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Atlas Shrugged: The Movie

Scenes from the 38-year struggle to film Ayn Rand's famous novel

Brian Doherty
April 8, 2011

Hank Rearden, metal magnate, faces a bureaucrat from the State Science Institute across his desk of burnished steel. The bureaucrat tells Rearden that he would be wise to sell his amazing new amalgam, Rearden metal, to the government. Rearden refuses. The bureaucrat presses him: Why can't he see the benefit of selling to a government that can and will condemn the metal as unsafe if he refuses? Rearden replies with cool contempt: "Because it's mine."

Mine: rhymes with Ayn. So goes an old joke about the adopted name of Ayn Rand, the Russian-born novelist who invented Hank Rearden and his fictional metal.

I am in the anteroom of Rearden's office, watching one of the last shooting days of the film version ofAtlas Shrugged, a project Rand's fans have both wanted and feared for decades. Who gets to call this movie "mine"?

In one sense, the picture belongs to Rand. It would not exist without her novel and its millions of readers who the filmmakers hope will form their core audience. But the 38-year history of attempts to film Atlas Shrugged shows that the project never could have happened while Ayn Rand lived. Her need for control did not mesh well with the collaborative, compromise-riddled art of filmmaking.

The film's direct father is, like many of Rand's heroes, a highly successful businessman: John Aglialoro, a private equity whiz and CEO of the Cybex exercise equipment company. Aglialoro was named byFortune magazine in 2007 as the 10th richest small business executive in the country. He has never made a movie before. He is not in the movie business to make movies per se, or to make money, though he hopes to. Aglialoro is in the movie business to make Atlas Shrugged, a book whose message—that individuals do not owe their lives to the collective—"zapped him," he says, when he first read it in the late 1970s.

In 1992 Aglialoro gave Leonard Peikoff—Rand's heir and a disciple of her Objectivist philosophy—more than $1 million for the rights to make a movie of Rand's enormous novel, in which the world's most brilliant and accomplished men and women go on strike against a system choking itself to death on statism and altruism. Very much not in the spirit of Rand, Peikoff relinquished control over any movie Aglialoro chose to make. Nearly two decades later, in a tense race against time that Aglialoro's production partner Harmon Kaslow compares to their protagonists' desperate attempts to finish their railroad on schedule—"and we didn't even have Rearden metal to help"—Atlas was filmed in 27 days during the summer of 2010. (More precisely, the filmmakers completed photography on Atlas Shrugged Part I. The novel is divided into three parts, and this picture ends where Part 1 of the book ends.)

It's eerie watching actor Grant Bowler bring Rearden to life as I sit, out of camera range, in the anteroom of "his" office in a sleek industrial space in Santa Monica, California. I've been a fan of Rand's work since my late teens. I wrote a book (Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement) that is partly a biography of Rand. Her characters and ideas occupy a special place in my mind, and in the minds of millions of other Rand lovers—and haters. The Atlas Shrugged movie will likely stand or fall in Rand's beloved marketplace on the question of whether people who found Atlas a life-changing experience can embrace the movie as emotionally theirs.

The Many Failures of Filming Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged was a battlefield on which many of Hollywood's mightiest forces fought and died. The first man to win Rand's trust enough for her to sell him the movie rights was Godfather producer Albert Ruddy. Ruddy and Rand appeared together at a press conference at New York's chic 21 restaurant in 1972 to announce the deal. Ruddy had agreed to the condition of flying Rand out to Hollywood for any necessary meetings in a private jet, lest the Soviets hijack any commercial airliner she was on.

Rand was under the impression that Ruddy agreed to give her complete control and approval of the final cut. Ruddy had to disabuse her of that notion, and thus he did not make a movie of Atlas Shrugged.

Rand then went into business with screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (whose work on In the Heat of the Night she had adored) and producer Michael Jaffe for what became a planned TV miniseries on NBC. When Fred Silverman took over NBC in the late 1970s, he added to the cultural crime of Pink Lady and Jeff the murder of an Atlas Shrugged miniseries that Rand herself had worked on and approved. 

When Rand died in 1982, she was still working on a script for an Atlas miniseries she had considered financing herself. Before Aglialoro bought the rights from Peikoff in 1992, Philadelphia Flyers owner and Objectivist businessman Ed Snider also tried and failed to film the book. 

