Making the We the Living Movie - Part I

Producer Duncan Scott, who adapted the Italian film version of Ayn Rand's novel We the Living for American audiences, discusses the amazing story behind the film's original production.

Duncan Scott is an award-winning producer and director, with more than 130 film and video projects to his credit. In addition to creating his own documentaries, commercials, news releases, and educational videos, he has worked as a film editor, and as an assistant director for luminaries such as Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, and Richard Brooks.

Highlights of his career as a producer include the PBS series Innovation, the monthly magazine program Vision, and television biographies of anthropologist Margaret Mead and labor leader George Meany, the last of which was honored with an invitational screening at the White House. He has received four Emmy Awards, two Telly Awards, five Cine Golden Eagles, and a Broadcast Media Award.

Beginning in the 1960s, Scott worked closely with Ayn Rand and Hank and Erika Holzer to restore and re-edit the Italian screen adaptation of Rand's novel We The Living. The film was released to theaters in 1987 and received critical acclaim.

Now, fifteen years later, Scott is bringing We the Living back to theaters, starting with a special one-night showing at the famous 600-seat Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, California on Wednesday, December 3, 2003, at 7:30 p.m.

In this first of a two-part interview with the Atlasphere, Duncan Scott discusses his own discovery of Rand's work, his background in film and television, his early involvement in the We the Living project, and the incredible story behind the film's original production in Italy.

The Atlasphere: How did you come to discover Ayn Rand?

Duncan Scott: I was about twenty. I had never heard of Ayn Rand, never read one of her books, didn't know a thing about her. And I happened to be watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. And, lo and behold, one of the guests was Ayn Rand.

I didn't know who she was, didn't know anything about her, and she started talking. And within about a minute and a half, my jaw had dropped to the floor.

Here was somebody saying everything that, in a much less formulated way, had been swirling around in my brain. Here was someone who was putting it all together. And I suddenly felt that I wasn't alone in the way I was thinking. Not only wasn't I alone, here was a champion of ideas that had been inside me for a long time, but someone who could verbalize it and put it all together in a cohesive way.

I was blown away, even though The Tonight Show was a lightweight program, and they didn't go into any great depth about anything. But you could tell that Johnny Carson was a fan of Ayn Rand's, in his own way.

Anyway, the next day I went out, and before even going to work, I ran to the bookstore and picked up The Virtue of Selfishness — which is probably an unusual first book of Ayn Rand to read, but that was my first Ayn Rand book. And then I went through all the other books in a very short space of time, and I was totally hooked.

TA: Did it change your life in any way?

Scott: That's an interesting question. I think I'd tend to say yes. Because even though these ideas had a lot of relation to ideas I had, she had totally put it together in a philosophy, and I think it … let me think about this for a second … there was certainly an emotional shift too. It changed my life emotionally, because I felt less alone in the ideas that I had.

Through her books I was really able to take a quantum leap forward, from what had been in my head, to this wonderful philosophy that covered so many areas, including areas I hadn't even thought about. So it was a whole new world that was opened to me.

TA: Were you already involved in film and television at the time?

Scott: Yes. I was an assistant film editor at that time, which meant I worked alongside film editors on various projects. It was very early in my career, so I didn't have a great deal of creative responsibility on these projects. But I was learning my craft, working in an editing room, and often I'd work on documentaries, or sometimes commercials, or trailers for movies — a variety of different types of film projects.

TA: How had you originally become interested in working in that field?

Scott: I originally trained to be a professional actor. I went to the School of Performing Arts in New York — the same high school portrayed in the movie Fame, if you recall that film from many years ago. It was the only school in the country at the time where you could major in dance, music, or drama. I was a drama major.

And there was quite an ambitious curriculum that had to be followed. In addition to the usual subjects that anyone would get in high school, we had arts classes — acting classes and stage movement classes and so forth. It was a very demanding school.

I set out on an acting career even before graduating from high school, and didn't get too far with it. I wasn't very aggressive about going to auditions, and in hindsight, I can say that was basically my undoing as an actor.

