The crazy story behind the making of 'Chinatown' sequel 'The Two Jakes'

Ben Falk
·11-min read
Jack Nicholson in The Two Jakes (Paramount)
Jack Nicholson in The Two Jakes (Paramount)

With its mystery tied up in a downbeat ending and world-weary sign-off, 1974’s Oscar-lauded drama Chinatown didn’t exactly scream sequel.

Its writer, producer and star Jack Nicholson had other ideas – but their dream didn’t go according to plan.

Released 30 years ago on 10 August, 1990, The Two Jakes had more drama behind-the-scenes than on the screen. We take a look back at the misjudged and largely forgotten sequel to one of the 1970s’ greatest movies.

The Two Jakes: Take #1

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 20: The movie "Chinatown", directed by Roman Polanski and written by Robert Towne. Seen here, Jack Nicholson as J.J. 'Jake' Gittes and Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Cross Mulwray. Initial theatrical release June 20, 1974.  Screen capture. Paramount Pictures. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
The movie "Chinatown", directed by Roman Polanski and written by Robert Towne. Seen here, Jack Nicholson as J.J. 'Jake' Gittes and Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Cross Mulwray. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

By the time The Two Jakes went before the cameras at the end of the 1980s, it was already on its third iteration.

The first and most notorious had been hatched at the home of the original’s producer, Robert Evans in the early part of that decade. Despite its one-off perfection, Chinatown had always been conceived by its Oscar-winning writer Robert Towne as a trilogy. “We wanted it all to be tied into elemental things,” Nicholson told MTV in 2007. “Chinatown is obviously water. The Two Jakes is fire and energy. And the third film was meant to be about [lead character Jake] Gittes’ divorce and relate to air.”

Evans was best friends with Jack Nicholson and when the pair called Towne excitedly to say they wanted him to direct a small production, with them all taking no money upfront but a large chunk of the profits, he was ecstatic. The movie was to be set in 1948, focusing on real estate and oil with Gittes facing off against a developer called Julius ‘Jake’ Berman, as well as re-introducing Katherine Mulwray, the daughter (who is also the *spoiler* sister) of Faye Dunaway’s character from Chinatown.

LOS ANGELES,CA - APRIL 8,1975:  Actor Jack Nicholson and Robert Evans (R) arrive to the 47th Academy Awards at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles,California. (Photo by Michael Montfort/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Robert Towne, Jack Nicholson and Robert Evans (R) arrive to the 47th Academy Awards, 1975. (Photo by Michael Montfort/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Towne and Nicholson had another more outlandish thought – that Evans, himself briefly an actor before becoming a high-powered studio exec – should play the other Jake. Towne even convinced Evans he would win an Oscar. The writer/director started rehearsing the producer in the evenings, while Kelly McGillis and Cathy Moriarty were cast alongside Dennis Hopper, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel, ready for an April 1985 shoot.

Only Towne soon realised Evans was a terrible actor. “Robert [Towne] said he thought Bobby [Evans] was too nervous to play Jake Berman and that he believed Bobby knew it,” Nicholson told The Los Angeles Times later.

Read more: Jack Nicholson gives rare interview to honour Kobe Bryant

Everything came to a head when the cast were doing screen tests just before shooting started. Evans returned from Tahiti having undergone significant plastic surgery and refused to have a 1940s period haircut because, apparently, you would have been able to see the stitches in his head.

Paramount Pictures production chief Robert Evans talks about his film “Chinatown” in his Beverly Hills office in December, 1974. The poster, seen here in the  background, depicts stars Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in a wreath of smoke. “We needed a more commercial approach to hit the drive-in-crowd,” said another Paramount executive in explaining why the poster sprouted a gun after the first release of the movie. (AP Photo/Jeff Robbins)
Paramount Pictures production chief Robert Evans talks about his film “Chinatown” in his Beverly Hills office in December, 1974. (AP Photo/Jeff Robbins)

His screen test was even worse, with McGillis flat out laughing at him. “He was a disaster,” said production designer, Richard Sylbert. Four days before the cameras were due to roll, Towne decided that he had to replace his friend. Rather than go graciously, Evans was furious. “In retrospect, I should have stepped aside…but I was too angry,” the exec subsequently admitted.

