"Message movies," film producer Thor Halvorssen says, "are didactic, trying to educate about an ideology, a philosophy, instead of telling a story about characters and their struggles."
Halvorssen is talking to me about a film he’s producing based on Robert Heinlein’s classic 1966 novel of a libertarian revolt on the moon, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. (It's the book that popularized the libertarian catch phrase "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch," or TANSTAAFL, as a slogan for its revolutionaries.) "If what you are looking for is a message movie, you will be disappointed. This is an amazing story of struggle against government tyranny by a group of people who want freedom and the right to determine their own futures. You can call that ideological if you want, but I just call it a great, great movie."
Fans of science fiction writer Heinlein and libertarians—two circles with a large overlap—were simultaneously excited and unsettled at the announcement two weeks ago that 20th Century Fox intends to make, with Bryan Singer (most famous for his work on various X-Men movies) attached to direct, a movie version of Heinlein’s The Moon is Harsh Mistress. (In 2007, I wrote a Reason feature about Heinlein’s complicated, multi-level appeal to libertarians.)
Devoted book fans often rightfully fear Hollywood’s rough, leveling hands wrecking what’s unique and delightful about their literary loves. Heinlein heads tend to react with a shudder to Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 Starship Troopers, widely seen as more a burlesque of Heinleinian ideas than a skilled instantiation of them. Fans of the pure Heinlein jolt sniff the leeching of its unique qualities already in the film’s bland announced working title of Uprising.
Last week I met with Halvorssen, one of the film’s producers, who got the option from the Heinlein estate in 2009 and found a home for the project at major studio Fox. We talked by the pool at the Hollywood Standard Hotel about the film, the fans, and the philosophy.
Halvorssen wants to get some things on the record "before things get out of hand with fanboys or anyone else who has already decided their own view on a project they know nothing about." (He seems well aware of the two-edged sword of a built-in enthusiastic audience for a property, particularly one whose enthusiasm is at least in part based on ideology.) "It's important to be open and not allow for doubts to cloud people’s perceptions. We do want all the goodwill we can get [from the book’s existing fan base] and don’t want people doubting our commitment to make a big, fun, entertaining movie that captures the essence of Heinlein."
He considers cavils about the prospective title Uprising silly, noting it exactly describes what the plot concerns—an uprising against tyranny, that happens to be on the moon. Heinlein’s title, he says, might be a bit too "odd and bizarre" for the mass audience a big budget studio feature needs to capture beyond the book’s fans. He believes those fans will find the movie under whatever title.
Halvorssen is experienced with bringing libertarian-beloved science fiction classics to screen; he produced in 2009 a short film based on Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-egalitarian fable "Harrison Bergeron," under the title 2081. He founded the Moving Picture Institute (MPI) in 2005, an organization dedicated to helping build and support movies that, in the words of their slogan, "promote freedom through film."
Halvorssen has no official link with MPI anymore, but he honors its role in giving him experience in making various previous documentaries, all essentially "about revolution against tyranny, against totalitarian systems" set in worlds from Estonia to Russia to American universities. "MPI was my film school as a producer, and while MPI is not involved in this production in any way, they were so central to my development as a producer that I can say this is not just my credit, it’s their credit."
Halvorssen knows that in film industry terms, he’s on a different level than his production partners. He’s amused how the announcement in the movie trades listed the three producers as Bryan Singer, one of the biggest adventure/thriller directors of our time; Lloyd Braun, former chairman of ABC; and Thor Halvorssen. “Who?” he imagined many thinking.
Halvorssen’s avocation is unusual among Hollywood players: full-time human rights activism, via the Human Rights Foundation and the annual Oslo Freedom Forum. The latter is a yearly confab known to some as the "Davos" (or "Woodstock") for human rights activism, a place for people to tell direct stories of their oppression under some of what Halvorssen considers the world’s worst tyrannies, from Angola to Pakistan to Saudi Arabia to Venezuela (his family’s native land, whose government illegitimately imprisoned his father and shot and wounded his mother) to Iran to Bahrain to North Korea to Equatorial Guinea ("one of the worst tyrannies on the planet, and no one hears about it"). The event provides a place to hear from and celebrate "real live heroes, not just symbols of survival and the nobility of the human spirit but actual active Mandelas in the making, Solzhenitsyns in the making."