At one point, I wanted to work and there weren't any acting projects coming along at that time. So I went to an employment agency and was placed doing some low-level work at a facility that rented out editing rooms to companies that needed to do editing work on their projects.

The companies would rent the facility by the day or week or month, and I started working basically behind the scenes, helping move equipment where it needed to be and so on. They also had screening rooms where you would rent a room and invite your guests and you could screen a film in a private screening room. My job was to move various heavy cases of film over to the screening rooms whenever they were scheduled.

So obviously it was a very low-level entry job. But I became interested in what these editors were doing. I had really no idea what editors did — like most of the public, I basically assumed that editors just cut out the bad parts of a movie and that's it. And I became fascinated with how highly creative it actually is, and what a major part of the overall creation of a movie the editing is. I was fascinated by how they could control dramatic tension and other key aspects of a movie, just in the way they edited the film.

I remember in particular one editor who was given the assignment of re-editing a finished movie — a western — and he had to change the ending simply by re-arranging the footage that already was in the movie. He didn't have any new footage to work with, but he was given the assignment to make the ending of the movie different. I was so fascinated that you could do that, and I remember spending a lot of time watching what he was doing and talking to him. I got the idea that I would love to do this kind of thing myself.

So I started asking editors if I could work for them, and I started getting small projects, and then staff positions working as an assistant editor. After that, I basically worked my way up the ladder, became an editor, and did that for a number of years.

TA: How did you shift from that to directing and producing?

Scott: Well, at a certain point I became frustrated that I spent a lot of time fixing the problems that directors created, because they either didn't know what they were doing or didn't use much creative imagination. So I campaigned to the people that I worked with to get a chance to direct myself, and eventually I got that opportunity and it went really well.

So I was directing for a while, and then a client said, gee, if you had your own company, we could give you projects directly. So I started my own company in my late twenties, and I've had that ever since.

TA: Were you directing mainly documentaries when you first started?

Scott: Yes. Pretty much all documentaries at that time — little documentaries about life in America for the U.S. information agency, and various corporate videos. Nothing too glamorous, but I did projects that helped me learn my craft. I also worked on some commercials occasionally. And this was all before video came on as strong as it did. This was pretty much when everything was actually shot on film and edited on film.

1985: Duncan wins his second Emmy
TA: Tell us about your career since then. I know you've worked with Woody Allen and Sydney Lumet, and you've won several Emmy awards. You've done quite a mix of different things and had quite a bit of success.

Scott: I've had a very varied career, and it keeps changing all the time.

The work I did in the early eighties with Woody Allen and Sydney Lumet and some of the other big name directors was as an assistant director, and I ended up going back to television after that. Assistant directing work, despite the title, is not a very creative job. So I decided to go back to my company, which I had already established, and went back to documentary making, which is what the Emmy awards were for.

So I have done a lot of documentaries, and in recent years I've specialized in doing videos for museums, because many exhibits in museums nowadays, especially new exhibits and ones that get redone, have videos as an integral part of the display, and over the years I've created a specialty of doing that kind of work.

That said, I'm also moving myself back into the movie area and I have a script that's being considered by a couple studios. It's a standard thriller that I wrote myself, and I will be directing that if I'm successful in getting it sold to a studio.

TA: Sounds very exciting.

Scott: Yeah. I have basically decided to move my career in the direction of both doing movies, and doing more things related to Ayn Rand — things that I've had a passion for.

TA: What do you find to be the most interesting challenges working in video and TV, and in this creative field in general?

Scott: Well, in general, the biggest challenge is that it's so extremely, outrageously competitive. Everybody wants to do movies and television shows, and the colleges are cranking out filmmakers by the busload every day — and I'm not exaggerating. There's simply nowhere near enough work for all the people that want to do it.

This intense competition makes it always something of a struggle.

TA: To backtrack, when did the We the Living project come along? Was that after you had already started directing?

Scott: Actually, it was earlier. I was really not even an editor yet at that time. I had been given a few projects to edit, but my official title was still assistant editor. And one day, I saw this notice printed up in the Objectivist, which was that little green magazine — one of the first Objectivist publications, put out by Nathaniel Branden and Ayn Rand.