Nicholson tried to play peacemaker, but to no avail. The crew didn’t know what was going on, even going to the L.A. location at the end of April ready to commence shooting the next day. “In the morning, nothing happened,” an anonymous witness told Vanity Fair. “They said the weather was wrong. But you could tell the plug had been pulled.”

Lawsuits flew, some suggested Towne was worried about directing again (his 1982 debut Personal Best had been a flop) and he was using Evans as a scapegoat. “I was the only person who had any money, so the lawsuits went after me,” Nicholson told the New York Times in 1989. The actor even offered to buy the script from Towne for $2 million but was turned down.

Chinatown 2, it seemed, was dead and buried.

The Two Jakes: Take #2

Tom Waits and Jack Nicholson in The Two Jakes. (Paramount)
Tom Waits and Jack Nicholson in The Two Jakes. (Paramount)

Only it wasn’t, because while the first one hadn’t been a huge moneyspinner, it was iconic, Oscar-winning and provided a serious amount of critical cachet. What’s more, Towne still wanted to do it.

Because the film hadn’t been budgeted normally thanks to the initial Evans-Towne-Nicholson plan, the writer/director sought outside financing, turning to producer Dino De Laurentiis (Flash Gordon, Hannibal). McGillis remained in the cast, while Harrison Ford was keen to take over as Jake Gittes. Jaws star Roy Scheider was on board to play the other Jake and a tentative start date of mid-1986 was pencilled in.

Read more: Chinatown prequel series in development

And then, once again, everything fell apart. Original distributor Paramount wanted too much money for the rights and legal wranglings meant it wouldn’t be allowed to call itself a Chinatown sequel.

The temptation would be, so to speak, to forget it.

The Two Jakes: Take #3 – finally

Jack Nicholson behind the camera on The Two Jakes. (Paramount)
Jack Nicholson behind the camera on The Two Jakes. (Paramount)

But Jack Nicholson was clearly still interested in revisiting the character of Gittes. And by the end of the 1980s, there seemed enough daylight between the previous debacle for everyone to approach the project afresh.

One big change was that Nicholson took over as director. His two previous efforts had been solid but unremarkable and while he was a lauded actor, that was not the case for him behind the camera. Still, he told MTV that he ended up directing it, “because at the time, it seemed the only way to end the talk of lawsuits. It was expedient. There was no-one else who would or could do it that the [studio] would accept.”

Harvey Keitel was cast as Jake Berman alongside Madeleine Stowe and actress Meg Tilly was hired to play Katherine ‘Kitty’ Mulwray. She doesn’t remember auditioning, but had been working with director Milos Forman on Valmont and now assumes he recommended her to Jack. Forman had directed the star to Oscar glory in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

“Being directed by [Jack] is one of the highlights of my career,” Tilly, who is now bestselling novelist, tells Yahoo Movies. “Acting with him was such a rush.”

Meg Tilly and Jack Nicholson in The Two Jakes. (Paramount)
Meg Tilly and Jack Nicholson in The Two Jakes. (Paramount)

She didn’t know about the previous fallout over the movie, but does recall meeting Evans and Towne before shooting started when an incident occurred that summed up the accident-prone nature of the project.

“I was at a restaurant – it was some fancy restaurant – and then a painting fell off the wall onto one of their heads,” she says. “Everybody was embarrassed and I used that as my cue to leave.”

Before filming, a group of the cast and crew piled onto a bus and drove around Los Angeles, with Jack excitedly pointing out some of the shooting locations. On-set, Nicholson zeroed in on every period detail, carrying around index cards carefully laying out every element of each scene. He also demanded that Robert Evans – who was a producer in name only – was on the set for the first day of production, while each day’s footage was screened in the screening room of Evans’s house.

“Jack was working really, really, really hard,” says Tilly. “He was very committed to this film and to make it good.”

