Interview: Lionsgate's Michael Burns
by Scott Holleran
Michael Burns
April 23, 2008

Lionsgate Vice Chairman Michael Burns is the force behind the company's ambitious plans to adapt Ayn Rand's epic novel, Atlas Shrugged, for the screen. The longtime admirer of Miss Rand's, from his early productive years working on Wall Street, eventually went West, co-founding the Hollywood Stock Exchange and joining Lionsgate's board of directors. Burns became the firm's vice chairman in 2000.

Under his leadership, according to Lionsgate, annual revenues have grown from $150 million to a projected $1.2 billion and increased market capitalization from $80 million to over $1.2 billion. Burns virtually eliminated Lionsgate's corporate bank debt by converting it into long-term subordinated debt at a blended annual rate of approximately three percent.

Among Lionsgate's well-known pictures: 2006 Best Picture Academy Award®-winning Crash, Monster's Ball and the Saw and Tyler Perry franchises. Recent features include The Bank Job, Good Luck Chuck, the 3:10 to Yuma remake and Away from Her. This week, Lionsgate opened the Chinese fantasy, The Forbidden Kingdom. Burns talked about the company's long-awaited version of the 1957 bestseller Atlas Shrugged during an interview on Sunset Boulevard.

Box Office Mojo: Is Angelina Jolie still confirmed to portray Dagny Taggart in Lionsgate's adaptation of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged ?

Michael Burns: Yes.

Box Office Mojo: What's the project's status?

Michael Burns: It's in active development—I'm reading the script. The challenge has been whether it's one or two movies. We're finding consolidation, trying to get set pieces and other moving parts working together, trying to get the essence of the book.

Box Office Mojo: Will Brad Pitt portray John Galt?

Michael Burns: No. I think Brad wants to play Howard Roark if they ever get [an adaptation of Ayn Rand's 1943 novel] The Fountainhead going. He's a big architectural fan, almost a [architect] Frank Gehry groupie. Maybe we'll have dueling Ayn Rand projects, though I think Paramount has [rights to] The Fountainhead. I wish we had it; I like that very much as well.

Box Office Mojo: But Atlas Shrugged is your personal favorite Ayn Rand novel?

Michael Burns: It is. It's one of my favorite books—with some of the richest, most colorful characters of any book. I read it when I was in the ninth grade and it just stuck with me. I can still vividly remember specific scenes in the book. I can't wait to see what [director Vadim Perelman] does with them.

Director Vadim Perelman on the set of House of Sand and Fog
Box Office Mojo: Why did Lionsgate hire Vadim Perelman as director?

Michael Burns: We think he did a fantastic job on House of Sand and Fog and he's incredibly talented.

Box Office Mojo: The novel's had a troubled history in being adapted for the screen. What makes you think Lionsgate can do it?

Michael Burns: We have a talented director, a producing team, we have the rights and we have a woman who's arguably the biggest movie star in the world who wants to play Dagny Taggart—probably one of the greatest heroines of literature.

Box Office Mojo: What makes Dagny a great character?

Michael Burns: She is strong and smart but [she's] also flawed; she's really stubborn, almost dogmatic at times, and, if you remember the book, she goes down hard. She really does everything she possibly can to save the railroad. She's got a brother who's a buffoon that's allegedly her boss, a sort of checkered life with lovers and an interesting dynamic with people who work for her and with her. She fights to the bitter end when the great minds of the world go on strike before she capitulates. That's a really interesting character.

Box Office Mojo: Do you see her as the main character?

Michael Burns: Certainly, in the first two acts of the movie, Dagny Taggart will be the lead and, in the end, that's who the audience is rooting for, so, if there were one lead, I think it would be Dagny. But there are other fantastic characters, [playboy] Francisco [d'Anconia] who basically fleeces all these people that he thinks have been taking advantage of society—obviously [industrialist] Henry Rearden, or Hank Rearden—and this great character, the pirate Ragnar [Danneskjold] and John Galt, who's sort of a tangential character in many ways, but certainly a central character.

Box Office Mojo: So you're not going to conceal whether there is a John Galt?

Michael Burns: I think everybody knows that there is a John Galt and, look, in my opinion, I don't think it should be a movie star, because then the audience will know too soon that that's John Galt. If, all of a sudden, Brad Pitt were [playing] John Galt, or Tom Cruise or George Clooney, you'd know—but it has to be an incredibly remarkable face, a face that just pops out at you.

Box Office Mojo: A face with no fear, no pain, no guilt?

