In Part 1 of this Atlasphere interview, producer-director Duncan Scott spoke about his discovery of Ayn Rand's work, his background in film and television, his early involvement in the We the Living project, and the incredible story of the film's original production under the noses of the fascists in World War II Italy.
To recap: Twenty-five years after We the Living had been produced in Italy, Ayn Rand's lawyers, Hank and Erika Holzer, found the film's negatives after a long search, and set out to restore and re-edit the film, and to release it for the first time in America. They hired Scott — who was working as an assistant editor at the time — to assist with the restoration and re-editing process.
In this conclusion of the Atlasphere's interview with Duncan Scott, Scott tells the story of the re-editing process, shares his recollections of Rand and her involvement in that process, and discusses his plans to re-release We the Living 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.
TA: How did the restoration and re-editing process proceed?
Scott: Well, the first order of business was to sit down with Ayn Rand and with others to view the movie, which Rand hadn't done in quite a long time. The only other time I believe she saw the film, prior to my working with her on it, was around 1947 or '48.
TA: Oh, I didn't realize she had viewed it that early.
Scott: Yes — that's a whole story in itself. Rossano Brazzi and Alida Valli, who were trying to make their names in Hollywood after having achieved stardom in Italy, had contacted Ayn Rand after World War II ended, trying to convince her to let the movie be released. They had brought along a print of the film, and some Italian organization in Los Angeles put on a big gala screening of the film. That was the first time she saw the movie. But she ended up not allowing the film to be released and distributed back then, mainly due to the fact that a Hollywood studio had approached her about filming a new version of We the Living.
At any rate, flash forward back to around 1970, the Holzers had found the movie, and it was time to start talking specifically about what needed to be restored and reedited or changed. So the first order of business was to run the movie.
We also wanted to capture the original version of the movie on videotape, so that after we edited the movie there would still be a copy of the original version available. We were physically going to cut the film, and if we didn't make a video version of it, we wouldn’t have a copy of the original.
So we set up an evening to view and record the movie. I had gotten permission from the company I was working for to use the editing room one evening after hours. So Ayn Rand, her husband, and about six or eight other people came over, and we arranged a couple chairs around this editing machine called a Moviola, which is a device that film editors used to edit film. It's really designed however for one person, at most two people, to sit in front of and look at this tiny screen, which is maybe five inches diagonal, so it's quite small —
TA: Oh, really small —
Scott: Yeah, it's really small. But you have controls on the machine and you can run the film backward and forward and look at it on this little screen right in front of you. It's designed so that you can make markings on the film and easily make your notations. You can run at very slow speed or stop on a frame, and make all your decisions about how to edit a film.
So we had decided we were going to point a video camera at this screen, in order to record the original version of the movie. And because there were too many people there to huddle around this tiny five-inch screen, in addition to recording the movie, the camera would be hooked up to a TV monitor, so that the people assembled there — Ayn Rand, her husband, Frank, and the others — could sit and watch the movie on a monitor. We actually put the monitor in the next room, because the Moviola also makes a lot of noise when it's running. So we ran the cable into another room, set up the chairs in a semi-circle in front of this TV monitor, and I loaded up the movie.
I also have to tell you that the movie was in ten-minute reels of film. And the original running time of the movie was almost four hours. So every ten minutes during this viewing, I had to stop and remove the old reel of film, load up and thread up a new ten-minute reel of film, restart the video camera that was taping it all, run it again, and then go back in the other room and watch it with everyone else.
TA: A veritable cardiovascular workout.
Scott: (Laughing.) Well it wasn't so much that it was a workout for me physically, but you can imagine, if you were running this movie without stop it would take four hours. With all these reel changes, I'm guessing it had to have taken at least five hours to run this entire film. I don't remember anybody complaining, however, and it must have been quite late when we finished, because we did it all in one evening. It was quite an experience. I was quite awed by Ayn Rand.
Scott: Yes. I had never met her prior to that, and I remember being very nervous the night before. I happened to be talking to my father about it. He didn't know much about Ayn Rand, but he saw how awed and nervous I was, and he said something like, “Just keep in mind she puts her pants on one leg at a time just like everyone else!” (Laughing.) And that actually helped me.
TA: So what was that evening like, that first meeting?
Scott: There wasn't a lot of time that evening for interaction or talking, because it was quite a lot just to get through the movie.
But after that, I myself had two direct creative work sessions with her, where we went over and viewed selected parts of the movie to discuss the changes we wanted to make. At those sessions I did get to know Ayn Rand a little bit better, and to interact with her directly. They were really quite amazing sessions.
I was struck by how little I needed to explain to her about film editing. I knew that she had written screenplays and had been involved in film — The Fountainhead of course had been made into a movie. So one would expect her to know a little bit about film editing. But most people, even people who are in the film business in other types of positions — directors or sound technicians or whatever — they still tend not to understand editing very well. But she seemed to understand it perfectly. When we made suggestions, whether it was Hank and Erika Holzer or myself, as to how to change the film, she'd grasp immediately how the change was going to be made, with very little explanation necessary.
