The man who spoke to men who stared at goats
November 18, 2009
Flux, The College View
By Cian Ginty
A secret US Army unit was founded in 1979. It was named the First Earth Battalion and it specialised in paranormal techniques. Its members attempted to walk through walls, and attempted to us a death stare on goats.
The Men Who Stare at Goats – a satirical film now in cinemas – is quite light-hearted compared to Jon Ronson’s 2004 book and Channel Four documentary of the same name. In some ways the documentary felt crazier than the film. The fictional film seems more believable than the documentary.
While Ronson uncovered the US army’s First Earth Battalion, he was, however, never convinced that these paranormal attempts were successful.
He says: “It’s a true story, which is all described in the book, about the crack team of American soldiers who decided to harness the power of the paranormal. So, they decided to try and become invisible and kill things by just looking at them. And all these things you actually can’t do, so the film is very funny about all these people who are trying desperately hard to do something that is impossible.”
The film in any case is only loosely based on the true story of the book or documentary. Quite a few things have changed. Ronson is now a fictional US newspaper reporter, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor).
“He’s his own man in the film,” Ronson says of Ewan McGregor. “He does not really play me. Some of the actors in the film, like Jeff Bridges, are really harnessing the people that they are playing, the real people. George Clooney’s character too is very much so based on real people”.
It’s another way the film seems kind of toned down. While Bob Wilton is a notable character, he’s not half as memorable as the real life journalist, writer and documentary maker.
“Well my character is a tiny, terrified, owl-like, tiny little Jewish man. I’m like Penfold from Danger Mouse. And, so, Ewan McGregor is definitely more sort of fabulous than I am. But he is still quite sort of nebbish, and neurotic, and sort of diminished in a sort of nice way – so there’s a bit of me in there”.
The Hollywood Reporter called the film one of the “hotter market projects in Cannes,” but at one stage the film looked like it would never get made. The Men Who Stare at Goats screen play was floating around Hollywood for four years. “It was on its way out,” Ronson says. “It was getting to the stage that it might have been going around for too long and never being made and then George Clooney came along.”
“Hollywood being difficult as it can be it was quite possible it was going to be one of the greatest screen plays which was never made, so I’m really grateful… I’m very genuinely, honestly grateful to him.”
He says he is happy with the adaption. “I really like it, it’s very sweet, and it’s warm. And George Clooney is really good in it, and Peter Straughan wrote an absolutely brilliant screen play. I really liked it. I think it is a really likeable, kind of batty, sweet, small, film. It’s different to the book; my book is kind of darker. It goes into torture and so on, which the film only brushes up against really.”
But nerdishly he has searched for reaction on Twitter, telling Flux: “From time to time when I know there has been a big screening, like at a film festival, I’ll go on Twitter and see what people are saying when they are coming out. Not everybody comes out of the film liking it, but a lot of people do, enough to make it a success”.
Asked about his Twitter profile (@jonronson), and how he calls himself a writer on it, Ronson give a very typical answer, as if he was striving for perfection but an interview don’t give him the time to ponder for a few days. He says “I suppose I’m a journalist, I was getting airs and graces when I was saying that, I was getting a bit hoity toity.”
Then within the same breath, nearly backtracking, but more likely striving in his own mind for the right answer, he continues: “Although I am writing screen plays, so I suppose that’s not journalism, and the books are sort of journalism and sort of not. I mean I’m writing a book at the moment which is a little bit different, it’s not straight journalism. But you know journalists can be writers, the two aren’t incompatible by any means.”
He says being a perfectionist led to hating his column in The Guardian magazine on Saturdays. “I’m very, very glad I don’t have to do it anymore. I hated it. I absolutely despised it. It was driving me insane.”
Did he always hate it? “No, I liked it for about the first year. Then the last two years, I really hated it. It was awful. Because I’m a perfectionist and perfectionists shouldn’t write weekly columns. Weekly columns for perfectionists, you know, are killers. Because you just spend the whole time worrying. I worried my life away.”
He says he quit the column before his son was old enough to be aware of it. “I was exhausted and a bit nervous breakdownie, getting sleepless nights. But also I was going a bit Julie Myerson; I was in danger of selling out my family for a deadline.”
“Anything’s easier than writing; being in hospital is easier than writing,” he says on writing in general.
“Incredibly hard, exhausting, I’m amazed at how kind of knackered I get, “he says. “I can do about four hours. I try to start really early, so I try starting at about seven in the morning, but by 11 in the morning I feel like I’ve run a marathon. I’m definitely not one of those people who can knock it out really easily, it’s like fucking ripping out a core, it’s not pleasant. But when you get a sentence of right, there’s no better feeling.”
What kind of writing does he find the hardest? “Well I really do only one sort of writing, well that’s not true since I’ve been writing screen plays as well lately. I think I find all writing equally as hard. I care about it too much, I take it too seriously, I really, really care. I sort of always have done. Yeah… like when I was writing screen plays I was like this is much harder than writing books, but now that I’m writing another book thinking this is much harder than screen plays.”
He asks me about writing and we both come to the conclusion that news writing is easer then feature writing. But how does he find the jump from documentaries to screen writing? “It was definitely harder. It took a lot of relearning. I was lucky one of the screen plays I co-wrote with Peter Straughan, who wrote The Men Who Stare at Goats screen play, and so he kind of taught me a lot how to do it. But it took a long time relearning all the rules… I mean with my first screen play, I reckon, I was just sitting there learning how to do it for six months before I wrote anything that was any good.”
Pessimistically, adding “None of them have been filmed yet, so I could have just wasted a couple years of my life, but I hope not. I think at least one is going to get made, possibly two.”
And, on the adaptation of his other bestselling book, Them: Adventures with Extremists, he says, “Well, Edgar Wright is supposed to be adapting my book, Them, but you know the months and years are passing and he has not done it yet. I fucking hope he does, because I am a great fan of Edgar’s.”
What the five most memorable things you’ve done or seen?
1. “Sneaking into Bohemian Grove and witnessing some world leaders having a weird ritual with a human effigy being thrown into the fiery belly of a 50 foot stone owl.”
2. “With the Men Who Stare at Goats, when I first started to learn about the goat staring programme, about Project Jedi and all these different kind of levels of madness, I really, really loved that”.
3. “David Icke and his giant lizards… Oh, god this is hard, because there’s been so many.”
4. “I was once ousted as a Jew at a Jihad training camp near Gatwick Airport, that was memorable.”
5. “Watching the video in the Men Who Stare at Goats [documentary] where the hamster gets stared to death. Although at the end of the video the hamster gets up and brushes its self down, so, it’s an inconclusive death stare, at best.”
The Men Who Stared at Goats is out now