On the back page they always had a little announcement page with just a few brief sentences about this or that. And I saw an announcement, maybe two or three sentences long, announcing that We the Living, the old film, had been rediscovered by Hank and Erika Holzer. They were going to restore and re-edit the film, and they planned to release it within about a year or so.

Now mind you … I always say that last part kind of ruefully, because this was about 1970, and in fact the movie wasn't released in America until 1986. So … (laughing) … there was a sixteen-year span between the time I first read that announcement and the time the movie finally did get released.

Anyway, I saw this announcement and I thought, Wow, would I ever love to work on that. And I really felt … I felt compelled to write to them, even though I thought this was the longest of long shots. I didn't know the Holzers or anyone else in the Objectivist movement. I had attended maybe one or two classes at NBI, and was eagerly looking forward to getting more involved. At the time I wrote the Holzers, though, I had no contacts and no relationships with anyone.

But I wrote a letter, stating that I was fascinated by the fact that they had found the film, and that I would love to work with them should they need a film editor to work with. I kind of exaggerated my abilities at that point and described myself as a film editor. And I sent the letter off, thinking that nothing would come of it and that I would be lucky if I got even a reply.

Hank Holzer
And in fact, I heard nothing for at least a month — and then I got a letter from Hank Holzer. And it stated, in effect, that he had had an editor who was going to work on this project, but there had been a falling out of some sort, and that he was in fact now looking for an editor to work on the project and he'd like to meet me. I was just astounded! (Laughing.)

And I remember meeting him — he had offices in the Empire State building at the time. And somehow it felt so appropriate, you know, meeting with Ayn Rand's lawyer, on a high floor on the Empire State Building. It was so out of The Fountainhead! (Laughing.)

TA: Sounds like it.

Scott: I remember sitting talking to him, and through the window behind him there was a view forever — probably a fifty mile view. It all felt very appropriate.

Anyway, we hit it off pretty well, and the long and short of it is, I was brought on basically as a hired hand, on an hourly basis, to work on re-editing the film.

TA: I would love to discuss your recollections of the re-editing. But first, give us the background here. How did the film originally come to be produced in Italy in the first place? This movie has a pretty amazing history.

Scott: It really does. It's amazing that the movie got made at all given all the trials and tribulations it went through.

First, before the movie, the book We the Living was published without authorization in Italy during World War II.

TA: I assume in translation?

Scott: Yes, in Italian. And apparently it must have made enough of an impact that there was interest by several people in making a movie out of it. I'm told that it was actually the daughter of Mr. Scalera, the head of Scalera Studios, who had read the book and suggested to her father that it would make a great movie.

Apparently, everybody was very nervous about making this movie. It looked like a hot potato, even though it showed the Russians in a bad light — and with Italy at war with the Allies, and Russia being one of the Allies, it was a good thing to make Russia look bad.

But obviously, if you had any level of perception, you could see that the story was an indictment of any kind of collectivist government, which would include the Italian fascist government.

So initially, even though the daughter of the head of the studio wanted to see the movie made, it was kind of put on the back burner. And ironically, the person who basically went to bat and helped this movie get made was Benito Mussolini's son, who was in the movie industry.

TA: You're kidding me.

Scott: To my knowledge, he was not in politics, he was in the movie industry at that time. And he and Scalera's daughter apparently discussed this problem and the fact that they were concerned about the political ramifications of doing this movie. And apparently, Mussolini the son basically pulled some strings to get the movie approved for production.

TA: Jeez — he must have liked it.

Scott: He did. But you have to remember that most people looked at this as almost a grand opera. You know, the plot of We the Living is this woman that loves one man, but he's dying and needs help, so she pretends to love another man. I mean, it's like Italian opera. And they were all focusing on that.

And I think they all felt that as long as they portrayed Russians as being swine — you know, totally unredeemable people — that would take care of the political concerns that the movie raised. So, incredibly, it was Benito Mussolini's son Vittorio that pulled the strings to get the approval to get the movie made.

