Grant Heslov balances the fantastical in 'The Men Who Stare at Goats'
Clooney's buddy talks about his solid directorial debut
It pays to have powerful friends in Hollywood, but it also pays to have a reputation as a good guy. That's Grant Heslov to a tee. The former and sometimes actor has made his way through the industry at the side of buddy George Clooney as co-writer and producer of "Good Night, and Good Luck" (which netted him two Oscar nominations) and as his producing partner. Most importantly though, all you hear around town are compliments at how humble Heslov is at his success. Yes, it's true moviegoers, you don't have to be a jerk to make it in Hollywood.
Heslov's filmmaking abilities were put the test with his very funny directorial debut, "The Men Who Stare at Goats" which opens nationwide this week. Working of Peter Straughan's adaptation of Jon Ronson's non-fiction book, Heslov and crew had to find a way to make an entertaining film out of Ronson's mostly investigative novel.
What they arrived at is a comedy that centers on a reporter (Ewan McGregor) who travels to Iraq in search of the story that will change his career and possibly save his marriage. Instead, he meets Lyn Cassady (Clooney) who begins to reveal to him the secrets of the U.S. Army's First Earth Battalion, a military unit that explored the use of paranormal powers in the late 70s and early 80s. The project was eventually abandoned in the mid 80s only to be resurrected under President George W. Bush's administration in a desperate attempt to help fight the terror war (it's true!). In the movie, our intrepid reporter gets an earful learning that Bill Django (superbly Jeff Bridges) brought a crazy drug-filled culture leading men to believe they could do everything from find missing soldiers or kill goats with their own thoughts.
Jumping on the phone last week, Heslov says it wasn't as important to duplicate bizarre events from Ronson's book, but to have the authenticity of the actual unit and Bridges' character who was based on the battalion's real founder Jim Shannon. He notes, "The idea was to basically everything in the past story we really wanted to be accurate. Everything in the present story is more fiction."
And that begs the question: are the stories that Clooney's character (a composite of a few members of the battalion) tell the truth?
"There is a terrific doc that John Ronson made where you see all the characters and you see them doing the stuff and it's inconclusive whether it really works or not. That's the beauty of it," Heslov says. "I saw the actual footage where he knocks his hamster down. And it's hard to tell if the hamster is just sleeping or fell down. And that's what I always loved about the story. It doesn't really matter if they could do it, what only mattered is that they believed they could do it."
And while the men who were part of the unit took their work very seriously, at least one sees the power of spreading their story through laughter.
"I know Jim Shannon has seen it and from what I heard that he really loved it. The thing is, he read the script before we made it. He knew we were making a comedy of sorts. It's not a typical comedy, but hopefully people consider it a comedy," Heslov says. "[Shannon's] like a real shaman. That's what his claim is and he lives that life. He liked the idea of getting the word out in comedy."
Heslov's solid debut, which opens Friday, features some absolutely fantastic performances by Clooney, Bridges and Kevin Spacey. So, believe it or not, "The Men Who Stare at Goats" is well worth checking out.
For constant updates on awards season and entertainment news follow Gregory Ellwood on Twitter at Twitter.com/HitFixGregory
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