Sidebar: David Kelley, Screenplay Advisor

Sidebar: David Kelley, Screenplay Advisor

4 Mins
February 23, 2011

Editor's Note: David Kelley is the executive director of The Atlas Society (TAS), and film producer John Aglialoro is a trustee of the Society. TAS is the publisher of The New Individualist.

Spring 2011 issue
What was your role in preparing the script for the Atlas Shrugged movie?

David Kelley: My chief role on this script—as on scripts from previous projects—was to review the script before it was finalized and flag anything incompatible with the philosophy embodied in the novel.  Those inconsistencies could arise in dialogue, in the actions of the characters, or in the overall structure of the narrative. I also looked for omissions of essential elements of theme, characterization, and plot.

In this case, there were only minor issues I flagged, thanks to Brian’s skill and the decision to follow the novel very closely. The script captured the central story in Part I of the novel, and the themes came through loud and clear. That was fortunate, since there were only a few weeks until filming had to begin and no time for major rewrites. John Aglialoro sent me the script on May 20th, I sent him my notes on the 23rd, and filming began June 13th. That gives you an idea of the extreme pressure John and Brian were under. Nevertheless, they managed to fix the problems before shooting began.

Last fall, during post-production editing, John and Harmon wanted to add some lines to foreshadow the message of the strike. As Brian explains, they wanted to convey what Galt was saying to the strikers. I went back and forth with him to find the right words. I also watched the first full edit of the film, the “director’s cut” and sent another round of comments.

TNI: There have been numerous attempts in the past to bring this novel to the screen.  Regarding scriptwriting, what are some highlights and low-lights of these past attempts?

Kelley: The scripts I reviewed in earlier projects generally had many more invented scenes and dialogue not based on the novel, or combined and rearranged elements from the novel more radically than Brian’s script did. The result was often a mess, but some of the combinations were well-done, even ingenious. That is one kind of highlight.

The hardest part was getting the full meaning of individualism.

There were also some cinematic ideas that I liked. To take just one small example: In the scene where Hank Rearden is agonizing about his businesses being torn away from him by the Equalization of Opportunity law and then has the inspiration for a new bridge design, one writer had Rearden’s eye fall on a spider web in his office window. I thought that it was an ingenious way to capture visually what in the novel was an inner monologue in Rearden’s mind—a way for an actor to express how Rearden’s attention swings back to the magnetic pole of his being, the passion to create. (But then, would his office have a cobweb?  On Gwen Ives’s watch?)

As for lowlights, where do I start? There were major, major problems in every script before Brian’s. One script made Dagny out to be a gum-chewing, wise-cracking cartoon superwoman who enjoyed getting in people’s faces. Another script, covering the whole novel, had Galt as a kind of Pied Piper on some vague personal mission of self-realization, and it never mentioned the strike—the one essential part of the narrative that embodies Rand’s moral message. We had to explain why Atlas Shrugged without the strike is like Gone with the Wind without the Civil War.

The biggest problems arose from the fact that Atlas Shrugged is a philosophical novel. Screenwriters who do adaptations have the professional skills to identify a novel’s main plot elements, characterizations, mood, and style—and its themes, too. But in Atlas, the themes have a philosophical depth and precision that you don’t find in other novels. Unless a writer has at least a very strong intuitive grasp of the message, he’s bound to go off the rails somewhere.

TNI: In reviewing a variety of scripts over the years, what ideas of Ayn Rand ’s seemed hardest for today’s screenwriters to capture accurately?

Kelley: I would say the hardest part was getting the full meaning of individualism. Most of the scripts were OK on the political dimension: the need for freedom as against the government’s expanding control.

At the moral level, individualism has two dimensions: independence and egoism.  Most writers seemed to get the first part, the spirit of independence, aspiration, and creativity—following your dream, not settling for a second-best life or being less than you can be—as opposed to giving up and conforming. But they struggled with the egoist dimension: the idea of living for oneself, being a self-owner, pursuing one’s own happiness—and reaping the profits of one’s work—as opposed to living for others, “putting service above self,” embracing sacrifice and suffering as marks of virtue.  This is the more challenging theme because it conflicts with the ethics of altruism, and some writers wanted to “soften” the message in various ways.

At the deepest level, the theme of reason vs. anti-reason was really hard to get into a script, understandably. But most of the writers were able to convey implicitly the role of the mind in production, and more generally in life, through the way Hank and Dagny are portrayed.

TNI: Was there any aspect of Brian O’Toole’s script that struck you has an especially ingenious treatment or reorganization?

: Overall, I thought Brian condensed scenes deftly. For example, he has Dagny visit Rearden to make a deal for Rearden Metal rails (chapter 4 in the novel) at the same the first heat is being poured (Chap 2). That’s economical; it intensifies the drama of their connection and highlights by contrast the deadness of Rearden’s family life in the next scene. That’s one of many examples.

Of the new scenes that Brian created, the ones in which Galt appears struck me as especially tricky to get right. I know there were lots of changes in the writing and film-editing, but I think it came out just right. And it led to a really dynamite ending—which I have no intention of revealing. You will just have to see the movie.