A Career in Film: Musings from Michael Paxton

How does an artist apply Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism to his life and work? How do you handle the challenges posed by working in an industry whose figureheads are largely hostile to reason, romanticism, and capitalism?

In STRIVE’s latest Mentoring Q&A session, filmmaker Michael Paxton, the Academy Award-nominated director of the documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, discussed these questions and more. Paxton has worked for 30 years for Fox, Walt Disney Animation Features, Sony Image Works, and Warner Bros.; teaches film production and history at the Art Institute of California; and serves as Multimedia Producer at the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, California.

As both an Objectivist and a film connoisseur, Paxton draws inspiration from several past cinematic achievements. As his favorite films, Paxton listed Inherit the Wind, a film about the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial that decided whether a teacher had the right to present Darwinism, for its themes championing free expression of thought and ideas, and The Miracle Worker, which centers on Helen Keller’s journey to understanding the world around her despite her sensory limitations.

For cinematic reasons, he’s also partial to Superman and Cinema Paradiso, as well as what he described as the benevolence of musicals starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Doris Day, and Betty Hutton.

But it wasn’t until his final year as an undergraduate philosophy student that he even considered film as a career. It was only when he took a history of film course that his interest was sparked.

“I really was not only enamored with, but compelled by the way ideas were communicated through the medium of film,” explained Paxton. From there, he applied to the film studies program at NYU. He didn’t believe his academic background would suite the production side. Paxton soon found out that wasn’t the case. In film school, he studied both silent and “talkie” film production, as well as animation.

As Paxton reminisced about his early years as a filmmaker, he came upon some advice he said would’ve been valuable to him. He said he noticed that Objectivists (including himself) tend to “want things to make sense.” He said that he remembered becoming “stuck” thinking that if something didn’t go as planned, everything else would fall apart.

Paxton drew on his personal experience to provide an example. He pointed to the fact that he got his first film industry job as an animator rather than in film production, which he had studied, and related that if he hadn’t been open enough to come travel to LA and take the job, he “would have missed so much.”

Later, when working on an animated film, he found himself working for a violently abusive director. After he left the production, he faced yet another problem: finding a job. “I knew my integrity was more important than making my next rent check.”

After struggling to make ends meet, he managed to bring Ayn Rand’s previously unproduced play, Ideal, to the Melrose Theatre in Los Angeles in 1989. That eventually led to him directing the award-winning Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life in 1996.

Through his journey becoming a documentarian, Paxton learned that your plans straying from their intended path is not cause for anxiety and blaming the universe. Instead, you should treat disrupted plans as an opportunity to improve yourself and discover an elevated path to thriving.

Paxton’s documentary was the culmination of his decades-long passion for Rand’s ideas. He recounted from junior high school how he was disappointed by the stark pessimism and defeatism of George Orwell’s 1984 when he came across a copy of Ayn Rand’s We the Living.

Immediately hooked by Rand’s benevolent worldview, Paxton proceeded to study her non-fiction. He was drawn to Objectivism’s spiritual (though not in a mystic sense), human-centric view, one that integrated idealism and practicality. Inspired by Rand’s philosophy, he pursued an undergraduate degree in philosophy at SUNY Albany.

While in college, Paxton saw Rand speak at her last appearance at the Ford Hall Forum. He said he was impressed by Rand’s sense of strength and confidence without condescension. Rand was unfazed by antagonistic audience members trying to discredit her; she would simply pause and ask them back, “What was your question?”

“She would never get defensive or angry,” said Paxton.

Unfortunately, making a film about the controversial Russian novelist-philosopher turned out not be the way to win a popularity contest in Hollywood. Being blacklisted for his political views was a new issue for Paxton, who usually worked as an animator on apolitical film projects, where he kept his views to himself.

But once his award-wining Ayn Rand came out, ironically, he had trouble finding offers and was left afterwards “working with a furry mouse” on Stuart Little 2.  In spite of the setbacks, Paxton says he has no regrets and would never want to abandon his life’s work. As a young man, he thought that once an industry professional reaches a certain plateau, then their career would surely race upward like a speeding bullet. Paxton now realizes that is rarely the case in Hollywood.

Paxton noted that the fallout from producing Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life made him a bit tired and even pessimistic, as he considered a “saner” life outside filmmaking. At this point in his career, the road is not as limitless as it seemed when he was young. But then he recalls a quote from Ayn Rand in her later years: “I don’t care about death. I care about eternity and eternity is now.”

Thinking about that quote, he realizes he’d never want to do anything else.

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