New Age paranormal techniques applied to war fighting. Twisted! The former commander of the psychic warriors unit, code named Project Jedi, lives in Hawai’i.
Clooney’s latest film an out-of-mind experience
Making of Clooney’s latest film was an out-of-body, out-of-mind experience
By Norma Meyer
Friday, November 6, 2009 at midnight
No matter what, George Clooney’s barnyard co-stars would not keel over and play dead.
On location in Puerto Rico, a herd of “fainting goats” had been rounded up for crucial scenes in “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” the fact-based spoof about a U.S. Army unit that sought to master paranormal powers and trained by trying to stop a goat’s heart with a steely gaze. “Fainting goats” seemed made for the part – the breed has a genetic disorder that causes their muscles to freeze and stiffen when startled, and although it’s not painful, the creatures topple over on their sides.
But during a screen test, when animal handlers loudly clapped their hands “the goats just looked at them like they were crazy,” director Grant Heslov recalls. “I did everything I could to scare them and they still didn’t faint.” (Asked to elaborate, he sheepishly replies, “I said, ‘Boo.’ ”)
Regular everyday goats – and movie magic – eventually did the job in “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” which was “inspired by” Jon Ronson’s nonfiction best-seller of the same name and stars Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. Ronson’s book chronicles military efforts to harness New Age techniques in order to fight nonlethal wars, and details a post-Vietnam unit of “psychic warriors” whose goals included making themselves invisible, passing through walls and reading enemy thoughts.
Heslov figures “65 percent” of his “Men Who Stare at Goats,” is lifted from the book, with more madcap shenanigans and some hollow-horned escapees thrown in. “All the stuff about the unit is true,” insists Heslov, who was Oscar-nominated with pal Clooney for the screenplay “Good Night, and Good Luck.”
Before shooting began, Heslov met with retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jim Channon, a former Vietnam War commander and the brains behind the 1st Earth Battalion (changed in the movie to the New Earth Army).
Channon, who is loosely portrayed by a Dudelike Bridges, embarked on a two-year government-funded fact-finding mission that included naked hot tub encounters and yoga retreats so he could write a military manual in 1978 to help Army “Jedi” soldiers reach a higher spiritual plane. He envisioned a more Zenlike approach to combat, with troops wearing ginseng-equipped uniforms, offering symbolic flowers, cradling baby lambs in hostile territory and greeting enemies with “sparkly eyes.”
“If the ideas were instituted and they worked, we would be a far better world,” Heslov says. “Do I believe it could happen? Probably not. But I’ve got to give the military credit.”
Channon now lives on an “eco-homestead” in Hawaii and describes himself as a “global elder” and “mystic landcrafter” still pursuing creative ways to bring world peace. In a video posted on his Web site, firstearthbattalion.org , he takes the movie’s humor with a grain of salt and asserts that his out-of-the-box thinking for his “mythical battalion” wasn’t absurd.
“If soldiers are telepathic during a firefight, that would be very useful,” Channon explains at one point. He ends the video with his trademark “Go Planet!”
(Channon, an entrepreneur as well as a visionary, offers a 150-page field manual that can be downloaded through his Web site for $14.95. He also offers “First Earth Battalion” souvenir T-shirts and other gear for sale.)
Apparently, the real Army wasn’t eager to revisit this chapter in history. Heslov says the military denied his request to film on any of their bases. And although the director concedes there may be doubters, he can personally attest to the realm of the supernatural.
“Oh, I’ve had out-of-body experiences,” he dryly says, “but they had more to do with smoking too much pot.”
At 46, the Los Angeles-born Heslov has worked in Hollywood since he was a teen on “Joanie Loves Chaci.” His TV credits include acting stints on “The Facts of Life” (which also featured Clooney) and “CSI” (where he played a coroner). He portrayed newsman Don Hewitt in “Good Night, and Good Luck” and produced the movie “Leatherheads” starring Clooney.
He never imagined he’d direct 150 goats.
“Oddly enough the goats were really easy to work with. Because if you have one goat that does what you want, the rest just follow,” Heslov says.
Sure, he tried to spook those “fainting goats,” but he does have a soft spot for critters. In Puerto Rico, Heslov adopted a dachshund – who made its Hollywood debut in a scene where a soldier has a gun to its head – and brought the pup home to live with his family in Los Angeles.
Apparently, the four-legged nonactors were better behaved than the two-legged pros.
“One day, I was off the set for a minute, and when I came back, George, Kevin, Jeff and Ewan were in the midst of a massive rubber band fight. It was crazy. Then I joined in. We’re lucky no one lost an eye,” Heslov says.
He suspects perpetual prankster Clooney started the rubber band rampage. Heslov and Clooney’s company, Smokehouse Pictures, produced “The Men Who Stare at Goats” and the duo go back 28 years, when they met in acting class at the Beverly Hills Playhouse.
In fact, Heslov may be partly responsible for launching his Oscar-winning buddy’s career: “I loaned him $100 so he could get head shots.”
Clooney’s latest character – the out-there New Earth Army operative Lyn Cassady – is a composite of real people from Ronson’s book. And as crackpot as it seems, the general (played by Stephen Lang) who tries to walk through a wall in the opening sequence is supposed to be retired Maj. General Bert Stubblebine, an ardent believer in the paranormal and commanding general of the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command from 1981 to 1984.
Stubblebine now calls himself a “warrior for health and personal freedoms,” according to his Web site.
Like the book, the movie shows psychological methods, such as blasting peaceful music to calm enemies, that have been used in a darker way. For example, Iraqi POWs were bombarded with the theme song for Barney the Purple Dinosaur as a means of torture.
But Heslov says his film is intended to get laughs, not push a political agenda. Still, with all the global violence and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he acknowledges his satire has plenty of food for thought.
“Through comedy, he says, “you can do more to get a message across than you can in other ways.”