George Clooney (left) and Jeff Bridges star in the new film adaptation of Jon Ronson’s book “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” (Image courtesy Overture Films)
Jon Ronson says initially it didn’t occur to anyone that there was an irony in hiring Star Wars star Ewan McGregor to play a role in “The Men Who Stare at Goats.”
The movie is based on Ronson’s non-fictional account of efforts within the US military to train soldiers to develop paranormal powers and become what the military called Jedi warriors.
“Nobody had sussed it out,” Ronson said to me during a phone interview today. “Only after Ewan had been offered the role did he mention it. Total coincidence. May God strike me down if I am lying,” he laughed, and then quickly admitted he doesn’t believe in God.
It’s just one of the many strange things about Ronson’s story. He is a writer and documentary maker who began his explorations into the psychic soldiers shortly after 9/11 when he ran into the infamous silverware bender Uri Geller who had long claimed to be a psychic spy.
When Ronson asked him about it, Geller would only say a) that he had been ‘re-activated’ and b) he would deny making his first statement if Ronson told anyone.
This set Ronson off on a series of adventures meeting some of the people who had tried to do such things as pass through walls, make clouds disperse, make people forget about what they were thinking (especially if that thought was about killing you,) and yes, trying to kill goats, and possibly people, by staring at them.
Ronson knows people will be skeptical about the story. “My own skepticism is utterly intact,” he says. “I firmly believe that all the things I say happened in the book did happen, but what I don’t believe for a second was that any of this paranormal stuff actually worked.”
Such was his confidence in this he actually submitted to being a subject by one of the ‘goat-starers.’ The man said he would enter Ronson’s mind and make him so fearful that when he touched him Ronson would fly across the room.
“And indeed that’s what he did,” Ronson says.
However on reviewing the videotape he had made of the interaction Ronson saw something different happening. He described the soldier in question as ‘an enormous Special Forces martial arts trainer.’ he describes himself as being quite small. On the tape he saw that the soldier actually hit him quite hard and it wasn’t surprising he flew through the air.
“It was an interesting lesson in a kind of pragmatic application of paranormal techniques, which was basically freak somebody out and they will be debilitated and you’ll be able to have your way with them,” he says.
The movie based on Ronson’s book opens with a declaration “More of this is true than you would believe.” The film takes Ronson’s true tales of paranormal experimentation and builds a fictional story of a mildly hapless journalist Bob Wilton (McGregor) who stumbles across the remnants of a disbanded supersecret psychic soldier group, including Lyn Casady (George Clooney) who takes him into Iraq. Along the way Casady relates the history of the First Earth Battalion and its founder Bill Django (Jeff Bridges.) Things don’t go terribly well, all in all.
Ronson says he was advised by his friend Nick Hornby that he should just relax and not worry about the whole film making process. He decided to just enjoy the adventure.
“I think they have made a really nice film,” he said. “It’s a very sweet, funny warm film that I think people will engage with. Even though my book is quite dark, the film is light. And I think that is fine.”
“Because I am such a sceptic, I don’t believe for a second that people could actually have these paranormal powers, ” he continued. “But I loved that the movie toyed with it: that you don’t really know at the beginning of the movie whether its going to change into a kind of X-Men and these people will have these amazing powers and they kind of toy with that possibility in a very funny engaging way.”
The movie opens this weekend across the country, and anyone eager for a brush with stardom can meet one of the goats used in the film at the Mall of America this evening. Word is you can try to ‘drop the goat’ yourself if you are so inclined.
But Jon Ronson isn’t holding his breath.