Men Who Stare at Goats: Book to Film
Some stories seem destined to be made into movies, like this one: an army of New Age warriors is bankrolled by the U.S. government to develop methods of combat using only their minds. Amazingly, this story is true. In his extensively researched bestselling book The Men Who Stare at Goats, journalist Jon Ronson uncovers the history of the First Earth Battalion, and in the process sets the stage for an astonishing and hilarious cinematic look at a virtually unknown chapter of American military history.
When producer Paul Lister received the first two chapters of the book from Ronson’s literary agent, he found the title irresistible. “It’s such a great title,” says Lister. “It made me pick up the book right away and say, ‘What is this?’ And it’s the central idea in the movie.”
“The chapters were very funny,” he adds. “I couldn’t wait to get the rest of the book. It was full of strange, true stories that had resonance. That was the draw for me—I thought, ‘Hang on a minute. How can something so funny and strange be real?’”
The book contained enough offbeat revelations for two movies, but it didn’t conform to a traditional three-act narrative. Screenwriter Peter Straughan was brought in to further develop the story into a script. “As much as I loved the book, it didn’t really present as a movie,” says Lister. “Peter came in with the vision we needed to transform it. He moved away from pure fact into a fictionalized series of events and characters inspired by the book.
“Peter delivered an unbelievably strong first draft,” the producer continues. “It was smart and funny and fresh. There’s just nothing else out there like it.”
Straughan says his challenge was finding a thread that ran through Ronson’s interviews that he could shape into a straight narrative line. “I literally went through the book with a marker and underlined everything I thought couldn’t be left out,” he says. “Then I tried to work out a storyline that would fit in as much of that as possible.
“What I added was the more mundane stuff that was needed pull it all together,” he adds. “People may think we’ve added the goofier, more slapstick stuff, but it’s all true. All of the backstory, like trying to walk through walls, or kill a hamster by staring at it, is taken from various different experiments that were tried out in the Army or the CIA throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Some of the sillier scenes in the film are taken word for word from interviews Jon did.”
The finished script combines sharp-witted satire and sweet hopefulness, in the spirit of the book. “I kept thinking, what if the hippies had controlled the army, what would the world be like then?” says Straughan. “The tone really comes from the persona Jon brought to his interviews, which is very open and accepting. He’s never snide about the people he’s interviewing, however strange their ideas might seem. I ended up feeling the same way about the characters and the strength of their beliefs, even if I couldn’t always share them.”
The screenplay attracted the attention of Grant Heslov and George Clooney, partners in the production company Smokehouse. Heslov, producer of films including Good Night and Good Luck (for which he also garnered an Academy Award® nomination) and Leatherheads, was planning his feature film directing debut when the script came his way.
“I fell in love with it,” he says. “I read a lot of screenplays and this one made me laugh out loud from beginning to end. Jon Ronson captured this world in a very real way and Peter adapted as only a really great writer could. When I gave it to George to read, he said, ‘You know what? Let’s do it.’”
Clooney brought more than his star power to the project. “George is a fantastic actor and perfect for the role of Lyn Cassady,” says Lister. “But he isn’t just a movie star. He and Grant know how to make a movie. They can put all the elements together.
“The slightly subversive nature of the material is perfect for them,” adds the producer. “It’s got a political edge. It’s got humor. The point-of-view really gelled with the way they see the world. It was great to have them as the motors that drove this forward.”
Straughan’s screenplay added another, more emotional layer to The Men Who Stare at Goats. “On the surface, it is the story of a group of men in the military who study psychic warfare,” Heslov notes. “But it’s also a road picture about two guys who are both lost in their lives and who forge a real relationship.”
In the film, the fictionalized First Earth Battalion is called the New Earth Army. “We also refer to as it ‘Project Jedi’ in the film,” says Heslov. “They actually called themselves Jedi Warriors. It was all about freeing your mind and coming up with new nondestructive methods of warfare.”
Lister finds the idea of a group of forward-thinking military men who come together to embrace the spirit of the New Age inspiring. “They wanted to find new ways of fighting wars without harming anybody,” says the producer. “In our story, this fantastic, idealistic, new way of fighting wars gets corrupted, which is also what happened in the real world.”
Jim Dever, a retired sergeant major in the Marine Corps with 25 years of service and the film’s military consultant, was shocked to discover the story was based in reality. “When I got the script, I said, “Is this for real? Did this happen in the Army?” So I did research. It was all there.”
Jon Ronson was inspired to write The Men Who Stare at Goats after hearing an unlikely and fascinating story about a low-profile U.S. Army effort to harness extra sensory perception and telepathy for the purposes of warfare. Jim Channon, a former lieutenant colonel with the Army, told Ronson he was one of the founders of the First Earth Battalion, and had written the field manual for the group after years of research into philosophy, martial arts, psychic arts, healing, psychology and a range of extrasensory experiences.
“They were a group of military men, some highly placed, who desperately wanted to learn paranormal abilities,” says Ronson. “They really did try to walk through walls and become invisible. They practiced greeting the enemy with ‘sparkly eyes,’ and eventually, at Fort Bragg, when the ideas turned darker, they tried to kill goats just by staring at them.”
