“I went to Jack (Nicholson) and said ‘What if I wrote a detective story set in L.A. of the ‘30s?’ He said “Great.” The one feeling I had was a desire to try and recreate the city. But that was just the beginning. Then owing to a building project near where I lived, I got a chance to see the corruption of city hall first-hand, which is where that element of the plot got into Chinatown. I then had to go to Oregon where Jack was filming Drive, He Said. I hadn’t really read Raymond Chandler at that point, so I started reading Chandler. While I was there at University of Oregon, I checked out a book from the library called “Southern California Country: Island on the Land.” In it was a chapter called “Water, water, water,” which was a revelation to me. And I thought ‘Why not do a picture about a crime that’s right out in front of everybody. Instead of a jewel-encrusted falcon, make it something as prevalent as water faucets, and make a conspiracy out of that. And after reading about what they were doing, dumping water and starving the farmers out of their land, I realized the visual and dramatic possibilities were enormous. So that was really the beginning of it.”
Screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown)
The Hollywood Interview by Alex Simon and Terry Keefe
P.S. Southern California: An Island on the Land, written by Carey McWilliams, was first published in 1946, and according to the back cover is, “Widely recognized as the best non-fiction book written about Southern California for the period 1920s through the 1940s.” Also, in the interview with Simon and Keefe, Towne also said an early influence was an copy of Old West Magazine that in 1969 recreated L.A. of the 30s.