Q & A with Producer-Director Grant Heslov

“Goats” Producer-Director Grant Heslov with the Star and Co-Producer of “Goats”, George Clooney

“Goats” Producer-Director Grant Heslov with the Star and Producer of “Goats”, George Clooney

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to producer-director Grant Heslov about the making of the dark comedy “The Men Who Stare at Goats”, opening wide Nov. 6 from Overture Films in association with Winchester Capital and BBC Films.

Directed by Academy Award® nominated Grant Heslov (“Good Night, and Good Luck”), “The Men Who Stare at Goats” is produced by Clooney, Heslov and Paul Lister. Its screenplay by Peter Straughan (“How to Lose Friends & Alienate People”) was inspired by Jon Ronson’s non-fiction bestseller of the same name about the government’s attempts to harness paranormal abilities to combat its enemies.

Starring are George Clooney (“Burn After Reading”), Jeff Bridges (“Iron Man”), Ewan McGregor (“Angels & Demons”), Kevin Spacey (“Moon”), Robert Patrick (“The Unit”), Stephen Root (“The Soloist”), Stephen Lang (“Public Enemies”) and Rebecca Mader (“Lost”).

The Story: In a comedic look at real life events almost too bizarre to believe, a reporter discovers a top-secret wing of the U.S. military when he accompanies an enigmatic Special Forces operator on a mind-boggling mission.

Reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) is in search of his next big story when he encounters Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a shadowy figure who claims to be part of an experimental U.S. military unit. According to Cassady, the New Earth Army is changing the way wars are fought. A legion of “Warrior Monks” with unparalleled psychic powers can read the enemy’s thoughts, pass through solid walls, and even kill a goat simply by staring at it. Now, the program’s founder, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), has gone missing and Cassady’s mission is to find him.

Intrigued by his new acquaintance’s far-fetched stories, Bob impulsively decides to tag along. When the pair tracks Django to a clandestine training camp run by renegade psychic Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), the reporter is trapped in the middle of a grudge match between the forces of Django’s New Earth Army and Hooper’s personal militia of super soldiers. In order to survive this wild adventure, Bob must outwit an enemy he never thought possible.

Grant Heslov produced and co-wrote the George Clooney-helmed “Good Night, and Good Luck”, which earned a best picture Oscar nomination and brought Clooney and Heslov a shared best screenplay nomination. They also received BAFTA nominations for best picture and best screenplay and a Golden Globe best screenplay nom. Clooney and Heslov also won the best screenplay award at the Venice Film Festival.

Heslov co-produced the Coen brothers’ “Intolerable Cruelty” and the comedy “Leatherheads”, both of which starred Clooney. They made “Leatherheads” for Smokehouse Pictures, the production company in which they’re partnered.

Heslov began his career as an actor and made his directorial debut with the award-winning short “Waiting for Woody” in 1998, which he also wrote. He directed and executive produced the critically acclaimed television series “Unscripted” and co-executive produced “K Street”, both for HBO. His acting credits include “The Scorpion King”, “Dante’s Peak”, “The Birdcage”, “Congo”, and “True Lies”.

I was happy to have an opportunity to talk recently to Heslov about the making of “Goats”, which marks his feature directorial debut. When he called he was in Italy in a tiny mountain town where it had been raining and snowing for the last three days.

Q: You sound like you’re next door.
A: That’s the beauty of these cell phone things!
Q: What was it about this project that made you feel you wanted to make it as your first feature as a director?
A: It was the script. I read a ton of scripts that come across my desk all day long. I read this script and it made me laugh, it made me think and it also dealt with a subject that I was already sort of interested in. I’d been looking for something and it was my sensibility -- you know, when you read something and it gets under your skin?
Q: What happened next?
A: I talked with my partner George about it. He had read it as well and he felt similar to me about it.
Q: When was that?
A: This was probably two years ago.
Q: How quickly did things fall into place?
A: We talked about it for a while and then George said, “I’d love to play a role in this,” which was great. Once that happened, it happened pretty quickly after that. It happened within a few months that we put it together and got the rest of the cast. We were shooting basically this time (late October) last year.
Q: How did the financing to make it come together?
A: We went to a couple of financiers and we got a couple of offers and we went with the best offer, basically. It was a company we had dealt with before -- Winchester -- and they were great. That was easier than it usually is. It’s usually pretty tricky, but for some reason it all sort of fell into place pretty easily.
Q: What kind of budget did you have?
A: It’s in the just-under-$20 million range.
“The Men Who Stare at Goats” – in theaters November 6

