Movies

On the Set of Atlas Shrugged Part II

Production is now underway on the second installment of the movie adaptation of Ayn Rand's famous novel.

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Atlas Shrugged Part I, the 2011 film version of Ayn Rand's hugely influential novel Atlas Shrugged, was the result of a decades-long journey, and its sole financier, John Aglialoro—a successful serial entrepreneur best known for running the exercise equipment company Cybex—found the costs and troubles more than he bargained for. 

Official critical reception wasn't so great—though normal folk seemed to like it better than the credentialed tastemakers, according to fim review sites such as Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. For a brief moment even Rand-inspired businessman Aglialoro, new to filmmaking and brought to the business through his love of Rand and desire to bring her message to a movie audience, was discouraged. He told critics last April "you won" and said he was reconsidering whether or not to move forward with filming parts two and three.

By January, buoyed by what he calls encouraging DVD and video-on-demand sales, and the partnership of four other Rand-inspired financiers to help bear the production and marketing costs, Aglialoro and his production partner from Atlas Shrugged Part I, Harmon Kaslow, decided they were ready to finish what they started. At Reason Weekend, the annual event held by the Reason Foundation back in February, they announced Atlas Shrugged Part II was a go.

The movie is now shooting (digitally, with Arri Alexa cameras) around the Los Angeles area. On Wednesday I visited a giant empty warehouse in downtown Los Angeles (near, naturally, a train track) to witness day 10 of a planned 31 day shoot (slightly longer than Part I's 27 days, but with a far more leisurely couple of months of pre-production). This warehouse will be Rearden Steel's foundry and Hank Rearden's office. In the novel, Rearden invents an amazing amalgam known as Rearden metal only to have his industrial progress hamstrung and his property stolen by an ever-more-repressive state attempting to centrally control an economy already choking under too much government management.

From the producers' video monitors—the actual shooting set of Hank's office was too tight and cramped for reporters to lurk—I watched the shooting of two scenes in Rearden's office. The setting is all huge looming empty spaces, dusty light, rusting metal, and overhead gantries that the bright and perspicacious production intern, Justin Lesniewski, tells me were previously, in a Randian touch, used to suspend and work on rail cars. Lesniewski is an aspiring novelist and Rand fan who won his job through an essay contest, one of many ways the production hopes to keep the Rand fan community invested in the project.

The warehouse already feels convincingly "steel foundry" and they built out Rearden's office so its windows actually are physically looking out over that part of the set. In a move that might prove controversial to fans of Part I, this new movie has been entirely recast—not a single actor reprises their role. Director Paul Johansson, meanwhile, has been replaced by John Putch (a TV veteran with many episodes of Scrubs and Cougar Town behind him).  

"The message of Atlas is greater than any particular actor, so it's one of those pieces of literature that doesn't require in our view the interpretation by a singular actor," Kaslow says. "But just from a practical standpoint when we set out to make Part I we had a ticking clock where if we didn't start production by a certain date John's interest in the rights could lapse. We didn't have the luxury at that moment to negotiate future options with the various cast members."

Their eagerness to keep the project moving made arranging schedules with the dozens of speaking roles in Part I hugely impractical, so they chose instead to concentrate on making sure the look of the movie created the world they needed it to create. As Kaslow put it, "we just gave ourselves a clean slate put together what we think is a real terrific cast."

The new Rearden, Jason Beghe (most recently of Californication), plays Hank with far more gruff menace than his predecessor, the suave Grant Bowler. Beghe goes with an intensity that draws you in to him rather than projects flashily, and delivers his lines with a deep growl that almost made him feel like a Hollywood take on a Randian crime boss, someone driven to organized crime in a world where just trying to be productive on your own terms had become illegal. And despite the fact that both Rearden and his metal were invented by Rand in the 1950s, while audiences today participate in an economy where more and more people are living not through mass production but by individualized creativity (what some social scientists are calling the "personalized economy") Rearden and his troubles still feel more of the moment than they do some sort of outmoded industrial age castoff.

During my time on set I watched the shooting of another scene that is, in a way, the lynchpin of the entire novel: the subtle attempt by Francisco D'Anconia (played by Esai Morales, most recently seen as Caprica's Joseph Adama) to convince Rearden to abandon this world of statist control, by reminding him that Rearden never wanted to devote his life's energies and creativity to "looters who think it's your duty to produce, and theirs to consume. Moochers who think they owe you nothing." (Yes, Rand fans, "looters" and "moochers," both delivered seriously in mainstream movie dialogue.) Morales delivers the iconic line about what he would tell Atlas if he saw him bleeding and suffering, trying to bear single-handedly the burden of the world: "To shrug." 

