Perhaps the greatest example of the tropes of the film noir being used to explore contemporary social issues decades after the genre’s heyday (in other words, a neo-noir), Chinatown is a cinematic masterpiece. It’s anchored by riveting performances from Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.
The screenplay by Robert Towne is widely regarded to be the greatest ever written, or at least a perfect example of a story being written for the screen. It’s taught in every screenwriting class worth its salt and it can be analyzed and dissected until the end of time. Here are 10 fascinating details from the making of Chinatown.
10 Robert Towne Chose To Write Chinatown Instead Of Writing The Great Gatsby For $100,000 More
Before writing Chinatown, screenwriter Robert Towne was offered the chance to either adapt The Great Gatsby into a movie for $125,000 or write an original screenplay for $25,000.
Since he didn’t believe he could tell the story of Gatsby any better than F. Scott Fitzgerald did in the original novel, Towne decided to take the $25,000 offer and came up with Chinatown.
9 Faye Dunaway And Roman Polanski Fought Constantly During Filming
To say that the disagreements between Faye Dunaway and Roman Polanski got heated on the set of Chinatown would be a massive understatement. Polanski pulled out some of Dunaway’s hair when it got in the way of a shot (instead of just calling in the hair and makeup team).
When Dunaway asked Polanski about her character’s motivation, he yelled that her salary would be her motivation and told her to just say the words in the script. At one point, Polanski refused to let Dunaway have a bathroom break. So, in protest, she urinated into a cup and threw the cup in Polanski’s face.
8 John Huston Was Offered The Chance To Direct
Before John Huston was cast to play the villainous Noah Cross, he was actually offered the chance to direct Chinatown, but he turned it down.
Prior to the hiring of Roman Polanski, the director’s chair was also offered to The Graduate’s Mike Nichols and Paper Moon’s Peter Bogdanovich.
7 Jack Nicholson Never Played Another Detective After Chinatown To Preserve Gittes As His Grizzled P.I. Character
After playing Jake Gittes in Chinatown, Jack Nicholson made a conscious decision never to play another detective. He wanted Gittes to be the grizzled P.I. role he’d be remembered for, and didn’t want to taint or emulate that.
Robert Towne planned Chinatown as the first installment in a trilogy, but after the failure of the sequel The Two Jakes (which had trouble getting made itself, because of Roman Polanski’s rape charges), the third movie was never produced.
6 Faye Dunaway Told Jack Nicholson To Actually Slap Her
For the scene in which Gittes slaps Evelyn, Jack Nicholson did a few takes in which he pretended to hit Faye Dunaway, but the takes weren’t working, so Dunaway told him to actually slap her.
He did so and, despite the fact that Dunaway had told him to do it, he was riddled with guilt. That take ended up in the final cut.
5 Cinematographer Stanley Cortez Was Fired Mid-Production
Shortly after production began, cinematographer Stanley Cortez was fired. This is because Roman Polanski wanted the movie to have a low-key, naturalistic feel, and Cortez’s style was more stylized and classical.
Polanski had just a few days to find a replacement, which left him scrambling, and he hired John A. Alonzo. Some of Cortez’s work remains in the movie, and it ended up being among his last work as he retired four years later.
4 Jane Fonda Was Considered For The Role Of Evelyn
Before Faye Dunaway was cast as Evelyn Mulwray, Jane Fonda and Julie Christie were considered for the part.
Anjelica Huston was also considered for the part, which would’ve been pretty awkward because she’s the real-life daughter of John Huston, who played Noah Cross.
3 No Matter How Many Times He Was Corrected, John Huston Couldn’t Get Gittes’ Name Right
In Chinatown, Noah Cross has a tough time pronouncing Jake Gittes’ last name. This wasn’t a scripted characteristic, but rather a result of John Huston’s own failure to pronounce the name right.
No matter how many times Jack Nicholson and Roman Polanski tried to correct Huston’s pronunciation, he just couldn’t get it right and they eventually let it go.
2 Jack Nicholson’s Scenes With John Huston Were Awkward Because He’d Just Started Dating Huston’s Daughter
At the time of Chinatown’s production, Jack Nicholson had just started dating Anjelica Huston, the daughter of his co-star John Huston. This made their scenes together pretty uncomfortable, and since Nicholson appears in every scene in the movie, all of Huston’s scenes were with Nicholson.
Particularly awkward was the scene in which Cross asks Gittes, “Do you sleep with my daughter?” If anything, it added a layer of authenticity to the performance, so the awkwardness wasn’t for nothing.
1 Roman Polanski And Robert Towne Disagreed About The Ending
Director Roman Polanski and screenwriter and Robert Towne couldn’t agree on the ending of Chinatown. Towne wanted a more classically noir-ish ending in which Evelyn murders her father and goes to jail, but Polanski wanted a bleaker, more abrupt ending to reflect the political climate of the time, with events like the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal leaving Americans feeling disillusioned with the government.
Since Polanski had final say, Towne was powerless and eventually walked off the set. The writer was mad about the ending change for years, but has since realized that the new ending is better than his original ending.
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