EXCLUSIVE: LFM Visits the Set of Atlas Shrugged + Director Paul Johansson’s First Interview About the Film, Part I
By Govindini Murty [Editor's note: LFM was recently invited to visit the set of an important and much-discussed new film: Atlas Shrugged. The director of the film, Paul Johansson, sat down for his very first interview about the film, conducted exclusively with Libertas Film Magazine. Part I of that interview is below.]
Atlas Shrugged Set Interview With Director Paul Johansson, 7-12-10, L.A., Biltmore Hotel.
Filmmakers have been trying for decades to bring Ayn Rand’s epic novel Atlas Shrugged to the big screen. The 1000 plus page novel, with its weighty philosophical themes, multiple story-lines, stylized characters, dystopian-futurist setting, and sprawling, continent-wide scope, has defied numerous attempts at cinematic adaptation. Finally, in this summer of 2010, a group of brave independent filmmakers – no longer content to wait for the Hollywood studio system – have taken it upon themselves (in keeping with Rand’s own self-reliant, individualist philosophy) to make the movie themselves.
Businessman John Aglialoro is financing Atlas Shrugged, and is producing it with Harmon Kaslow, and is also co-writing the script (although on Imdb the script credit goes solely to Brian O’Toole). Atlas Shrugged is being directed by Paul Johansson (“One Tree Hill”), who has also been reported to be playing the central, mysterious figure of John Galt (more on that below). The film stars Taylor Schilling (“Mercy”) as Dagny Taggart, Grant Bowler as Henry Reardon, and Jsu Garcia (“Che”) as Francisco d’Anconia. Director/actor Nick Cassavetes (“The Notebook”), son of renowned independent filmmaker John Cassavetes, is also acting in the film. The producers have announced their plans to film Atlas Shrugged in three parts, with the first film budgeted at $5 million.
It’s an ambitious undertaking to be sure, but with low-cost digital filmmaking technology and CGI effects, filming a massive novel like Atlas Shrugged on a modest budget is now something that is within the realm of possibility. More importantly, though, the decision of these filmmakers to go ahead and shoot Atlas Shrugged themselves highlights the democratization of film that we have been discussing at length here at LFM. Digital filmmaking technology is making it possible for filmmakers with visions that do not conform to the orthodox Hollywood system to now sweep aside the cultural gatekeepers and make films themselves. In an ironic sense, these pro-freedom filmmakers have seized the means of production from the collectivists who run the Western filmmaking establishment – and will for the first time in decades subject them to some real competition. That’s why I believe we have seen an explosion of films recently with refreshingly bold ideas – one thinks of new films that we’ve covered extensively on LFM like Four Lions and The Infidel that dare to satirize Islamic radicalism, or upcoming films like Red Dawn, Mao’s Last Dancer, and Farewell that fearlessly portray the evils of Communism. This liberation of perspectives in contemporary film has everything to do with the digital filmmaking revolution – and with filmmakers finally getting fed up with Hollywood’s stultifying political orthodoxy.
For these reasons, we at LFM have been lauding the Atlas Shrugged production team’s independent-minded attitude ever since Variety announced that the production had begun shooting in June. We were all the more delighted when the Atlas Shrugged production team contacted us and invited us onto the set of the film. Jason and I visited the Atlas Shrugged production last week on location at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The grand old hotel was a perfect setting for the scene that was being shot that day – a showdown between heroine railroad executive Dagny Taggart and millionaire South American playboy Francisco d’Anconia. In between set-ups, Jason and I had the opportunity to talk with the film’s ebullient and literate director Paul Johansson.
Johansson told us that this was the first interview he had agreed to do for Atlas Shrugged (he had refused all other requests), so we’re proud to share with our LFM readers this opportunity to hear from the director of this highly-anticipated film. So without further ado, let’s dive into Part One of our exclusive two part interview with Atlas Shrugged director Paul Johansson.
GM: What is your approach to adapting “Atlas Shrugged” as a movie?
PJ: You’re talking about an art form, a living breathing art form … “What is a sculpture?” … it’s everything you’ve taken away from it, and what’s left is the sculpture – that’s what a film is.
We took some of the densest material available in literature … and we’ve decided that there are certain parts of that story that cannot be told with the amount of time that we have. We’re taking one third of the book – because this is going to be part one of three parts – or perhaps four parts depending on how they’re going to shoot it all – and we’ve taken what we think is the essential part of Part One – which is 127 pages to Wyatt’s Torch. That’s what we’re up to.
