uffing on a cigar in a fancy hotel room, Robert Towne says, "It's not politically correct to say so, but people in this country didn't alM-W ways feel victimized by racial slurs," even though his new movie, Ask the Dust, decries racism against Mexicans in 1930s Los Angeles. "They'd turn around and say 'I'm just as American as you are.'
"I love the feeling of that. The minute that sentence is spoken it means there's something we're all aspiring to, which is to be American. It means no matter how diM-W verse we are, no matter how different our backgrounds, we have the dream of being one people. That's gotten lost in all the self- conscious Balkanizing of this country, with gay pride, black pride or Chicano pride."
In writing and directing Ask the Dust, Towne, who grew up Jewish in San Pedro, Calif., in the 1930s and 1940s, both honors and transforms John Fante's 1939 novel about a first-generation Italian-American novelist, Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell), and his tortured relationship with an immigrant Mexican waitress, Camilla Lopez (Salma HaM-W yek). He turned it from a brilliant pathologiM-W cal nightmare to an authentic, gritty roM-W mance about the self-hatred that contorts love and the urge for transcendence that makes love real.
The writer-director first read Fante's novel when he was researching his classic L.A. noir script for Chinatown. "It was 1971, and I was writing about the 1930s; my own memories date back to the '40s, which is close enough; and I came across this book an oight, the way the dust hung in the air. Around San Pedro there were lots of Mexican women. From a very early age I was fascinated by Mexican womM-W en, their grace and their boldness and vitaliM-W ty. And I knew the prejudice they endured."
Towne says he relished the business of Arturo and Camilla "going toe to toe" over racially land-mined territory, and "changed the novel to this extent: I didn't want to make it about a young writer's obsession with a Mexican girl who in turn is obsessed with a b be saying, 'How dare you make me feel that I need you and want you, when what I really feel I should want is a guy who will make my name, literally, White?' Arturo really means to be saying, 'How dare you be this beautiful? How dare you make me end an Apache dance - a man and a woman expressing their love antagonistically. So much of sexual attraction is based on antagonism, for so many reasons. The agony of love is the agony of suddenly feeling you are no longer your own person - you've been invaded by something that you're going to be enslaved to, and that enrages you and makes you rebel.
"In Ask the Dust, from the moment he sees her he's angry: she's too beautiful. And then he's angry at the thought, 'what if she doesn't find me atlove affair with this book?
"I did when I felt I might lose the property and never be able to make the movie," he says.
He wrote the script in 1993 and tried launching it with Johnny Depp, but before Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp wasn't a big enough star to carry such a risky vehicle. A few years later, Towne's wife, Luisa, herself a first-generation Italian-American, was havM-W ing a barbecue with her brother and some of his friends, when an agent called pushing an actor for the project. Towne had the agent send him over.
"What walked in and grabbed a beer was this Irish kid in a cowboy hat, full of magnetM-W ism." His name was Colin Farrell. "One of Luisa's girlfriends came up to me and said, 'I don't know who he is, but whatever it is he wants, give it to him.' He had that vitality.
"He stayed a day and a night, and we beM-W came friends. And without ever reading him for the part, I said, 'Colin, if you want to do it, you're cast.' He said, 'Man, whatever it takes, we're getting it done.' Three years later, he had become a movie star. As a result of that, we could begin to get the financing."
Hayek, Towne's Camilla, initially turned him down, "for reasons both ironic and asM-W tute. She said, 'Robert, I've come to Los AngeM-W les to try to get work as an actress. How many roles do you think there are for LatM-W inas? How could I play a Mexican waitress? How could I typecast myself? It's everything I'm trying to get away from.'"
Then Hayek produced and starred in Frida, "which gave her cachet. When I asked her to read this again, she said, 'I don't even know how I could have turned it down regardless.' She embraced it completely. And I had a perM-W fect cast." What he didn't have were locations that could pass for 1930s Los Angeles.
"We couldn't find them or build them in L.A., not for $15 million." He ended up in South Africa - "virtually the only place we could have done it. We built L.A. on two footM-W ball fields in the middle of Capetown, South Africa, on Table Mountain. Even the locaM-W tions outside of the set looked more like old L.A. and Southern California than anything we had left behind. It was like stepping into the past. And there was an unexpected benM-W efit with the extras. They didn't have cosM-W metic surgery. They didn't have their teeth fixed. They were wrinkled. They weren't fat. They looked like people out of the '30s. If I had been Fellini I couldn't have been any luckier."
For Towne, Ask the Dust is "about dreams at a time when people really had dreams, beM-W yond buying upgrades for their cell phone or computer - when they wanted the possibilM-W ity of making a life for themselves. That's the promise that California held.
"The sadness is, too often it was an illusion. It's like that old Felix Figueroa song about an L.A. intersection. 'Pico and Sepulveda, where Nobody's Dream Comes True.'"