Because again, the fascists controlled all industries, including the movie industry, and that meant that they had to approve the making of the movie. It didn't mean that the fascists were completely hands-on in actually making the movie, but they had to approve it.

TA: I see.

Scott: So anyway, they hired scriptwriters to go ahead and start writing a script; I'm told that these were very famous writers and very well known in Italy. The director was off doing another movie.

And when he came back and looked at the script that was written by these two writers — well, they had really gotten creative with Ayn Rand's book. Instead of Kira being an engineer, they decided she was going to be a ballerina. That would give you an example of how they took it off in another direction. This was something that was done quite a lot in Hollywood and elsewhere, so it's not all that surprising.

Director Goffredo Allesandrini on the set with the stars of the film, Alida Valli and Rossano Brazzi
But the director, to his credit, wouldn't have any part of it. He wanted to shoot the movie that he had read in book form. Well, they were slated to start filming, but he said to the studio: I'm sorry, we're throwing this script out. And they decided to have this other man named Anton Majano write the script.

But they were so close to filming that Majano ended up writing the script while they were filming — and he was sometimes doing pages for a scene the day before it was being filmed.

TA: I suppose that accounts to some extent for why the movie follows the book so closely.

Scott: Yes, it does. They went into production with this Majano writing pages the day before they were filmed.

And the original plan was to make one film. But the film was turning out really well, the director was very happy, the studio was very happy, and of course it's hard to gauge how long the movie is running when you're script-writing as you're going along.

So the movie was getting longer and longer during the filming, and the studio and I believe the director met and discussed this, and they said: Look — this is never done, but let's release this as two movies. We've got enough material for two movies, not one.

And they all said, great. They also decided not to tell the stars of the movie, because they knew that they would want more money. (Chuckling.) So they kept filming and filming. And Rossano Brazzi would say to the director: "Ah, we're shooting an awful lot here — what's going on here?" And the director would say, "Oh, no, no, it's fine, it's fine."

Anyway, to make a long story short, the stars of the movie eventually realized or got wind of the fact that it was going to be released as two movies, and so of course they wanted more money. The studio originally said no. So the stars pulled a little mini-strike and refused to show up for work, right in the middle of filming. Eventually the studio negotiated, gave them more money, and filming resumed.

TA: Interesting.

Scott: Yes.

Now the more interesting thing that was going on during the filming is that the fascist authorities wanted to see sequences that they had filmed, even while production was going on. The filmmakers were really nervous that they were going to get into trouble for the political content of the movie. And so when the fascist authorities came over to the editing room to look at sequences, the people working on the movie literally would hide away the more controversial sequences and only show the fascists the safer parts of the movie.

The authorities kept saying things like, "Is that it? Isn't there more than this?" And they'd answer, "Oh, no, no, that's all there is." And this sort of game was played for a while. I have my theory that the fascist authorities probably knew sequences were being hidden away from them, but there was sort of a wink-wink kind of thing going on; as long as they were being told there wasn't anything else, they did their job and that was good enough.

So the movie finally got its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 1942. It won the Festival's Volpi Prize, which apparently is a very prestigious prize. And by in large it got wonderful reviews, except for the reviewers who were aligned with the fascists.

In Italy, reviewers and writers and people in general are very political — everything is infused with politics in Italy, and I don't mean just then. It still is. But it certainly was then, and a lot of the writers and reviewers were fascists, and that infused their reviews.

So it got bad reviews from them, but wonderful reviews from everyone else. And the movie was a huge success, a fantastic success. It was very much the Gone with the Wind of Italy.

A scene from the film: Rossano Brazzi as Leo opposite Alida Valli in the role of Kira
TA: Really.

Scott: Yeah. People literally were naming their kids Kira and walking around on the streets with little buttons with pictures of Rossano Brazzi on their clothes. And people would come up to the filmmakers on the street to congratulate them, saying things like, "How did you get away with it?"

