Men Who Stare at Goats: Grant Heslov Misfire, Starring George Clooney

“The Men Who Stare at Goats,” which stars George Clooney as is directed by Grant Heslov, is an adaptation of Jon Ronson’s novel. The films is being released November 6, 2009 by Overture Films.

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” takes its characters from small town Michigan to the Iraqi desert, with several stops along the way.

“This is a little film with big ideas and big locations,” says Paul Lister. “It took a lot of wrangling. This story takes place briefly in 1970s Vietnam. We’re in the 1980s. We’re in 2003. We’re in Iraq. We’re in Fort Bragg. It’s really got scope and that means there was a lot of moviemaking to be done.”

Location scout S. Todd Christensen covered over 14,000 miles finding the right locations for the film, a personal record. “There was one day of scouting that started in Albuquerque, went 80 miles to the Zia Pueblo, then to Roswell, Mescalero Flats, White Sands and Alamogordo,” Christensen remembers. “By the time we got back to Albuquerque, we had driven 700 miles in just over 16 hours. As I told Grant, it was my biggest day ever.”

Christensen found some stunning backdrops for the film in his travels. “I found a dry lake bed in Willard, New Mexico on Google Earth,” he says. “It’s this vast 10-mile dry lake bed that’s alkaline, so it’s very white and absolutely gorgeous. It’s also very desolate. No plant life; there’s very little of anything but sand, which is what they wanted.”

Shooting New Mexico for the Iraqi desert worked well visually, but the weather was not always cooperative. “It turned very cold towards the end of the shoot,” says Heslov. “In the film, it was supposed to be 100-plus degrees and it was 30. George and Ewan were in T-shirts, but sometimes you just have to shoot, so we worked around it. When it started snowing, we had to stop for a couple of hours and wait for it to melt.”

That was what McGregor refers to as “an interesting acting exercise.” “You take off all the layers and tell yourself ‘Okay it’s warm, it’s warm, it’s warm. Someone would have to put sweat on us, which just makes you colder, of course. It was bizarre.”

To stand in for Vietnam, the filmmakers shot in Puerto Rico during hurricane season. Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan joined the cast and crew there. “When they started filming, I thought George Clooney and Ewan McGregor must be having unimaginable fun,” says Ronson. “I wanted to be part of it. So Peter and I flew to Puerto Rico. It turned out that they weren’t having unimaginable fun. They were working very hard, for very long hours in really quite arduous circumstances.”

Substituting for Fort Bragg in North Carolina is the New Mexico Military Institute. “They hadn’t done any filming there since Dress Gray in 1986,” says Christensen “They had a lot of rules. There was one scene I call the ‘naked guy scene’ that they had some difficulty with so he ended up wearing a skin-colored Speedo.”

And if the filmmakers had any doubts about the authenticity of their information, it was dispelled during their time at the school. “While we were shooting there, we were approached by a representative of the college,” says Lister. He had looked at our shooting schedule and saw “Jedi Earth Prayer.” And he said, ‘Hang on a minute. I did that.’ He had been a part of the First Earth Battalion. This guy was there when they invited Uri Geller, the famous psychic, to demonstrate how to bend a spoon with the power of the mind!”

And then, of course, there were the goats. The filmmakers needed a herd for some of the movie’s most critical scenes. Heslov heard about a particular variety that seemed ideal. “They’re called “Fainting Goats’ for obvious reasons,” he says. “These goats pass out when they’re startled. Our cinematographer, Robert Elswit, had seen them on television and they seemed perfect. So we got some goats in and we did a test. But when we startled the goats, they didn’t faint. Nothing. They were just regular goats. I know these goats do exist, but we didn’t see them, so we had to use normal everyday goats.”

Mary Duree, the goat wrangler, says that while goats are highly intelligent, they received no special training for the film. “Goats are easy to make look like they’ve been hypnotized,” she says. “They’re very curious, so they’ll gather up together and just gaze at you. They’re comical animals in a lot of ways.” Goats are notoriously playful and will cause a commotion when they’re bored. The solution is simple, says Duree. “Their biggest entertainment is eating. Food keeps them quiet.”

Despite some of the apprehensions the filmmakers had, the goats proved easy to work with and popular on the set. “They’re very responsive,” says the director. “George was sure the goats were going to be difficult. He talks a mean game, but once he had a baby goat in his arms, it was love at first sight.”

The time is always right for a good comedy, and according to Paul Lister, The Men Who Stare at Goats is much more than just that. “Recent foreign policy decisions have caused us as a country to ask some big questions. Finding our way out of those problems is going to take some out-of-the-box thinking, and this is a story about how to think out of the box.”