I first talk to Aglialoro on the campus of the University of Southern California, about 20 yards from where his cast and crew are filming the opening run of the John Galt Line. That's the railroad built using Rearden metal while the rest of the innovation-fearing world is busy trying to crush enterprise. There is no railroad to be seen, just a green screen in front of which Rearden and the passionate, brilliant railroad boss Dagny Taggart, played by Taylor Schilling, conduct a press conference. Like much of the visual flash of the film, the train will be added later through computer imaging.

Aglialoro lacks the arrogant bearing, flashy romanticism, or steel-hard gaze of his hero's heroes. But when he tells me his kids made a custom Monopoly game for him and his wife in which all the properties were real-life properties the couple had bought and sold, a similarity in spirit begins to emerge.

Aglialoro brags about the production values in scenes like the Reardens' anniversary party, shot at L.A.'s famous Biltmore Hotel ballroom. He is eager to let me know that serious money and effort are being expended on the film, in the wake of rumors that Atlas is going to be a low-budget joke. While Aglialoro had started off talking about a $5 million project, in the end Aglialoro told the Randian website Atlasphere that production costs were more like $10 million just to make the movie, before marketing expenses.

Still, everything about Atlas Shrugged Part I had to happen fast. For years Aglialoro was allied with Lion's Gate Pictures, whose vice chairman, Michael Burns, was so into Rand that he attended her funeral as a kid, Aglialoro says. In 2007 the two were tantalizingly close to a deal for a feature film written by Randall Wallace (Braveheart), directed by Vadim Perelman (House of Sand and Fog), and starring as Dagny Taggart none other than Angelina Jolie.

That, like most Hollywood projects, never happened. Lion's Gate then reconceived Atlas as a miniseries for its fledgling Epix cable channel, with Charlize Theron discussed for the Dagny role. That fizzled too, and in mid-February of last year, Aglialoro's deal with Lion's Gate came to a close. At that point the phantom film was just Aglialoro, an option, and a ticking clock. His right to make a movie of Atlas Shrugged (plus one remake) would expire if he was not in production by June 15, 2010. 

At this point Aglialoro was ready to give up. He had never wanted to be the guy actually making this movie; he was more interested in hooking up with a professional studio and letting the professionals do what they were qualified to do. That, Peikoff had told Aglialoro, was something Rand had always toldhim.

But Aglialoro's wife told him that he'd regret it all his life if he didn't do everything possible to make this movie, and he decided she was right. Indie producers Howard and Karen Baldwin, who had originally brought the project to Lion's Gate, introduced Aglialoro to producer Harmon Kaslow, who had worked on more than a dozen films, mostly on the legal and financial end. Kaslow didn't know much about Rand, but he did know something about how a movie gets made.

They now had just weeks to get a film into production. Kaslow and Aglialoro hired director Stephen Polk but then fired him less than two weeks before shooting had to begin for reasons neither side will publicly discuss. Polk, in an email interview, refers merely to "complications," adding that he was impressed with Aglialoro's willingness to spend whatever it took to make the movie's production values fit the subject. "It's always been John's movie," Polk said, adding "I hope it is all he hopes it will be and inspires people to read more Rand."

Prominent casting agencies refused to deal with the project, partly because many assumed Aglialoro was deliberately shooting any old thing to retain the rights, as opposed to making a movie he intended to release. While Kaslow had suggested they essentially shoot a 90-minute demo that would help bigger studios wrap their heads around and hopefully agree to fund a more lavish version of Rand's famously huge and daunting property, Aglialoro stood firm on making the movie he'd been planning for decades.

Kaslow brought in Brian O'Toole, a screenwriter whose official credits are mostly horror films but who had a reputation as a wiz at fixing up book adaptations. Kaslow describes the script they started with—he declines to name the writer—as "more a reimagination of the book than a direct adaptation." But "then John said, ‘Let's just go by the book, a direct adaptation, use her words when we can use her words.' We really don't have time to test the logic if we decide to go outside the boundaries of the story."

Racing frantically against the clock, the team was still scouting for locations with only three days left before shooting ended. Some locations were found only the day before they were used; some actors were cast just two days before they went on camera.