Channon became interested in alternative warfare after his service in the Vietnam War. He began to investigate a wide array of New Age techniques, including Reichian rebirthing, primal arm wrestling and naked hot tub encounter sessions in order to revolutionize the military. A 125-page mixture of drawing, graphs, and essays detailing a complete overhaul of the traditional army, the manual draws on sources as diverse as Buckminster Fuller, Leonardo Da Vinci and Buddha. It covers topics from visualization techniques and total fitness to the slightly more esoteric “Ethical Combat” and “Earth Prayers.”
“Jim spent years studying with different gurus and New Age movements,” says Heslov.” “When he came back, he wrote a manifesto, so to speak. It outlines a way to fight wars in a peaceful manner. It gets pretty detailed, from the way to deal with the enemy to certain battle tactics.”
Channon convinced his superior officers to allow him to take charge of a battalion of soldiers trained in psychological and paranormal warfare techniques, including remote viewing—an out-of-body experience that enables the subject to see events taking place thousands of miles away—and invisibility.
According to Jon Ronson’s meticulously researched book, Major General Albert Stubblebine III was among the first to envision an army of the future that would use advanced sensory techniques to resolve international conflicts. General Stubblebine, a West Point graduate and the commanding general of the United States Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) from 1981 until his retirement in 1984, passionately believed that every human being alive was capable of performing supernatural miracles.
The general was intrigued by Jim Channon’s vision of ending conventional warfare with a battalion of "warrior monks" who could see into the future, read minds, become invisible and teleport. He threw the full weight of his influence behind the idea of a New Age army in a series of under-the-radar projects at Fort Meade. He also devoted considerable time to harnessing his own psychic powers, hoping to perfect the art of phasing—which includes the ability to walk through walls.
“The first scene in the book is Major General Stubblebine getting up from behind his desk in Arlington, Virginia,” says Ronson. “He announces he’s going into the next office, breaks into a jog, and then bumps his nose hard on his office wall.”
Soon after becoming head of INSCOM, Stubblebine instituted a program called the High Performance Task Force. The Task Force utilized New Age techniques including neurolinguistic programming and brain synchronization, and sent some of its officers to the Monroe Institute, dedicated to the study of human consciousness.
According to Ronson, the program started very simply. “First the CIA, and then the Department of Defense, got a bunch of soldiers, stuck them in a secret room and told them to be psychic.”
“They experimented with things that sound absurd, like ‘race-specific stink-bombs’ and subliminal sounds and ‘attack bees’,” he continues. “The first leader of the remote viewing unit—a CIA man called Sidney Gottlieb—also ran a very dark endeavor called MK-Ultra. They would secretly spike the drinks of unsuspecting military people with LSD. Some of the awful things that Kevin Spacey’s character does in the movie were inspired by stories about Gottlieb.”
“They explored all kinds of philosophies and devices to fight non-lethal wars,” says Lister. “They investigated things like ‘The Predator,’ a little plastic blob that looks like a children’s toy but is actually very dangerous.”
The official files on the First Earth Battalion remain sealed and the Army says their psi-ops programs were long ago disbanded. But veterans of the program continue to wield influence in and out of the military, including Jim Channon, who is now known as “a global elder” and “the world’s first corporate shaman”; John Alexander, a leading expert on non-lethal weapons; Joseph McMoneagle, one of the original recruits who psychically identified a previously unknown Soviet submarine; Ingo Swann, originator of the term "remote viewing" and developer of the first training protocols; Lyn Buchanan and Mel Riley, who currently offer psi-ops services through a private company in Washington, D.C., and Ed Dames, sometimes called “the real Obi Wan Kenobi,” a renowned remote viewing expert and trainer.
Straughan made a decision not to interview any of the real life figures for his screenplay. “Jon had already done that,” he explains. “I thought it would just muddy my thinking. I needed to go the opposite way and create a fictional narrative that would turn Jon’s book into a full-out comedy movie, so I deliberately kept away from all of that until the writing was all over.”
The producers and director did speak with Jim Channon as they prepared for the film. “Jim is really a smart, free-thinking individual,” says Lister. “He’s a fantastic guy and a huge supporter of the movie. Even though we’ve fictionalized his endeavors, I think he hopes that people will see the movie, have fun, and then make the connection back to the First Earth Battalion.”
Heslov and Clooney pride themselves on running an easygoing set, and by all accounts, the light-hearted tone of the film continued even when the cameras stopped rolling. “We try to do it the same way we run our business,” says Heslov. “We try and have fun. Making movies can be tense. It’s all-consuming. You only have so much time, you only have so much money, so we really try to make it a pleasurable experience.”
“Grant did a splendid job,” says Jeff Bridges, one of the film’s stars. “He created a wonderful atmosphere that was relaxed and focused. He was always open to ideas from the actors, and was very inclusive that way. He came very prepared. I think audiences are in for a wonderful surprise. There’s no way really to describe it. The tone of the movie is funny, scary, serious, endearing. It’s the full gamut of emotions.”
His co-star Kevin Spacey agrees. “Grant had such a clear idea about the movie he wanted to make,” says the actor. “He knew exactly how he wanted the film to move. Surprisingly, the film is quite touching by the end. A part of me really wants to believe it’s possible to have an army that fights without weapons. And who knows, maybe there is still a branch of the New Earth Army working out of some bizarre Hawaiian villa.”
“It is very, very funny and clever and—most of all—it has a big heart,” says Ronson. “Everyone is fantastic in it. Some of the book's darkness is in there too, but just the right amount. I'm very proud.”
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