This is in Script magazine, May/June 2007 issue, Vol.13 No. 3
Randall Wallace: The World on His Shoulders
by Bob Verini
Recently tapped to adapt the epic tome Atlas Shrugged, Randall Wallace talks about the most challenging assignment of his career.
Who is Randall Wallace?
I have read the interview. It is very enlightening. . . .
The most interesting quote is Wallace say he wants to make a movie that appeals to people who love Atlas Shrugged and "guys who love good movies."
That doesn't sound much like John Galt, but it started sounding a hell of a lot better to me with that interview. I got the magazine last night and all I can say is that, after reading that interview, what few reservations I ever had about Atlas Shrugged being a good movie have been dispelled. It is going to be a great movie.
Imagine someone contracting Howard Roark to design the replacement to the World Trade Center. Then imagine a bunch of different people telling him that they have some ideas for him to think about, that there there should be 4 or 5 smaller buildings instead of two, that there were some other designs from other attempts for him to look at before he starts, that the imagery should convey the symbol of man rising from the ashes, etc. Imagine what Howard Roark would say.
Meet Randall Wallace, a man who knows how to write for movies.
He essentially told everybody to shut up and let him handle it. And he gave his principles. I don't know how he was selected to replace James V. Hart as the screenwriter, but he sure came off as Roarkian in the interview. Here is what he said about the people at Lionsgate:
"They said they didn't know whether this is two movies or three, or a mini-series. In fact they already had a script of 169 pages, and it only dealt with the first half of the story! I said, 'I don't want to see it or anything else anyone else has written. And it's either one movie or it's nothing.' The essence of any great story is lost if it's not focused, and what's required here is my saying, 'This is the narrative spine of this story.'
"Movies are a narrative and emotional medium, not a philosophical one, and what makes the book so long is the philosophy, which needed to be turned into decisive action. I would even argue that in some ways, that's the essence of Atlas Shrugged. It needed a 'prime mover' to say this is what the heart of the matter is, and it can come in at 130 pages or less. (No one believed me, but they believed that I believed it.)"
(Technical note: in screenwriting, one page is usually equivalent to about one minute.)
Notice that Wallace did not say that the philosophy needs to be eliminated. He stated that it needs to be "turned into decisive action." I can't imagine Rand disagreeing with this. In fact, I can imagine Wallace telling Rand, "Sit down and shut up," if she started going off on him. And I can imagine her doing it (jaw dropping open, but doing it). This is not about issuing strong opinions and making dramatic gestures. This is about knowing exactly what you are doing and why.
Here's an example. For a long time I have tried to imagine how to handle the long speeches after the love scene between Dagny and Rearden within the confines of a motion picture. Talk about a horribly difficult passage. What do they do while they are delivering their speeches to each other? Stare at each other? Stroke hair? Get up and put clothes on? Look off into space? Run some flashbacks with voice over?
Imagine putting a documentary in the middle of the action. In a book it works, but on screen it would kill the action dead in the water. In my mind's eye, if the speeches were kept as written, I can almost see people starting to yawn in the theaters or, once it goes to DVD, getting up to do something quick or screaming at the kids or whatever.
But you don't just discard those speeches, either. Imagine just having the love scene, fade, then cutting to the next scene. What watered down crap! The entire special nature of the relationship between Dagny and Rearden would be lost: the spirit of the rough sex, the unbreached integrity, the overcoming of guilt, the supreme valuing of each other, etc. What these people are to each other beyond getting laid needs to be shown within the context of lovemaking or the whole reason for the romance is destroyed. Then it becomes just another National Enquirer type extra-marital affair between the rich and powerful.
Well here is what Wallace did. He used those speeches as if they were character notes that a good writer produces before writing a scene. If anybody wants to see what I mean, then see the Journals of Ayn Rand. Here is how Wallace handled the scene for maximum impact, philosophical integration and entertainment value (keeping the audience's attention).
He reported that the people at Lionsgate jumped out of their chairs going, "Yes!" when he told them that. This is almost what I did on reading it myself.
"There's a scene in which Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden have succeeded, when everyone else was convinced they wouldn't, to build the railroad with 'Rearden metal,' and they've gotten to Ellis Wyatt's home and ended up as lovers. The next morning Rearden is just wracked by guilt. He's in an absolutely loveless marriage, and no one on the planet Earth has understood or appreciated him until Dagny Taggart, who sees exactly how unique and powerful and wonderful a person he is, and he recognizes that in Dagny. Yet he feels enormous guilt, as if he's betrayed everything within him. And the two of them are together the morning after.
"In the book there are just huge, long waterfalls of words and descriptions there. But in the screenplay, I wrote that Dagny wakes. She reaches and Rearden isn't in the bed beside her. She opens her eyes and Rearden is sitting at the window, staring out. She moves to him and touches his thigh. He looks at her and he says, 'I'm so sorry, please forgive me. I've violated everything I am.'
"And she lifts his face, gently and lovingly, and says, 'I want you to listen to me very carefully because what I am about to tell you comes from the absolute depths of my soul.' Then she slaps them across the face, BAM!, and says, 'Don't ever apologize to me.' When I wrote that, I said to myself: 'I've got it, I know how this should work.'"
There are hints in the article that Galt's radio speech will receive some kind of similar treatment (and, like Wallace mentioned, in the real world, people in bloody dictatorships wouldn't put down their guns because of a three hour radio speech). I am curious to see how this climax is going to be essentialized in Wallace's manner above. If he does something like he did with the Dangy and Rearden scene, then it will be enough for me that it works. If the essence is there and the speech is integrated into action, the form doesn't have to be as given in the novel.
Still, what I have read about Randall Wallace (here and here and here, for example) was OK and heartening, but it did not quiet the small voice of doubt at the back of my mind. Also, apparently Wallace is a Christian (who loves C. S. Lewis) and does some typical Hollywood-type charity (focused on lots of PR) with the Hollywood version of Habitat for Humanity (see Wallace on the site here and here).
But the interview in Script has calmed that voice. This man is committed to doing a great job and believes the moral challenge thrown out by Rand is just what Hollywood and the world needs at this moment. The atheism issue is not important to him for the story. Apparently Wallace's oldest son is into Rand, too. He is the one who got Wallace to read Atlas Shrugged in the first place (a few months before this script assignment was contracted). Incidentally, there are hints in the article and other places that Wallace will also be the director, although I know of nothing official about this.
I foresee Atlas Shrugged being a blockbuster movie that will be enormously successful as a story in its own right, but firmly based on the novel. And it will be great storytelling. It will not give a full presentation of Rand's ideas (and no fiction movie ever could), but it will drive legions of people to read Rand's works. What underlies this prediction is Wallace's approach of not trivializing the action, but integrating the philosophy into it. There is another danger, though—the other side to this approach.
I don't expect this attitude to set well with some Objectivists, but I expect it will be part of the assurance of the movie's success.
"I write for movie moments. I think everything is defined by certain moments, singular moments of change that we remember. I knew what those moments were in this story. The sure prescription for disaster would be to worship the book rather than to honor the book."
Who is Randall Wallace?
Randall Wallace is the man who said he understands the motor of Atlas Shrugged and knows how to drive a blockbuster movie with it.