Last November, shortly before The Atlas Society’s conference “ Atlas Shrugged: The Making of a Movie ,” in New York City on December 7, Edward Hudgins interviewed Aglialoro for Atlasphere. To whet your appetite until the movie reaches a theater near you, we are pleased to introduce you to the man who made the movie possible.
The Atlas Society: You've been working to bring the movie of Atlas Shrugged to the screen for seventeen years. You've faced many ups and downs. What has kept you going for such a long time?
John Aglialoro: Let me give you some background first. I had purchased a fifteen-year lease to make a movie of the book in August 1992 from Leonard Peikoff, now the former chairman of the Ayn Rand Institute. I wanted to outsource the project to a studio, a financing group, or some party that would see what an excellent opportunity making this movie would be. Over the years there were some great names in the industry who were interested in the project.
But year after year passed, and it got to the point where I had to make a decision to finance it myself, and to arrange for the casting and get it done, or to lose the movie rights.
One thing that kept me going was that many years back I had made a kind of commitment to Ayn Rand herself. I didn’t make it to her one-on-one personally (though I had actually seen her once, when she gave her last talk at the Ford Hall Forum in 1981). But making the movie was something that I felt as an Objectivist I could carry out one way or another. I wanted to be able to visit Ayn Rand ’s grave sometime in New York and say, “We got it done.”
But let me tell you what gave me the final push. In April of this year  I had to make a decision about whether to pursue the project and get filming going by the middle of June or to let my lease on the movie expire. My wife said to me that if I didn’t do it, it would haunt me for the rest of my life. That did it!
TAS: You've been a successful entrepreneur and now you've produced a movie. What challenges did you face in the latter role? How is making a movie different from or similar to running a business?
Aglialoro: In business you need a vision and a team with a strategy, and you need the capital. For the movie we had the vision and the capital. We just needed to gather a team together, although we had a very short runway leading up to the filming. But I found the same elements involved in this project that I had found from owning various types of businesses. My kids gave my wife and me a Monopoly game several years ago, with various properties or companies we had bought or sold over the years substituted for the ones in the Monopoly game. The names might be different, but the dynamics of businesses and projects are the same.
The one difference between many business enterprises and making the movie was the very short time span we had to pull it together and start filming. June 15, 2010, was the deadline when my option on making the movie would run out. As the date got closer and closer I asked the estate, owned by Leonard Peikoff, for an extension. For whatever reason, he thought it was in his self-interest to keep us to that deadline. So the last three weeks or so leading up to that deadline were mostly sleepless nights.
TAS: Well, we’re glad you made it! In recent years, Randall Wallace and others have each taken a crack at the Atlas script. Since you opted for a trilogy, your focus was obviously narrower with this latest version. How else is it different from these earlier scripts?
Aglialoro: Actually, there were some six or seven different scripts through the years when I was trying to make the movie. In 2006 we signed a contact with Lionsgate, and they hired Randall Wallace. He wrote an excellent script. It was for a two-and-a-quarter- or two-and-a-half-hour movie of the whole book, and it was amazing to me how he did it. Some of the other scripts had their great points but fell short to some degree. But the Wallace script really made it!
The movie was budgeted at perhaps $70 million. They got Geyer Kosinski, the manager of Angelina Jolie, and her and a number of stars connected to the project. Unfortunately, the leadership at that studio couldn’t see fit to carry out that vision of the movie. Ultimately, whether it was politics or something about the storyline or whatever, they didn’t want to put the capital behind the project. So in the end, in the time and budget we had to make the movie, we simply were not able to carry out Randy Wallace’s script. It would have been a huge undertaking.
The idea for the movie trilogy came from the talk of a miniseries, which Ayn Rand herself at one point had said would be a good idea. We did speak with people at HBO as well as Epic, a new channel connected to Lionsgate. The latter wanted Atlas Shrugged to be their first large and inaugural work. But that possibility fell through back in February or March of this year . So we couldn’t do a miniseries without a TV station backing the project, and we couldn’t do it as a big-budget movie without a studio. So we decided to have a script that pretty much followed the book. The book is in three parts, and 27 percent of the book is part one. So we ended part one right at the point where Ellis Wyatt leaves, and it had a tidy ending with a full expectation of the future happenings.