Director vs. Producer

Another contender for the "mine" in Atlas Shrugged Part I is its last-minute director, Paul Johansson. Kaslow brought Johansson on via mutual friends just 10 days before shooting. His most prominent experience before that was acting in and directing episodes of the TV teen drama One Tree Hill and writing and directing a Daytime Emmy–winning movie, The Incredible Mrs. Ritchie.

Johansson is brash and charming, very much a dude's dude, alternately serious and funny. Soon after I first speak to him at length, on a shooting day at a ranch in Piru, California, where Rearden and Dagny are tracking down clues to the inventor of a mysterious motor, he makes sure I understand both that he sees his bookshelf as defining his life and that he once cold-approached Cindy Crawford for a date and got it. He tells me he gained extra respect for Grant Bowler, his Rearden—"a Daniel Craig type, not a George Clooney"—when he learned Bowler had been in a scrap or two in his native Australia.

Johansson immediately starts grilling me about libertarianism during our first conversation, testing the limits of Rand's, and my, antipathy toward government. Schools? Police? Johansson doesn't instantly embrace the radical answers I offer, but he doesn't argue against them much either. He talks about his disdain for most modern journalism and the compromises it makes—"a word Ayn Rand despised,compromise."

Johansson keeps a hardback of Atlas on his monitor board as he films. We bond as Rand fans when he comes back from giving some direction to Bowler during the scene where the bureaucrat is trying to buy his metal. "Did you tell him to not say ‘please' to the guy when instructing him to have a seat?" I ask him. "Yes!" Johansson says with a you-got-it gesture. Johansson claims he is reworking O'Toole and Aglialoro's script daily. O'Toole alludes to problems with the headstrong director but gives no specifics.

The movie is "not about a woman and a railroad and a man and metal," Johansson insists. "It's about human achievement and the nobility of the human spirit." While he is aware of the rabid Rand fan community waiting to dissect his work, "I can't make a movie for this imagined group out there, whether Rand lovers or haters. That would be like art by committee."

It's an attitude reminiscent of Rand's Fountainhead hero Howard Roark, her clearest representation of the ideal of a romantic creative artist. Roark, like Rand, insists on having ultimate control over his creative work.

Johansson has some Roark in him. Filming Rearden's office scenes, he confronts Kaslow about plans to recut the movie after Johansson is done. Johansson is shooting a scene at Rearden's desk. A statue of Atlas holding up the world is centered between Rearden and his computer monitor. Kaslow doesn't like how it looks. "Why are you bothering to tell me this now?" Johansson snaps at Kaslow, in front of Kaslow's young son. "Aren't you just going to take the film from me and do whatever you want to it afterward anyway?" The director makes things so uncomfortable for Kaslow and his son that they leave the set.

After they leave, Johansson talks, frustrated, about philosophically minded businessmen who have never made a movie trying to impress their friends at think tanks and presuming they can do better than the man they hired for the job. When I sit in on a session months after the shooting is done, where actors were re-recording some of their lines over finished video, Johansson is not around. A man involved in post-production work alludes to irreconcilable differences between Aglialoro and his director. Johansson tells me, in the spirit of Roark, that "if I was to go out and cheer for something and take credit for something I didn't complete—I have a son coming. I want him to know his father is someone who doesn't do that. I can't take that credit" for the finished film. "That film is John Aglialoro's film."

‘All the Objectivists Are Going to Fucking Hate Me'

Aglialoro and company have a big advantage: the vivid hold that the novel has on the imaginations of millions of readers. That is also a big disadvantage. The filmmakers can't compete with a passionate fan's dream vision of what his favorite book should look and feel like on screen, Kaslow says—or with fans who decide to take on the dead Rand's mantle of control and disapproval.

In the novel, Dagny is a brunette. Would Rand tolerate a blonde woman in the role, as many griping on the Internet cannot? Well, she did once imagine Farrah Fawcett-Majors in the role. Could she tolerate a black Eddie Willers (Dagny's assistant), as again many fans apparently cannot? She never thought of skin color as essential, condemning racism as "the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism."

Screenwriter O'Toole has been grappling with possessive Rand lovers daily on the movie's Facebook page. He will give out his phone number and personally win over people who are down on the movie before they've seen anything other than stills.