Also, she very much knew what she wanted. There was very little time wasted, because she knew what didn't work and needed to come out. She was also happy that we had suggestions about how to change or fix these problems, and she really just focused on the fact that certain things needed to be changed.
TA: Like what?
Scott: Mainly it was in the area of additional scenes that had been written into the movie by the fascist authorities that controlled the entire movie industry in Italy. They had forced the filmmakers to write additional speeches and additional scenes to suit their own interests. Those additions were such a bad fit with the overall story that anyone, even somebody who never read Ayn Rand, would easily be able to recognize these scenes.
And so, the re-editing work was wonderful. You could see the film improving dramatically by removing these scenes.
Also, in addition to these scenes added by the fascists, some of the subplot went on and on and on. The main story line was beautifully filmed, but some of the subplot was not as well handled as the main storyline, and although there were no political problems with that footage, we decided to cut some of it out. This would also enable us to end up with a movie that could be released as a single film, whereas the original We the Living had a four-hour running time and was released as two different films.
TA: Had they added subplots?
Scott: They hadn't actually added plots. They had just changed certain things to placate the fascists. The most offensive area was the character of Andrei. At one point they had him ranting against capitalism during his trial at the end of the movie, and it just totally comes out of left field.
So, one of the trickiest pieces of re-editing was to make it apparent that Andrei kills himself and wasn't murdered by these goons.
TA: How did you do that given that you didn't have footage along those lines?
Scott: Well, in the original movie, Andrei is sitting in front of a fireplace, and everything he believes in is lost. You can see that in his face. He's staring into the fire, and he's holding a black nightgown he had given to Kira but she wouldn't accept, and he throws it into the fire, and he throws clippings about himself being the hero of the revolution into the fire. And you can see it in his face — he looks suicidal. Fortunately, everything about that whole scene looks very much like a preliminary to suicide. He actually picks up a gun and looks at it. So the original filmmakers went as far as suggesting that he was thinking about suicide.
But in the original movie, he then puts the gun back down, and a minute later we see these communist goons coming up the stairway, and they're pounding on his door, and they break it down. Then, out of sight (because you never saw people actually get shot in movies in those days), you hear a gunshot go off. Then the goons walk out, kind of smug about having finished him off. And that's it. Andrei is dead and there are these phony headlines the next day saying, "We've lost a hero of the revolution."
So what we did is totally cut out all the footage of the goons, and you see Andrei picking up the gun, and then we cut back to the fireplace where these treasured items from his past are burning. We then moved the gunshot sound up so that you hear it during this fireplace shot — and it's very clear what happened. Then we went directly to the next sequence with the headlines about him dying and being the hero of the revolution and so on.
That's how we transformed that scene.
TA: I'm curious Rand's reactions to the film — to the acting, the directing — how did she feel about it, minus those ridiculous scenes that were put in by the fascists?
Scott: Well, she liked the film overall pretty well, aside from those scenes. She very much liked Alida Valli as Kira, and she liked Fosco Giachetti as Andrei. She said Giachetti was a good deal older than the Andrei that she envisioned when she wrote the book, but she still felt that he did a wonderful job portraying the part.
So, aside from those scenes that we had to edit out, she was very favorable toward the movie. And I've been asked before whether she was angry about those extraneous scenes, and the truth is, I didn't see her being angry about them. It was more like a sense of ridiculousness. Because those scenes were so absurd — there was just no question that they had to come out. I think even if Ayn Rand had not required that they come out, the rest of us working on it would have wanted to take those scenes out anyway.
TA: This editing was done in the early seventies; apparently there was a delay in finishing the project and getting it out in the theaters.
Scott: Yes. Hank Holzer's arrangement had been that he would re-edit the film with Ayn Rand's input, and she was going to be a participant in whatever income the movie made … though nobody expected it was going to be a big money-maker, being an old movie. But in any case, there was both a creative and a financial arrangement between the Holzers and Ayn Rand, and not long after we were working on the project and were well into editing out these scenes and fixing these problems, Ayn Rand and the Holzers had something of a falling out.
It wasn't at all related to the movie, and Ayn said she'd still work with them creatively on the restoration, and they were very happy about that. However, she never seemed to be able to find time in her schedule to do it. And initially, we thought, well, it's being delayed for a few weeks. And then that turned into a few months. And Hank would keep contacting her, and she would keep saying that she does want to work on it at some point, but it's really a bad time now, and at some point in the future she'll work on it again.
These months turned into years, and Hank and I would talk about this; he said he knew there might be no end in sight to these delays, but he was not going to go forward and work on a movie without her involvement when that had already been done to this movie once. It would be the second time! His decision was that as long as she kept saying that she had the desire to work on the movie, he was going to wait.
