Hank Rearden, metal magnate, faces a bureaucrat from the State Science Institute across his desk of burnished steel. The bureaucrat tells Rearden that he would be wise to sell his amazing new amalgam, Rearden metal, to the government. Rearden refuses. The bureaucrat presses him: Why can't he see the benefit of selling to a government that can and will condemn the metal as unsafe if he refuses? Rearden replies with cool contempt: "Because it's mine."
Mine: rhymes with Ayn. So goes an old joke about the adopted name of Ayn Rand, the Russian-born novelist who invented Hank Rearden and his fictional metal.
I am in the anteroom of Rearden's office, watching one of the last shooting days of the film version of Atlas Shrugged, a project Rand's fans have both wanted and feared for decades. Who gets to call this movie "mine"?
In one sense, the picture belongs to Rand. It would not exist without her novel and its millions of readers who the filmmakers hope will form their core audience. But the 38-year history of attempts to film Atlas Shrugged shows that the project never could have happened while Ayn Rand lived. Her need for control did not mesh well with the collaborative, compromise-riddled art of filmmaking.
The film's direct father is, like many of Rand's heroes, a highly successful businessman: John Aglialoro, a private equity whiz and CEO of the Cybex exercise equipment company. Aglialoro was named by Fortune magazine in 2007 as the 10th richest small business executive in the country. He has never made a movie before. He is not in the movie business to make movies per se, or to make money, though he hopes to. Aglialoro is in the movie business to make Atlas Shrugged, a book whose message—that individuals do not owe their lives to the collective—"zapped him," he says, when he first read it in the late 1970s.
In 1992 Aglialoro gave Leonard Peikoff—Rand's heir and a disciple of her Objectivist philosophy—more than $1 million for the rights to make a movie of Rand's enormous novel, in which the world's most brilliant and accomplished men and women go on strike against a system choking itself to death on statism and altruism. Very much not in the spirit of Rand, Peikoff relinquished control over any movie Aglialoro chose to make. Nearly two decades later, in a tense race against time that Aglialoro's production partner Harmon Kaslow compares to their protagonists' desperate attempts to finish their railroad on schedule—"and we didn't even have Rearden metal to help"—Atlas was filmed in 27 days during the summer of 2010. (More precisely, the filmmakers completed photography on Atlas Shrugged Part I. The novel is divided into three parts, and this picture ends where Part 1 of the book ends.)
It's eerie watching actor Grant Bowler bring Rearden to life as I sit, out of camera range, in the anteroom of "his" office in a sleek industrial space in Santa Monica, California. I've been a fan of Rand's work since my late teens. I wrote a book (Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement) that is partly a biography of Rand. Her characters and ideas occupy a special place in my mind, and in the minds of millions of other Rand lovers—and haters. The Atlas Shrugged movie will likely stand or fall in Rand's beloved marketplace on the question of whether people who found Atlas a life-changing experience can embrace the movie as emotionally theirs.
The Many Failures of Filming Atlas Shrugged
Atlas Shrugged was a battlefield on which many of Hollywood's mightiest forces fought and died. The first man to win Rand's trust enough for her to sell him the movie rights was Godfather producer Albert Ruddy. Ruddy and Rand appeared together at a press conference at New York's chic 21 restaurant in 1972 to announce the deal. Ruddy had agreed to the condition of flying Rand out to Hollywood for any necessary meetings in a private jet, lest the Soviets hijack any commercial airliner she was on.
Rand was under the impression that Ruddy agreed to give her complete control and approval of the final cut. Ruddy had to disabuse her of that notion, and thus he did not make a movie of Atlas Shrugged.
Rand then went into business with screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (whose work on In the Heat of the Night she had adored) and producer Michael Jaffe for what became a planned TV miniseries on NBC. When Fred Silverman took over NBC in the late 1970s, he added to the cultural crime of Pink Lady and Jeff the murder of an Atlas Shrugged miniseries that Rand herself had worked on and approved.
When Rand died in 1982, she was still working on a script for an Atlas miniseries she had considered financing herself. Before Aglialoro bought the rights from Peikoff in 1992, Philadelphia Flyers owner and Objectivist businessman Ed Snider also tried and failed to film the book.
I first talk to Aglialoro on the campus of the University of Southern California, about 20 yards from where his cast and crew are filming the opening run of the John Galt Line. That's the railroad built using Rearden metal while the rest of the innovation-fearing world is busy trying to crush enterprise. There is no railroad to be seen, just a green screen in front of which Rearden and the passionate, brilliant railroad boss Dagny Taggart, played by Taylor Schilling, conduct a press conference. Like much of the visual flash of the film, the train will be added later through computer imaging.
Aglialoro lacks the arrogant bearing, flashy romanticism, or steel-hard gaze of his hero's heroes. But when he tells me his kids made a custom Monopoly game for him and his wife in which all the properties were real-life properties the couple had bought and sold, a similarity in spirit begins to emerge.