Anyone who doubts a mega-star like George Clooney could possibly stay in touch with his roots only has to look as far as his production partner Grant Heslov who has been with Clooney from the very beginning, even reportedly having lent Clooney the money he needed for headshots back in ’82. Knowing that fact, one can ponder what might have happened to Clooney’s entire film career if Heslov didn’t have that money to spare.
Wisely, Clooney realized he had found a shrewd business partner and he brought Heslov on to co-produce his HBO series “Unscripted” and to co-write and produce the historical drama Good Night, And Good Luck, which received a number of Oscar nominations. Shortly after, the duo formed Smoke House Productions in hopes of continuing that success.
Now Heslov is trying his own hand at directing, helming the political comedy The Men Who Stare At Goats, which not only stars Clooney, but also Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. Based on the book by Jon Ronson, it follows the journey of McGregor’s reporter Bob Wilton as he travels to Iraq in hopes of embedding himself in with troops to prove his courage to his estranged wife. Instead, he meets Clooney’s Lyn Cassady, a former military man who claims to have developed psychic powers through a secret government unit called the New Earth Army that are creating “psychic super soldiers.” Together, the duo traverse the deserts in search of the movement’s spaced-out founder Bill Django, played by Bridges of course.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Heslov last week to talk about directing his first feature, but unfortunately, it was one of those super-rushed publicist-nipping-at-your-heels type interviews that ended just as things got going. But considering how busy Heslov is–most recently, he’s been in Italy producing Clooney’s new movie The American–we’re lucky we got him as long as we did.
ComingSoon.net: Oddly, I’ve now seen the movie twice, both times almost back-to-back with George’s other movie “Up in the Air.” You cover a lot of ground in this movie–it’s a road comedy, a war comedy and a drug comedy–so was the original book that funny as well?
Grant Heslov: The book has a comedic tone but it does have dark moments, but yeah, it’s definitely comedic in tone.
CS: How did you and George first find the book? Had someone already been developing it as a movie before you discovered it?
Heslov: Yeah, it was already being developed, so I actually read a first draft of a script before I read the book, and then I read the book. We came aboard and we further developed it, and then we made it.
CS: Had you heard about any of the things covered in the book as far as psychic soldiers before getting the script?
Heslov: I had heard about it actually. I was a big fan of this guy named Art Bell – I don’t know if you’ve heard of him before. I listened to his overnight show for years, and he had all these guys on at one time or another and they talked about psychic spies and remote viewing and all that stuff. I actually was fascinated by it, more about the guys than about what they were doing. I dunno, it just fascinated me, so when this came across, I was really into it.
CS: Did you feel you needed to do any of your own research into how much of it was true or not? Or were you fine going by the book and the screenplay and the research they’d done?
Heslov: I did do some research, but the truth was that the book was sort of the bible of it for me, and also, Jon did a documentary, so all the people who are in the book and subsequently, some who were in the film and others are composites of characters, you see them in this, it’s about a five-hour documentary. It was a BBC series called “Crazy Rulers of the World,” and Jon Ronson did this, so you see all these guys. For instance, the predator scene, where George takes that plastic thing out and scrapes Ewan’s face and hits him with it, that whole thing? That’s based right from the documentary. There’s a scene where the real guy does that to Jon Ronson, and he really nails him.
CS: In theory, is Ewan supposed to be playing the Jon Ronson character in your movie? In other words, were any of the events in the movie similar to Ronson’s experiences?
Heslov: No, not really. I mean, loosely. Truthfully, Ewan’s character, that was the best way in for us into a story where we can actually hang all this stuff, because the book isn’t a story per se. It’s more like investigative journalism, gonzo journalism, however you want to call it, but there were elements of Ronson definitely that are infused into the Ewan character.
CS: Who first thought of Ewan to play opposite George in this, and did George always want to play Lyn in the movie?
Heslov: Once we decided we were going to do it and I was going to direct it, and we were talking about casting, he was like, “Look, I’ll play a role,” then we both sort of went and looked at it, and that just seemed like the right role for him to play, and then in terms of Ewan, we were just going through and trying to figure out who we thought would be right for that role, and his name came up and we both said, “He’ll be great, let’s go after him.” So I went and met with him, and gave him the script, and he decided to do it.
CS: Jeff Bridges seemed almost like a given for Bill Django, but was he hesitant at all about playing another drugged-out character?
Heslov: No, he was only hesitant in that he’d just come from another film and he was really sort of burnt out and tired, but I think he feels like–as do I–that this character, even though there are similarities, it’s a very different character from “The Dude” (in the Coen Brothers’ “The Big Lebowski), so I don’t think he had any misgivings about that.
CS: Your last movie where you collaborate closely with George was “Good Night, And Good Luck,” which you co-wrote with him, which I assume you had to stay historically accurate. Was this movie a bit more freeing in the sense that you could diverge from truth and have more fun with it?
