Dusting Off the Memories

Barbara Isenberg is the author of "State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work."

Few screenwriters traverse California history with the surety of Robert Towne.

Raised in San Pedro, he seems as wedded to the land as are the people he writes about. His Pacific Palisades home is surrounded by lush lawns, pepper trees and birds of paradise, and you can hear the backyard fountain from inside the house.

As the Academy Awards approached, the Oscar-winning Towne sat down in his candlelit dining room to talk about his new movie, “Ask the Dust,” and John Fante, whose 1939 novel inspired the film. Much as Towne’s screenplay for “Chinatown” drew on the San Pedro of his childhood, so has “Ask the Dust” drawn on both the L.A. he knew and the one he wishes he had known. The movie, starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, opens March 10.


Your quest to turn Fante’s classic novel into a film has become legendary. When did it start?

I first read “Ask the Dust” in 1971 when I was doing research for “Chinatown.” I was concerned about the way people really sounded when they talked, and I was dissatisfied with everything else I had read that


was written during the ‘30s. I wanted the real thing, as Henry James would say. When I picked up Fante’s “Ask the Dust,” I just knew that was the way those kids talked to each other--the rhythms, cadences, racism. The book triggered all kinds of memories.

What sorts of memories?

Although I wasn’t born until 1934, my sense memory of that time was of blinding white stucco from the sun, red tile roofs and dust in the air, because there was so little to hold it down. All this foliage was imported from everywhere on earth, just as people have come here from everywhere on earth and taken root in this desert sand. The foliage keeps the dust and dirt from blowing around, and in the ‘30s, there wasn’t so much of it.

And the smells--the eucalyptus, the orange blossoms. You could smell the orange blossoms on the road just driving down Wilshire. You could smell the ocean from Westwood. Western was called Western because that was as far west as the city was at that time. All of these memories, things I barely knew I remembered, were triggered and enhanced by my simple reading of “Ask the Dust.” The book brought back my past. It so threw me that I didn’t start “Chinatown” for a while.

When did you arrange to meet Fante and talk with him about adapting his book?

Right away. But when I met him, I hadn’t written “Chinatown” or “Shampoo.” I’d written “The Last Detail,” but nobody had seen it or heard about it. He said, “Well, you haven’t done anything. Why should I do that? What makes you think you can adapt anything?” He was the most curmudgeonly man, a suspicious, angry little guy who felt he had been unjustly dealt with by time and critics, and his work had been unjustly ignored. And he was right. But I think his wife Joyce urged him to be a little more temperate with me, and that June, 1971, he gave me a copy of his book--it was a first edition, which I still have--with an inscription: “To Bob Towne, in the hope that he will take this to far places.”

Which you did.

Yes, we ended up going to South Africa. I don’t think he had that in mind. But by the time we got around to shooting the film 33 years later, the actual physical locations no longer existed.

Why the 33 years?

Armed with that inscribed book and determined to make that movie, I then went off and did everything else but that. I got caught up in things I was doing and the infernal machinery of my own life. When he died, my reaction was one of the most emotional I’d ever had. I just went to pieces, filled with guilt and incredible sorrow for a man who was like the proverbial flower that had bloomed in the desert unseen by anyone.

How did you wind up in South Africa?

We found locations in South Africa that in many ways were more like Los Angeles than Los Angeles. We built downtown Los Angeles in Cape Town, but there was a desert a few hours away that looks exactly like the Mojave--all you had to do was keep the occasional baboon out of the shot.

There’s a powerful moment in the film, when Bandini laments the continued plundering of California, and I know you feel passionately about that yourself.

There was a remarkable culture here until the discovery of gold in 1848. Then thousands and thousands of hungry would-be miners came here to strike it rich. They killed the Indians, they disrupted the Californios and they uprooted the economy. After the gold rush came the rush for oil, for real estate, for motion pictures and, in World War II, for ship and airplane manufacturing. California was a place where people came to make a fortune and forge a new identity, never a place to be paid attention to simply for itself. One of the most idyllic ways of life in one of the most idyllic climates was destroyed.

Your sense of loss infuses the Los Angeles of “Ask the Dust.”

It’s the Los Angeles that is at the edges of my memory: the Los Angeles before the war. It was a pastel beauty. It was slightly bleached but very beautiful and the kind of thing you took for granted. The ease of driving, stopping for a hamburger at a roadside cafe or spending time at the beach were pleasures not to be found today. They’re gone with the dragonflies that used to hover over the marshes.