Grant Heslov: interview
Grant Heslov, director of 'The Men who Stare at Goats' talks about his old pal George Clooney, his interest in the paranormal, and his fond memories of working on 'Happy Days'
‘There was a script that I read first, and then once I’d read the script and wanted to pursue it as a film. Then I read the book, and then I saw the documentary, so that’s sorta how it happened.’
Did you have any personal interest in the subjects that Jon Ronson covered in the book?
‘You know, I did. I had a real interest in the idea of remote viewing. Also, there was this guy named Art Bell who did a radio show in the States about the paranormal. I listened to him for years. His show is from midnight until five in the morning so I used to have the radio on all night long. I was a bit of an insomniac. He literally did a show in a little trailer in the middle of the Nevada Desert and he always had these wacky characters on. And what I loved about him was that he always treated these ostensibly crazy people with total respect and he didn’t make fun of them. There was actually a scene in the movie that I cut where Ewan McGregor’s character listened to the same radio show.’
Were you actually interested in becoming a remote viewer?
‘Yeah, yeah. I looked it up on the Internet, but I never actually went through with it. I was fascinated by that world and then, y’know, five, ten years later, I came across a screenplay and I loved it. The tone was just right. I thought it was funny and had some really cool things to say. I was genuinely interested in that world.’
As a fan of Art Bell, do you think there would have been a film to be made about that story?
‘He’s written a lot of books, and he’s done a lot of weird stuff…but probably not.’
I wonder if, prior to making the film, you tried to meet the people that Jon met in the book?
‘I met Jim Channing who’s the character Jeff Bridges plays. And I spoke to him at length.’
In terms of casting, were you able to put faces to names quite quickly?
‘Yeah, it was pretty quick. I mean, George Clooney – that was easy. And then we talked about the Ewan character and, y’know, his name came up early and we both thought that was a great idea.’
Obviously you’re long time friends with George Clooney. I wondered if there any collaboration there in the direction, or in this instance was he kind of hands-off?
‘He’s very hands-off, yeah, he shows up…“What do you want me to do? Where do you want me?”’
No power games?
‘No, no power games. He was a producer on the film so we’d have discussions about creative decisions and things like that, but when it came to directing the film, no. And with Kevin Spacey it was much the same thing. No, there was none of that.’
How did you settle on the tone for the film?
‘I think the tone of the film was very close to the book in that the idea for me was that we had to play it totally straight and we could never make fun of any of these characters, we could never weaken the audience. The whole thing was a stack of cards and if you did that then it would all fall apart. That was the trickiest thing about making the film and the thing I paid most attention to. So to whatever extent that works, I think it was definitely planned that way.’
Do you think you’re a natural comedy director?
‘Yes, I would say I’m definitely more attracted to comedy. My personal comic style is fairly deadpan, it’s fairly dry and I think that’s what this was from the beginning so that’s probably why I wanted to do it because I thought it’s something I could do well. But, I like directing comedies. It’s fun.’
Have you had formal training as a director?
‘Well no. I acted for so many years and sat on a million sets and worked with a million different directors so that is to me some of the best training you can get. Particularly because I knew I wanted to direct at some point in my life so I always paid a lot of attention, talked a lot to directors, would try to get in the editing room any time I could. You work with great directors and terrible directors and so you learn: you take what you think will work for you.’
I wondered, do you plan to keep directing?
‘I hope so, yeah!’
Do you have any particular plans?
‘Nothing particular. George and I have some things we’re developing together as a company, but we don’t know exactly if any of those will be right or not. And I’m always looking for stuff.’
I noticed that one of your first acting roles in the very early days was in ‘Happy Days’. Do you have any memories about that?
‘Oh yeah! I have tremendous memories of it.’
So was it a good learning experience?
‘Well yeah, it was the very first professional acting job I’d ever got. I was friends with George at the time – we were already friends at this point – and there was a show called “Joanie Loves Chachi”, which was actually a spin-off of Happy Days with Scott Baio and Erin Moran.’
So was that happening at the same time as ‘Happy Days’?
‘Yeah, exactly the same time. And coincidentally, the week I was in it, Henry Winkler, y’know: ‘The Fonz’ , ‘Fonzy’, he was on the show, and he was just a fantastic guy and he sort of took me under his wing.
The Fonz took you under his wing?
‘Yeah! I grew up with ‘Happy Days’, and that was huge, huge part of my life. And then about six or seven months after I did ‘Joanie Love Chachi’, I actually got a role on “Happy Days” and it was the second to last ever episode of the show so it was just an interesting time to be there because everyone was just very excited and sad.’
Were you the age of Richie Cunningham or were you younger?
‘No no, I was younger. In that last “Happy Days” I played a student of Ted McGinley’s – he was the teacher. So I was 20 at the time and that was 26 years ago.’
Richie and all the guys must have been around that age as well?
‘Oh no, they were significantly older. Ron Howard’s gotta be 55, 60 now. I still know them.’
Read our review of 'The Men who Stare at Goats'
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