by John Nolte
If there’s a production with a longer and more colorful history behind its troubled march to the silver screen than Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged,” the story of that particular episode of development hell has not yet been told. Published in 1957 and a perennial bestseller ever since (the novel sold a half-million copies just last year), the struggle to realize Rand’s sprawling and epic dramatization of her theory of Objectivism as told through a dystopian tale of the world’s best and brightest, feeling they’ve been exploited by an ungrateful society, putting their talent on strike, eluded even the author herself.
Throughout the decades, stars from Barbara Stanwyck to Angelina Jolie have expressed interest in bringing the novel to life, but it’s going to be producers Harmon Kaslow and John Aglialoro who finally break the curse. Directed by Paul Johansson, who also stars as John Galt, and co-starring Taylor Schilling as Dagny Taggart and Matthew Marsden as James Taggart, principal photography wrapped this very day. Which means…
Yes, there will be an “Atlas Shrugged” movie. Well, at least a part one.
Big Hollywood has enjoyed two visits to the film’s set, which our own Charles Winecoff will be writing more about soon, but due to the fact that much of what we’re reading in the media regarding the film’s production doesn’t coincide with what we’ve seen and heard for ourselves, I asked producer Harmon Kaslow to help set the record straight.
Much has been made of the film’s reported budget of $5 million, especially for a project major studios have shied away from out of budgetary concerns. Like most smart producers, Kaslow won’t talk specifics, but there’s more to the story than the $5 million:
“The amount expended on the movie is far north of $5 million. The movie is based on Part 1 of the book (the book has 3 parts) … so the film is based on about 27% of the book.”
This is the first I’ve heard that this production is only the first of three films, and while I haven’t read ”Atlas Shrugged,” those who have tell me a trilogy is the perfect way to tell the story on screen. Like “Lord of the Rings,” the natural breaks in Rand’s novel practically demand it be told in three parts, and a single feature film, even a long one with a hefty studio budget behind it, would almost certainly short-change the novel’s legion of faithful fans who, regardless of budget, are most concerned about seeing an adaptation that doesn’t compromise Rand’s philosophy. To that end, Kaslow assures the Randians:
“The movie is a direct ‘adaptation’ of the book included using much of the dialogue written by Ayn Rand.”
Assuming we’re talking in the area of $15 to $20 million to film the entire novel, with no big star salaries that’s still a low budget but not a ridiculously low budget. As far as the casting of unknowns, as is the case with any film, budget constraints are a reality and when you’re working in the arena of millions as opposed to hundreds of millions, you’re not going to get a Charlize Theron or Angelina Jolie.
Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling)
Kaslow told me, “The talent cast in the movie was selected on the basis of the director’s and producers’ belief in their acting skills without taking on the ‘distractions’ often associated with ‘A-List” talent.’”
I’m sure that doesn’t mean they would’ve turned down the distraction of an Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron or another A-lister, but as we’ve seen many times before, acting ability, screen presence and the chops necessary to deliver a memorable performance can come from unknowns. After all, like all great actors, at one time Jolie and Theron were unknowns.
In any case, like “Harry Potter” and the “Narnia” films, the real star here is the project itself, Ayn Rand, and Objectivism. If the performances rise to the occasion no one’s going to care that there’s no familiar name above the title.
John Galt (Paul Johansson)
In a Sunday piece for Daily Finance, Bruce Watson took some pretty hard shots at the production claiming it’s nothing more than a desperate and cynical rush job using an inexperienced director in order to allow Aglialoro to hold onto the film rights, which were set to expire last month had filming not begun. I asked Kaslow about this directly:
“John Aglialoro finally decided to marshal the production because it was apparent that a studio would not …
“While the rights would revert back to the estate if production did not commence by June 14, 2010, the goal of the producers is to produce a film worthy of epic nature of the novel that will satisfy the millions of persons who have read the book, but also appeal to a wide audience (so as to introduce them to the Ayn Rand’s work).
“During the course of Aglialoro’s efforts to get the film into production, the project had definitely attracted a number of very reputable directors … however, given Johansson’s passion for the material and desire to execute a faithful cinematic vision of the book, the producers believe they found a director that most will believe is a diamond in the rough.”
Kalsow also took exception to Watson’s description of Johansson’s directing experience as mostly confined ”to the set of the teen-oriented soap opera.”
Director Paul Johansson’s inaugural feature film (The Incredible Mrs. Richie – 2004) won a [Daytime] Emmy as Outstanding Family Special, plus he has experience directing a substantial amount of television.
Johannson did win a Daytime Emmy for writing the “Mrs. Ritchie” screenplay and was nominated for his direction that won Gena Rowlands an Emmy and James Caan a nomination.
James Taggart (Matthew Marsden)
No one, including the ”Atlas” producers, can predict how a project will ultimately turn out, and that’s true whether your budget is $5 million or $200 million. And no one would argue that the challenges involved in bringing such an ambitious and epic story to the screen aren’t made that much more difficult with with limited resources, including taking a chance on a director making his theatrical feature debut. However, from all we’ve seen and from our discussions with the producers, director, and cast, there’s no doubt that everyone involved is passionate about telling this story and most importantly, dedicated to remaining true to Ayn Rand’s philosophical vision — which would’ve likely have been compromised bigtime by a major studio.
As of now the plan is to release part one of “Atlas Shrugged” in theatres sometime during the second quarter of 2011 and start production on the second part the following fall.