In John Fante’s 1939 novel “Ask the Dust,” the author’s alter-ego, Arturo Bandini, euphorically appeals, “Los Angeles, give me some of you!”
For decades, the western metropolis has similarly enticed Robert Towne, whose continual fascination with his hometown has this time resulted in the big screen adaptation of Fante’s book. Starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, “Ask the Dust” opened in limited release March 10 and will expand further this Friday.
“It’s a city that’s so illusory,” Towne said in a recent interview. “It’s the westernmost west of America. It’s a sort of place of last resort. It’s a place where, in a word, people go to make their dreams come true. And they’re forever disappointed.”
Towne, though, has built a successful career in LA. The famed screenwriter is most notable for penning what many consider the finest script ever produced by Hollywood: 1974’s “Chinatown.”
He also wrote two Hal Ashby-directed films: “The Last Detail” (1973) and the Beverly Hills comedy “Shampoo” (1975). Known as an expert script doctor, he worked without credit on “The Godfather” and “Bonnie and Clyde.” Recently, he’s written blockbusters including the first two “Mission: Impossible” movies.
Always classified as a “writer” (not a “writer-director”), Towne has gone behind the camera for “Ask the Dust,” only his fourth directorial sojourn. He’s also helmed “Personal Best” (1982), “Tequila Sunrise” (1988) and “Without Limits” (1998).
Now 71, the bearded, white-haired Towne appears entirely the grizzled Hollywood veteran. A legend from another era, he’s decidedly out of place in the modern machinations of film industry publicity. Unconcerned by the surrounding commotion, he alternates between fumbling cold medicine and smoking a cigar — without a trace of irony.
For him, “Ask the Dust” is a personal crusade 30 years in the making. Like Jake Gittes in “Chinatown,” the story of Towne and his new film is wrapped up in the past — a past seemingly destined to repeat itself.
“There must have been something inevitable about it because we got it done,” says Towne. “I lived with [the book] for 20 years when I didn’t write [the adaptation], and when I did write it, I lived with it for the next 10, 12 years.”
An unlikely pair: Towne and FanteHe first came upon Fante’s book while researching for “Chinatown,” which would be enveloped in the history of Los Angeles’ development. Towne was immediately floored by the LA of “Ask the Dust” — a sunbaked mirage of wayward, desperate dreamers in a city perched between the ocean and the desert.
The story of Bandini, an aspiring novelist utterly sincere in narrating his fluctuations from grandiose vanity to pitiful self-loathing, also reverberated for Towne.
“In spite of all his self-absorption, his narcissism, his manic depression, he’s still kind of decent. He just wins my heart,” says Towne. “It makes you want to be able to forgive in yourself those embarrassing traits that you as a writer share.”
Soon after first reading “Ask the Dust,” Towne sought out Fante.
“I knew from the minute I met him that I was facing Bandini,” he says. “He said, ‘Who the hell are you, and what makes you think you can adapt anything?”’
The two nevertheless developed a friendship that would last until Fante passed away in 1983. While together, they discussed what an adaptation of “Ask the Dust” might look like.
In recent years, Fante’s fame has grown thanks to the efforts of cult novelist and poet Charles Bukowski, who said of Fante, “he was my god.” Before Bukowski died in 1994, he insisted that his publisher, Black Sparrow Press, release Fante’s books. Later, in 2003, a collection titled “The Fante Reader” was released — prompting one critic to dub Fante “a truly famous unknown writer.”
Once Towne finished the script in the early ‘90s, he shopped it to studios for years before it finally got greenlit — thanks to Farrell’s growing fame.
Shot in a South Africa refashioned as ’30s LA, the film stays close to the book. Towne’s feelings for the source material are obvious from the opening shot, a slow zoom into the book’s pages.
The romance between Bandini (Farrell) and Mexican waitress Camilla (Hayek) is featured prominently in the film, but “Ask the Dust” is not typical fodder for a movie adaptation. Though raw and direct, it’s a literary book about a writer much in his own head who strays infrequently from his apartment.
“I felt that you could make that exciting,” Towne says. “You could make the struggle of a guy trying to bring his imagination into enough focus that he could put it on paper.”
Mixed reviewsWhile respectful of Towne’s passion for “Ask the Dust,” the reviews have not been kind.
The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis wrote that it “feels like a compendium of desires — for a city, for a woman, for youth — that now warm rather than burn.” But, she adds, “after a life of providing beautiful words for other people to say, this was clearly one story [Towne] very much needed to tell himself.”
Towne is satisfied.
“I’ve got enough regrets in [my career] that I don’t need this one,” he says. “This does not make my creative life complete. I mean, I’m very happy to have done it and it meant a lot to me to do it, but I have other regrets of things that I wanted to do that didn’t work out — most dramatically ‘Greystoke,’ which was then, is now, and always will be the biggest creative regret of my life.”
Towne says he’s unlikely to revisit that film, in which he retold the story of Tarzan from the perspective of the apes who raise him. Though he was to direct it, he instead made “Personal Best.”
When Hugh Hudson directed his “Greystoke” script, Towne, unhappy with the result, famously used the name of his dog, P.H. Vazak, for his screenwriting credit.
Towne is now beginning a script, based on a true story, set in the Philippines during WWII. Unlike “Ask the Dust,” though, he doesn’t plan to direct it.
“The only edge you have on directing something is when you can’t stop thinking about it,” he says. “Then you know you should direct it.”