Editor's Note: John Aglialoro is a trustee of The Atlas Society, which publishes The New Individualist.
Spring 2011 -- Brian O’Toole collaborated with producer and Atlas Society trustee John Aglialoro on the screenplay for the new motion picture, Atlas Shrugged Part 1. The film opens in theaters nationally on April 15. David Kelley and William Thomas interviewed him for The New Individualist.
TNI: How did you get involved in the Atlas Shrugged movie project? What was the appeal of the project? How does it relate (if at all) to your previous work?
O’Toole: I was originally brought onto the project by producer Harmon Kaslow as a writer’s assistant because of my history of working on other book-to-film adaptations. After a month, the producers were not happy with the first draft that the original writer turned in and asked me to take over the reins.
"There is something Randian in all of the films I have been involved in."
The immediate appeal was that I am a huge fan of alternate reality stories: “what if?” tales. Atlas Shrugged is, in my opinion, a classic of that genre. Even more so because, as many are writing these days, the book is no longer a warning—it’s a newspaper. The first novel I ever read all the way through was Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes when I was five years old. Then I read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend—which remains my favorite book to this day. Both are other great examples of the “what if?” genre of science fiction. I have been an avid reader all of my life. I remember shocking my fifth grade teacher with a book report on William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist.
Anyway, I was introduced to Ayn Rand ’s Atlas Shrugged during my first year of college. Rand’s take on an alternate United States being victimized by a government that looks down on creativity and excellence really struck a lasting chord with me. In fact there is something Randian in all of the films I have been involved in. For example, in Dog Soldiers, a group of soldiers are made test subjects by a government that wants to harness the curse of the werewolf without the men’s knowledge and, in Evilution, the U.S. government has captured an alien intelligence capable of bringing the dead back to life and decides to control that power to resurrect fallen soldiers to continue fighting in Iraq. In each of these stories, the government is hostile to the individual, forcing the individual to fight for the right to their own life. I may have previously used the horror film as my canvas but a film’s message will always transcend the genre. My heroes are like Dagny Taggart—they want to change the current order of things; to stop the government’s control over individual rights and freedoms. This is the influence that Atlas Shrugged has had over my life.
TNI: How long did it take, working with John Aglialoro, to produce the initial script for filming?
O’Toole: Honestly, I went into the mix without any idea who the players were and their connection with the history of Atlas Shrugged. It was, in the beginning, another job. Then, I had several telephone conferences with John Aglialoro and I began to understand the passion that was woven within the project. John was very clear from the beginning that he wanted a film adaptation that reflected the novel as closely as possible. With that in mind, I broke down the book and structured the screenplay appropriately. He had a specific vision for Atlas Shrugged Part I that I was able to put to paper. John understood that film builds story through images and that a film can telegraph to an audience a lot of details in seconds where it might take several pages to convey in a novel. This understanding allowed us to move at the swift clip that was necessary to reach our very short deadline for an approved script.
One of the things I am known for in Hollywood is my ability to turn around a first draft script very quickly. Although Atlas Shrugged Part I was quick—six weeks with many rewrites—I think my record was for the film Evilution—which I wrote the script for in five days to meet a production deadline. There was another film of mine, Cemetery Gates, which I had to do a page one rewrite for in six days to facilitate an eleven-day shooting schedule.
TNI: How many drafts of the script did you work up? What major changes did you make as the work advanced?
O’Toole: Actually, there was a time early on that I was writing two different scripts at the same time. The first director of the project wanted to create a draft of the script that was sexier in tone in hopes that the producers would embrace it. In the meantime, I was also writing a draft that stayed true to the structure of the book. In the end, John’s vision won out.
We went through five drafts before production began on June 15th, 2010. Most of the changes were structural and thematic until the second-to-last draft where we received feedback from different advisors, including David Kelley (see sidebar interview with Kelley). I am so grateful for these people because they kept me honest as a writer and in keeping the message true to the book. They helped with dialogue especially. I received comments like, “Dagny would never say that. She’d say this.” I remember a few of David Kelley’s lines were inserted into the script during the “search for the maker of the motor” hunt, especially the Hugh Akston scene. When the pre-production screenplay was done, it was a very strong representation of the spirit of Ayn Rand ’s novel.