We’ve decided that this is the pertinent part of the story and I guarantee you that the reason I have not been doing any interviews or any discussions with anybody is – first of all – everybody is going to be disappointed. [I express surprise.] Because when you love a book like I love this book - like I loved “The Fountainhead,” like I love “Atlas Shrugged” – I would say … well why don’t you take it and make it a $40 – $50 million dollar film? Well, if you do you’re still going to have to cut it down and … you’re going to have to choose what part of the story is the most tellable part. So it’s not really possible with all of the characters and all of the density of this book to make everybody happy. It doesn’t matter what you do – you’re not going to make everyone happy. So I decided to do what makes me happy. [Pause.] I’m serious.
GM: Good for you.
PJ: Absolutely 100%. I made the decision.
GM: When you’re an artist that’s the only way to go.
PJ: And so that’s why I stand by the film. This is what I think is the most important part of the story: it’s not a story about steel, it’s not a story about railroads, and it’s not a story about oil magnates or copper mines or all the other things that you see in this. This is a story about an ideology – about the way that you live. You can’t say in a [movie] like this who a character is by having people stand up and say “I make metal” or “I make railroads” – you can only do it by presenting them with choices, and what choices they make define the character. And that’s how I’m telling the story.
GM: That’s very interesting. You think of people like Orson Welles who were so fantastic at adapting Shakespeare -
PJ: You’re thinking of me as Orson Welles -
GM: [Laughs.] Well, look at how Welles adapted Shakespeare – he would slash down “Macbeth” or “Julius Caesar” …
PJ: Absolutely -
GM: … to next to nothing – but he kept the kernel of it and made a fantastic movie or a fantastic stage production out of it – so you have to do that.
PJ: Right. That’s interesting you should say that. His “Othello” was really interesting – have you seen it?
GM: Yes, it was incredible. Done on a low budget, but very imaginative.
PJ: Right – highly stylized – against just a backdrop, you know, and then with really super-intense angles.
GM: Yes, I love how it was shot. It had that “Third Man” quality, that film noir quality, and yet it’s Shakespeare.
PJ: I thought it was very brave and at that time quite innovative. I think nowadays – since we’ve had our Cassavetes and we’ve had our Godard – now we’ve come to a place where we’re kind of … ‘ah, story is not essential’ – but this movie is essential. … When you look at what’s being pumped out at you and forced down your throat and then they slap in a morality tale at the end of it to make you feel that it’s a ‘feel good’ movie – well really, I don’t want to feel good today. [Both laugh.] I want to watch a movie.
GM: That has some truth to it.
PJ: Yeah, ’some truth to it’ is what this film has. This ["Atlas Shrugged"] isn’t a real world – this is a science fiction world because there is no world that is completely black and white. People aren’t just all bad Wesley Mouches or all good Henry Reardons. There’s no such thing as that. We have different shades of grey. And [as for Rand's] world, she had to create a very polarized vision of the way people lived. So I think of this book as an in-your-face way of saying, “Who are you – and how do you live?” And I think that’s kind of a nice way to approach it. I mean – the 60 page or 90 page John Galt speech is really her manifesto, you know, in a lot of ways, don’t you think?
GM: How are you going to perform that? I was very curious – because you’re going to play John Galt -
PJ: Not me.
GM: Really? I thought you’re playing John Galt. That’s what Variety reported.
PJ: No, I don’t know why the producers put that in. John Galt is never seen … No , I only took on John Galt as a part because you see the back of my head and a hat – you never see John Galt’s face, ever. I don’t think you should see his face. John Galt is a sort of enigmatic guy in Part One. We should get the sense of him as an accumulation of all great men in Rand’s mind – that’s what John Galt is to her … he’s the Reardons, the Roarks, the Ellis Wyatts – he’s all of them rolled into one guy.
GM: Yes, he’s a symbol.
PJ: So I don’t really want to give him a face, you know what I mean? In the next movie they can hire any actor to do it because it’s not going to be me – you know what I mean? It should really be somebody who exemplifies those things.
GM: There are two broad areas I’m interested in. One is your philosophical approach to the movie, and the second is your visual approach.
GM: We’ll start with the visual approach. For example, I’m a fan of “We the Living” and also of ”The Fountainhead,” I think they’re really fun films and we showed one of them at our festival a few years ago -
PJ: ”The Virtue of Selfishness” is terrific too, and “Anthem” as well -
GM: Did they make movies out of them?
PJ: No, no, the books.
GM: OK well, cinematically, how is this going to compare to “The Fountainhead” and “We the Living”?
PJ: It’s not going to compare at all.
GM: It’s going to be completely different?
PJ: Completely different. You know, before I came on board the producers had already decided it was going to be a modern story – this takes place tomorrow. Not 2011, but say, tomorrow. Every day in this film is set in ‘tomorrow.’
[Jason Apuzzo jumps in with some questions now.]
JA: So, is this then a kind of timeless present?