Michael Burns: Yes, that's well put.

Box Office Mojo: That's how Ayn Rand describes Galt in the novel. How much are you willing to spend?

Michael Burns: It will be a very expensive movie for us and it will fit into the Lionsgate model in that 70 percent of our budgets typically depend on where we shoot it and foreign pre-sales and this won't be an exception. I've already had a call from just about every studio wanting to see if we could possibly partner and if they could have a deal. It's too early to tell.

Box Office Mojo: Which studios?

Michael Burns: There are only six of them and I've had calls from four asking "can we be a foreign partner?" and if we have any interest in pairing up.

Box Office Mojo: What do you want to make sure you get right early on?

Michael Burns: In a strange way, we have to get it right because it is—even though Ayn Rand was Russian—it is the quintessential, one of the few, true American philosophies, so you really have to be true to Objectivism and what she stood for. You can't compromise. More than anything else, we're looking for the integrity of a [Howard] Roark, which, by the way, is not easy, which may be why the movie's never been made, maybe no one wanted to tackle that. But you have to try. It's better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all.

Box Office Mojo: Has a trilogy been ruled out?

Michael Burns: Right now, it looks like one movie, but, again, I can't answer that definitively. A trilogy is expensive, very hard from an availability standpoint.

Box Office Mojo: The novel is divided into three parts, Non-Contradiction, Either-Or and A is A—?

Michael Burns: —But I think it's really in two parts. There's a great moment in the book where Dagny basically steals back her own train—and certainly that would be a great place to break the movie up. It's hard to make one movie from 1,200 pages.

Box Office Mojo: Is it true that you approached the producers about the rights to Atlas Shrugged in a Catholic church?

Michael Burns: I knew [producers] Howard and Karen Baldwin—I'd see them in church, though I knew them outside of church, too—and I knew they had the rights. We were leaving mass [one Sunday], and I said "I heard you have the rights to Atlas Shrugged and I'd like to talk to you about that because that is truly one of my favorite books," so we set up a lunch. Ayn Rand's probably rolling over in her grave to think that happened in a Catholic church. But, look, if you believe in a philosophy—and Ayn Rand was more of a philosopher than anything—that doesn't mean that you have to agree with everything Socrates or Aristotle or Plato stood for; you can embrace many aspects of a philosophy without wrapping yourself up in it. I'm Catholic and [producer] Karen [Baldwin]'s Catholic. But I was married once in a Catholic church—St. Patrick's Cathedral [in New York City] of all places—and I ended up getting divorced and I don't believe in [the Catholic marital annulment rule]—

Box Office Mojo: —So you're not going to be attending mass at Mel Gibson's [fundamentalist Catholic] church in Malibu?

Michael Burns: [Laughs] No, I'm not going to Mel Gibson's church. But—talk about irony—the institution [the Catholic church] is probably involved in the biggest cover-up in the history of religious organizations, with all these priests and bishops [molesting children]. But I go to mass just about every Sunday. I do believe in God.

Box Office Mojo: What do you think of Ayn Rand's thesis in Atlas Shrugged that altruism is at the root of all evil?

Michael Burns: I don't believe that a person should live his or her life for somebody else. I do believe in "do unto others [as you would have others do unto you]" and I don't consider that altruistic.

Box Office Mojo: But the Catholic Church teaches altruism. Are you concerned about being ex-communicated over making Atlas Shrugged?

Michael Burns: Atlas Shrugged is like The Sound of Music, compared to [Lionsgate's priest sex scandal documentary] Deliver Us from Evil, which is a great condemnation of [Los Angeles Catholic] Cardinal [Roger] Mahoney—it is staggering and it is shocking to see how [nothing was done by L.A.'s Catholic hierarchy while] hundreds of kids were molested. You know it happens, but I didn't want to believe—I chose not to believe—that [church officials] would know about these situations and then just move these priests from parish to parish, as if that was going to stop the pattern of abuse. All they wanted to do was shuffle it off.

Box Office Mojo: Is it true you attended Ayn Rand's memorial service when she died in 1982?

Michael Burns: It was the winter of 1982 and I had just started work for Merrill Lynch, beginning my Wall Street career and I went to her wake, which was incredibly well attended. I just went because I had read about her [death] in the New York Times and it was sort of open and, you know, you want your funeral or your wake to take place on a really dreary day and it was—it was almost like a movie set. There were people from all walks of life and I would guess the majority didn't agree with many of the things that she stood for yet they were there paying homage to her mind and her strong belief in something. I went by myself. I was 22 years old.

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