever did. They’re just more skeptical than they’ve ever been, more sophisticated than they’ve ever been. You have to be more careful about letting them enjoy it. In other words, you have to create a situation where it’s not that easy for the hero to display his wares, so they’re rooting for the hero. Showing up’s not going to do it.
Those dynamics don’t ever change, any more than storytelling ever changes for children or adults. All you have to do, if you want to be reassured of that, is look at Harry Potter. What’s number one, two, and three on the best-seller list, on the New York Times list. Not for children. For children and adults. It’s Harry Potter. If you want to know whether storytelling is something audiences want to read, hey, Potter’s a real hero. If you want to read great storytelling, that’s great storytelling. And all the things we’re talking about, in terms of a hero whom you have to believe can get it together to overcome incredible odds, is there.
It’s really a wonderful story.
Yes, that never changes. The skills that have been brought to motion pictures in recent years have not been as finely honed as they were in the past. It’s partly a legacy of the ’50s and ’60s where the advent of television had such a powerful impact on movies. And so Hollywood, in an attempt to lure audiences back to the theaters, relaxed the code of what could be depicted in a film. Let them see something they can’t see on TV. So, in a way, it was great. We used language we hadn’t used before, and showed scenes dealing with sex. But it also removed the stumbling blocks that were really spurs to good storytelling. All right, you can’t show them having sex so what do you do?
All the inventiveness the old films had in terms of storytelling—you can’t show a certain type of violence—all of our inventiveness was gone. Our need to be inventive was gone. Not that you can’t be inventive with additional colors in your palette, but just the fact that you can show blood, and bullets in people, and do it in slow motion, and have simulated sex and all of those things.… It very often became the occasion for people to photograph that, rather than use them judiciously; therefore, a lot of storytelling lapsed. The improved techniques with the camera and CGI and everything else became Grand Guignol and the razzle-dazzle of technological advancement. To the detriment of storytelling.
There was nothing to argue with any more.
Exactly. And that was enough. Not that there haven’t been good stories. There’s been some very good storytelling. For example, the first Jurassic Park had some very good storytelling. There’s plenty of it. But there’s also plenty lacking.
Myths usually focus on the winners, but some of your most powerful pieces have focused on losers, or people in losing situations: Without Limits, Chinatown. Do you think it’s as important to have the myths of the losers?
I do. Almost by definition, in tragedy, the guy loses. It’s only the fact of his loss that allows us to see how heroic he is. That the passion and the spirit which informed his actions, the fact that he’s failed or died and that we’re still left with that feeling, lets us know that that feeling is so strong that it transcended the physical.
Do you feel more for someone who willingly goes to their death for a cause, or for someone who fights for a cause and dies unwillingly?
Personally, I would identify with the latter, the guy who dies not willingly. That was really the success of a lot of World War II movies. He didn’t want to die, but he believed in what he was fighting for.
You’re considered one of the grandmasters of Hollywood. How do you feel when people describe you like that? Is that a crown of thorns or a crown of gold?
Given the choice of being lavished in praise or not praised, what do you think? Of course you would prefer being praised. But I have to point out out that it doesn’t make one’s job any easier. In some cases, it makes it more difficult. I can honestly say that I don’t think any studio in the ’90s—even in the ’80s, the great ’80s—gives a damn: “He’s done these movies, we better pay a little attention to him.” I don’t think that has anything to do with anything. It doesn’t figure into the equation. If anything went well, that was then, this is now. The only benefit your experience gives you is, when you’re stuck on the story point: “Well, hell, I got through it before, I guess I’ll get through it again.” It’s that dumb faith in the fact of your own history. “I must be able to do this. I did it before.” But it’s just as hard every time.
Does the writing get any easier?
No. In certain little ways, yeah. But in any real serious way? No. It’s still hard.
You’ve worked in Hollywood for several decades. What sort of changes have you seen?
The biggest change—at least for the writer—was years ago. I remember when I wanted to do Greystoke. I called up a friend and said, “Let’s do it.” But he says, “Oh, damn man, that’s going to be a problem”—because an associate of his had met resistance trying to put together a Tarzan film. Oh, no, come on—Jane Goodall, Shadow of Man. We could actually do it now as if it really happened. And my friend said “You’re right, screw it, let’s do it.” That ability in the shorthand an idea, where somebody says “Well, I’m not sure but go ahead and do it.” That willingness to gamble on the hunch of the filmmaker is gone.
You know, there are too many other people who will second-guess every second, the creative executives who come along and read the material and then sit around. That visceral response, that “Try it, and if you screw up, then it’s your ass, but go ahead and try.” Storytelling is fun and impulsive: “Wouldn’t it be great if we did this and did that?” When you have to wait five damn years to find out if it’d be great, the impulsiveness is gone.
Are there people who still work under that visceral response system?
If I find one, I’ll let you know. There are people who have those impulses, but they are to some extent constrained in the same way I am. They don’t have the ability any longer in those jobs to say, “Hey, I’m going this way with it.” The system has it built-in that there are too many people to answer to. Just the damn fact of the in-house lawyers, endless tin cans tied to your tail. It takes months and years to get a contract done. Used to be, somebody just did it on the phone. Never had a damn deal. Now, the deal is everything.
Was that the advent of corporate ownership of studios?
Yeah. It’s bad because that’s isn’t what it’s about. So much a part of filmmaking is that impulsiveness—”Let’s do it [snaps fingers]. Screw it, let’s do it tomorrow. Let’s not do it three years from tomorrow.” That’s terrible. It’s the thing that will eventually kill me.
Does it get harder every year?
Not the doing of it, all the bull surrounding the doing of it. Endless.
Chinatown is often used as the perfect paradigm for the three-act structure and all of that. When you’re building a story, do you use any of these paradigms?
I don’t know. I start thinking about it and it forms, or it doesn’t form. I start thinking about it or writing, taking notes, whatever it is, until it starts to come alive on its own.
There’s no trick? No magic key?
No. I wish there was.
This article first appeared in Creative Screenwriting 7, #3.
If you enjoyed this interview, why not check out our four-part series on the films of Robert Towne, beginning with Days of Thunder: An Excercise in Speed.
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