Robert Towne is one of the great American screenwriters. He's been nominated for four Academy Awards for his screenplays and won for Chinatown (1974), one of the great American films of the 1970s. And along with writing such landmark films as The Last Detail (1973) and Shampoo (1975), Towne was one of the most in-demand script doctors for decades, performing structural surgery and providing uncredited rewrites or additional scenes on such films as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Godfather (1972) and The Parallax View (1974). When the movie industry shifted from adult stories to action films, blockbuster fantasies and adventures in the course of the 1970s, Towne made the shift to director.
As he explained to Kenneth Turan in 1988, ''even if someone is scrupulous about your text, tone is finally what's important, and you can't get that if you're not willing to be there and insist on it.'' Tequila Sunrise (1988), Towne's second directorial effort, is an original screenplay built around friendship, loyalty, betrayal and a romantic triangle that pits longtime friends, now on opposite sides of the law, against one another. ''The characters I write about are men who control events far, far less than events control them," is how he described the dynamic to Turan. "My characters get caught, they try even though they don't prevail or even significantly influence events. These guys muddle through.''
Tequila Sunrise harkens back to such Hollywood classics as Casablanca (1942) and The Big Sleep (1946) with its mix of adult relationships, sophisticated banter, crime drama and romantic melodrama, updated to the culture of 1980s Southern California. According to Towne, ''With melodrama, as in dreams, you're always flirting with the disparity between appearance and reality, which is a great deal of fun." The dynamic is also in part informed by Towne's difficult relationship with Hollywood. ''It's a movie about the use and abuse of friendship,'' he explains. "People in the movie business don't hesitate to say: 'We go back a long way. You owe me one.' I owe you one what?''
It was originally slated to begin production in the early 1980s with Warren Beatty in the lead, but Towne’s battle with Warner Bros. over his directorial debut, Personal Best (1982), resulted in the film getting shelved. Years later, while Towne was in France in his capacity as script doctor on the film Frantic (1988), he showed his screenplay to producer Thom Mount, who signed on to produce and co-finance the project with Warner Bros.
With production back on, Towne offered the leading role of Dale McKussic, a successful drug dealer trying to get out of the business, to Harrison Ford, who turned it down. The part went to Mel Gibson, who had been elevated into the stratosphere of Hollywood stardom after the huge success of Lethal Weapon (1987). Michelle Pfeiffer was cast as the restaurateur with whom Dale is in love, a part demanding (in the words of Towne) "someone with that kind of sang froid, that kind of infuriating beauty."
Towne wrote the part of Dale's old friend Nick Frescia, a narcotics officer with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, for Kurt Russell. ''In his life, he is buoyant and mischievous, a good-hearted bad boy," explained Towne. But the character was also modelled in part on Los Angeles Lakers coach Pat Riley, a close friend of Towne, and a scene where Nick clears a desk of soft drinks and soaks a DEA agent was directly inspired by Riley. As described by Towne, Riley was in the locker room and "had to dramatize a point without hurting anyone, and when the trainer walked in with a tray of Cokes, he dumped them on Kareem [Abdul Jabbar]."
You can also see Budd Boetticher, the celebrated director of some of the greatest Westerns of the 1950s, in a cameo. Towne had become friends with Boetticher when he cast him in the original version of The Two Jakes, a sequel to Chinatown that Towne was set to direct until a disagreement with Jack Nicholson and producer Robert Evens put the project on hold (it was later made with Nicholson in the director's chair). Towne reached out to Boetticher for bullfighting footage to be played in the background of one scene and offered the director a small role as a judge who frequents the restaurant. Boetticher's real-life wife Mary accompanies him onscreen.
The film was shot on location in the South Bay region of Los Angeles by Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad Hall, who had spent much of the 1960s surfing at Hermosa Beach. Locations include Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and San Pedro Harbor, while key interior sets like the restaurant were constructed nearby on soundstages in a Santa Monica warehouse. "The whole area along the South Bay has a dazzle of light created by things like smog and aerial haze from the ocean," Hall described in an interview with American Cinematographer. "I wanted that incredible atmosphere on the screen." In contrast to the shadows and darkness of the many nighttime scenes, explained Hall, for the daytime scenes, "We wanted California to look hot so that the audience could feel the glow of light that the beach creates."
The Washington Post film critic Hal Hinson called Tequila Sunrise "the sexiest, most intelligent Hollywood movie in a long time," but for the most part reviews were mixed even as the actors, the rich cinematography and Towne's sharp dialogue all received praise. However, audiences made Tequila Sunrise a big hit for Towne and for Warner Bros. It took in over $100 million on a $20 million budget and Conrad Hall earned an Oscar nomination for his cinematography.
"Ride Lonesome: The Career of Budd Boetticher," Sean Axmaker. Senses of Cinema, February 2006.
"Tequila Sunrise: Dazzel on the Rocks," Hal Hinson. Washington Post, December 2, 1988.
"Play it Again: Tequila Sunrise," Elaine Lennon. Off Screen, March 2008.
"Triangle of Mistrust in Tequila Sunrise," Marc Daniel Shiller, American Cinematographer, January 1989.
"Robert Towne's Hollywood Without Heroes," Kenneth Turan. The New York Times, November 27, 1988.
AFI Catalog of Feature Films