PJ: It is timeless, absolutely I think it’s timeless. But we’re shooting in a lot of retro styles. We have very, very wide angle lenses. We’re shooting on a 2.4 aspect ratio – it’s the same as what was used on “Lawrence of Arabia.” It’s that very wide angle. We’ve got very highly stylized shots and we’re giving it an epic feel. I’m doing everything in my power to maintain that kind of look – it’s really beautiful looking – but we don’t have a forty million dollar budget. So, we’re picking locations where – like this, for example [he points at the Biltmore hallway we're sitting in]. My angles are up because what’s the most beautiful part of this room?
GM: The ceiling.
PJ: The ceiling. So I’m taking what I have and shooting it in a very intense style.
JA: Does this have that “the-future-as-the-past” vibe?
JA: That you get in “Blade Runner”?
PJ: Yes, like Terry Gilliam or “Blade Runner” or something like -
GM: Or like “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”?
PJ: Or like “Sky Captain” – the only problem with that one was the movie didn’t work – but those are the ones we’re thinking about – so you’re right … we are trying to feel that – what you guys said. Given the limited budget, I think it’s turning out pretty well. I have some structural problems with the story, you know, I didn’t write the script – but I’m trying to work it – I’m trying to make it work cinematically.
JA: What about special effects? Is that a significant part of what you’re dealing with as a director?
PJ: Well think about it. For example, here’s a shot – [he shows us a special effects shot on his phone] of an old bridge over a very, very deep canyon. Now that bridge in the book has to be replaced because it’s not made of Reardon metal and her lines [Dagny Taggart's] are made of Reardon metal and they come over that bridge and that bridge isn’t going to be able to support it so they’ve got to replace the bridge. So – this bridge doesn’t exist – I had this bridge CGI’d and created for this movie … and you can see – there’s the crew up there and this is actually on a location scout where the bridge actually looks like that [points elsewhere] and I built all this. So that’s what I’m doing. I’m trying to give it almost a surreal kind of … a greater sense than it really is. But I think you have to kind of allow ourselves to go that far with it.
JA: The reason I ask is because it seems to me that when films like this get made they end up being as much of a style statement as anything else in terms of the world that you’re depicting – how you’re depicting the present/future.
PJ: Well, rather than say depict the future I would say depict Ayn Rand’s alternate world. That’s what I call it.
JA: OK, yes.
PJ: I think it’s an alternate world because the world we live in – people can say “Oh my God what’s happening now with Greece and foreign currency or what’s happening with these incredible oligarchy-type governments and these corporations that are running the world.” OK we get it, we’ve got the big picture, but the truth is it’s still not really Ayn Rand’s world.
JA: It’s romanticized a bit, you might say.
PJ: I think so, I think so. Yeah, that’s exactly it.
JA: That gives me a feel for it. Because I think you’re probably going to face questions about the film’s worldview. You know – is this some kind of off-the-cuff statement about today, about what’s happening with the economy and all that, and …
PJ: I think you have to be careful with that -
JA: If you’re kind of going in that direction, I think to some extent it becomes easier for you to answer those questions.
JA: Because it’s an alternate world you’re dealing with, instead of the real one.
PJ: My producer said that to me, too. ”You know, we should talk about the gulf oil spill and we should talk about all these new things being passed … where everyone feels they can get a piece of the big corporations – you know, how they tried to bring down Microsoft a few years ago, that kind of stuff.” And I said to myself “well that’s really cool, that’s really smart,” but then I thought “God, that’s really a cheap out.” It’s kind of an easy way of getting away from the harder questions such as: what about individual responsibility? Those are the real questions.
JA: And those are timeless questions.
PJ: Those are timeless questions. Right. And then you don’t tie yourself to “we’re going to hitch our wagon to whatever’s happening in the present day.” I would say that Ayn Rand was not doing that. She got a sense of what was happening [in the 50s] but she saw the future. [Rand] was saying “Look, 50 years from now, unions, and guilds, and things like that are going to be way more powerful than corporations – they’re going to make the calls – and that can’t support a capitalist society.” And she was right. And the laissez faire capitalism she was preaching doesn’t really work either, to be honest with you. People say it does, but that relies on Rousseau’s natural man theory -
GM: Or Adam Smith.
PJ: Or Adam Smith – that everyone’s going to be working with pure intentions, and that’s not true either.
JA: People can wind up getting exploited.
PJ: Yes, that’s right because a lot of people will rewrite the laws to suit them, so there has to be some kind of oversight, but how do you do that, because then special interest groups are going to get involved in the oversight. So it really is a constant, evolving process – like a relationship … like a marriage … you don’t just go “Hey, we’re on cruise control now, we made it through the tough stuff.” It’s always got to be worked. So, that’s what I think our relationship is with capitalism. … But I don’t know if the movie achieves that. It’s one thing to say what I want – but will it succeed? I don’t know yet.
JA: Well, to me the big thing about Rand is the romanticizing of the individual, right?
PJ: It is, it is. That’s why we all like it, isn’t it?
