As ‘Chinatown’ Turns 50, Robert Towne Reflects on His Netflix Prequel Plans With David Fincher and Writing Jack Nicholson’s Most Iconic Role

There are the classics — and then there’s “Chinatown.” First released on June 20, 1974, the seminal noir feature was a resounding success at its time: a big hit for producer and Paramount heavy Robert Evans, a renowned return to Hollywood for director Roman Polanski and an Academy Award winner for screenwriter Robert Towne, plus Oscar nominations for stars Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.

But the film has only become more enshrined in the canon in the decades since, in particular for Towne’s script: a grim portrait of uninhibited greed shaping Los Angeles in the 30’s, celebrated as one of the best — and often cited as the best — screenplay in history. Key to its legacy is its terrifying ending, which sees Nicholson’s detective J.J. Gittes return to his old stamping ground of Chinatown. There he witnesses another deadly miscarriage of justice that he’s helpless to stop.

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That Towne initially objected to the ending is the stuff of Hollywood legend. Not only did the screenwriter initially envision a more triumphant conclusion for Gittes, but he was against the story returning to Chinatown at all. As David Fincher puts it in his and Towne’s DVD commentary track, “The ultimate would be never to have to go to Chinatown. … Chinatown could not be a place you could actually go to because it’s a state of mind.”

In the years since, Towne has consistently affirmed that he now believes Polanski’s reimagined ending is the appropriate one. Now in his ’80s, the screenwriter has even returned to “Chinatown” himself, working with Fincher to script a prequel series that explores Gittes’ days as a newly minted detective patrolling the neighborhood that would come to haunt him.

“All I’m likely to say is yes, all the episodes have been written for Netflix,” Towne writes in an interview with Variety. “Working with a force of nature like David Fincher, tho’ occasionally humbling, is never less than enlightening.”

Netflix did not have a comment on the project. (The streamer also had none when the series was first reported to be in development in 2019.) Nonetheless, Towne’s vision for the prequel seems cohesive, shining light on the tragic events that shaped Gittes into the instinctively cynical (to a fault) private eye that he is in Polanski’s original film.

John Huston and Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown”

“When David and I first started talking we agreed we wouldn’t try to replicate Noah Cross,” Towne says about the villain of the series. “But we did want to keep in mind that the crimes that history considers monstrous are those that will not remain in the past but insist on visiting the future, and I think we managed that.”

In particular, Towne and Fincher’s scripts explore the relationship between a young Gittes and fellow officer Lou Escobar. Played by Perry Lopez in the 1974 film, Escobar is more obstacle than ally to Gittes in that story. But their shared history as police partners patrolling Chinatown, as well as Escobar’s presence during the tragedy that shakes Gittes, are both alluded to throughout the film.

“Chinatown, with all its implications for an evolving Los Angeles, is central to understanding the evolving Jake Gittes, as is his friendship with and dependence on his partner Lou Escobar,” Towne says. “It was enlightening to delve into their backstory, Escobar’s in particular. Small details that are touched on in the film are given life and breadth in a way that surprised even me.”

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Jack Nicholson and Perry Lopez in “Chinatown”

The as-yet-unrealized Netflix series wouldn’t be Towne’s first continuation of “Chinatown” though. A sequel, “The Two Jakes,” was penned by the screenwriter and directed by Nicholson himself. In the years ahead of production, Nicholson referred to “The Two Jakes” as part of a “triptych” of features, alluding to a potential third entry in a so-called “Chinatown” trilogy, which would have continued tracking the development and corruption of 20th century Los Angeles.

“‘Chinatown’ for me began when I was living in Benedict Canyon and some developer bought up acreage in nearby Deep Canyon and started a rapacious building concern. Land was being destroyed because of greed,” Towne says.

“The Two Jakes” was released in 1990: the same year as another belated (but more awards-friendly) bite at the New Hollywood apple, Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part III.” The sequel finds Gittes resettled in 1948 L.A. after serving in WWII. Now the owner of his own office building and a member of a country club, the private eye has grown complacent and, as the New York Times put it in its review, “older (and wider).” But when a new real estate conspiracy centered on oil deposits arises, Gittes becomes possessed by his latent morality once again, uncovering surprising ties back to the Cross case that haunts him.