TAS: After completing the filming, what are you most pleased with about the movie?
Aglialoro: I’m pleased that we carried it off and that we have an entertaining movie based on such a fabulous book. We had Paul Johansson as director and a great team. We asked Brian O’Toole to take a great book and faithfully adapt it as a near-great script for Paul and the team to bring to the screen. And that effort was successfully carried out and we shot the film in just under six weeks!
There were some changes to the script along the way, and some things I would have liked to have had added. Those of your readers who know the book will remember the scene with Phillip Rearden and his mother going to Hank Rearden’s office to ask for a job for Phillip. I thought that would have made a fabulous little two-minute scene. But we were trying to do so much that various circumstances kept us from doing some things that we would have liked. It was very expensive shooting every day. You’re changing aspects of the script to adapt to realities on the set, and in some cases actors who were not on the set because they were traveling or had other obligations. So it was difficult to bring all of these hundred-and-one things together every day. But I was pleased that we carried it out and it’s an entertaining movie.
TAS: Speaking of Paul Johansson, he seems like a passionate individual. How would you describe his style as a director?
Aglialoro: Paul is a hands-on, take-charge kind of guy, and he worked very well with the actors. Remember, many of these actors came on at a minimum rate just because they wanted to be associated with the project. There was not a lot of rehearsal time. Normally actors get weeks or months to study the nuances of their characters, but for this project time was very short. Paul was able to get them focused on their roles right away. I remember we were schooling Taylor Shilling right up to the last several hours in the last evening before shooting in the characterization of Dagny Taggart. She’s got that tall, thin look with a tight-lipped smile that’s very beautiful. She’s a big talent. In fact, she’s now in New Orleans about halfway through a three-month shoot on a movie with a very famous young actor these days, Zac Efron. I’m sure they know she’s just finished up Atlas Shrugged , and her reputation certainly should be great for our movie when it comes out.
TAS: Is the movie still on track for a March release—or June, if accepted at a major festival?
Aglialoro: My initial and lingering aspiration was to have February 2, Ayn Rand ’s birthday, be the date when it opens. And I recently saw in Los Angeles Night of January 16th, Ayn Rand ’s play that ran in the ‘60s on Broadway. So I wanted to have a private movie premiere the night of January 16, 2011, and a couple weeks later have the opening. That sounds so tidy and poetically justifiable, but I think we’re going to have to take a look at March or April. No later than Tax Day, April 15 .
TAS: That would be a great day for a release for PR purposes! You could bet it would get national coverage. Some people think there's no way you can do Atlas Shrugged justice with a $5 million to $10 million budget. What do you say to them?
Aglialoro: I’m sure that you don’t have such budgets very frequently. But remember that in August 1992 I had paid a million dollars or so to Leonard Peikoff for the movie rights. You do add the rights costs to the costs of the movie.
And then there were additional costs along the way. Jim Hart did a very nice script early on. He also wrote Hook and Contact. There were other versions of the script. And there were a lot of other development costs—meetings, travel, legal fees. Those costs since 1992 run between $10 million and $15 million.
I think the production costs for this movie are going to run about $10 million. And then we’ll have the marketing costs and some small return on capital. If the movie does come out in the middle of April we will be costing it right up until then. We still have a fair number of people on the payroll. So we’re looking at total costs of $25 million or more.
But also look at what we got with our production budget. For example, we used red camera technology to film it. It creates digital images rather than images on film. Its software is great for editing. We were able to get the director’s cut of the movie and add some very good visual scenes and other elements in weeks rather than the months it would have taken with film. So it is high tech, and we didn’t scrimp on using red camera.
We also used a fair amount of green screens where we were able to insert some great visual effects and breathtaking scenes. After the director’s cut we had a team that went out to Colorado for two weeks to shoot mountains, valleys, railroads, moving trains, tracks, all sorts of things. I have had one professional studio head take a look at the movie. We think it has the look and feel of a movie with $25-to-30-million production costs.