Since we stayed very close to the structure of the novel, there was little reason for us to play fast and loose with the material. Except for the very beginning, fans of the novel will hopefully find themselves in very comfortable territory as we tell the story cinematically.
TNI: The central narrative in Part I of the novel is the building of the John Galt Line, and the script follows this storyline closely. But in the novel, Rand fleshes out the central narrative, and also builds the foundation for later developments, through other narrative elements, such as: Nat Taggart as Dagny’s personal hero, Francisco’s San Sebastián fiasco, the backstory of Francisco and Dagny as young lovers, and Jim Taggart’s affair with Cheryl, to mention a few. How did you decide which to include?
"If Part I is the underdog story, then Part II will be the dark story."
O’Toole: The toughest job a screenwriter who is adapting one medium to another has is what to keep, what to cut, and what to condense from the source material and still try to satisfy, stay true, to the initial fan base. What I do when I start an adaptation is find the simple heart of the subject. I focused on the “underdog” story of Part I: Dagny’s quest to save her family’s railroad business from internal (her brother James’s self-interest and ineptness) and external (the government) forces. Something John and I decided to bring out more in the film was Dagny’s third obstacle—the “destroyer” who was instrumental in causing the “producers” to retire from the world.
Although I was very aware of Nat Taggart being inspirational to Dagny, it was difficult to show in a film. In the book, we have those great passages about Nat and the history of the railroad that we could just not take the time to reproduce in a 100-minute film. The art department did a great job inserting Nat into the background with a portrait and a bust (that oddly looked like Barnabas Collins from TV’s Dark Shadows) but we never got that one shot of Dagny and the statue of Nat Taggart. Another backstory from the novel that we couldn’t really exploit in the film was Dagny and Francisco’s past. I hate that we didn’t film, as originally planned, Dagny and Francisco’s first hotel meeting. However, in the finished film, I think you get a sense of their past from just one action—which I won’t spoil here. The one item that was left out of Part I that will certainly be addressed in Part II is Cheryl Brooks’s relationship with James Taggart. I have great plans for that in Part II.
TNI: What do you see as the central narratives in Parts II and III?
O’Toole: If Part I is the underdog story, then Part II will be the dark story. Part II is where everything really falls apart. It’s where there is some heavy drama. It really is the villains’ story but there are some heroes that emerge to save the day and deliver hope to a world quickly entering its sunset. Also, where Part I was Dagny’s tale, Part II really focuses on Henry Rearden. I have some interesting plans for Henry Rearden’s court hearing. The accident at the steel mill will be spectacular. His relationship with Ragnar and Francisco will become an anchor to the film. Personally, I can’t wait to dig into Lillian and Henry’s relationship in Part II.
Part III will be an interesting test of my creativity. How do you do the John Galt speech? It’s like editing the Declaration of Independence. I have some visual ideas but it’s still going to be a monumental feat. Besides the speech, Part III is the adventure part of the book. It’ll be partially Indiana Jones with an apocalypse, I imagine. It’s too far in the future to think about right now, but I believe Part III will be handled respectfully and hopefully to everyone’s satisfaction.
TNI: Rand was a screenwriter herself and has been described as a cinematic writer. In fact, Atlas Shrugged could be seen as having a 1940s movie-style about it. Did the cinematic aspects of Atlas present you with special opportunities and/or special challenges while making a 21st-century adaptation?
O’Toole: I have gotten a lot of flak, especially on our Facebook page, from Atlas Shrugged fans regarding “updates” that we’ve made to the story. When people see the film, I know that they will understand why certain things had to change for the sake of a story that always, even in book form, took place “tomorrow.” I believe the audience will really like what the art department and set designers did to combine the old with the new. They’ve given our movie its own period, familiar but unique at the same time.
"The job of the film is to, hopefully, intrigue people enough to pick up the book."
Since our production was modestly budgeted, we certainly couldn’t create a period piece (although the book was really a near-future story) nor create a Metropolis-type movie with big sets and futuristic props and vehicles. Luckily, the book is set in a realistic world. We have small updates like cell phones and no smoking, and the freight train on the John Galt Line may be a bit flashier than we see chugging along today, but I really think audiences will quickly ease into our world and be spellbound by the story being told.