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Jack Nicholson directing on “The Two Jakes”

After multiple collapses during pre-production over the years, the long-belated “Two Jakes” was instantly dubbed a disappointment upon release, earning mixed reviews and failing to recoup its budget theatrically. Any enthusiasm for a trilogy-capper was quickly squashed, though details about the project emerged in dribs and drabs over the years. A potential title was even floated: “Gittes vs. Gittes.”

Towne and Nicholson have both been quoted as saying a third Gittes story would’ve been set after California enacted no-fault divorce, meaning a marriage could be legally terminated without requiring one party to prove wrongdoing by the other. Naturally, such a law could’ve put an end to Gittes’ line of detective work; investigating and photographing infidelities is his bread-and-butter.

While Towne has refuted the notion that “Chinatown” was originally conceived as the start of a trilogy, he does affirm that a third Gittes film was considered a possibility. However, when asked about “Gittes vs. Gittes,” the screenwriter shares that he stopped considering story ideas after finishing the screenplay for “The Two Jakes” and then exiting the sequel before filming commenced.

“The questions tho’ intriguing have no answer, at least none that I can give. My involvement in ‘The Two Jakes’ ended before Jack directed the film. And with it any speculation as to where Jake Gittes might be, and what he might be doing at a future date,” Towne says. “A character doesn’t just appear fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. How he or she evolves or devolves is — let’s face it — the principal craft of the screenwriter. Jake Gittes was in his late thirties in ‘Chinatown.’ And whatever I may have speculated in my own late 30s is most likely not what I’d venture to create now.”

“Which is why I’m fond of the prequel that places Gittes newly in Los Angeles. … It is to this young Jake Gittes that I am particularly drawn,” Towne continues. “Because for all his bravado — his not playing by the rules, his penchant to be in charge — he controls events far less than events control him. And by the time he figures it out, it’s much too late to do anything about it, which seems to me the plight of the very young and the very old.”

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Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown”

Towne has also spoken over the years about how Nicholson’s persona was a formative influence in his writing of Gittes. The pair’s history dates back to a performance class in the late 1950s, taught by then-blacklisted actor Jeff Corey. The two became friends and lived together as roommates before Towne wrote the screenplay for Hal Ashby’s “The Last Detail” and with it, one of Nicholson’s most memorable roles. The character of Gittes was similarly calibrated for the actor.

“From the moment I laid eyes on him, I knew Jack was gonna be a star. … I wouldn’t have been able to envision anyone else in the part,” Towne says. “It wasn’t just his capacity for indignation, an innate sense that the world may not be fair but that it damn well should be. It was also his passion for clothing, a certain eye for the finer things, a disregard for — even aversion to — the ordinary.”

Towne’s actor-conscious approach wasn’t unique to “Chinatown” though. The screenwriter has written for stars throughout his career, including Tom Cruise for their inaugural collaboration “Days of Thunder” and the first two “Mission: Impossible” movies. It also happened with Towne’s sophomore directorial feature “Tequila Sunrise,” which saw Kurt Russell get one of his slickest roles as the suit-sporting narcotics detective Nick Frescia.

“Having a real person to write for simply makes my task easier and more enjoyable,” Towne says. “I’d known Goldie Hawn since ‘Shampoo’ and through her later got to know Kurt Russell, the best-hearted bad boy you’re likely to meet. Nick Frescia was meant to be Kurt. Or, look at Tom Cruise. He’s a terrific actor who’s played multiple roles, but just like seeing [James] Cagney walking or Jimmy Stewart walking, you know it’s Tom from the first shot, that ferocious energy, and so if you’re writing for him, you’re halfway there in terms of character.”

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Robert Towne accepts the Academy Award for best original screenplay from James A. Michener at the 1975 Oscars.

A lifelong screenwriter, Towne has seen the film industry transform from the New Hollywood to streaming. Writing for Lapham’s Quarterly in the mid-’90s, he posed an existential question about his profession that only seems more pertinent in the splintered attention spans of the digital age: “It’s tough to write effectively without common ground between you and your audience. Shared beliefs, like shared experience and shared myths, provide that ground. … For me, this is the problem the contemporary screenwriter faces: How can he tell a compelling story when there’s nothing the audience believes to be self-evident?”

“I’m not certain of my state of mind when I said that, but what I will say now is that storytelling doesn’t stop simply because a culture uses different mechanisms,” Towne says when asked about the article. “Audiences still want to believe. They’re simply more sophisticated, they’ve grown used to the medium of film so they’re not so easily beguiled.”

The new 4K Ultra Blu-Ray of “Chinatown” is now available from Paramount Presents.

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