“Time and literary fashion had simply passed him by,” legendary Hollywood screenwriter Robert Towne (“Chinatown”) recalled of John Fante, whose semi-autobiographical novel “Ask the Dust,” about Aldo Bandini, a cocky, driven would-be writer trying to make it in Depression-era Los Angeles, he’d finally succeeded in bringing to the screen after more than three decades’ effort. In a Dallas interview Towne recalled his initial encounter with the novel and its author, both largely forgotten when, as a struggling writer himself, Towne first got to know them.

“I’d always been interested in adapting this as a movie from the very first time that I read it, in 1971,” Towne explained. “And I met the author, and we had a ten-year relationship that became very close after a bumpy start. As you see in the movie, you know what Bandini’s like–that was John. He could be tough on you. Yes, I was interested from the beginning. But…I was an unknown writer when I first read it. But within a year or so, ‘Chinatown,’ ‘Shampoo’ and ‘The Last Detail’”–three of his scripts–“managed to get made, and I got sort of waylaid by the seventies. And in the eighties I had other problems. But I was finally able to return to it and write it in 1993. I had never written it before, but I had certainly thought about it. And I sat down and wrote it very quickly.”

Towne was attracted to “Ask the Dusk” because of his own background. “It was a combination of things,” he said, “but initially I was overwhelmed with a flood of my own memories about Los Angeles as a child, and they were triggered by reading the book. I didn’t realize how much I knew until I read Fante, and realized that I had lived in the same location, and looked at the same sky and the same climate, and felt in much the same way about them. And then, of course, it was about a writer who was unknown, struggling to create some sort of identity for himself in the city of Los Angeles, and I naturally would identify with that.”

But Towne was also moved by the relationships in the book–between Bandini and two women, one a disfigured Jew and the other a spitfire Mexican waitress–that raised the issue of racial prejudice, so openly expressed in the thirties. “The same issues that existed for these people exist today,” he said. “In a way, I think the refreshing thing about it is how politically incorrect it was at this time. They just flat out called each other names. I liked that about it. That attracted me about the characters, because I thought in that time, when it was so naked, that they displayed great courage. I was very moved by that. One of the reasons for going back into the past is that it’s almost the only place that there’s any drama.”

Towne’s observation turned the conversation to the post-1993 struggle to get the script filmed. “That was actually one of the things that was tough about getting the movie made,” he said, “because studios don’t mind the degree of violence, the degree of sex, or the language anymore, but to call somebody a name like that–oh God, no, that will never do! And they would very often mistake the racism that the film was attacking for being racist. I know that’s hard to believe, that peculiar inversion, but it was there in some cases.” And though he’d had a long career in Hollywood, he added, “one’s passion and the studios’ interest are not always the same. And it’s amazing, whether you’re Clint Eastwood with ‘Million Dollar Baby’ or George Clooney with ‘Good Night, and Good Luck,’ or me with this movie–they want you to make what they want you to make. That’s just the way it is. I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve done for Paramount. But I can tell you how much I think it matters.”

Still, Towne kept plugging away at it, especially after he encountered Colin Farrell. “When I met Colin,” he said, “that was the last phase, when I knew the actor that I wanted. And all I had to do was wait for him to become a movie star to get it financed, because he was unknown. I was unknown when I met John [Fante], and John was unknown when he met me–his book had kind of slipped into a literary oblivion. And Colin was unknown when we met. And it was his becoming a movie star that really made all of this possible.” In retrospect he now knows that Farrell’s stardom had been worth the wait. “It’s certainly different from anything he’s ever done, and he’s quite credible,” he said. “He has an eerie ability to lose himself in the past–the way he wears his clothes, the way he moves. He’s very much of a protagonist of his time, which is 1933 here. At least I find it so.”

Towne also knew whom he wanted for Camilla, the waitress who becomes Bandini’s great love and muse. “Id asked Salma [Hayek] eight years before, and she was very reluctant to do it because she was already worried about being type-cast,” he recalled. “And it took another seven or eight years for her to establish herself well enough so that she felt she could do it.” But by the time Farrell had become a star and financing was secured, she was ready to commit, too. Towne is pleased with how well they worked on screen. “The chemistry is critical here, and I think it’s palpable,” he said. “Part of that is luck–they just hit it off in some way you couldn’t count on no matter how much rehearsal time they had. But the rehearsal time they did have was only going to stimulate that, because it was there in the beginning.”

Towne noted that Farrell and Hayek also made sacrifices to play their roles. One was financial. “Everybody either took tremendous salary cuts, or not salary at all,” he said. “Colin, Salma, me–none of us took salaries in order to make this movie, in order to get it on film. So it was a movie made on spec.”

Another form the sacrifice took, though, involved the demands of the shoot near Johannesburg, South Africa, where a set recreating a portion of the Bunker Hill district of Los Angeles in the 1930s was constructed. “A lot of it was contained in my own memories of that time, and making sure that that ended up on film–and having the kind of production designer with whom you could share that vision–Dennis [Gassner],” Towne said. “Distilling everything we knew about downtown Bunker Hill into a set that would suggest all of Bunker Hill. Finding locations in South Africa that really look more like Southern California [in the thirties] than anything that’s left in Southern California today.”

One of those locations was a beach where Farrell and Hayek were called on to do a night-time skinny-dipping scene. “We know one way to sell the movie!” he joked. But he added, “Believe me, nude scenes are not fun to shoot. Nothing is more agonizing, particularly when the water is freezing cold, and it’s night, and you’re desperately worried about security–because you promise an actress as much privacy as possible, so you have guards all around the perimeter to insure that the privacy is complete. And to try to act in this freezing weather as if you’re just happy to be frolicking in the water. That was tough.”

Then he added, “But they sure look great!”