After forty years of unsuccessful attempts to turn Ayn Rand's epic novel Atlas Shrugged into a movie, the first installment of a three-part trilogy will finally be released this Friday, April 15th, 2011. Though an independent release, and with independent distribution, the movie is scheduled to open on more than 300 screens across the country.
Brought in during the final months before filming started, screenwriter Brian Patrick O’Toole worked closely with Producer John Aglioloro to create a full and faithful screenplay, which then received further edits by Director Paul Johansson before each scene was filmed.
In anticipation of this movie, serious fans of Atlas Shrugged often oscillate between a persistent fear and profound hope. For decades, we have all weighed the pros and cons of various approaches to making this movie: Should it be a mini-series? Should it use big name stars, or lesser-known actors?
Now that the movie is finally a reality, many of those questions have been resolved; but others have taken their place, which feel more pressing and intense than ever: How was this screenwriter chosen? How did he approach writing the script? What was it like working under such a tight time deadline?
To help get answers, Mark Michael Lewis arranged this exclusive interview for Atlasphere readers with the man whose job, more than anyone, was to turn Ayn Rand's novel into a powerfully engaging script. With nine producer credits and four writing credits to his name, O'Toole has been around this block before and has valuable perspectives to offer.
The Atlasphere: How did you come to write the screenplay for Atlas Shrugged?
Brian Patrick O’Toole: Producer Harmon Kaslow had originally brought me on as a writer’s assistant because of my history of working on other film adaptations. After a month, the producers were not happy with what had been written so far, and asked me to take over the reigns.
My co-writer John Aglialoro was very clear that he wanted an adaptation that reflected the novel as closely as possible. Although our available time was short, I was able to re-breakdown the book and structure the screenplay appropriately.
John and I worked very well together. He had a specific vision for Atlas Shrugged that I was able to put to paper. John understood that film builds story through images and that a film can telegraph a lot of details — such as action, character heft, mood, and theme — in seconds, where those same things might take several pages to convey in a novel.
To give an example, in Gone with the Wind, the first thirty minutes of the film equaled one hundred and thirty pages in the book. We used Gone with the Wind as a reference often in our discussions on adapting Atlas Shrugged Part I.
TA: Producer John Aglialoro has been working for decades to get the movie made. What was it like to come in at the end of the process and join him?
O’Toole: I first met John with Harmon, and the first director attached to the project, at a restaurant in Hollywood. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know anything about John or his history with the novel going in.
We sat down and the director began to talk about all the updates he wanted to make to Rand's story. I spoke up and challenged the director about these changes. Why give a fish wings? I believe John and I clicked over that lunch meeting. I remember us spending a lot of time talking about Dagny saving John Galt in Part Three of the novel.
As time went by, I learned a lot more about John Aglialoro and his dream to bring Atlas Shrugged to life as a film. It was clear that Atlas Shrugged was not going to be business as usual. How often does someone get to be a part of another person’s dream? How often does someone get to work with a real-life hero? That is what John has become to me — a hero.
He could have made Atlas Shrugged many times but he has always stood by his vision. John knew exactly how the story should be told and what needed to be said. He held out for years until it could be done respectfully — done right.
There can be no creativity without an occasional disagreement and there were quite a few clashes during pre-production. Luckily we had Ayn Rand’s novel to fall back on, so when creativity hit the wall of opinion, John would always say: “What does it say in the book? Let’s trust what Ayn Rand said.”
Now, having said that, it is impossible to re-create every individual’s vision of Rand’s book, so I focused on introducing a new audience to this wonderful material in hope that they would leave the theater saying, “I have to read that book.”
TA: What were your initial concerns and hopes when taking on such an ambitious project?
O’Toole: My initial concern was, would I be able to deliver a screenplay that met everyone’s expectations?
My key word for every adaptation that I have done has been “respect” — respect for the original material and respect for its fans. If you’re going to adapt or remake one form of media to another, respect the original and consider the fan’s expectations. Don’t change the rules. Stay true to the spirit and concepts already established.
The secret of all good book-to-film adaptations lies in finding the heart of the novel. I do that by cutting away the layers, the details, of the story that do not lend themselves naturally to cinema.
Atlas Shrugged is rich not only in characters but in themes and philosophies. Ayn Rand’s novel, as I would learn while we were in production, is the second most influential book next to the Holy Bible. Had I known that fact while I was writing the script, I would have probably come down with a severe case of writer’s block.
Also, I know what it feels like to have Hollywood take something I really liked in another form and completely miss the point with the adaptation. It happens more and more it seems with all these recent film remakes.
I was totally floored by the asinine remake of Godzilla. Fifty years and twenty-two previous films and what do they come up with? A giant fish-loving iguana that has a crush on Matthew Broderick. Ugh! I mean, I’m no zoologist, but I’m pretty sure a creature that size would have its heart explode while running at the speeds that monster did.
