By George Stevens, Jr.
Knopf, $39.95, 738 pages

Chinatown, the neo-noir film Roman Polanski directed in 1974, gave us one of movies most memorable quotes: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” It refers to the futility of good intentions by the private eye played by Jack Nicholson. In Conversations, the movie’s writer, Robert Towne, talks about this metaphor and other tidbits in the making of Chinatown. He also reveals this amusing anecdote: “There was one horrible day about two weeks before shooting when somebody said, ‘My God, there’s no scene in Chinatown, and the film is called Chinatown!’”

These sorts of nuggets are plentiful in this collection of interviews with cinematic notables such as Robert Altman, John Sayles, Nora Ephron, Meryl Streep, George Lucas, Francois Truffaut and many more. Their motivations and the passions behind their award-winning movies are revealed in conversations with the directors, producers, writers, actors, cameramen, composers and editors who worked from the fifties until today. In one, Robert Altman talks about moving away from linear plots. He says, “I’m more interested in the impression of character and the atmosphere than what actually happens.” In another, film critic Charles Champlin talks about the art of film criticism and how he was able to review the work of a filmmaker he considered terrible. He said, “I think every reviewer ought to put these words over his desk, ‘There is a bad film in every good filmmaker and a good film in every bad filmmaker.’”

The author George Stevens, Jr., founded the American Film Institute, and is also a director and producer. This book is a companion volume to his Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the AFI. Stevens has insider information that is fascinating and valuable. To a film junkie, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Reviewed by Diane Prokop