Writer Robert Towne chuckles at a question about how young the executives in Hollywood are these days, how short the institutional memory about great work of the past is — and whether that has an impact on getting his phone calls returned.
“I still know a few people,” says Towne, 80, with a laugh.
And they know him. Which is why Towne will be the honoree at the annual Screenwriters Tribute at the 20th annual Nantucket Film Festival, which begins Wednesday and runs through June 29. Towne is pleased and a bit chagrined.
“These kind of awards are always gratifying and slightly embarrassing,” he says in a telephone interview. “I think of all the great writers there have been and figure that, for me, it was just good luck more than anything else.
“I mean, it’s not like I’m sitting here thinking, ‘Well, that was richly deserved.’”
Towne, a native of San Pedro, Calif., came of age as a film writer as part of the 1960s’ stable of producer-director Roger Corman, cranking out horror films while befriending what would become the royalty of Hollywood before they rose to the top: Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty.
Towne came into his own in the 1970s, winning an Oscar for his “Chinatown” screenplay and being nominated for writing “Shampoo” and “The Last Detail.” The list of films on which he did uncredited rewrites is a long one: For Beatty, he did versions of “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Parallax View” and “Heaven Can Wait”; for Nicholson, it was “Drive, He Said” and “The Missouri Breaks.”
The 1970s, considered a golden age of film because studios temporarily gave writers and directors the freedom to create something new, offered those artists the chance to explore, minus the kind of focus-group-driven mentality that rules the studios today.
“I worked with the director and it was really up to us,” Towne says. “I had great experiences during the ’70s. At that time, there wasn’t the cadre of people who made contributions or encumbered you with their help, depending on how you view it. Now there are so many people involved in the developing of movies. Sales people are more involved with content than ever.
“The main difference for me is that, in the ’70s, I would ask myself, ‘What do I want to see?’ That would dictate what you wrote. Now, all too often, I ask myself, ‘What do I want to see … that could get made?’ It’s a big difference. Now you’re second-guessing yourself.”
Towne likens the atmosphere for screenwriters in the 1970s with the one that exists for writers today in television. The projects he currently is considering would be aimed at long-form TV. Indeed, Towne accepted an invitation from show-runner Matthew Weiner to be a consulting producer for the final season of “Mad Men,” which recently aired.
“That was quite wonderful,” Towne says. “All the writers were so gifted — it was gratifying and intimidating at the same time. I didn’t know any of them except Matt. But I loved working on that show and the way everything came out. I don’t think I’d ever been with other people where so much attention was paid to the details of every scene, every character.”
Towne turned 80 last November, a fact he says he thinks about “as little as possible. I do remember thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, I got here in a hurry.’”
He has directed four films made from his own scripts: “Personal Best” (1982), “Tequila Sunrise” (1998), “Without Limits” (1998) and “Ask the Dust” (2006). Why not spend more time directing?
“It was partly because I started too late,” he says. “The time got away from me. When you’re the director, there are so many ancillary things to worry about that it leaves you little time for anything else. In the ’70s, when I was only writing, there were times where I was working on two or three things at the same time. And it’s not possible to do that if you’re the director.”