Robert Towne on Chinatown

Chinatown Robert Towne Screenplay

I don’t have a favorite film. I have favorites and Chinatown is one of them. My two cents: it’s about as perfect as a screenplay can get. The structure, theme, and dialogue fires on all cylinders. Everyone — Towne, Polanski, Alonzo, Nicholson, Dunaway, Huston — is at the top of their game. This film constantly screws with your expectations, with the best second act turn of all time.

I just stumbled across an interview with Towne from 2009, marking the 35th anniversary of Chinatown. Here, he comments on Chinatown going down in history as “the paradigm for the perfect screenplay”:

Well, I don’t have to tell you that we weren’t trying to write a screenplay that was perfectly-structured. We were just trying to make it make sense. I remember, even without Roman, the first structural question, which may seem absurd now after the fact, was the question of which revelation comes first, the incest or the water scandal? And of course, it was the water scandal. When I realized that, I realized how foolish it was even to have asked the question. But the water scandal was the plot, essentially, and the subplot was the incest. That was the underbelly, and the two were intimately connected, literally and metaphorically: raping the future and raping the land. So it was a really good plot/subplot with a really strong connection. In the first draft, as I recall, it was pretty much a single point-of-view. And in the second draft I tried changing that for purposes of clarification and I think in the end, that’s what made the second draft weaker than the first draft. It’s one of the very, very few detective movies, including The Maltese Falcon, which has a singular point-of-view.1

For the complete interview, visit The Hollywood Interview.

Download the Chinatown screenplay from

Download the Chinatown Step Sheet from

  1. Simon, Alex. “FORGET IT BOB, IT’S CHINATOWN: Robert Towne Looks Back on Chinatown’s 35th Anniversary.” The Hollywood Interview. 5 Nov. 2009. Web. 08 Aug. 2011. Link.
William Robert Rich
William Robert Rich

William Robert Rich is a story analyst, screenwriter, and co-author of Story Maps: The Films of Christopher Nolan. He's currently based in Austin, Texas.

Articles: 120

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.