Grant Heslov discusses his upcoming fact-based dramedy about psychics in the military
Director Grant Heslov, together with longtime friend and leading man George Clooney, is set to bring The Men Who Stare at Goats to theater screens everywhere on November 6th. In this fact based dramatization of Jon Ronson's popular book, a down-on-his-luck reporter (McGregor) gets more than he bargained for when he meets a special forces agent (Clooney) who reveals the existence of a secret, psychic military unit whose goal is to use paranormal powers in order to end war as we know it. This quirky dark comedy, which was inspired by a real life story you'll hardly believe is true, offers astonishing revelations about this top-secret wing of the U.S. military. We recently caught up with Heslov to get to the bottom of this mind-boggling adventure. Here is what he had to say:
How did you get away with making such an audacious film about the military? Did you ever worry that they might shut you down? Or is this film actually funded by the government to take our eyes off what is really going on?
Grant Heslov: You got it! The truth is I went to the military. I wanted to film on a base and use some of their equipment. They refused me. That was it. Because they didn't help me, they didn't have anything to say. If they would have helped me, maybe I would have listened to them a little bit more. I never would have changed anything in the script for them. And that's always the issue, right? You want to use their stuff, but you never want anybody to tell you what to do. The truth is, it worked out fine. I found everything I needed location wise anyway. It all worked out in the end.
The film deals with psychics and mind reading. How did you consciously work that idea into the subtext of what we are seeing on screen? And how do you think your chosen color palate of greens and tans is going to work on the minds of the audience?
Grant Heslov: The truth is, there was no connection between remote viewing and the design and look of the film. I wanted the film to have a couple of different looks. When we are with Bob (Ewan McGregor) in his home, we wanted it to be cold. I don't think dreary is the right word. I wanted there to be less color. When we are in the present in Iraq, I wanted that to be blown out. Hot. Warm. Less comfortable. The stuff in the past? I wanted the military to be very warm. The greens and tans that you spoke of. I wanted that stuff to feel very rich, warm, and vibrant. In terms of the psychic stuff, that wasn't so connect to the look of the film for me.
How interested in this branch of the military are you personally? Did you try to familiarize yourself with the techniques of remote viewing before embarking on this journey?
Grant Heslov: I did a bunch of research on this. I tried it. I couldn't do it. I don't have any psychic ability at all. I don't know if anybody does. I believe that people think they do. Do I think it really works? I never saw any empirical data that would sway me. For me, it was really about the fact that they believe it. Whether it is true or not. I don't have the answer. I don't know if it is real or make believe. What I like, and what I am interested in, is that there are people who truly believe they have psychic powers.
Is the intent of your film to support that psychics in the military are a reality? Could it possibly be a reality? Or does the comedy in the film point to the fact that it's a pretty lofty premise?
Grant Heslov: As a filmmaker, I was trying to be nonjudgmental about it. Especially in terms of what they were doing. The bigger question is: Do I think the government should be spending money on a program like this? In my view, I don't have any problem with it. What these guys were trying to do was a good thing. Any way we can find to fight wars that doesn't actually involve killing people would be a great thing. Do I think its possible? Probably not. But I don't think it's a bad thing to shoot for.
Everyone wants to know about the goats. Are you using one of the Myotonic Tennessee fainting goats for the scenes where they fall down? Or is that CG? And how easy or difficult was it to get the perfect performance out of this creatures?
Grant Heslov: I tried to use the fainting goats, but they wouldn't faint for me. They wouldn't faint for any of us. We were shooting in Puerto Rico, so maybe they weren't the real things. I saw the video on those goats and I thought, "Those would be perfect for me. Let's get some of those goats!" Maybe we just weren't scary enough. I know that they are amazing. Those fainting goats are funny as hell. The rest of the goats were amazing to be around. They were much easier to work with than I expected. There is a shot where we track down these steps and we go through a door where all the goats are waiting. They just stayed there and ate. You'd put some hay down and they wouldn't move. When I needed goats to run out and follow George, or whatever they were doing at the time, you just needed one goat, and the rest would follow. They are herding animals. The goats were great. I would make another movie with goats in a second.
So you'd make another goat movie is what you are basically telling me?
Grant Heslov: God, I hope not!
Being an actor yourself, was there ever a temptation to put yourself into the film? What kept you from being one of those directors that also needs to appear in their work?
Grant Heslov: If I felt there was something I was right for, and I could act through it in my sleep, I would do it. I would have. There wasn't anything in this movie for me. I am not above putting myself into any film I make. I have done it before. I wouldn't want to shoot a big role. I think that is hard. Harder than I want to work. If it was something smaller, I think that would be a lot of fun.
I want to know more about the New Earth Army? Was this a real faction of the military? Or is this something partially made up for the film?
Grant Heslov: Jeff Bridges and that Unit were something that actually existed. It was called the First Earth Battalion. You can go on the Internet and research it. Or you can go and buy their manual on line. The guy that Jeff plays is someone I was in constant contact with. All of that stuff in the film is very true. As far as Jeff's look, we took a little license there.
How did you and Jeff Bridges work together in bringing all of those different pieces together to create what we see in the film?
Grant Heslov: Jeff showed up and did the character. I prodded him in a couple of different directions. The thing with Jeff is that he is fearless. He will try anything. And he will do anything. He gives you a lot of different colors. It was about picking the right ones with him. I had to point certain things out, and say, "Yeah, that's cool. And that's great." He is the one doing all of the heavy lifting. He will come on set with at least ten different ways to do it.
How did you go about discovering the perfect tone for Ronson's book on-screen? Did you always envision it as a comedy? Or did you feel that it needed to be more of a drama with comedic undertones?
Grant Heslov: I think it is a comedy with a few more serious moments. Overall, I always wanted it to be a comedy. I also wanted it to have something to say. The book is written in a very similar tone to the film. I wanted to get that tone in script form. And then get that tone on screen. Ronson himself didn't participate too much in the writing of the script, and he didn't really come to the set. Though we spoke, and I met with him. He came and visited the set before we shot. He saw a lot of it before I was finished. He just wasn't incredibly active in the actual making of it.
George Clooney often refers to himself as a Jedi. Did Ewan ever flinch or balk at those Jedi lines?
Grant Heslov: No. The funny story about that is he read the script. I went to go meet with him to figure out if this was something he wanted to do. It was one of those long meetings. At a certain point, he goes, "So, what do you think about the whole Jedi thing? Do you think that is going to be weird?" I asked, "What do you mean?" He's like, "You know?" Honestly, I hadn't put it together. I don't really see Ewan as that. I don't really know why. It's quite ridiculous of me. He said, "George talks about the Jedi in the film, and I played a Jedi." I was like, "Holy shit! Of course, of course!" We talked about it for a minute, and then me and George talked about it. We figured, "You know what? That doesn't matter to us." From that point on, he didn't have a problem with it. In fact, I think he does an amazing job delivering some of those lines. Some people won't get it. They just don't realize he played that role. Then there will be a lot of people that do know it. And it's an extra little bonus for them.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is coming to theaters this Friday, November 6th.
The Men Who Stare at Goats was released November 6th, 2009 and stars George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick, Waleed Zuaiter, Stephen Root. The film is directed by Grant Heslov.