10 questions with the producer of ‘Atlas Shrugged’ John Aglialoro

Amanda Carey Contributor
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Some thought it might never happen. Others hoped it wouldn’t. But now John Aglialoro has done it. He has produced a cinematic adaptation of “Atlas Shrugged,” the philosopher Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, which will open in theaters nationwide on April 15 (yes, tax day).

“Since Ayn Rand was still alive, many of us had been hoping for a film version,” Edward Hudgins of the Atlas Society told The Daily Caller. “It’s one of the major books of the 20th century that was never made into a film. But after years of struggling with finicky stars and finicky studios, [Aglialoro] was able to pull it together.”

Written in 1957, “Atlas Shrugged” has sold somewhere between 7 and 8 million copies in the United States. In 2009, sales experienced a dramatic spike, selling half a million copies and remaining at the top of a variety of best seller lists.

It is only fitting then that a movie version would follow. Two years earlier, in 2007, rumors began circulating that Angelina Jolie had been cast already as the novel’s heroine, Dagny Taggart. Indeed, Lionsgate Entertainment produced a version of the movie starring Jolie, though it never went into production.

But in May of 2010, faced with losing the rights to the movie in just three months, Aglialoro went to work creating a version of “Atlas Shrugged” set in 2016 (where gas is $37.50 a gallon and the main mode of transportation is the railroad).

What resulted is a 102-minute long film — the first installment of a trilogy. The film is directed by Paul Johansson and stars Taylor Schilling as Dagny, Grant Bowler as Hank Rearden, and has the expected tag line of “Who is John Galt?” According to Aglialoro, it also cost about $20 million.

The movie has so far been met with mixed reviews by those who have seen a pre-screening

“[There] are countless scenes of rough, bleak dialogue that never seem to stay on the track,” wrote Timothy Farmer at The Film Stage. “This soon becomes the tone of the entire film: incomprehensible gibberish.”

But Barbara Branden, author of a biography on Rand, described it another way: “The movie is not so-so, it is not ok, it is not rather good — it is spectacularly good…The script is excellent, as is the acting.”

TheDC recently talked with John Aglialoro about the casting, the end result, and, yes, those violent sex scenes.

1. You had been holding on to the movie rights for over 15 years before “Atlas Shrugged” was finally made into a movie. Describe how that process worked for you.

I not only bought the rights from Leonard Peikoff in August of 1992, but during the 1980s, I was hoping and wishing that it would happen. And finally in 1992, we had talked about it previously, Leonard and I thinking, ‘Gee, who can we have make the film?’ And I bought from him a 15 year option. And I thought it was way too much time, that I would probably get the job done in a year and a half, maybe two years. And I went out and tried to raise some capital and create some interest from people that I knew and that 18 months turned out to be 15 years plus. And after so many ups and downs, many are already known in the public venue. Angelina Jolie being interested, then with Ted Turner saying it’s his favorite book…Al Ruddy who is a two-time academy award winner, two statues, and he gave a two thumbs up. So you get affirmation from outside like that.

2. Now that it’s about to be released next month, how do you feel about the movie you produced?

Well, it’s not so much what I think. Like I said, it’s more important what people think who I respect and know the project well. After the showing on Thursday, I walked over to Nathaniel Branden and also Barbara Branden was there and she saw it, and I was going to ask them what they thought, which meant a lot to me. Before I could ask for their question, I saw tears in their eyes, so I knew that I didn’t have to ask the question.

3. Let’s talk about casting. Obviously, casting characters that are so well known can be tricky. What did you look for in actors? And how did you approach the casting?

Well I personally had about 30 Dagny’s read for me. I’d rather not say who read. I really can’t, but there were a few A-listers…What I wanted to do is get top-grade talent. I wanted it to be more about the project. Both of those were good for two reasons. One, it’s philosophically good that the viewer sees people there that are talented actors, but it’s better that they’re not known, rather than an actor or actress that is known, they’re in the magazines or TV pages. They’re people who are talented, who’ve been around, and they do a great acting job.

And number two, frankly, if I was going to do it myself, I wasn’t going to be able to budget up what some of the top A-listers, what everyone wants to see. So if I’m going to do the project and fund it myself, it has to be a budget I can afford…Taylor Schilling fit the bill. She was according the way Ayn Rand described her: thin, serious look, sexy and had an obvious intelligence and had sharp angular moves. I think Taylor Schilling, a lot of those attributes were already there. She expanded on those in the character of Dagny Taggart. There were several other people that we liked and could have played it. I mean, Taylor Schilling was on vacation. She stopped her vacation abruptly and came over and auditioned and got the role.

4. Why did you decide to set the film 5 years ahead in the future in 2016?

Well, Ayn Rand always said, and I was told this by Leonard Peikoff, and I’d heard it before from Nathaniel Branden, Ayn Rand always said the novel takes place the day after tomorrow. And I took that in the figurative sense, not exactly as next week or something, but I mean we started that movie a year ago so the day after tomorrow, one could have easily said the day after tomorrow is a year from now. But I took it to be where technology was essentially the same as it is now, you’ll see cell phones, you’ll see the price of oil is putting less cars on the street, air planes are less of a travel means than railroads, which actually has taken place anyway. I’d say that the day after tomorrow, when this film is made for the second or third time a hundred years from now, in 2111, I don’t think you’ll see a train. It’s not about trains, it’s about philosophy. It’s an internal struggle between power and liberty.