Morales does the scene, delivers the line, more than five times while I watch, running a range from intense near-menace to ironic lightness; the camera angle I'm watching doesn't show Rearden's reaction, which will be key to how the emotion of the scene plays. Between shots, I get to walk and sit in Rearden's office set, complete with Randian modernist metal sculptures: shining, swirling ribbons and abstract geometries made solid. In fact, there's lots of great metal work everywhere. The huge windows overlooking the foundry also provide an unexpected dramatic touch as the "shrug" scene ends, propelling Francisco and Hank into an action scene on the factory floor (which will be filmed the next day) and a tightening of their mutual respect.

The other office scene acted Wednesday involved the respectable-seeming but sinister Dr. Floyd Ferris of the State Science Institute coming to Rearden's office to blackmail him into signing over Rearden metal to the "Unification Board." Once again, the actors tried out a wide variety of styles to play the scene; I preferred the ones that maintained a steadier aura of menace. (Ferris can go with either businesslike jovial threat or calm and steely—I preferred calm and steely.) My vantage point again prevented me from seeing Rearden's reaction.

Part IIs new Dagny Taggart—the railroad magnate heroine struggling to keep the motors of the world running while mysterious forces try to shut them down—is Samantha Mathis (perhaps most famously of Pump Up the Volume opposite Christian Slater). She wasn't on set Wednesday, but co-screenwriter Duncan Scott, fresh to this project but with a long history with Ayn Rand and the movies, showed me some rough footage he shot of her filming a couple of scenes on earlier days. One of them quietly helps frame the deteriorating world of Atlas—with Mathis walking past grim lines of citizens selling their possessions on the streets in a world of 20 percent unemployment and $40 per gallon gas, shot outside the Los Angeles convention center. Another was of her fateful solo plane ride. Kaslow and Scott are both excited about their new Dagny. Scott says Mathis is always believable as a woman serious and powerful enough to run a railroad, and Kaslow says she's fully embraced the character and went out of her way to read the novel to understand the character more fully.

Duncan Scott actually worked on a film with Ayn Rand herself: the editing of a bootleg filmed version of her first novel, We the Living, into something Rand would want released in America. Scott says he never experienced any of Rand's legendary wrath during their brief period working side by side in the early 1970s, and he questions the conventional wisdom that Rand's imperious desire for control would have made it impossible to truly finish a filmed Atlas if she were still around to interfere today. "She responded tremendously well to people who were reasonable and rational," Scott says, "so it would depend on the people she was working with." Though Rand felt burned to some degree by all her experiences with film—even the 1949 Fountainhead, which she wrote and made sure was shot as she wrote, was ultimately edited against her will and left her feeling dissatisfied with the final result. Rand's openness to a filmed Atlas, which she tried to write various versions of herself, from feature film to mini-series, would, Scott thinks, "depend on the people who wanted to make the film and her trust in how they would handle the property."

Scott was brought to this project partially for his decades of experience in the world of Objectivist ideas and Randian film; while he has a long career working as assistant director on non-political films, including Woody Allen's Zelig and Sidney Lumet's Deathtrap, he also has kept his hand in the world of libertarian and Objectivist documentary film, and is working on a huge Rand documentary now as well.

Atlas Shrugged Part II is scheduled to hit theaters in October 2012, just before the election, with a screenplay written by Part I writer Brian O'Toole, working with Scott and Duke Sandefur. Scott notes that the decades-long effort to film Atlas might have been a blessing in disguise; he thinks right now is exactly the time when Atlas's message will likely resonate the most with mass audiences. "The elements of this movie is so relevant to everything going on in this country, it's a natural fit" for 2012, Scott says. "People will watch this movie and say, 'This is what's going on.'"

A recent Hollywood Reporter story hinted that the October release was a deliberate attempt to have the movie's pop culture impact influence the November election. Kaslow says that isn't so; they mostly wanted to meet their stated goal of having the second volume out this year. Still, October won't be a bad time for a movie like this to open. Kaslow knows that questions about the value and propriety of free capitalism vs. government control central to the novel and movie will be at the top of people's minds this fall, especially in scenes like Rearden defending his rights as a creator and producer before the Unification Board—though Kaslow insists there is no partisan political purpose to the timing. "What people will see in Atlas Part II is an even more cinematic depiction of what's going on in the book," he said, "while being greatly entertained and finding moments of inspiration."

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and the forthcoming Ron Paul's Revolution (Broadside).