‘Atlas Shrugged’ finally comes to the screen, albeit in chunks
A capitalist taken with Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel spends almost 20 years and $20 million of his own money to get the first third of it filmed.
By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times
April 10, 2011
It has taken businessman John Aglialoro nearly 20 years to realize his ambition of making a movie out of “Atlas Shrugged,” the 1957 novel by Ayn Rand that has sold more than 7 million copies and has as passionate a following among many political conservatives and libertarians as “Twilight” has among teen girls.
But the version of the book coming to theaters Friday is decidedly independent, low-cost and even makeshift. Shot for a modest $10 million by a first-time director with a cast of little-known actors, “Atlas Shrugged: Part I,” the first in an expected trilogy, will play on about 300 screens in 80 markets. It’s being marketed with the help of conservative media and “tea party” organizing groups and put into theaters by a small, Salt Lake City-based booking service.
The fact that one of the 20th century’s most influential books is coming to movie screens in such a fashion is — depending on whom you ask — a reflection of liberal Hollywood’s aversion to Rand’s ideas, a symptom of Aglialoro’s rigid adherence to them, or a testament to the challenges inherent in adapting the complex tome.
Aglialoro ultimately made a movie that hews more to Rand’s ideology than the conventions of cinematic storytelling, at the risk that far fewer people will see it. Taking a page from the independent blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ,” however, he is paying for his own theater bookings and marketing his film to an audience Hollywood often overlooks.
The novel takes place in an unspecified future in which the U.S. is mired in a deep depression. Heroine Dagny Taggart is trying to save her railroad company from collapse amid increasing government control and a mysterious phenomenon causing the nation’s leading industrialists to disappear. “Atlas Shrugged” lays out Rand’s passionate defenses of capitalism and individualism, and has been a source of inspiration to figures as varied as Alan Greenspan and Angelina Jolie.
The 97-minute film is a faithful adaptation of the first third of the book, with some adjustments made for modern audiences: It takes place in the year 2016, when gasoline costs $37.50 a gallon, train travel predominates and clothes, cellphones and offices look pretty much as they do on a “Law & Order” rerun. Dagny, played by Taylor Schilling of the now-canceled television show “Mercy,” is still trying to hold Taggart Transcontinental together. She’s building a train line with a new metal alloy made by the man who is also her love interest, steel magnate Hank Rearden (former “True Blood” werewolf Grant Bowler). Much of the film’s dialogue comes straight from Rand’s often didactic prose and, perhaps as a result of the quick and thrifty adaptation, some dramatic action scenes are left out and key props, like a supposedly groundbreaking motor, look more jury-rigged than cutting-edge.
The graphic sex scenes of the novel are considerably toned down, earning the film a PG-13 rating and making Rand’s story somewhat more palatable to the Christian family audiences who are among those the filmmakers hope to court. “Atlas Shrugged” has long been a sacred text among many conservatives and libertarians, but as an atheist who had an open marriage and wrote unapologetically sexual characters, Rand doesn’t fit neatly into any Christian values-based marketing plan.
In February, the producers began to share the film with people likely to be in accord with the author’s views. They showed footage at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, unveiling a trailer that has since been downloaded more than a million times on YouTube, and screened the final cut for influential conservatives like House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and commentator Andrew Breitbart. They enlisted Freedomworks, the political organizing group behind many tea party events, to help promote it, and started advertising with posters that said “Who Is John Galt?,” the first line of the book and a meaningful catchphrase for Rand’s acolytes.
Part of the marketing for “Atlas Shrugged: Part I” relies on the movie’s status as a product, as Fox News host Sean Hannity has described it, that “liberal Hollywood doesn’t want you to see.”
The real story of what kept “Atlas” out of movie theaters for so long is a bit more complicated.
During Rand’s lifetime, the author stymied “The Godfather” producer Al Ruddy’s attempts to make a movie of “Atlas Shrugged” by demanding veto power over every frame. Rand, who was also a screenwriter, had adapted her 1947 novel “The Fountainhead” herself for a 1949 movie starring Gary Cooper, and was irked by a single line cut from the final film. A book like “Atlas Shrugged,” at more than 1,000 pages, dense with philosophical ideas and containing a character’s speech that covers 57 pages, would require major changes in its adaptation for screen.
“I said, ‘Look, Ayn, the language of film is different,'” Ruddy recalled. “John Galt says goodbye to America for 60 … pages. In a book it can be charming, but in film you look foolish.”
After the Ruddy deal and another for an NBC miniseries fell apart, Rand worked on her own screenplay for “Atlas Shrugged” right up until her death in 1982. Her fantasy casting for the leads were Farrah Fawcett and Clint Eastwood. “She loved ‘Charlie’s Angels,'” said Anne C. Heller, author of “Ayn Rand and the World She Made.” “They were like Dagny with guns.”