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” – in theaters November 6

Q: So you had a picture with a big star but with a budget that wasn’t in the $100 million stratosphere.
A: Exactly and particularly (good) when you consider the foreign sales. We did it just before the (stock) market had its difficulties. That was lucky.
Q: The book this is based on is also called “The Men Who Stare at Goats”. It’s a title that kind of stops you and makes you wonder what it’s about. Did you give any thought to changing the title?
A: I think it’s a great title. I don’t know if anybody else does, but to me it was the kind of title that once you say it you remember it. It does what a title, for me, should do, which is it really gives you insight into the piece.
Q: I’ve heard that you didn’t have quite as clear sailing once you got into production thanks to some very uncooperative weather.
A: We shot in Puerto Rico and basically we shot during hurricane season. It was duplicating Vietnam and some Iraq exteriors. And we actually did a bunch of interiors there, as well. It seems silly to go to Puerto Rico to do that, but they had great incentives for us so it was a way to get the film made. We shot half the film there during hurricane season and then we moved to New Mexico and got there in November when it gets really really cold there and windy. We shot in a sandstorm that I can’t even describe how bad it was. We had to shoot. We didn’t have a choice.

There’s a scene in the film where George and Ewan are lying on a sand dune as they wake up in the morning and the wind is blowing at about 65 or 70 miles an hour. It’s a fine white sand. The funniest thing is I’m shooting a movie here (in Italy) and I’m wearing the same jacket that I wore there and every time I put something in my pocket like my phone and I pull it out it still has the sand on it. It’s supposed to be the Iraq desert -- and it starts snowing in Albuquerque! So it was a crazy weather situation that we had, but at the end of the day we got everything we needed.
Q: And were there good incentives to shoot in New Mexico, as well?
A: Yes. It’s great. It’s one of the best in the country.
Q: I guess if states offer great financial incentives to shoot there filmmakers are willing to put up with whatever kind of bad weather goes along with the deal.
A: It’s wild what you’ll do to get your film made. I never expected Puerto Rico to be the place that I would shoot this film, but at the end of the day it’s what allowed us to make it and we got great stuff there, so it definitely was worth it.

I wish California would do it. I could have shot the whole film in California because California had everything I needed. It had the deserts. It had everything, but it doesn’t have the incentives and it drives me crazy because I would like to keep the work local. I’m born and raised in Los Angeles and I would love nothing more than to do the work there.
Q: Why doesn’t California get it? You’d think the state would understand why filmmakers are lured elsewhere by financial incentives.
A: Honestly, I don’t know. You couldn’t have a Governor who’s had more film experience except maybe one other one that we had (Ronald Reagan) a long time ago. I suppose that we’ve got such economic problems (that it works against offering financial incentives to filmmakers). But it seems to me if you kept all this work in town that would offset the tax loss. When you shoot, there’s a lot of money that just gets spent in ways you’d never imagine and it would just be great. And I wouldn’t have had to leave my family for four months. That’s a selfish reason.
Q: What film are you making in Italy now?
A: It’s called “The American” and it’s a film we’re doing with Focus. It’s directed by Anton Corbin, a terrific director who directed a fantastic film called “Control” (a 2007 biographical drama starring Samantha Morton). He’s also one of the most famous photographers, primarily of rock musicians and bands (including Metallica, U2, Depeche Mode). We’re doing that film here. George is starring in it and I’m one of the producers on it. We finish shooting right around Thanksgiving.
Q: Coming back to “Goats”, how long did you shoot?
A: I think we shot 42 days.
Q: This was your first time as a feature director. How did it go?
A: It was definitely challenging, but I had directed a bunch of TV stuff and that sort of gets you prepared because you have to shoot so fast anyway. I was working with a lot of people that I’d worked with already. Besides George, much of the crew were people that I’ve worked with. The DP (Robert Elswit, who won the best cinematography Oscar for “There Will Be Blood” and was Oscar nominated for his work on “Good Night, and Good Luck”), we’ve done a couple films with -- and my first A.D. and my sound guy. I was supported by not only some of the most talented people that I know, but also really good supportive friends. So I felt pretty good about it. It’s also the kind of thing that when you get in it it’s sort of like you have blinders on. You just move forward.
Q: You also have many years experience as an actor (in films like “The Birdcage” and “True Lies”). Did that help you in working with your actors?
A: I think it did. You’d have to ask them how they felt about it. But I think I have a shorthand (for working with actors). I also think that every actor’s different in the way they want to be directed or the best way to direct them. I think being an actor helps that. But the truth is when you have, particularly in this case, the four (principal) actors that I had, you don’t really have to do that much directing. They’re all so good. You sort of stay out of the way and let them do what they do best. Occasionally, you give a note here and there, but they’re all really good and I think they’re all great in the film.
Q: How was it working with George? You guys are business partners, but this time you were directing him. How did that go?
A: It was surprisingly easy. The truth is, he’s directed a couple films that he’s been one of the leads in that I’ve produced and so we already have that sort of (relationship). I’m certainly not directing him in those things, but you have conversations so that rapport or way of working was already set. So it was pretty easy. He’s an easy guy to direct because he comes prepared. He delivers right away. He’s a pro.
“Goats” star and producer George Clooney

