I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Harmon Kaslow, one of the producers of the forthcoming movie Atlas Shrugged: Part I. Mr. Kaslow, a licensed California lawyer, has been active in the Hollywood motion picture industry for more than twenty years. —Craig Biddle
Craig Biddle: Thank you for joining me today, Harmon. I’m very excited about the Atlas Shrugged movie, and I know that TOS readers want to hear all about it.
Harmon Kaslow: It’s my pleasure.
CB: How and when did you get involved in making this movie?
HK: I got involved in April 2010 after being contacted by John Aglialoro, my coproducer. At that point, a movie had to be made quickly or John would lose the rights to it. So he contacted me to see if I might be able to help him put together a lower-budget version in short order.
CB: As coproducers, what have been John’s and your respective roles in the movie?
HK: John’s role was to keep the movie faithful to the book. Mine was to get the movie into production before June 15. John has probably read Atlas more than a dozen times, and during the process of writing the screenplay and getting the film into production, he was constantly rereading chapters, mulling over the elements of the story, and working to ensure that the production remained true to Rand’s ideas. My job was to work with John to make the movie happen, to get all the pieces together so that we could say “action” and make certain the film was completed.
CB: Atlas Shrugged is a 54-year-old story. Why do you think it matters today?
HK: For starters, many events from the story parallel real-life events today. For instance, whereas in the story the government passes business-thwarting laws such as the “Anti-Dog-Eat-Dog Rule” and the “Equalization of Opportunity Bill,” in real life today the government is passing laws such as the “Emergency Economic Stabilization Act” and the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.” But more fundamentally, the story matters because it dramatizes timeless philosophic truths about human nature, the role of reason in human life, the morality of rational self-interest versus predation or “greed,” the role of the government and of the citizen, and man’s need of political and economic freedom. These truths will always matter.
CB: Why did you decide to present the story as a big-screen trilogy rather than in one or two parts or as an extended television series?
HK: John wanted a big-screen movie from the start; he never envisioned a television series. So when I came on board, the goal was already to make a movie. But given that we did not have a screenplay in April and had to start filming in June, it seemed like an impossible task to do a single movie of the entire book and do it well. So it was an easy decision to present the story in three parts, as Rand did in the novel.
In addition to working with the natural breaks in the story, the three-part approach allows us to do a lot more of the book cinematically and gives us a chance to better develop the characters. We originally thought we might end the first movie where Dagny and Hank successfully cross the bridge to Wyatt Junction, but John wanted to go all the way to the end of part 1, staying as faithful to the book as possible. That was a challenge as there is a lot of story between those points, but Brian O’Toole, our screenwriter, managed to write it in.
CB: Why did you choose Brian O’Toole to write the screenplay?
HK: Brian was originally brought on to assist another writer. In the process of assisting, however, Brian broke down part 1, analyzed the characters, and did all the things necessary to write the screenplay. So Brian eventually earned his way into his position as the screenwriter for the movie. He sort of came in the back door and walked out the front.
CB: Given that Atlas Shrugged is more than 1,000 pages, and a feature-length screenplay generally comes in under 125 pages, how did Brian decide what to omit from the story? And what role, if any, did you or John play in that?
HK: Well, the first challenge that I gave Brian was to cull from part 1 of the book an engaging story that could stand by itself—and the “stand by itself” part was not easy. Then we had to work from there with respect to the funds available for production. We looked for the most important scenes and for ways to execute them cost-effectively. It was all about managing our ambition and money, staying true to the story, and making a movie that would be engaging for both the passionate fan of the novel and those who are unfamiliar with the book.
CB: Is there anything that you especially regretted having to omit from the movie?
HK: The scene where Dagny has completed the John Galt line and is looking for somebody to drive the first express from Cheyenne to Wyatt Junction. At that point, she has passed more barriers than she ever should have had to and simply needs a driver and a crew with as much confidence in the new rail as she has. After asking for Taggart Transcontinental employees to volunteer, she gets a call to come to the building and see the results for herself. The expectation is that her best effort will once again be met with no response at all, if not scorn. But when she gets there, she enters a room full of Taggart employees—each hoping to have the honor of being the first to drive across the line. That scene is so moving, and provides such an emotional release, that it was terribly hard not to film.
Another scene I’d like to have filmed is where Rearden’s mother pleads with him to give his brother a job. Our actors would have nailed these scenes—as they nailed the ones we did film. But you have to be selective or you can’t make a movie.
CB: In the novel, the story takes place in the near future, as Ayn Rand put it, about ten years from the time one reads the book. How have you handled this aspect of the story in the movie?
HK: When we started filming it was always about setting the movie in the near future, without specifying an exact date. As we progressed, however, the use of tangible props forced us to pick a date. If there’s a newspaper you have to have a date on it, and if there’s a cell phone you have to choose whether it looks like a cell phone from today or the near future or the distant future. After a lot of debate, we ultimately settled on 2016, and so the story begins on September 2, 2016. That ensures it’s not seen as a period piece or as something extremely futuristic. We want the audience to think, “If it’s not happening now, could it happen in the near future?”
Some people have been critical of us for choosing a date, but I think they’ll ultimately understand that there’s no way we could make the movie without a date because everything in the movie is dated. Additionally, the best thing we could envision is that the movie becomes outdated because society doesn’t follow the path described in the book.
CB: Why did you choose Paul Johansson as director?
