11/05/2009 06:18 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Interview: Grant Heslov talks about George Clooney and Goats

No, Grant Heslov admits, he's never had a psychic episode himself - no premonitions of the future or flash-forwards.

Nor can he engage in what those in that world refer to as "remote viewing": focusing mind-power and projecting his consciousness to watch something happening elsewhere in the world.

"I haven't personally had an experience," Heslov, 46, says, sitting in a hotel room in Toronto during the Toronto Film Festival in September. "I've been around people who have had premonitions, visions, certain things where I wouldn't know what else to chalk them up to.

"I've always been fascinated with the world of remote-viewers. It was something I knew about and followed for the last 15 years. When it came to me in this form, it was very attractive."

Heslov was referring to The Men Who Stare at Goats, a nonfiction book by Jon Ronson about a secret U.S. Army unit devoted to paranormal abilities: remote-viewing, mind control, telekinesis, telepathy - you name it and, according to Ronson's book (and now Heslov's film of the same name, opening Friday, 11.06.09, in limited release), the Army tried to develop it as a weapon (though the Army denies it).

One of the powers the film explores is the ability to walk through walls. Heslov can't do that either - though getting this film made almost qualifies. In Heslov's case, he didn't have a super-power, but he did have a secret weapon: George Clooney, his friend and producing partner, who agreed to star in the film for Heslov's directorial debut.

"Once George decided to do it, it wasn't incredibly hard to get it made," Heslov says. "Without George, it would have been hard."

Clooney plays Lyn Cassady, a former member of the First Earth Battalion, the squad assembled to explore and develop their psychic powers (including the ability to stop the heart of a goat, just by concentrating one's mental powers). He winds up teamed with an American reporter, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) in Iraq at the beginning of the Iraq war, on a mission to find the battalion's missing commander (Jeff Bridges). The film is a comedy, but the approach to the paranormal is played straight.

"I didn't want to be laughing at these people," Heslov says. "I wanted to play it straight. I love the tone of the book and loved this world. I thought it would be fun to bring it to the screen."

At one point, Cassady tells Wilton that the First Earth group thinks of itself as Jedi warriors, using their minds rather than more concrete weapons. That reference took on unexpected comic weight when McGregor - the young Obi-wan Kenobi in Star Wars, Episodes 1-3 - was cast as Wilton.

"The Jedi thing was a coincidence," Heslov says. "I went to Ewan with the script and didn't even think about it. He brought it up: Would it be weird? That's when I realized he was Obi-wan. George and I thought it wouldn't hurt. It's all another layer of what we were finding in the script. But we knew that, if we winked at it, it could never work. So we didn't. My philosophy on the whole is that I didn't want the audience to think we were winking at any of this."


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