“Goats” Star and Producer George Clooney

Q: Did you rehearse with your actors?
A: No. We didn’t really rehearse. George and Ewan and I did a couple of hours where we just read through the script. But in terms of like really rehearsing and putting stuff on its feet, no. I’m not a huge fan of that.
Q: Why not?
A: Probably because as an actor I didn’t like doing it. I just think it’s hard to do. I like to be on the set. I like the actors to have the props and be in the environment. In this case, George and Ewan are together a lot in the film so it was really more about them just spending a little time together and feeling comfortable with each other. That to me was more important -- and guys like these are so good. Now I might be lucky enough to direct another film and it could be the kind of thing where I do want to rehearse. But for this one I felt like because of the kind of humor it was, I wanted it to feel a little more spontaneous. I wanted it to feel a little more real.
Q: Did you do any storyboarding?
A: I storyboarded most of the film. Mostly because I’ve worked with directors who do it and it just seems smart to me. It’s like learning your lines. Once you’ve learned your lines it’s really easy to improvise or to make changes, once you have that solid foundation. For me, storyboarding is like that because it forces you to really think about how you want to shoot stuff.

It forces you to think about what the scene is about. It’s doing your homework. And then it’s just a great way to communicate with the rest of the crew so that they know exactly what you’re thinking about. And it’s also a great tool to have discussions on things that might not work or might be too ambitious. It kind of gets it out of your head and makes it less theoretical and more practical.
Q: Looking back at production, what would you say was the biggest challenge you faced?
A: There were individual days that were just incredibly challenging for me because of the weather. All of a sudden you’ve lost hours out of your day and then you’ve got to find a way to make it up and you start either cutting things or rethinking them.

One thing that (was really challenging) was at the Venice Film Festival (last September), the first time we ever screened it for the public, at the premiere. George and I were sitting with each other. Everything is black tie. It’s a big gala event. They announce the film and they applaud even before the film starts. And then the film played and about 15 minutes into the film it just froze. The images just froze on the screen. This is my first big screening of this film. The editor ran back up to the booth and George ran back up there. I actually couldn’t even move. I was like catatonic. My wife ran up and got me a drink.

They said it would take like five minutes to fix, but it took 10 or 15 minutes. They apologized. They start the movie again. It stops again in the same place! This is every director’s nightmare. You just figure you can’t recover from this. It was a digital print that just kept stopping on the same spot. So they moved it forward like a minute and a half or two minutes. The audience missed a good minute and a half of the film and there was one crucial piece that they missed. But then the film started again and everybody applauded. The film played to the end and then the lights came on and the audience turned around and gave us a six minute standing ovation. That was a pretty amazing moment, particularly in lieu of how badly I had assumed the screening had gone.
Q: George is in three films that are getting great awards buzz now. Is it too much at one time?
A: I think it’s gratifying that he’s got all this stuff coming out at once. I’ve seen both the other films (Paramount’s “Up in the Air” and Fox Searchlight Pictures’ animated “Amazing Mr. Fox”) and they’re both terrific. I think it’s great. We’ll be open a month before “Up in the Air” and in “Mr. Fox” he’s a voice. But I think it’s nice that he could have three things out and they can all be so incredibly different and they’re all really good.
Q: And maybe they’ll all wind up in the awards mix?
A: I try not to look ahead like that, but I think his performances both in my film and in “Up in the Air” are terrific. Not even as a partner, but just as a buddy I’m really, really proud of him.