Sometimes you watch a reel of comedy outtakes and think, ‘I can’t believe these lucky bastards get paid for this’. Other times, you hear of a movie so nightmarish in the making that it would seem if Dante was to rework his Inferno for modern times, then filmmaking would surely be reserved as a circle of hell. Working with a controversial figure like Roman Polanski is always likely to result in the latter.
Although Chinatown may well be lauded as a masterpiece of the genre, the behind-the-scenes tales surpass the mayhem onscreen tenfold. The movie already had a tempestuous journey to production as nobody really seemed to understand Robert Evans’ screenplay, and the flop of Polanski’s recent run of films created huge issues involving artistic egos and cautious producers. However, it was on set that things went up a notch.
For starters, one of the main surviving industry tales is that Faye Dunaway swilled the Polish director with a glass of her own urine. The story goes that they were filming a scene in a car, and Polanski was demanding re-take after re-take while Dunaway pleaded for a toilet break, and as Polanski reassessed the lighting, Dunaway took the quiet moment to urinate into an empty glass in the vehicle. Polanski advanced to give her note, and the star allegedly had, well, come to the end of her tether.
Thus, with a notoriously testing director and one unruly star already feuding, the baton was handed to the fiery Jack Nicholson to take his own set stir by refusing to emerge from his trailer until the beloved Los Angeles Lakers game had finished. As assistant director, Howard Koch Jr. recalled: “Roman says, ‘Where is Jack?’ I went back to Jack and he went, ‘Howie, it’s overtime. I’m not leaving now. Just tell Roman I’ve been waiting an hour-and-a-half. Let him wait for a few minutes.’ So Roman has a cow, and then the game goes into double overtime. We’re all basketball fans, so nobody’s upset except for Roman who could give a f*ck about the Lakers. ‘Where is he?’ I said, ‘Roman, it’s double overtime.’ He’s like, ‘WHAT THE F*CK IS DOUBLE OVERTIME?!’”
In a furious rage, Polanski took matters into his own hands. “I grabbed a mop and ran inside Jack’s trailer to smash the TV,” Polanski once said. “But I didn’t have enough room and the damn thing wouldn’t break, so I grabbed the TV and tossed it out the trailer.” For some reason, Nicholson’s retort only half makes sense; he decided to storm off set, but for some unknown motive, he decided to remove all his clothes and leave complete naked.
Perhaps as some sort of avenging act, Polanski also opted to use a real knife during the iconic nose slitting scene during which he makes his famed cameo. Rather than simply use a prop or edit the whole thing in post-production, Polanski used a genuine specially designed switchblade which would fold in on itself if he flicked it to the right; however, if he had the blade switched around, it would have taken Nicholson’s nose straight off. No doubt this played a role in the genuine fear that can be palpably detected in the scene, but with tempers already frayed, it doesn’t seem all that advisable to risking a face-altering fuck up.
Fortunately, despite other tales of Dunaway grinding the film to a halt over Polanski plucking an errant hair, and constant battles between the screenwriter and director, the whole thing was more of a soap opera than some of the more disturbing backstories in Hollywood history.