And we literally waited fourteen or fifteen years, and then she passed away. And at that point, the film had been put aside for such a long time, it wasn't even on anyone's mind to run out and resume the work on the film.
TA: Sure, makes sense.
Scott: A strange thing happened, though. About a year or two after Ayn Rand died, Hank Holzer happened to bump into Leonard Peikoff, I believe at some resort somewhere. They coincidentally happened to be vacationing at the same place. I guess they were talking about any number of things, and Peikoff said, Whatever happened to that old movie? And Holzer said, Well, we still have it and we'd love to get it out there.
Peikoff was now the heir to the entire Ayn Rand estate, and he said he would review whatever needed to be done as Ayn Rand would have, and we could continue on that basis. So that's what happened — it was decided we'd resume work on the project.
Really about seventy-five percent of the work had been done at that point; the biggest thing remaining was the writing of the subtitles.
TA: What was that like?
Scott: It was quite a big job, and a far more creative process than I thought. It's not just a matter of translating something. Translating is a very creative process, because of the difficulty of finding the idiomatic or colloquial expressions that mean the same thing from one language to another. We spent a lot of time going back to the book and making sure that we had the spirit of the book — that was more important to us than literally translating from the original Italian word for word.
Even then, we still didn't have a distributor. But within about half a year, we found a distributor, and by late 1987 it was released to theaters. It ran in about sixty cities around America through 1988. And that was the last time it had a theatrical run.
So this new release, starting at the Egyptian on December 3, is the first release of the film in about fifteen years.
TA: Out of curiosity, did Leonard Peikoff have a hand in working on the subtitles or other creative aspects of the film?
Scott: Yes, to some degree. He basically just reviewed what we were doing; my recollection is that we would send drafts of the subtitles we had written, and in a few places, not many, he had a couple of comments about some words here and there. He then reviewed the finished editing that we had done, which were all things we had done at Rand's request.
I'm happy to say the re-editing of the movie went really very smoothly. We accomplished a lot of ambitious changes, and they work. We were very fortunate to some degree in the way the movie had been filmed originally. I also think we did some very imaginative things to enable these changes to be made, and I feel they worked.
TA: I remember seeing the movie on video about eight years ago and I thought it was a surprisingly beautiful film.
Scott: Yes. I never tire of sitting through it even though I've probably seen it straight through maybe fifty times over the years. I sat through it again this summer and enjoyed it again. I especially love seeing it on the big screen. It's like a different film on the big screen.
TA: What do you find to be the most noteworthy aspects of the film?
Scott: I think what really stands out is Alida Valli's performance, which is just amazing. I've seen other films that she's done, and I have yet to see a movie where she does anything even close to the performance she does in this film. There's something about this character that resonated with her, you can tell. She just did an extraordinary performance.
I know she was going through a very difficult life phase when she made the movie. She had a boyfriend — a man who was in the Italian armed forces — and during the making of the movie he died in combat. So that was sort of in the background all of the time that she made this film.
TA: How was the film received in '87 when you released it here for the first time?
Scott: Oh, fabulous. You can see some clips from the reviews on the film's website (under "About the Movie"). Most of the reviews were really rave reviews.
TA: And what made you decide to re-release it now?
Scott: Well, I decided to re-release it now after having screened it this past summer at the Objectivist Center's summer conference. I was so pleased with the reception the movie got there, it just started me thinking, gee, you know, it's time.
I'd been reluctant to re-release it partly because there is not much of a market for old films in general, and the market for old foreign films is even smaller. In any big city, there are really just a handful of theaters that will run this kind of movie, and in a smaller city generally no more than one theater will run it. In small communities, there are no theaters that run this kind of movie.
So I knew it'd be a lot of work. I'm self-distributing it now rather than having a distributor handle it because I know from painful experience with our distributor in the eighties that if any distributor handled it, there'd be no money to show for it when it was all over. Their efforts would eat up all the income from the movie. And people who invested in this movie over twenty years ago are still waiting for their financial return on that investment. I'm determined to still try to have this film create some income to distribute to those people.
So we're self-distributing, and it's a slow process, a learning process for me, because I have to contact each exhibitor individually and negotiate with them and so forth. And there's quite a lot of interest by exhibitors in seeing how a movie does in its first screening, so it's really important that people turn out for this first screening on December 3 at the Egyptian Theatre. Even theaters all the way on the other side of the country are going to be looking at trade papers or they're going to be talking to the Egyptian, asking how the movie did.
And if the movie, for example, sells out, which would be fabulous, there's going to be ten-fold interest by these other theaters in booking the film. And that's really going to help introduce We the Living to far more people than it might ordinarily. Because always at these screenings, it's not just Objectivists and fans of Ayn Rand that turn out. There are people who love old films and people who are just curious about Ayn Rand or about the movie itself who come, and so for them it's a great introduction to Ayn Rand.
Purchasing information: The Italian screen adaptation of We the Living is available from Amazon.com.