It would be unreasonable to expect Atlas Shrugged's actors to be Rand mavens. Bowler and Schilling are not much interested in discussing whether they are prepared to face Rand's philosophical enemies in the press as the embodiments of her heroes. Bowler tells me that dealing with the ideas of someone "so much loved, and so much challenged—that's an argument worth having." But he follows it up with the very un-Randian observation that "when you make ideas a certainty, you have the danger where you wind up wearing jackboots."

Even the two people doing most of the front-end promotion, Kaslow and O'Toole, walk the line between wanting Rand fans to be enthusiastically on board and downplaying the weight of the movie's message. "If you are asking, ‘Am I going to have to defend the philosophy?' " Kaslow says, "from my perspective in Part 1 there isn't very much that's really radical." Both men seem more comfortable selling Atlas as a corking tale of feminist empowerment—Dagny is one of the strongest, most complicated female leads in modern literature—than as a story of how the morality of the welfare and regulatory state is damning us all to hell.

Rand is a curious cultural and intellectual phenomenon, loved by millions but in essence telling the world that its dominant values are hideous moral evils, and that if you compromise with them (that is, if you try to live anything like a "normal" life), you are hideously evil yourself. It's not a feel-good Hollywood message, nor is it the typical Hollywood feel-bad message.

The actors are aware that Ayn Rand is a controversial figure of some sort, although Jsu Garcia—playing Francisco d'Anconia, the formerly brilliant business mind, now dissolute playboy—says he can't believe Rand was an atheist, as he finds so much spirituality in her work. Matthew Marsden, somewhat of a Hollywood right-winger with a honed contempt for politicians, does a subtle, cool job with Rand's villain, Dagny's brother James. He chuckles to himself after a line reading: "All the Objectivists are going to fucking hate me, aren't they?"

Surely, many of them will, and not just for being the villainous Taggart, but for being part of a public vision of Atlas that isn't theirs. Atlas was shot indie and on the fly, and it will be distributed the same way. The filmmakers plan to place the movie in theaters in 11 big American cities on the official release date of April 15, hoping for a huge per-screen opening weekend and to spread out from there. Kaslow points to the slow-rollout indie success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding as a model, and holds out hope that Atlascan be the "top-grossing indie film ever made."

Aglialoro has kept Rand devotees close from the beginning. He is on the board of the Atlas Society, a group that promotes Objectivist ideas, and has used the society's philosophical chief David Kelley to vet scripts for Objectivist bona fides all through the process. On the other hand, Rand's official heirs at the Ayn Rand Institute (owners of the atlasshrugged.com website) declined to comment on the movie, and if you only knew what they told you about the popular spread of Rand's ideas, you wouldn't know the film was even coming out.

The producers are working closely with various groups interested in Rand's small-government message to get early word out on the film. In mid-February, just as the film's trailer went public, Kaslow said they will be working with the Tea Party–oriented small-government organization FreedomWorks' online "Freedom Connector" program to gin up audience demand for showings of the film in specific cities across the country. Kaslow says they are initially most focused on letting Rand fanatics know that the film is really done and really coming out, "because the whole idea of a film has been in people's mind for a long, long time, with lots of false starts, expectations, and hopes. We want to create noise among that population and from that noise we think that then opens the door at least on a curiosity level to a broader population."

The Finished Film

No message movie has ever shifted the culture. Despite the sense of desperate ideological importance that suffuses Rand's novel, no one involved in the film project is arguing that the movie is going to jump-start a renaissance of reason. O'Toole stresses his hope that the movie gets people to seek out the book.

The finished film succeeds as a professional quality filmed recreation of scenes and themes from that book. Rand fans should love it for that. If you aren't already privy to the material, it (understandably) lacks the emotional and intellectual force of the novel—as well as the resolution of the plot and theme. But if this film succeeds, Aglialoro intends to finish up with two more films over the next two years. 

Rand came to the United States because of her love of Hollywood and the dreams of a rich, romantic, vivid life that American movies inspired during her constrained, deprived youth in Soviet Russia. It was one of her dreams to make an Atlas movie, and Aglialoro imagines himself able to visit Rand's grave with head held high, telling her, "We did it."

"I think it will work as a piece of entertainment first," Aglialoro says. But attentive viewers may "pick up the message that you are not born to serve society, that government should just protect our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, and that we are entitled to the fruits of our labor." 

Senior Editor Brian Doherty (bdoherty@reason.com) is author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (Public Affairs). This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Brian Doherty is Senior Editor


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