No, Grant Heslov admits, he’s never had a psychic episode himself – no premonitions of the future or flash-forwards.
Nor can he engage in what those in that world refer to as “remote viewing”: focusing mind-power and projecting his consciousness to watch something happening elsewhere in the world.
“I haven’t personally had an experience,” Heslov, 46, says, sitting in a hotel room in Toronto during the Toronto Film Festival in September. “I’ve been around people who have had premonitions, visions, certain things where I wouldn’t know what else to chalk them up to.
“I’ve always been fascinated with the world of remote-viewers. It was something I knew about and followed for the last 15 years. When it came to me in this form, it was very attractive.”
Heslov was referring to “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” a nonfiction book by Jon Ronson about a secret U.S. Army unit devoted to paranormal abilities: remote-viewing, mind control, telekinesis, telepathy – you name it and, according to Ronson’s book (and now Heslov’s film of the same name, opening Friday, 11.06.09, in limited release), the Army tried to develop it as a weapon (though the Army denies it).
One of the powers the film explores is the ability to walk through walls. Heslov can’t do that either – though getting this film made almost qualifies. In Heslov’s case, he didn’t have a super-power, but he did have a secret weapon: George Clooney, his friend and producing partner, who agreed to star in the film for Heslov’s directorial debut.
“Once George decided to do it, it wasn’t incredibly hard to get it made,” Heslov says. “Without George, it would have been hard.”
Clooney plays Lyn Cassady, a former member of the First Earth Battalion, the squad assembled to explore and develop their psychic powers (including the ability to stop the heart of a goat, just by concentrating one’s mental powers). He winds up teamed with an American reporter, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) in Iraq at the beginning of the Iraq war, on a mission to find the battalion’s missing commander (Jeff Bridges). The film is a comedy, but the approach to the paranormal is played straight.
“I didn’t want to be laughing at these people,” Heslov says. “I wanted to play it straight. I love the tone of the book and loved this world. I thought it would be fun to bring it to the screen.”
At one point, Cassady tells Wilton that the First Earth group thinks of itself as Jedi warriors, using their minds rather than more concrete weapons. That reference took on unexpected comic weight when McGregor – the young Obi-wan Kenobi in “Star Wars, Episodes 1-3” – was cast as Wilton.
“The Jedi thing was a coincidence,” Heslov says. “I went to Ewan with the script and didn’t even think about it. He brought it up: Would it be weird? That’s when I realized he was Obi-wan. George and I thought it wouldn’t hurt. It’s all another layer of what we were finding in the script. But we knew that, if we winked at it, it could never work. So we didn’t. My philosophy on the whole is that I didn’t want the audience to think we were winking at any of this.”
Heslov has seen enough documentation to believe in the existence of the First Earth Battalion and the veracity of Ronson’s book. He likes the idea of the U.S. Army exploring methods of warfare that eliminate weapons of mass destruction – and even hand-to-hand combat – as a component.
“It heartened me in some way,” he says. “I thought, if we could make this work, it would be a fantastic thing. If you could open your mind enough to investigate it, it would probably be one of the more optimistic things I could see. The idea of exploring alternatives to war techniques is a neat thing. It’s pretty crazy.”
As for the facts of Ronson’s book, “I believe a lot of it happened,” Heslov says. “The unit existed and so did the Jeff Bridges character. I believe there are people who have psychic ability beyond what we consider normal. Do I believe someone can stop the heart of a goat? I guess I’d have to see that to believe it.”
Heslov met Clooney when both were struggling actors in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. While he enjoys acting, Heslov knew early on that he wanted to move into other areas.
“I had focused on being an actor but I always wanted to direct, write, produce – I wanted to do it all,” he says. “I was acting for a long time before I got into any of that. That’s how I made a living.
“I love acting. It’s a very different experience. But unless you’re a star, you don’t have a lot of control. When I write or produce or direct, I have more say in what my career will be like. As an actor, everyday I’m at the mercy of the people in the room. When I hit a certain age, I wanted to take control. Having kids and a family, my priorities changed.”
He and Clooney had bonded in acting classes, when Clooney was still an up-and-comer with a resume full of short-lived TV series.
“I’ve got a great group of friends and he’s one of that group,” Heslov says. “He’s a normal guy. That’s the advantage of knowing people before they blow up. Back in those days, we’d talk about this stuff. We had dreams. But we weren’t really talking about films. We were doing TV and talking about how to make a living. And we weren’t making a living in the beginning.
“Once George’s career got to a certain point, where he was in a place to call his own shots, we started working together. That was eight or nine years ago. He was in a position to think about what stories he wanted to tell. He said, ‘Let’s make the things that, when we look back, we can be proud of them.’”
Which is what they’ve done, with films such as “Leatherheads” (which Clooney directed and Heslov produced) and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which they cowrote and produced. Heslov hopes the string will continue.
“We’ve got eight or nine things in various stages of development,” he says. “The question is which we’ll do next. I’m producing a film George is acting in, called ‘The American,’ in Italy. I want to direct another film, but first I want to take a little break. So I’m producing – which I consider a break.”