In 1992, the heir to Rand’s estate sold a 15-year option on the book’s rights to Aglialoro for $1 million. “This is the greatest epic that’s never been made into a movie,” said Aglialoro, who is now chief executive of the exercise equipment manufacturer Cybex. “I was like, ‘I don’t need a 15-year lease. This is done in 18 months.'”
The businessman, now 67, had first read “Atlas Shrugged” while working as a stock and bond trader on Wall Street in the early 1970s. “It was a stunning realization,” Aglialoro said. “It gave a political poetry to capitalism — capitalism as the only moral way people should live in this world.” Aglialoro would fashion himself into a kind of Randian hero, owning and operating more than 30 companies and winning a U.S. poker championship.
Over the next 18 years (he bought extensions on his option), Aglialoro developed several ill-fated scripts. One attempt to get the book greenlighted as a miniseries at TNT got caught in post-9/11 concerns about the novel’s apocalyptic setting, according to Ruddy, who worked on it. A feature screenplay, by “Braveheart” writer and “Secretariat” director Randall Wallace, was set up at Lionsgate in 2007 with Angelina Jolie attached to play Dagny. According to a source close to Lionsgate, the project fell apart when Aglialoro’s commitment to the book’s philosophical messages clashed with the studio’s aims to make the story more cinematic. According to Aglialoro, the multiple parties couldn’t agree on a director.
“There are two big factors that I sense have frightened filmmakers about ‘Atlas Shrugged,'” Wallace said. “One is the reverence with which Rand’s followers hold the novel and the other is the sprawling nature of the story. I believed to climb that mountain I’d have to shrug off both those fears.”
Meanwhile, Rand was gaining a new currency with readers. After several years of selling about 75,000 copies a year, sales of “Atlas Shrugged” spiked during the recent recession, reaching 500,000 in 2009, according to the Ayn Rand Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Irvine.
By March of 2010, Aglialoro had three months to get a film into production or the book’s rights would revert to Rand’s estate. “It was my wife who said you better get the hell out there and do it,” he said.
By necessity, the picture came together hastily, with Aglialoro bringing on Harmon Kaslow, a producer of low-budget horror and action films, to produce, and hiring Brian Patrick O’Toole, a writer with some horror credits, to work on the script (in a practice unusual for a producer, Aglialoro also took a screenplay credit on the film). Just 11 days before the start of production, after a six-hour meeting at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, Aglialoro hired his director, Paul Johansson, who is best known for acting on television’s “One Tree Hill.”
Johansson, who had directed some episodes of “One Tree Hill” but never a theatrically released film, earned the job based on his enthusiasm for Rand. “I was really nervous,” he said. “I had no cast. No time to address anything in the script. I woke up in the morning and said, ‘This is going to be the hardest thing I’ll ever do. It could possibly ruin my career. But I have to attempt this.'”
The filmmakers cast the lead role of Dagny just two days before they called “action,” and shot the film over a few weeks in the summer of 2010, mostly in and around L.A. at sites like Union Station and the Biltmore Hotel.
“I just wish we had more time to find the interesting nuances,” Johansson said. “[Aglialoro’s idea] of what movie we were making and mine at times were different. Had I been asked to direct a film that was a piece of Republican catechism I would have said no. I’m not in the business of doing political films. I’m in the business of doing good films.”
Aglialoro intends to open “Atlas Shrugged: Part I” on Friday, normally tax day, with the help of Rocky Mountain Pictures, a Utah film booking service that handled the anti-evolution documentary “Expelled” and the animated religious film “The Lion of Judah.”
His unorthodox distribution and marketing plans may actually work, according to one expert.
“There may be some advantages to these folks being outsiders to Hollywood,” said distribution strategist Peter Broderick. “This guy wants to make sure that the message of the movie doesn’t get watered down. He can control the marketing, how much is spent. If you can get enough people out from those core audiences the first weekend, it can build.”
Employing a strategy similar to the one used on the breakout low-budget horror hit “Paranormal Activity,” the producers have asked fans to “Demand Atlas” in their city by filling out a form on the film’s website. So far the most eager city is Atlanta, with more than 3,200 requests.
O’Toole is currently working on scripts for the second movie, and — if the first does as well as its makers expect — production could start by mid-September, Kaslow said.
After years of developing scripts and paying for the production, distribution and marketing of this first film, Aglialoro estimated he will have spent more than $20 million on “Atlas Shrugged” by the time it opens. Ironically, given Rand’s theories of self-interest, what Aglialoro said he really hopes the movie will do is help other people.
“I hope that by seeing the movie people will win their own competitions,” Aglialoro said. “Get the best from within you, and that’s how you’ll make contributions.”
Times staff writer Ben Fritz contributed to this report.