TNI: The movie has a different opening from the book: the train wreck, which is referred to in Chapter 1 but not described or shown; and the diner scene with the news show, which is completely new. What motivated this change?
O’Toole: The train wreck opens the film to give it a more dramatic hook, a cinematic way to set up the world in which we are about to spend 100 minutes. Purists, I’m sure, will grumble about not opening with the giant calendar page heralding September 2nd and Eddie Willers walking to work, but I think they will, in time, agree that for a film, our opening is more attention-grabbing. I’ve already been getting some sour messages on the Facebook fan page regarding changes that have been made from the book. Small matters, like “Why is Dagny blond?” or “Why is Eddie Willers African-American?” or “Why is James Taggart so handsome?” Hopefully when fans see the film, these distractions will fade as the actors we have chosen will enchant them with their fine performances.
TNI: In Part I of the novel, we encounter John Galt only in the phrase “Who is John Galt?” and as an unnamed worker that Eddie Willers dines with. In the film, you give Galt a more active role. Though we don’t see his face or learn his name, we do see him recruiting strikers. Tell us about this decision.
O’Toole: It was decided early on in the development stage that we should try to personify Part I’s “spiriting-away” of the world’s producers. Producers Harmon Kaslow and John Aglialoro wanted audiences to know what John Galt said to the “men of mind” that convinced them to go to Atlantis—before the speech in Part III. Again, all of the deviations made from the book were done to make the film as entertaining as possible. Not everyone will agree with these changes. To them, I just want to say that we were always respectful to the novel. The job of the film is to, hopefully, intrigue people enough to pick up the book. When I get on a bus, after April 15th, and I see someone reading Atlas Shrugged, I will feel like “mission accomplished.”
TNI: Francisco appears repeatedly in Part I. Was it a challenge to portray him in terms of his guise as a playboy but also to capture the remarks he makes to others (especially Dagny and Rearden) that suggest a hidden serious purpose? Is he Rand’s version of the Scarlet Pimpernel?
O’Toole: Francisco was a difficult character to weave into the film adaptation because he is so important later in the trilogy. Do we reveal his real motives now or later? Do we move the money speech up into Part I or leave it in Part II? Do we make Dagny and Francisco’s reunion more passionate so that when Dagny asks for the money for the John Galt Line later on his refusal is that more dramatic? In the end, I believe that there is just enough Francisco d’Anconia to satisfy the dramatic needs of Part I—just enough for people to want to know more about him and in turn pick up the book.
TNI: Much of the dialogue is taken from the novel, but inevitably you have given your characters briefer and more contemporary lines. In coming up with those lines, did you have specific models in mind: real or fictional people who model your image of Hank and how he speaks, Dagny and her style, etc.?
O’Toole: Dialogue was the most difficult part of writing the screenplay for Atlas Shrugged Part I because a lot of it would come down to opinion. What I had learned from my 20 years of professional screenwriting is that dialogue should never tell the story. You should be able to turn the sound off on a movie and still know exactly what is going on because you are telling your tale with pictures, not words. Dialogue should only exist to further character, never plot. However, when you are dealing with a novel like Atlas Shrugged where its heart, its philosophies, are mainly in what people say more than in their deeds, you find yourself in a bit of a quandary as a screenwriter. As I said previously, a lot of comments given about the pre-production screenplay that John and I wrote were things like, “this character would never say that.” So, it all would come down to opinions. John Aglialoro had one rule of thumb that came in handy many times: “What did Ayn Rand say in the book? Let’s go with that.” So, when in doubt, dialogue would be changed to reflect Ayn Rand ’s voice. Having said that, some of my lines did survive the production process and I believe they are seamlessly woven into the world Ayn Rand created. There’s an old Hollywood saying, “If 30 percent of your original screenplay survives the production process, consider yourself a lucky writer.” I’ve beaten those odds mainly because John Aglialoro and Harmon Kaslow trusted my talent and sensibilities when it came down to adapting this classic novel. I am really looking forward to getting started on Part II.