Heslov: Yeah, you’re exactly right. “Good Night, And Good Luck” was one where from Day 1, we always felt like we had to get the facts right, because otherwise, the credibility of the film would be gone. On this one, I was really setting out to make an entertaining movie first, and all this other stuff was really like the gravy, and the fact that 60% of it was true was really cool, but I wasn’t making this as an expose or as an indictment really.
CS: While this isn’t an Iraq movie per se, were you at all worried how audiences might react to that aspect of it? As we’ve seen, the American moviegoing public doesn’t seem to interested in going to see movies set there.
Heslov: I wasn’t. I never was because of exactly what you said, and when you see it, you realize that this is not an Iraq film, even though Iraq War is the backdrop, it’s never about that, except peripherally, so I was never worried about that, but I’m sure some people were worried about it.
CS: Did the news piece about them using the “Barney” theme to torture prisoners really come out of Jon’s research?
Heslov: That’s the real Anne Curry and that’s the real “Today Show” footage that we licensed. That came out of the fact that we were using “Barney,” they were using all kinds of music to try to torture prisoners and that was borne out of – at least that’s what the book claims and that’s what Jim Channon, who was the guy, claims. That came out of the research they were doing to music and subliminal messages and using music as a way so that when you go into warfare, you use music in a positive way, but then, it was sort of turned to be used for these means.
CS: As far as working with George, did the relationship change at all when you were directing him and he’s your actor or does it stay very similar to when you’re both producing or writing something together?
Heslov: No, it’s pretty similar. Nothing really changes. We always have the same relationship whether he’s directing and acting in it and I’m producing or we’re writing together. It’s the same sort of simple relationship. It’s hard to explain to people if they don’t see it, but first of all, he’s an easy guy to direct, and none of these guys need a lot of direction. All four leads in the film are guys who you hire because you know they’re just going to show up and give you better than you ever imagined it on the page. My job in some respects is to just make sure that we’re all making the same movie and get out of their way.
CS: One thing I really like about George–something I really noticed from seeing the two movies back-to-back–is that he has this naturalistic comedy in which he’s very charming, but then he also can do broader comedy, which we see in this and the Coens’ movies. Which is more natural for him? Do you have to push him to be broader or does he do that naturally and you have to pull him back?
Heslov: I think if you look at this performance, as opposed to “O Brother!” or “Burn After Reading” or any of the Coen Brother films, I don’t think this is quite as broad, but you’re right. It’s more broad than say “Up in the Air.” I think these all come natural to him. I don’t think it’s harder for him to do one or the other. It’s really a question of what the tone of the film is, and then he calibrates to the tone.
CS: You’ve produced a bunch of other directors including George and the Coens, so what was one of the things you were able to take from working with them that you wanted to bring to your own feature?
Heslov: I would say that the main thing is preparation. The Coen Brothers, George, Soderbergh… these are all guys who really do a lot of prep, so when they show up on the set, they know what they want to do. Particularly on a film like this, where I had a very tight schedule, that was really helpful, so I storyboarded everything and I learned to do that from those guys, and rehearsed as much as I could and that was the lesson I learned from all those guys.
CS: When you’re directing a movie like this, what happens with all the projects you’re developing as a producer? Can you still work on developing those or do you really have to focus on the one movie you’re directing?
Heslov: No, no, everything moves forward. We have people here at the office who are constantly working at developing and doing the day-to-day stuff, but when there’s time for notes or whatever, you can do it on the weekends or you do it at night. You find time to keep it all going.
CS: Do you have any idea what you’ll do after finishing up “The American”? (That’s George’s new movie directed by Anton Corbijn.) Will George be directing another movie right away? Possibly “Farragut North”? Do you have some sort of timeline?
Heslov: I don’t know. My sense is he’ll direct something after that but we don’t know exactly what it is yet. There are still a couple scripts we’re waiting to get, and we have a bunch of really great things so it’s a question of what’s going to be the right one.
CS: What about yourself as a director? Have you thought about whether you want to direct something right away or go back to producing for a bit?
Heslov: I’m going to take a little break because there’s a couple things to produce in the interim, but definitely looking, and there’s a couple things we’re developing, so I definitely want to get back to it.
CS: Last question: I just want to ask about “White Jazz” because that’s one project you’ve been involved with for a long time that a lot of people are dying to see because we love James Ellroy’s book. Any update on what’s going on with that?
Heslov: You know, I don’t know. We’re not involved with it anymore, so I don’t know what’s happening with it, to be honest. I’m a big James Ellroy fan and I love that book, and it’s definitely a tough nut to crack–as you know, you’ve read it–but I too would love to see it made one day.
The Men Who Stare At Goats opens nationwide on Friday, November 6.