HK: Well, Paul was not the first director that we had on the project. When we started out we had a very different ambition than what the project grew into. And as the project evolved into something bigger and better, we realized that we needed to make a change.
So literally nine days before we began filming, we decided to replace the director. We had a screenplay, were very far along in preproduction, and had done a lot of casting, although we hadn’t yet nailed down the cast. So we needed a director who could easily fit into that situation—a situation common to directors of television series.
On a television series you already have a set of characters, established rules of production, and a basic storyline. The director primarily concerns himself with getting the actors to deliver a good performance. Paul had done a lot of television work, both as an actor and a director. He had also directed an independent film—and he had read and loved both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. He was our man.
CB: Tell me about the casting process and the advantages of working with your chosen cast as against the so-called “dream cast” of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, which was bandied about for a while.
HK: In an early conversation with John, I said that in order for us to make a worthy adaptation of the book in just a few months, we need to eliminate as many distractions as possible and stay laser-focused on the things we need to do. One of the biggest distractions that we could have had is, for lack of a better term, an “A-lister.” Although some very recognizable people came in and read for parts, it really just boiled down to who we thought was the most talented person to do a given role and who was willing to work with the team that we had put together.
I think the cast we landed did a fabulous job. We’ve heard some criticisms to the effect that Dagny was supposed to look more like this or Ellis Wyatt should have been more like that. But we were more concerned to cast actors who could act well and become the characters regardless of whether they look exactly the way the characters are described in the book. We think viewers will be happy that we chose this cast.
CB: Who scored the movie and why did you choose him or her?
HK: The composer is Elia Cmiral. At least thirty people contacted me who were incredibly passionate about the material—because Atlas had changed their lives and they wanted to be a part of the movie. So there was no shortage of really talented composers from which to choose. What it came down to for us was that we wanted someone who could create a musical theme to go with our movie. And, despite his not being familiar with Atlas when he signed on to the project, Elia had the talent and was able to create it.
I’m getting on a plane this afternoon and heading up to Seattle to watch him conduct the orchestra for the recording. We have a seventy-piece orchestra and we’re recording the score in a cathedral, so you’re going to be able to hear all the power and subtlety of the instruments. It’s going to be very rich.
CB: What is the key advantage of this being an independent production rather than a big-studio film?
HK: The main advantage is that our team makes the decisions and then executes them. No one stands in our way. We’re not part of some bigger business plan, and we’re not pooled with or diluted by the various factions that, in a studio, will sit around a table and argue about how to create a piece of art. We put together a competent team, delegated responsibilities, and then executed them without restraint. That gave everyone on the team a lot of creative freedom. That’s the biggest benefit of doing this as an independent feature.
CB: What were the main hurdles in producing the movie?
HK: The biggest hurdle was probably that when we started, we didn’t have a screenplay. But we also didn’t have any of the primary elements needed for a movie—no director, no actors, no locations, no budget. We had to pull all of this together very quickly. And almost nothing came easily.
The casting wasn’t complete until literally forty-eight hours before we were ready to say “action”; we had various scheduling conflicts; we lost locations; and whereas most films finish preproduction before they start filming the movie, we finished preproduction with about three days of filming to go. We were scrambling all the way to the end.
But our attitude was that we’re going to make this movie, we’re going to make it right, and we’re not going to let anything derail the project or prevent us from crossing the finish line. Thanks to the hard work of the whole team, we made it.
CB: What do you want the viewers to be thinking as they exit the theater after watching part 1?
HK: I think after seeing how Dagny Taggart overcomes obstacle after obstacle, people will leave the theater incredibly inspired. I want viewers to feel encouraged to pursue their values and take on their own projects—and I want them to be eager to read the book and then come see parts 2 and 3.
CB: Speaking of parts 2 and 3, what can you tell me about them?
HK: Brian is working on the storyline and screenplay for part 2 as we speak. As to when that might hit the screen, it depends on a lot of variables. What I can say is that we love April 15 and we’d like to own that date in the future. That way, right after people pay their taxes they can go out and enjoy a movie with a message that can make some positive changes in their lives and in this republic.
CB: How is distribution going to work for part 1?
HK: We’ve elected to self-distribute the movie on a platform basis. That means we’ll start in a limited number of theaters, and if we can show that there’s significant business there, it’ll grow into a much wider release.
CB: Do you have any idea at this point where the original releases might be?
HK: The Ayn Rand Institute has given us some data about cities where the book tends to sell well, and we’ve worked toward those cities. For example, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., NYC, and south Florida are initial target areas for the film. Of course, if the film performs as we expect it to, it will be rushed into a large number of theaters very quickly.
CB: Other than the obvious “go see the movie,” how can fans help to promote it and spur distribution?
HK: Our website, www.AtlasShruggedPart1.com, will keep fans updated on how they can get involved. For right now, we suggest that people link to us if they have a website or a blog, visit us on Facebook, sign up for our newsletter, and tell everyone they know that the book that changed their life has been made into a movie and will be showing in theaters this April 15th.
CB: Let me close on a personal note. Which character in Atlas Shrugged do you most identify with and why?
HK: Oh, that’s so unfair! Since April, I’ve felt a lot like Dagny—given all the things coming at me in connection with trying to accomplish my job here. But when I go home at night, from an ambition standpoint, I hope I’m as driven and innovative as Henry Rearden. In any event, they both inspire me enormously.
CB: Thank you for talking with me, Harmon, and best success with all three movies.