Atlas Shrugged Producer John Aglialoro on Ayn Rand's Enduring Impact
"I think [Ayn Rand's] greatest relevance and strength is people discover themselves, and they say, 'wow, I'm entitled to my own life, self-interest is good,'" says John Aglialoro, the producer of the Atlas Shrugged trilogy. The third and final installment, Who is John Galt? hits theaters on Friday, Sept. 12, 2014.
Aglialoro sat down with Reason TV's Nick Gillespie to discuss the completion of the Atlas Shrugged films, their negative critical reception, and the enduring influence of Ayn Rand's thought.
An entrepreneur since his youth in South Jersey, Aglialoro currently heads up UM Holdings and has been the CEO of exercise-equipment maker Cybex. Among the companies at UM is EHE, a century-old organization that focuses on encouraging healthy living and life extension through state-of-the-art diagnostic testing and evaluations.
Along with the long struggle to bring Atlas Shrugged to the screen, Aglialoro discusses Ayn Rand's relevance and what he believes were her p.r. mistakes (5:45), his own political philosophy (7:00), the persistence of the entrepreneurial spirit (8:00), the growth in crony capitalism (10:20), and his abiding optimism for the future (16:00). (Disclosure: Aglialoro is a supporter of Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes Reason TV.)
About 18 minutes.
Produced by Tracy Oppenheimer. Camera by Jim Epstein and Anthony Fisher.
Below is a rush transcript for the full interview. Check any quotes against video for accuracy.
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NG: Hi, I'm Nick Gillespie with ReasonTV. Today we're talking with John Aglialoro, he is the producer, the man, the auteur behind the Atlas Shrugged Trilogy, the third installment of which comes out on Sept. 12, 2014. John, thanks for talking to Reason.
NG: How does it feel to have brought the Atlas Shrugged Trilogy to completion? You bought the rights to this in 1992 and you're almost done with it.
JA: It's inspirational. It's something that I know that Ayn Rand would have wanted to do. She tried with a number of people.
NG: Including herself, right? She left a partly finished script—
JA: She actually wrote part of a script, part of a play. But in the end, she did not want to give up creative control–that really was a thing that prevented the movie from being made. There were a couple of producers: Al Ruddy, who produced The Godfather, one in particular. They actually had a news conference, this was back in '72 I believe, and they announced that they were going to make the movie and all that, but the creative control was a tough one for her.
NG: So, you were lucky enough to buy the rights after she had expired.
JA: It was August of 1992. So, I went to Hollywood, got into some of the studio chiefs and talked to them. Some explicitly said: "Cannot, we won't get box office."
NG: Was it based on the idea that the book was un-filmable, that the creative control issue was going to be a problem, or was it that they didn't like the message? Because you always hear about Angelina Jolie, or Oliver Stone, or any number of liberal Hollywood-types who love Ayn Rand, and talk about this book as huge. So what was their hesitation?
JA: I think she had two opponents. One from the left. The left does not endorse free markets, limited government. Those words scare the left, politically. So, they were in charge of making a movie and felt a hesitancy to want to do that. Now, they felt it wouldn't be a box office success. They're not idiots, they would've done it. The other side was from, I think, the right, from the religious side of the right. Right after the book was published in 1957, she got a lot of pushback on the fact that she was an atheist.
NG: So, tell me though how does it feel—so you finished the three movies. The first two have not been reviewed well. I mean, they have been critically kind of admonished. Box office has been pretty good, by your reckoning?
JA: No, no. No, it was trashed, as you say. Box office has been low. What has been interestingly high has been the DVD sales and the rental—the after-box office sales. Part of that suffered because in Hollywood, you put up a movie, you put up $100 million or more. A big part of your budget, $20, $30 million or more is advertising, and we had limited funds for that.
NG: Talk about the relevance, because you're right that this is the type of project that has a huge afterlife and it's kind of inspirational in the sense of, you know, people who read Ayn Rand and people who read Atlas Shrugged in particular, it's one of those books that a lot of people describe as life-changing, it just blows people's minds. What's the relevance of Rand to contemporary America and to people who are renting and buying the Atlas Shrugged movies?
