x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Power of imagination

The author of The Men Who Stare at Goats talks about the big-screen adaptation and the US military's real-life psychic unit.

Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey and George Clooney star in The Men Who Stare at Goats, which recently screened at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals.
Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey and George Clooney star in The Men Who Stare at Goats, which recently screened at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals.

As the Middle East International Film Festival prepares to screen The Men Who Stare at Goats, the author of the 2004 book speaks to Andy Pemberton about the US military's real-life elite psychic unit and how the movie changed his life "I asked a guy the CIA employed to evaluate the US military's psychic spy programme," says Jon Ronson. "I asked him why is there so much craziness. And he said because people everywhere are basically nutty."

It's a simple enough explanation, and one that informs The Men Who Stare at Goats, a new movie that details how the US military enlisted the hippie dream in the 1970s and 1980s to create "warrior monks" who could battle enemies using psychic powers. Due for release on November 9, the comedy employs a stellar cast, including George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges. The Philadelphia Inquirer called the movie the most cheerful film at last week's Toronto International Film Festival, and Ronson, whose 2004 book the film is based on, is a fan.

"I was swept along by it," he says. "It's warmer than my book and not as dark. It's like the Little Miss Sunshine of war." In the film, a journalist uncovers a department in military intelligence that is attempting to employ soldiers' mental powers for defence purposes. There is a pervasive rumour that members of this elite psychic unit can kill goats simply by staring at them. And, unbelievably, it's all true. The unit really did exist; the US army did employ the assistance of Uri Geller, who claims to have paranormal powers; a high ranking general did try to walk through a wall; there really was a mind training camp at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; 100 de-bleated goats were secretly placed inside a special forces command centre, and Barney the purple dinosaur's theme tune was used for psychological torture.

The slaying of goats with the human mind, however, was never proven. "The US military prides itself on thinking outside the box," Ronson says. "They consider it their duty to go to the furthest corner of their imaginations. If they didn't, developments such as the high visibility, fluorescent jacket would never have been made." The film imagines one of these psychic soldiers - or Jedi Warrior as he calls himself, played with a glassy mania by Clooney - reactivated for the Iraq war. This element of the story, says Ronson, is entirely fictionalised.

"The film is about 70 per cent true," he says. "But I don't mind that. I understand that a screenwriter needs to do whatever a screenwriter needs to do to make it work." Ronson, a London-based journalist in his early 40s, says he didn't mind that he was played in the movie by the dishy McGregor. "I didn't get dreamy about it," he says. "I just watch the film like a punter." Although Ronson did not write the screenplay, he badly wanted to see the film being shot.

"I developed a weird psychological need to see it being made," he says. "I imagined that halfway across the world George Clooney and Ewan McGregor were having unimaginable fun on a movie set. So I travelled to Puerto Rico, where half the film was being shot. But of course it wasn't fun at all. It was arduous, hard work. After two days, I had scratched that itch and I spent the rest of the week by the pool."

Since then, Ronson has joined the cast on promotional trips to the Cannes and Toronto film festivals. He says they have made him feel at home. "For some reason, George Clooney and Ewan McGregor have decided that they like me," he shrugs. "They have really made me feel part of the whole thing." For most writers, all this would be a dream come true, but Ronson remains diffident. "With the money from the film, we bought a house closer to my son's school; it was a three-hour round trip for my wife before. Oh, and I decided to start writing screenplays after being a journalist for 20 years. But I think that will be the only change.

"No one is treating me with any more respect now or anything like that," he shrugs. And, after the last two weeks of movie stars, red carpets and champagne screenings, "I am back to being the schmuck I was two weeks ago".