Another interesting side note: the Italian title of the movie is Noi Vivi, and the second part was called Addio Kira — "Goodbye Kira." But people on the street had a parody of the second title, based on how the Lira had been losing all its value, so they called it "Addio Lira" instead of "Addio Kira." (Laughing.)

TA: That's funny.

Scott: The movie was quite a sensation, quite controversial. And within a short period of time, a copy of the movie was sent to Germany, and the propaganda powers over there looked at it. Goebbels apparently saw the film himself, and all hell broke loose. The Italians, basically being influenced by Germany, decided they had better ban the film, even though there really was no policy of banning movies in Italy — there didn't need to be because the fascist authorities controlled the industry anyway.

But the orders came down. I got the detailed story directly from the man who was head of the studio at the time. They were ordered to remove all the prints of the film from the theaters and to take the negative and deliver it to the authorities to be burned.

And fortunately, the head of the studio took the negative of some other movie, and sent that to the authorities, and he hid the negative of We the Living in the basement of a friend's home. We the Living would not have survived 1942 and be available to be seen today had he not taken that action.

The head of the studio also lost his position because of We the Living, and Rossano Brazzi stopped making movies because of the fascist control of the industry, and actually joined the underground fighting against the fascists.

TA: Oh, wow.

Scott: Yeah. He risked his life, and wasn't able to re-surface until the end of the war. And this was somebody who was a big movie star. Imagine Brad Pitt fighting for the underground and disappearing.

Anyhow, the war ended, but the studio still couldn't release the film, even though there were no fascists to ban the movie any more, because they never had gotten Ayn Rand's permission to do the movie in the first place. It had been made during the War when they couldn't negotiate with an American.

So they had no literary rights attached to the film, and after the war, the two stars of the film actually approached Ayn Rand about getting the literary rights, but she didn't want to give them. For one thing, she was angry that the film had been made without her permission, and for another, she had been approached by Hollywood filmmakers to do an English language version of We the Living. Since that was being negotiated and discussed, she felt there was no reason to allow this other version to come out. So she refused them.

But the Hollywood version of We the Living was never made, and the Italian film just fell into obscurity for all those years. That is, until the Sixties.

TA: When the Holzers found the negatives.

Scott: Right. They were Ayn Rand's lawyers, and they had heard Ayn Rand mention this movie We the Living. And they said, "Oh my god, whatever happened to that film?" And she said she had no idea. They said, "if we could go find that movie, would you agree, with changes to the film, to let it finally be released?" She said "yes."

So they spent the better part of two years traveling back and forth to Italy, playing detective work, before they were able to finally track the movie down. And they bought the negative of the movie without being able to actually view the film. There was no print of the film to look at. So they bought this negative of the film, and brought it back to the US. It's shortly after that when I became involved.

Purchasing information: The Italian screen adaptation of We the Living is available from

In Part 2 of the Atlasphere's interview with Duncan Scott, Scott discusses his recollections of the re-editing process and the film's reception, his memories of Rand, and his plans to re-release the film, starting with a special one-time showing at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood on December 3, 2003 at 7:30 p.m.

5 comments from readers  

To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.
Thank you, and bravo on a terrific article! Thoroughly exciting!
It's interesting where he says "...colleges are cranking out filmmakers by the busload every day .."

It's true. I'm one of them. I even studied film making in Prague after I finished film school in America. And yet, I find it almost impossible to find work, even on just local commercials because it's so competitive. But I guess I'd also have to relate where he said he wasn't aggressive about auditions, and I guess that was my problem in and immediataly after film school.

But the fact that they found this movie makes me wonder, does any one think there might be an ANTHEM movie out there somewhere?
How can I see this movie?
Great interview! Duncan Scott is a very talented man. He was terrific at the showing of the movie at the Castro in San Francisco. I have the VHS tapes and have watched it many times. It is amazing how well it follows the book. What a great opportunity for Duncan. It is a good example of people having the courage to take a chance.

Duncan has also made a DVD of the history of "Objectivist Movement", that is terrific.
The movie should be remade today and set in Iran!
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.