At one point, Roman Polanski and Jack Nicholson got into such a heated argument that Polanski smashed Nicholson's portable TV with a mop. Nicholson used the TV to watch L.A. Lakers basketball games and kept stalling shooting.
The scene where Roman Polanski slits Jack Nicholson's nose was extremely complex to film, and the two men involved got so tired of explaining how it was done (by using a specially-constructed knife with a short hinge that would be safe as long as it was handled VERY carefully) that they began to claim Nicholson's nose was actually cut.
At the time of filming, Jack Nicholson had just embarked on his longstanding relationship with Anjelica Huston. This made his scenes with her father, John Huston, rather uncomfortable, especially as the only time Anjelica was on set was the day they were filming the scene where Noah Cross interrogates Nicholson's character with "Mr Gittes...do you sleep with my daughter?"
Despite lobbying Robert Evans and Jack Nicholson for the chance to direct the film, when he finally landed the gig Roman Polanski started having second thoughts. The thought of returning to Los Angeles - where his wife Sharon Tate had been brutally murdered four years earlier - was too overwhelming for him.
Screenwriter Robert Towne based his famous exchange-Evelyn: "What did you do in Chinatown?" Jake:"As little as possible."-on a joke a LAPD officer friend told him. This was because there were so many different Chinese dialects floating around that an Anglo cop would only get himself into trouble by misinterpreting anything said by the Chinese residents.
Faye Dunaway's distinctive look was inspired by Roman Polanski's memories of his mother, who in the pre-WWII era would fashionably wear penciled-on eyebrows, and have her lipstick shaped in the form of a Cupid's bow.
According to Roman Polanski's autobiography, he was outraged when he got the first batch of dailies back from the lab; due to the success of The Godfather (1972), producer Robert Evans had ordered the lab to give this movie a reddish look. Polanski demanded that the film be corrected.
The Van der Lip Dam disaster is a reference to the collapse of the St Francis Dam in 1928, 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles, which had been designed by self-educated engineer William Mulholland. The consequent flooding killed at least 450 people, a loss of life that remains second only to that from the San Francisco earthquake and fire in California's history.
Roman Polanski had been planning to make a film with Jack Nicholson but hadn't found the right property yet. He actively pursued the Chinatown (1974) script when he learned about it. As luck would have it, Polanski was also producer Robert Evans's first choice for director as he wanted a European vision of the United States which he felt would be darker and a little more cynical.
Cinematographer Stanley Cortez was fired soon after production began because his classical style did not match the naturalistic style Polanski wanted for the film and proved too time consuming. Polanski had to find a replacement in only a few days and chose John A. Alonzo. As David Fincher and Robert Towne describe on their DVD commentary, two scenes shot by Cortez are in the film. The orange grove fight with the farmers (but not the following porch scene with Evelyn) and the drive back to Los Angeles at sunset are Cortez's work.
Although he liked the idea of doing a cameo in the film as the hood who slits Jack Nicholson's nose, Roman Polanski was less thrilled about having to have his long hair cut off for his brief appearance in the film.
This was the first film of a planned trilogy about corruption in the development of Los Angeles. It was set in the 1930s and was about the water department. The second film, The Two Jakes (1990), was set in the 1940s and was about the gas company. The third film of the trilogy was about the building of the massive freeway system and was to be called "Cloverleaf", named after the famous interchange in downtown L.A., but it was never filmed. However, certain elements (like the building of a massive freeway by a corporation called "Cloverleaf") were eventually incorporated into Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), which took a fantasy/comedic view of this material but also functioned as a detective story.
Phillip Lambro was originally hired to write the film's music score but it was rejected at the last minute by producer Robert Evans, leaving Jerry Goldsmith only ten days to write and record a new score. However, when it was time to put together a trailer for the film, the studio's marketing department decided that Goldsmith's new score wasn't suitable and asked Lambro to use cues from his original score instead. In exchange for allowing his music to be used for the trailer, Lambro asked to retain the publishing rights to his own score. Paramount agreed on the condition that if the music was ever released commercially, Lambro could not use the title "Chinatown". An album with Lambro's original rejected score was finally released in 2012 under the title "Los Angeles, 1937".
Roman Polanski wanted William A. Fraker as his cinematographer, having successfully collaborated with him on Rosemary's Baby (1968). This notion was blocked by producer Robert Evans as he felt that the pairing of the two would create too powerful a bond, making his life as a producer more difficult.
For the first screening, Roman Polanski took his old friend, composer Bronislau Kaper. Producer Robert Evans afterwards asked Kaper what he thought of the picture to which Kaper replied "It's a great film, but you have to change the music."
When Gittes follows Hollis Mulray to the cliff top (where he leaves a watch under his tire) he passes a bar with an open door. One can hear "I Can't Get Started" by Bunny Berigan, the hit of August 1937.
The name of Water and Power engineer Hollis Mulwray is likely a play on the real-life head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, William Mulholland (1855-1935). A man obsessed with an engineering challenge of epic proportions, Mulholland brought the Owens River to Los Angeles-which turned the previously lush Owens Valley into a virtual desert-through a combination of determination and deceit.
With appearances by both John Huston and Roman Polanski, this is one of the very few films, perhaps the only one, which features significant acting performances by two Oscar-winning directors. Huston had won his Oscar over 25 years before Chinatown (1974), and Polanski would win his over 25 years later.
There were many rumors circulating about Faye Dunaway's diva-like behavior during the making of the film. One such was that she refused to flush her own toilet and expected her assistants to do it for her.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Katherine Mulwray is raised believing that Evelyn Mulwray is her sister, but it is later revealed that Evelyn is her mother (or rather, both mother and sister). Shortly after the film was released, Jack Nicholson discovered that the woman he was raised to believe was his sister was, in fact, his mother.
Robert Towne originally intended to have a happy ending. However, during pre-production Roman Polanski and Towne argued over it, with Polanski insisting on a tragic ending. Polanski won the argument and, when the picture was re-released in 1999, Towne admitted that he had been wrong.
According to Faye Dunaway, Evelyn's eye wound was meant to parallel the story of Oedipus, who blinded himself after realizing his marriage was incestuous. Miss Dunaway had to fight to keep this in the film - when there was a problem getting the makeup/prosthetics, the filmmakers wanted to change where Evelyn would be shot.
Shortly after Hollis Mulwray's body is recovered, the original script included an omitted scene in which Lt. Escobar reveals to Gittes that he has limited sympathy for the victim, because a cousin of his was killed in the Van Der Lip dam disaster. From Faber and Faber script published UK 1998.