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?"
After several takes that never looked quite right, Faye Dunaway got annoyed and told Jack Nicholson to actually slap her. He did and felt very guilty for it, despite it being Dunaway's decision. The shot made it into the movie.
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.
Screenwriter Robert Towne was originally offered one hundred twenty-five thousand dollars to write a screenplay for The Great Gatsby (1974), but Towne felt he couldn't better the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and accepted twenty-five thousand dollars to write his own story, "Chinatown", instead.
At one point, Roman Polanski and Jack Nicholson got into such a heated argument, that Polanski smashed Nicholson's portable television with a mop. Nicholson used the television to watch Los Angeles Lakers basketball games, and kept stalling shooting.
The film's enigmatic title is a metaphor for moral corruption by unseen forces. Throughout the film, Jake Gittes refers to his time as a police officer in Chinatown, where "you can't always tell what's going on." In Hollywood, the movie's line, "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown", has become a mantra for those who have been burned or snubbed by the entertainment industry, the implication being that it's better to "let it go" than make an issue of it, because that's just how the industry works.
Faye Dunaway and Roman Polanski were notorious for their on-set arguments. During filming, Polanski pulled out some strands of Dunaway's hair. On another occasion, when she asked him what her character's motivation was, he exploded, "Just say the f**king words, your salary is your motivation!"
This was the final film that Roman Polanski made in the United States, as he fled to France in February 1978, shortly before he was due to be sentenced for unlawful sexual intercourse with a thirteen-year-old girl named Samantha Gailey. He has avoided visiting any country likely to extradite him to the U.S. since then.
Roman Polanski had been planning to make a film with Jack Nicholson, but hadn't found the right property yet. He actively pursued the script when he learned about it. As luck would have it, Polanski was also Producer Robert Evans' 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.
Faye Dunaway's distinctive look was inspired by Roman Polanski's memories of his mother, who in the pre-World War II-era, would fashionably wear penciled-on eyebrows, and have her lipstick shaped in the form of a Cupid's bow.
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.
The Van der Lip Dam disaster is a reference to the collapse of the St. Francis Dam in 1928, forty miles northwest of Los Angeles, which had been designed by self-educated engineer William Mulholland. The consequent flooding killed at least four hundred fifty people, a loss of life that remains second only to that from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire in California's history.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Pictures 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".
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 to be 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.
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."
Cross' mispronunciation of Gittes' last name wasn't in the script. John Huston couldn't get it right, so Roman Polanski had Jack Nicholson add a line trying to correct him, and after that just let it go.
After Ali MacGraw was discarded, Robert Evans wanted Jane Fonda for the part of Evelyn Mulwray, while Roman Polanski insisted upon Faye Dunaway. Faye Dunaway was Polanski's vision for the character Evelyn Mulwray in the 1930s, since his mother used to have pencil eyebrows and wore red lipstick in the shape of Cupid's bow, as depicted in Dunaway's make-up.
The only scene in the film in which Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston appear together is the last scene in the film. This is also the only scene in the movie that is set and was filmed in Chinatown.
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.
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. On another occasion, while filming a scene in a car, Roman Polanski refused to let her urinate, so he could finish the scene. She then urinated in a cup and threw it in his face.
The black and white (good and evil) scene of Evelyn wearing a black dress is evocative of Mike Nichols's scene in The Graduate (1967), with Mrs. Robinson wearing a black dress, while leaning against a stark white wall, as her daughter Elaine finds out about her mother's affair with Benjamin.
Robert Evans deliberately pursued Roman Polanski to direct, as he knew he was coming off the back of two major flops, Macbeth (1971), and the lesser known Che? (1972), and that he would be very keen to impress, and would make every effort to ensure that this was a hit, which it was.
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. He also learned the people he was raised to believe were his parents were actually his grandparents.
The film frequently shows us images of two things that are identical, except that one is flawed: Two pocket watches side by side, one broken. A pair of eyeglasses, one lens cracked. Gittes' nostrils, one sliced. Gittes smashed one taillight on Evelyn's car. He lost one shoe in the reservoir. Evelyn has a flaw in one of her irises. Katherine looks like a duplicate of Evelyn, but is the product of incest. The list goes on. But according to Robert Towne, it was unintentional. He and Roman Polanski never discussed using such images as a recurring theme. Whatever meaning may be ascribed to the symbolism, the filmmakers did so unintentionally.
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 make-up and prosthetics, the filmmakers wanted to change where Evelyn would be shot.
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.
Originally, the opening scene had an exchange where Curly tells Gittes he's going to kill his unfaithful wife, and Gittes tells him he's not rich enough to get away with murder. (That's why they're talking about Curly paying his bill as they come out of the office, and why Gittes says, "I only brought it up", Curly's financial situation, "to illustrate a point.") Robert Towne later regretted removing this part of the scene. "That exchange I miss probably as much as any in the movie", he said in 1999. "Because it really foreshadows (the) 'You've got to be rich to kill somebody and get away with it' (theme). He's really foreshadowing the whole movie."
Shortly after Hollis Mulwray's body is recovered, the original script included an omitted scene in which Lieutenant 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.
When Jake and Evelyn are in the car during the scene where Evelyn tells Jake that Katherine is her sister, she lowers her head and accidentally hits the car horn. This foreshadows her death, in which she is shot while driving her head lies on the car horn.