The Men Who Stare At Goats - Grant Heslov interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
GRANT Heslov talks about some of the challenges of directing military satire The Men Who Stare At Goats, including its basis in truth, working against the weather (including snow in the desert) and what it taught him about filmmaking.
He also discusses working with George Clooney, their long-time friendship and their plans for the future in terms of filmmaking…
Q. What made you decide that you wanted to direct The Men Who Stare At Goats as your feature film debut?
Grant Heslov: It was just a good script from the first time I read it. It’s hard to find those. But it also appealed to me on a level that I’m interested in – I like that sort of paranormal stuff and it had a couple of interesting things to say, which is always nice if you can do a comedy and at the same time have stuff going on. I just thought it was funny as well.
Q. How much did you know about the story initially?
Grant Heslov: I knew about this stuff happening in the military but not to the extent it went to. It came as a huge surprise. I think my first reading and, I hope, most people’s first reaction to it will be: “Holy crap! This stuff was really happening?”
Q. How useful was it to have someone like Jim Channon – a real life veteran of the First Earth Battalion – around?
Grant Heslov: He was great. Jeff [Bridges] spent some time talking to him quite a bit. I mean he was there when it was all going on, so just to get the first-hand account of how things went down was very helpful to me.
Q. Was there stuff that you wanted to use but which was too “out there”?
Grant Heslov: No, there was nothing I wouldn’t use because it was too “out there”. There was just too much stuff. There was a whole thing, which used to be in the film, about Waco Texas and the FBI’s raid on Waco… how they used music to try and get [David] Koresh out, and how it connected to what they were doing in the New Earth Army.
Q. How was the experience of directing? It sounds like this one was a baptism of fire?
Grant Heslov: It was certainly… I got into it and thought: “What the hell was I thinking?” I’d been more ambitious than I initially thought. But it was great. You couldn’t ask for a better cast, or a director of photography. The one smart thing I did was surround myself with people who were great and who knew what they were doing. So, I sort of felt that the screenplay was the kind of thing that if I just didn’t f**k it up too much I’d be OK.
Q. I gather you had to overcome problems like snow in the New Mexico desert and hurricanes in Puerto Rico?
Grant Heslov: Oh man, there were a lot of weather issues. We had a sand storm one day that was just irritating and the snow in the desert was just absolutely ridiculous. We had to wait for it to melt. We had to have those flame thrower things to melt it. In fact, it was at that point I said: “You know what, let’s just pack it up and go back to California and finish it there!” It was too much. It was supposed to have been the desert and yet I have George [Clooney] and Ewan [McGregor] in the back of a truck in 30 degrees… it was freezing and yet they had to act. It was impossible.
Q. Was goat casting another of the things you never thought you’d have to encounter?
Grant Heslov: [Laughs] I did do a little casting! There’s the one goat that’s featured in the desert, and that was one I liked the way it looked. They brought like 100 goats on the day and I’d pick them out and say: “I want to use that one, or that one…” But the bigger scenes with the goats was just a herd and you can take what you get. But I was fairly impressed with the way goats behave. They’re pretty good. The great thing about goats is that basically they’ll follow each other… so if you can get one to do the right thing, they’ll all follow along.
Q. You’ve worked with George Clooney several times [on Goodnight, And Good Luck and Leatherheads] and you’re obviously great friends…
Grant Heslov: We met at acting class.
Q. Since then your relationship has really been fruitful…
Grant Heslov: It’s been great. We met in class and we just remained friends for a long time. I’d acted for a long time and decided I wanted to get more into production. I’d always been interested in it, so I started working with George and Steven Soderbergh and then George and I did Goodnight, And Good Luck. This evolved from there. But it’s always been a fairly easy collaboration because we were friends before.
Q. Having come through the ranks together, have you been intrigued by the way George’s career has blossomed since his ER breakthrough?
Grant Heslov: Well, it’s less ER and more when you come up with somebody and they get to the place where he’s been… you have moments when you need to shake your head and it’s almost surreal in a way. Mostly, it’s the same group of guys. Everybody calls everybody on their shit and it’s like any group of guys…. the other stuff sort of plays itself out separately.
Q. Is it easy to direct a best friend?
Grant Heslov: Well, George is easy to direct. I’m sure there are collaborations where it is. If he was difficult then I’m sure it could be hard. But he’s really smart about the scenes, so you don’t really have to do a lot of directing. And that applies to any of these guys [Ewan, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges] really. Once you decide collectively what the character is, it’s really more about: “Maybe a little louder, or faster…” They’re really good, so it makes your job much easier.
Q. You’ve obviously collaborated with George before so you’re easy around each other on the set. But what about when it comes to working with people like Jeff Bridges? Was there ever a sense of awe or nerves on your first day?
Grant Heslov: Jeff and Kevin were only trickier in the sense that I didn’t know them at all. But I have to say, when Kevin showed up we’d already been shooting for weeks, and we did a rehearsal and I gave him one adjustment and that was it. From then on he was so great. Jeff works a little differently than the other three. He’s a little more… his process is a little more physical in a way. So, it’s really just allowing him the space to try anything. And what I learned from the experience is that everybody has a different way and you just figure out what those are and give them a place to do that.
Q. Has this whet your appetite to continue directing films?
Grant Heslov: I love doing it… so if I can get the money to do other films then absolutely.
Q. How about acting? Will you go back to that?
Grant Heslov: The acting is probably the least satisfying because the other things [producing, screenwriting, directing] take up so much time. George and I have a bunch of things that we’re working on. But I’m literally knocking on wood every day because I really do feel like the luckiest guy right now, to be able to do all this stuff.
Q. How easy is it for you and George Clooney to get a film made in this current economic climate. I gather that the kind of film you guys like to make is the type of film that’s suffering?
Grant Heslov: Yeah, this kind of film is definitely suffering. We got in with this right when the world was going a little crazy, so we got in just at the end of that. I think it would be even more difficult to get this made today. I hope it does well enough so that people will go and see it. It would be a shame to not make these kind of films. I love all different kinds of films… and I don’t know what type of film I’ll make next. But it’s really just about what makes a great story. We had a hard time getting this film made, but that’s the best of it. So, it’ll be interesting to see what happens in the film world in the future.
- Buy it on DVD (Amazon)
- Buy it on Blu-ray (Amazon)
- Read our review
- George Clooney interview
- Grant Heslov interview
- The Men Who Stare At Goats Gallery
- Jon Ronson interview
- The Men Who Stare At Goats - UK Premiere Gallery
- The Men Who Stare At Goats - UK Photo Call