JA: I think her greatest relevance and strength is people discover themselves, and in an intrinsic and explicit way. They say, "Wow, I'm entitled to my own life, self-interest is good." I think that's been the most overwhelming aspect of your question.
NG: It's interesting that you put it in that sense because Ayn Rand is usually talked about as the "Goddess of the Market" or whatever. But what you're talking about is something that is—can be expressed in kind of economic terms, but it's actually much more basic and fundamental.
JA: The Declaration of Independence—Thomas Jefferson—said: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yet we're taught—at schools, universities, and churches—we're taught that self-interest is a vice. Selfishness is a vice.
NG: What is wrong with the caricature–and you see this both on the religious right as well as on the progressive left, people saying, "Well, you know what Ayn Rand is really all about is self-interest, is selfishness, it's about egoism, it's about me, me, me."
JA: I think Ayn Rand made a mistake: She stuck with the vernacular of the word "selfishness." So, rather than spending all the time that she did and her team–her "collective," as they ironically called them–on saying "enlightened self-interest," saying "ethical self-interest," qualifying it in some way, but to stay with that word "selfishness," it's in the vernacular as negative.
NG: You're a hardcore libertarian. Do you consider yourself an Objectivist as well?
JA: Yes, I would say I am an Objectivist slash libertarian.
NG: So, you have a political philosophy–a personal and political philosophy–that is all about freedom and individual rights. How do you take your philosophy, which is before politics, and then how do you choose how to express it in politics?
JA: Well, I express it as a libertarian. First of all, it's easier to do. The libertarian movement, libertarian thought is no longer fringe, it's out there. It expresses itself to one of two parties, generally Republicans, so I will generally vote Republican.
NG: You don't see any hope for the Democrats to become more free trade, more laissez-faire in terms of economics?
JA: I've got a friend, over 50 years, between 50 and 60 years, he is an ultra left liberal. He'll come back to me and say, in essence, "Markets are messy, they're untidy, and too many people are going to slip through the safety net and that's why I don't like your market capitalism thing." So, the other side, as much as they cause angst with us entrepreneur market types, they have a position that they believe in–I think it's incorrect, but they're Americans, they love George Washington like I do, and they're just wrong about their economics.
NG: Let's talk about economics and your business history. You started out selling snow cones. When did you first realize that you had both an interest in being and a talent for being an entrepreneur and for being a businessman?
JA: It was very young. Like so many entrepreneurs we cut lawns, I would pick blackberries in an old farm area and got permission to go through there, and I would get pints—it was a great feeling, to put out effort, work, and then be able to buy my own ice cream cone or take my girlfriend out to the movies and get some popcorn I liked that. I liked the control of that. In my old hometown Collingswood, New Jersey, I would get on a bus, take a few mile trip to an ice station, get crushed ice, a 50 pound bag, put it on my back, put it in the bus, take it back, put it on a wagon, get some flavors, and in front of the mayor's office of Collingswood, New Jersey–he allowed me on our main street–I sold snow cones. That was the beginning of it.
NG: What is the essence of an entrepreneur?
JA: Yeah, yeah I've thought about that. I think an entrepreneur–they have a gift for knowing what's around the corner. Risk adverse people have to get to the corner, peer around, take a look, double-check, triple-check, and then they know what direction to go. Entrepreneurs have an uncanny ability to take data, and a sense of history or pieces of current data, and make a guess. They're often wrong but they generally are right and they're paid well for whatever product or service they put on the market that people voluntarily want to buy—and that makes them good, honest, charitable, moral people, in spite of the crap people say about them. They're essentially great human beings, entrepreneurs.
NG: Talk about cronyism and crony capitalism. In Atlas Shrugged, it's not necessarily the poor people who are welfare–they're not the villains. It's actually the incredibly well-connected businessmen and the politicians who want to play ball with each other.