5. Now, one of the most notable features of Rand’s novels is her long and complex dialogues.  How did you tackle that aspect and adapt it to the screen?

What guided me was having the words and the meaning be philosophically pure. 100 percent. No compromise to the greatest of my ability. Have the approved script, have the words philosophically make sense according to Ayn Rand. However, the vernacular of 50 years ago of when she wrote the book and now has changed. Plus, you’re talking about conversations between people and often in a book, they’d be different than what the everyday “language” or conversation is. So it’s conversational, there’s a smattering of minor profanity. One of the scripts I looked at recently had the F-word in there and I would never include that kind of language with her. But when one looks at her characterization one might think that maybe it’s on a real bad day, she’ll have said that to herself or something like that. But it’s like trying to show a character, who in the intrinsic sense, lives each day and she says a minor word or two of profanity. It’s about conversational language, entertaining because you’re in a cinema, but never deprecating in anyway the philosophy backing it up.

6. Have you decided how you’ll tackle John Galt’s epic speech in part three?

Well, I’m looking at a number of different things. Having John Galt give that speech, it might be in a casino environment. It might be that he is at a mountain retreat, rather than being where he is captured, not…that violent scene at the end. But we’re going to take a look. It doesn’t have to copy just that.

No, it absolutely will be a concentrate of entertaining words with a total, philosophic…But, you know, part three could be a musical…like a Les Miserables kind of a musical. That’s part of the impact and I guess I haven’t said this publicly yet, but I’m looking at it completely different if part three is a musical with quality music that’s done in a certain way that people will like. I mean, if you saw the play Les Miserable without the music, and then with the music, you may go in there saying, ‘oh hell, I would never want to see that great book in a musical.’ That’s going to shock a lot of people to see part three be a musical, and part two may be very different from part three and very different from part one. It has to be new, you know…We get a freshness, a vitality about it, and yet it has the same, rock-solid principles and philosophies that we all know and love.

7. Some of the scenes from “Atlas Shrugged” that spark the most controversy are the violent sex scenes between Hank and Dagny. Was there a lot of discussion about how to approach those scenes?

No, there were no long discussions. There was only one way that I wanted to do that and that was to [go] at the scene, it had to show a love scene, because that’s what the book had. And there was a lot of very difficult language that Dagny sees some of the conflicts within Reardon, I mean you couldn’t get into that, that would take 15 minutes of discussion. And so we didn’t want that. That’s confusing when you only have an hour and 45 minutes to show a movie. What we made it, what a few people thought was that maybe we won’t have it at all, but we had to have a love scene. Was it a sex scene? Yes. Was it selling the script? It was tastefully done. We put Mozart, classical music behind it and I think it came off well.

8. So you decided to make it a trilogy. What would you say the theme of part one is? What message did you want to send to a general audience?

The state and the individual or limited government under that state and the individual. If they have view A, they’re going to hate the movie and if they have view B, then they’re going to like the movie. But for those people who we feel are made to like the movie and they’ve never intellectually broken down what their view of the universe is in their opinion — and as you saw in the movie we put the teletype up there — so we wanted people to have a simple story apart from the love story, apart from all the trains and all the big parts of that theme, for them to say, you know what, that’s not good that people like Steve Jobs of Apple or Fred Smith, the CEO of Federal Express, or the guys who did Google, and on and on and on. First by the hundreds, then by the thousands disappear, and so the purpose of part one is that people will get a fundamental observation of a question that might be subconscious but never, never was conscious before. And that movie says ‘wow, those people, they’re ethical, they’re principled, they’re hard working, they produce more than many, many of their neighbors produce…and they went on strike.’ That’s the understanding that we want the average person to see there.

9. Can you describe one or two of the toughest decisions you had to make during the production of this film?

I’m not going to say it’s simple, because it wasn’t. First of all, the first decision was part one is only 27 percent of the entire novel, so I only had to worry about 27 percent. That takes a lot of the stress away. And then in rereading each chapter of part one, you sort of make little notes about what will be a scene and what will not be a scene. What you see in the movie was but let me give an example of a scene that didn’t get in there, but could’ve been in there. I broke it down into, and Brian O’Toole wrote the fundamental script. I gave him the direction with it. But he wrote the basic script and I wrote a lot of the beginning and a lot of the end and stuff in the middle and we both crystallized in phrases along the way. But basically you read through it and there’s maybe 33 perspective scenes and only 24 make it.

10. What do you think Ayn Rand would think of the film?

I’ve pondered that question a long time and I’ve been waiting for many, many years to go and visit her grave and say, ‘Well we did it.’ I never met her and I certainly would not have the answer. But I was very fortunate last week when I did see Barbara’s reaction because she knew [Rand] for so long and even at the end she knew her so well. And I said, ‘Barbara, what would Ayn have thought?’ And she hesitated for the first couple seconds or so and then she said, ‘I think she would’ve loved it.’ So I can’t give you that answer but Barbara can.