JA: And if that gets through in the film, it seems to me, you’re accomplishing it.
PJ: It’s a success.
JA: Because the rest is hard to do.
PJ: [Loud sigh.] Well, dude, see – that’s what happened when you said that to me – because I’m praying that that works. … I’m going to do everything I can and I will go without sleep and I will write all day and I will work and work … This was a very, very quick pre-production. I had nine days.
GM: My God. I was going to ask -
PJ: They fired the director nine days before I got here. …
GM: How did you get involved then? What brought you to the production?
PJ: They called, and I took a meeting – and I am very familiar with the material – and my feeling was I wasn’t going to allow this movie to be made by a bunch of people [about whom] I didn’t know whether or not they had a grasp of the material. So, I can say – here are my two choices: One is let this go, I can’t do this in the time … and so I talked myself out of it. … And then as I thought – somebody else is going to take this and muck it up. So you kind of owe it to yourself: at least go in guns blazing, give it everything you’ve got, and then get your f-ing self ripped to shreds in the press and the media and by everyone else who loved the book - but at least you gave it a shot. … Because there’s a reason it wasn’t made in 53 years. You know? And that’s because nobody could decide what this movie was about.
GM: Yes, it’s had a very long and tortured history.
PJ: So having nine days to prep is the perfect amount of time, because that way I didn’t have enough time to be terrified.
PJ: Now I’m terrified. [Everyone laughs.] But at least I have a sense of what this movie should be. And if it’s going to be a performance piece – because there are six and seven pages of dialogue in some scenes – then it’s going to be a really interesting performance piece. And if it’s going to be a big epic movie with giant plane shots and special effects, which it isn’t, because this doesn’t have that kind of a budget – they’d lose the story in that. I decided it would be a movie about the people: their choices, their relationships with each other, and most importantly – themselves. And – that’s the movie that I want to make, based on what I have available to me.
GM: To return to the themes of the novel. Do you think the characters are beyond good and evil, beyond morality in a Nietzschean sense?
PJ: I really believe that. I really believe that.
GM: That they’re these Promethean, Titanic figures who are above such things?
PJ: I really believe that. Rand uses a lot of things like good and evil in her text but I don’t think she really believed those ideas. It’s like what Oscar Wilde said … I don’t know the exact quote – he said that a book can either be poorly written or well written, but it can’t be evil.
GM: But the novel has that Nietzschean overtone to it.
GM: Also, Rand was Russian, and she came from that modernist culture of the ‘teens and ’20s, of Russian constructivism in design, of suprematism in painting … her novels remind me of one of those Tamara de Lempicka paintings from the 1920s and ’30s – you know, of those Art Deco women who are always in control, with the sky-scrapers behind them, in the vivid colors.
PJ: Right, right. I actually have one of those pictures in my script.
GM: Oh perfect.
PJ: As a reference for my mind.
GM: Yes, I think that’s how she [Rand] saw herself. [Everyone laughs.]
JA: That’s great.
PJ: Isn’t that funny?
[He shows us a Lempicka painting that he has a copy of.]
PJ: I cut out pictures from magazines sometimes, for mood – I’ll paste them into my script to give me reminders of feelings and moods. I’m weird like that.
GM: No, no, that’s cool, you’ve got to have your inspiration board with all your visual references. So let me ask you about another literary/mythic reference – the references in the novel to the composer Richard Halley’s opera “Phaethon,” about the Greek hero who drives his father Apollo’s chariot too close to the sun. [In the traditional Greek version of the myth, Phaethon falls from the heavens for his presumption and is killed.] In the novel this is Halley’s final great piece before he drops out of society.
PJ: Right, right.
GM: What I found interesting is that in Halley’s version of the myth [which is really Rand's], Phaethon succeeds at driving his father Apollo’s chariot. He isn’t burnt by the sun, he doesn’t tumble to the ground. He actually makes it. So again, it’s about this Titanic, Promethean achieving. How do you get that across with the characters in the movie?
PJ: Look at the name of the book – “Atlas Shrugged.” Atlas is a Titan, another of the gods. It absolutely falls in line with what you’re saying.
GM: How do you get through at the human level though with your actors? Because in the novel they’re almost like symbols – they’re these powerful figures.
PJ: That’s so true.
GM: How do you convey this in a movie with real human beings?
PJ: Well, I remind my actors that this movie is about the nobility in man’s spirit. That’s what it really should be about.
Stay tuned for Part Two of our exclusive interview with Paul Johansson, in which Paul opens up further about why Atlas Shrugged couldn’t get made in the Hollywood system today, what his own provocative views are on the role of government in people’s lives – and whether he’d rather have dinner with Plato, Aristotle, or Socrates.
UPDATE: You can read Part II of our exclusive interview HERE, which features exclusive video from the interview.
Posted on July 21st, 2010 at 9:11am.