Halvorssen realizes his filmmaking team has to walk a fine line adopting this most libertarian of Heinlein works; libertarianism so-called (he stresses "libertarian" is not how he self-identifies, preferring "classical liberal" or "anti-fascist") is not Hollywood’s favorite ideology. Still, he is sure that his Fox/Singer team is on board with what’s really key to the Moon story.
Still, "anyone expecting quotations from political tracts in this movie will be sorely disappointed," he says. Even though one of the book’s central characters, Bernardo de la Paz, does have a tendency toward political lectures in defense of "rational anarchy," I ask?
Halvorssen detects I’m trying to get him to get specific about what elements of the novel will or won’t be in the finished product. But its screenplay, being written by Marc Guggenheim (currently an executive producer on the CW show Arrow, the writer of the Green Lantern movie, and someone who, Halvorssen says, "has a perfect understanding of what the book is and he is a brilliant writer") is still being perfected, Halvorssen says.
Such questions, he warns me, are a "non-starter" at this stage. (The film does not yet have a set date to start shooting.) "What will, what won’t happen, what’s in, who's out, what we are redacting" are things he’s not going to discuss now. He doesn’t want to worry about fans out there starting to take notes on, "Oh my, they eliminated the plot element of sexual liberation which in the 1950s might have been an amazing plot point but nowadays would be, yawn….that sort of thing is not the issue, the issue is capturing the essence of the story."
Halvorssen is thrilled to have Bryan Singer on board. "He could have just been a producer, so that he chose to direct too is huge. This is his next movie after the next X-Men movie." (His 2014 X-Men film was number 6 for the year in worldwide gross.) "Getting him was like throwing a dart and hitting bull’s-eye the first time. His [production company’s] guys are like warriors of story, obsessively focused on story, story, character development, character development. I don’t think there has been a single discussion on politics in the entire time I have been on calls with them, which has been dozens of hours."
While Halvorssen grants that open classical liberalism isn’t something you find in a lot of Hollywood power players, he says he’s gotten no bad reactions or pushback based on his Human Rights Foundation or Oslo Freedom Forum work. "If people want to I.D. us as anti-dictatorship, looking to overthrow, using peaceful resistance and education, overthrow foreign powers that oppress their people, they are at liberty to take that interpretation because it happens to be true," he says, though he stresses amid this revolutionary talk that "I’m a non-violence fanatic."
Whether or not his colleagues on this film project agree with all his political goals is irrelevant, he says. Though he’s never had occasion to talk politics specifically with Guggenheim or top Fox execs, he says the "words 'libertarian ideas' have been used by the writer several times. We are not unaware of what the book is and certainly not unaware of the reason why we are doing this." Love for Heinlein runs deep among Hollywood storytellers; "the number of studio executives who have called Lloyd [Braun] and said, 'Oh man, that’s what I wanted to do,' have been several."
Halvorssen is proud one of his recent human rights endeavors, in alliance with one of his earliest financiers and a co-producer on the Moon movie project, venture capitalist Alex Lloyd, is featured this month in Wired magazine: sending balloons over North Korea with anti-regime propaganda, U.S. dollars, and copies of the regime-mocking controversial film The Interview.
"The guys taking on the North Korean government also happen to be making a Heinlein picture," Halvorssen says, proudly.
"Is a movie about fighting tyranny conservative or liberal or libertarian?" Halvorssen asks. "It’s quintessentially American, that’s what it is. This is not going to be a film about politics. This is going to be a great big entertaining movie about the struggle for freedom on the moon by a group of devoted idealists who have an amazing story fighting against tyranny.”