TAS: Are there other independent films with a similar budget, from which you drew inspiration for this project? Or did you just do what you had to do?
Aglialoro: I just did what I had to do. As I’ve said, we had the opportunity to hire many of the actors and others at perhaps 25 percent of what they normally make. I mean when you get a famous actor for a movie, you might have a $25-to-30-million price right there. So we had some excellent talent and a few of the actors were journeymen who had done a hundred movies, and they came in at minimum. A lot of people wanted to work on this project. I was stunned! So if we had had to pay just standard or going rate for cameramen, production designers, and all of these various parts of a movie it would have meant this budget would have doubled. So we got lucky.
TAS: When will you start filming part two?
Aglialoro: When part one is finished and released I’m being told I’ll have a lot of options. Obviously if the movie is successful, as we expect it will be, we should have a few of the larger studios interested in buying the rights and guaranteeing production budgets. If they see a profitable, successful, and well-done part one, the studios will have the confidence to invest in the later parts. Or we might use our team—we call ourselves Strike Productions—through the corporate heading of Atlas Film Productions, to produce the next parts. These are still big question marks. We’ll have to see.
Aglialoro: I hope that the political class will be replaced by political leaders with the sense of our Founding Fathers. This is the notion of reluctantly, with great pain and suffering, leaving their farm and their town in order to put two long years into elected office out of gratitude for having the freedom to make their way in the world, to be successful, and to get up every morning and do whatever their sense of life dictated. Those are the kinds of political leaders and statesmen who had self-love and love of their country.
Today we have people getting out of law school, entering the political class, making a career in government, garnering power, doing all the things that they must do to stay in office and get reelected. They have only a vague bias, if at all, for trying to get society moving in the direction where individuals control their own destinies, where government takes a limited approach to governing. An obvious solution to this problem would be term limits. If terms were restricted we wouldn’t have career politicians with incentives to concentrate more and more power in government so that they could pass out money and favors in their bids for reelection.
That’s my hope. It’s a big hope, but we do see that some of the elected folks today seem to be more libertarian and have a great respect for Ayn Rand . So maybe we’re at the beginning of a five, or seven, or eight-decade trend where we repopulate the awful and disgusting political elements that rule Congress, the states, and the regulatory bodies today.
TAS: It’s interesting that you mention giving up the plough and giving a couple of years to public office. That’s obviously referring to the Roman statesman Cincinnatus and to the one American Founder—George Washington—to whose monument Ayn Rand actually alludes in Atlas Shrugged . Very fitting!
Aglialoro: We’re going to show mostly the first ten minutes of the actual movie. I can’t say for sure exactly, because right now we’re into post-production. The movie is shot and the film is locked, which means the scenes themselves—what is said, what is shot, external scenes, internal dialogue, with the exception of dubbing and things like that—are as they’ll be in the movie. We now are working on the sound, color, and lighting—a multiweek process. And the actors are contracted to come in for a day or two for any dubbing that may be necessary.
I can tell you that the movie opens in a diner and on the diner’s TV, on CNBC, we see Wesley Mouch and James Taggart in a studio, and from a remote feed is Ellis Wyatt as three talk show guests discussing oil and other current events. And while that dialogue is going on we see in the diner Midas Mulligan. Here we’ve taken some liberties with the book to create some drama. In the book at this time in the story Mulligan was actually out of the picture and in Atlantis. In the movie we have him leaving the diner, and shortly thereafter a figure, who I won’t name right now, speaks to him and then the scene just cuts. And it’s very, very interesting!
We’ve had several people from the Objectivist movement see the rough cut of the movie, including David Kelley, who actually helped with the some of the script analysis.
So I can’t say exactly what ten minutes you’ll see on December 7, but I’m sure the audience attending the event will like it! And I hope to see a lot of your readers there!
TAS: Thanks so much for your time and for bringing Atlas Shrugged to the screen!
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.