A still from The Two Jakes. (Paramount)
A still from The Two Jakes. (Paramount)

The workload as director/star is large, but Nicholson was also faced with a serious and unavoidable problem. As Evans writes in his autobiography, the script was really only about 80% ready, but Towne, now just acting as screenwriter, promised he would finish it. Instead, Evans writes, “[he] went to Bora Bora with his wife, claiming he would complete the remaining 20 per cent from there. The only line of communication with Towne was to call the main hut between certain hours of the day. The ‘staff’ would then try and locate him because Towne’s hut had no direct phone line.”

“I felt very bad for Jack,” adds Tilly. “I remember a scene in the office we had no [script].”

With the set prepared, the cast members just stood by the fax machine, waiting for Towne to deliver the promised pages from his island hideaway.

“Finally, hours later [they arrived]…we memorise them as fast as we can and we shoot it.”

Tilly in particular noticed the effect this had on Nicholson, the sense that one of his closest friends was letting him down. “I felt very protective of [him,” she says. “I felt that this really hurt his heart. He didn’t say anything, he’s not that kind of guy, but I could sense the wounding.”

Todd Grodnick was an assistant director on the film and remembers the work Nicholson had to put in on the unfinished script.

The poster for The Two Jakes. (Paramount)
The poster for The Two Jakes. (Paramount)

“Working with Jack as director/star, from the very beginning we knew it was not going to be easy. But Jack could handle it,” he tells Yahoo Movies. “There were never any problems per se, other than the fact that after a long day of working as an actor/director, he would go home and do some rewrites, so I’m not sure how much sleep he had.”

Throughout filming, Nicholson relied heavily on the knowledge and skill of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. And having that kind of tip-top crew meant that the star could still occasionally indulge himself. One day, Grodnick went to pick him up from his trailer where he found the actor’s driver making milkshakes (“Jack loved milkshakes”). Despite the fact the scene was ready to shoot, Nicholson insisted on the AD joining them. Grodnick called in saying that Jack was ten-one hundred (industry parlance for going to the loo) and then “here I am having a milkshake with Jack Nicholson in his trailer as opposed to going back to set to shoot,” he laughs.

Read more: The wild story behind Caddyshack

Another time, the crew was told filming was finishing early for the day, only for a helicopter to land outside the warehouse they were shooting in. It was there to take the star to the Staples Center to watch his beloved LA Lakers.

“I think it was the play-offs,” notes Grodnick. “We thought that was funny.”

Aftermath

A still from The Two Jakes. (Paramount)
A still from The Two Jakes. (Paramount)

The Two Jakes was released on 10 August, 1990 to mixed reviews and unspectacular box office.

“It definitely affected the response to the film,” said Nicholson of the years of production chaos. He hasn’t directed since.

But while the business fallout was lacklustre, it was the personal damage wreaked by the film’s labyrinthine journey to fruition which was saddest. Towne, who had come up in Hollywood with Nicholson and was his closest friend, fell out with both him and Evans. In 1998’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, he admitted that he hadn’t spoken to Jack in 10 years. Evans succumbed to his various mental health and addiction difficulties and checked into a hospital. It was an ignominious end for a glorious and successful triumvirate.

For Tilly’s part, she says now, “I was really proud of the work we did on it,” even though she hasn’t seen the film since making it. “It was a good experience for me, even though it was very challenging.” While the actress still hasn’t retired from acting, she now prefers to write. Her latest novel, the romantic thriller Hidden Cove, was released last October.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 18:  Meg Tilly attends the Build Series to discuss her new romance novel 'Solace Island' at Build Studio on May 18, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Daniel Zuchnik/WireImage)
Meg Tilly attends the Build Series to discuss her new romance novel 'Solace Island' at Build Studio on May 18, 2017. (Photo by Daniel Zuchnik/WireImage)

In 2007, when Nicholson was asked about a third instalment, he said there wasn’t an actual script (unsurprising since Robert Towne never really finished the second one).

Still, he revealed, “I would imagine Robert has some kind of outline. I can tell you it was meant to be set in 1968 when no-fault divorce went into effect in California. The title was to be Gittes vs. Gittes.”

Gittes vs. Gittes – coming to a cinema near you never. Towne is however reportedly working on a Chinatown prequel series with David Fincher for Netflix, which will explore Jake Gittes’ journey to becoming a PI. Hopefully it will be worth the wait.