JA: It's probably almost impossible to get rid of cronyism. The government itself has large contracts. There's bridges to be built, buildings, military to support with services and supplies–all of this is going on and each of these companies belong to industries that hire lobbyists that get the laws and bidding contracts done in just the way they would like. So, it's easy and proper to shoot cronyism. I'm not saying you won't, that's not going to happen. But the size of government is going to create an environment where it'll be impossible to get rid of it. What we need to do, I think, just to follow up, I think we need a simple tax. I'm not saying a flat tax. I think a flat tax is a four letter word. A lot of people don't view that as the answer. But I think to get to the mountain top you have to get halfway there first.
NG: When you say a "simple tax," what do you mean?
JA: I mean we're not going to get a postcard. But I think we can get 3-4 pages tax code rather than a 100,000 page tax code by having some level of progressivity. So, if you make 1 million a year, you're going to pay $400,000,40%. If you make $50,000 a year, you're going to pay 8%. Again, you gotta get halfway there to the mountain.
NG: That would get rid of a lot of incentives that the government can build in–sweet heart deals the government can build in. How do you restrain spending, then?
JA: The dollar that the government gets–for every dollar of tax–what does it get, probably 60 cents? Where does the other 40 percent go? But we don't need the amount of regulation. Let's at least pick up the low hanging fruit first, let's go for that first. I think if we do that that will get rid of a lot of the cronyism, by having the tax revenues jump because you're taking the cost out of collecting money by the government.
NG: You also run Executive Health Exams, or EHE. A lot of your businesses are interested in this kind of quality of life, particularly physical life. Do you think the interest in life-extension–this is true self-ownership, it's your body, you'd better take care of it every bit as much as you take care of your car or your house. Does that fit in with a kind Randian enlightened self-interest?
JA: I've never thought of it in that way, but I think you're right, it's a very good observation. We take care of our minds, she says, through our ability to have independence, to choose responsibly the direction we want to go in life, and our mental sense of life helps with that. But to do that you've got to carry on a healthy life.
NG: And it started out and would give people exams, and kind of help them figure out what they needed to work on in order to improve themselves?
JA: I think the instincts were very good at the time because the capital, the people–not the doctors–the people who put up the capital were insurance companies and banks. And the insurance companies, in their own rudimentary way, were saying, "You can pay less insurance if we can check you out, give physical exams." That idea has value and it took off. And it's as valuable today as it was then.
NG: And in many ways more so, right? Because if you can identify a particular problem, you're much more likely to be able to fix it.
JA: Right, and not just by having expensive operations or expensive drugs. We know that celiac disease can be beaten by abstinence: Don't eat wheat-laden bread.
NG: Talk about the role of William Howard Taft in the Life Extension Institute.
JA: President Taft was the worst example one could have as their poster child for the Life Extension Institute at the time.
NG: Although he lived a pretty long time.
JA: He did, he did. We wrote a book at the 75th anniversary. We also just wrote a 100th anniversary book. My beloved wife Joan Carter wrote that book. She also wrote a book called The Making of the Atlas Shrugged Trilogy and helped assist with the 100th. But we wrote a 75th anniversary book and President Taft is there. He helped form this company. And I think he also helped form a sense, a judgment that checking out your body periodically is a good thing. So, with that basic idea, as the first chairman of the board of trustees, we were founded.
NG: Let's end with a discussion of the future. In a way libertarians, broadly speaking, a lot of people who are fans of Ayn Rand always talk about the current moment as the absolute worst possible moment to be alive. Government has never been so big and so intrusive. Things have never been so awful. You mention that Rand is really about optimism and that that optimism that she had about creating a life that you want to live gets beaten out of them, beaten out of kids. They forget the optimism of when life was ahead of them. You've just completed a major, major project—a life's project–with the Atlas Shrugged Trilogy. Do you still have optimism with what's still ahead of you?
JA: I'm absolutely optimistic. Think about what we've done in the past 100 years, 300 years, 500 years, the wars and the monarchies and the churches and battle, and look at today with the extremism. But we'll be here in a century or five centuries to the next millennium, and living will be a lot better than it is now.
NG: Well thank you very much, we'll leave it there. I want to thank John Aglialoro, he's the man behind the Atlas Shrugged Trilogy. He's also the chairman of Cybex and Executive Health Exams. John, thanks for talking to ReasonTV.
JA: Enjoyed it.
NG: For ReasonTV, I'm Nick Gillespie.