TA: You have written and worked extensively in the horror film genre, with several films to your credit. What is it that attracts you about that medium?
O’Toole: When we announced that Atlas Shrugged Part I had begun production, some bloggers targeted me for having previously written and produced horror films. I was equally surprised to learn that members of the production team had pigeon-holed me as well. Their ignorance bothered me.
I will never apologize for my work in the horror genre. Horror films hold up a mirror to society and show us the darkness in us all.
I am a huge fan of horror. Horror films — good horror films — are not all about the visceral. The good ones are able to tap into our basic cores and stir up true terror. That’s an art. They make us think.
If I mention the film Alien, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the chest-busting scene. But Alien was really the story of a corporation that wanted to capture a beast to use as a weapon and deemed the crew expendable to do so.
Who didn’t run to their Bible after seeing The Omen to check out the Book of Revelations? George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was an excellent allegory for the AIDS epidemic amongst the ultra-violence. Even giant mutant monster movies have a strong subtext: Don’t screw with mother nature. Jurassic Park strongly warned: “Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.”
Horror films are able to pass a message to the audience without beating them over the head with it. This is the magic of horror.
And in a way, Atlas Shrugged is a story of human evil. Rand warns us that good intentions can pave a way to hell. The government of Atlas Shrugged actually thinks it is providing good service. It helps without considering the far-reaching consequences. It’s insidious the way the evil creeps into all they do throughout the novel.
That’s why John Galt is so believable. We want to follow him. He is the guiding light. I hope to explore this angle more in Part Two.
Truth be told, my actual training is in comedy — and had I only done comedies before Atlas Shrugged Part I, some people would have said, “A comedy writer could never understand the seriousness of the material.”
I am a writer. True, I’ve only had my horror scripts produced so far — and I am grateful for that. But I can write other genres.
Unfortunately, in Hollywood, they tend to lock talent into categories: she’s only a TV actor, he’s only done theater, he’s only written low-budget horror. It’s rather sad to think how many great talents have been passed over because of someone else’s ignorant biases.
TA: What should fans of Atlas Shrugged the novel expect to find in Atlas Shrugged the movie?
O’Toole: At its core, I found Part One of Atlas Shrugged to be a classic underdog story. Dagny Taggart loves her family’s railroad business but she is watching it slowly die because of internal forces (her incompetent brother James’s bad business decisions) and external forces (a government whose socialist policies are bringing the economy toward the brink of disaster).
On top of all this, Dagny faces a third invisible threat: Good men of great mind are retiring — being spirited away — never to return until a time when the individual can regain the right to his own life. She decides that in order to save her railroad she’s going to have to take some risk, take matters into her own hands.
In order to keep Taggart Transcontinental’s most important customer, Ellis Wyatt, happy — and his oil flowing — Dagny decides to rebuild a broken main line using a new alloy, created by industrialist Henry Rearden, who claims his metal is stronger and lighter than steel. This agitates a group of shady businessmen who plot to use their government lapdogs to bring down the new line and discredit Rearden Metal.
Dagny, with Rearden’s help, has a temporary triumph with the successful run of the new railroad line on Rearden Metal. On a trip through Wisconsin, Dagny and Rearden search the remains of the abandoned 20th Century Motor Company and find a motor that could change the world — but it’s incomplete. They search for the designer across the country. While in Wyoming, Dagny is devastated by the news that oil baron Ellis Wyatt has set his wells on fire and disappeared.
This was the skeleton that I started building the screenplay around.
Once this skeleton was established, I had to decide what would stay, what would change, and what would need to be left out of the film. The first scenes that were dropped were the childhood flashbacks and Eddie Willers’s cafeteria scenes with the railroad worker John Galt. The childhood sequences were removed because we decided to keep a linear pacing to the film. Eddie Willers’s meetings with the worker were removed because they basically represented recaps for the readers — although I realized that I would lose the subplot of Eddie’s love for Dagny.
When it was decided that Atlas Shrugged Part I would be a 90–100 minute film in order to keep theaters happy, I had to make some more difficult cuts. One scene I was really sorry to see go was after Dagny is visited by the head of the railroad union, who lets her know that he will not allow his men to work on the John Galt Line. Right after that scene, the next day, Dagny finds a sea of union men volunteering to work on the line. That was an emotionally rich scene but, because of time and budget restraints, it was left out.
TA: Adopting the trilogy format gave you room to follow the book more closely. On the other hand, ending the first installment of the movie one-third of the way through the novel leaves many themes and questions unresolved. Did you see this as a problem? If so, how did you address it?
O’Toole: John and I designed our script for Atlas Shrugged Part I to stand on its own as a self-contained film. True, it ends on a cliff-hanger; but I think audiences will leave the theater satisfied — hopefully wanting to see Part Two to find out what happens next.
Or, better yet, they leave the theater and cross the mall to the bookstore and pick up the book.