Last week we had the opportunity to talk to long time actor, producer, write and director, Grant Heslov over the phone about his latest film (with the most unique title in theaters) The Men Who Stare at Goats starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey, and Jeff Bridges.

The film constantly plays with the seriousness of war and the comedy of a second-rate journalist on a mission to discover the truth behind a top-secret wing of the U.S. military who call themselves “The Jedi-Knights” and can read their enemy’s thoughts and kill a goat with a simple look. It’s clear that Heslov’s experience both in front and behind the camera helped him to make this film the triumph that it is.

Check out what he had to say about gathering his A-list cast, the many obstacles that got in his way, and of course, why he loved the title of the film…

When you first got this movie and it first showed up to you, did you have the good fortune of not knowing what it was when you read the title?

Grant: I did not know what it meant. It was submitted to me by an agent. I didn’t know anything about it and I read it and I thought it was funny and had some interesting things to say and I loved it.

Did you ever second guess it after reading the title? Or did you immediately open it up and say, “What the hell is this about?”

Grant: No, I mean the title to me was, I love the title. I mean, I read so many scripts, this is a title that actually made me think for a second.

Would you consider yourself an actor, director, producer or are you just a film maker in general?

Grant: Whatever I’m doing at the moment. Right now I’m a director, tomorrow when I’m not doing these interviews I’m a producer. I’m producing a movie and then a T.V. show and if I’m writing, I’m a writer. I don’t act so much anymore, but if I do, then you know. It’s funny, when I’m with people and they ask me, “What do you do?,” my brain takes a minute to figure it out. I used to say, “Oh, I just work in the entertainment business.”

Now for the reason many of you will probably go and see the film, the cast. You couldn’t get a better group of guys running around in army fatigues acting like they have super-powers…

The Men Who Stare at Goats: Ewan and George in Desert

Can you tell me about getting this cast together?

Grant: George, obviously you know, we’re producing partners. I read the script, he read the script. I wanted to direct it and he said, “I’ll do a part.” That was basically that. Then George and I thought Ewan would be perfect as Bob and I went and sent him a script and went to meet with him. We had a long meeting and at the end of the meeting he said, “Well, I’ll do this,” so that was that. Kevin Spacey was sort of my dream, I saw him in this character and then, coincidentally when I spoke with the writer, that’s who he was writing it for basically. And Jeff Bridges, he was the right guy to play that role. We didn’t know if we’d get him. He was just coming off a film he was the lead in and he’d been working really hard and I don’t think he wanted it to work so quickly, I don’t event think it was a week between. But we got him on the phone and we just sort of jammed him into it. We guilted him or something and he came on and that was it. It was shockingly good how these guys were all in.

So they were all your first choices?

Yeah they were basically all my first choice.

It’s nice to see them doing roles so well that we’re not entirely used to seeing them him. George was great but not his usual charming self.

Grant: Yeah I know, he’s great. George, you’ve seen him in a lot of comedies, but this comedy is very different than anything I think he’s been in.

Their is a constant balance between the humor and the seriousness, was that something that you were aware of very early? How did you set up the balance?

Grant: That’s an excellent question. The truth is yes. From the very beginning, really my main concern was the tone of the film and the trickiness of how to play it. So from very early on, my whole thing was that it had to be played very straight, everything had to be played straight. And in form, everything we did, from the way we designed the production designs, to the way we shot it and to the way it was acted obviously. So once I sort of knew that, it wasn’t tricky but every morning I had to remind myself to have that mantra You know, play it for straight.

The Men Who Stare at Goats: Kevin Spacey

Once you have the cast the next problem is shooting. From hurricanes to dealing with a “war” film, Heslov was faced with many challenges…

How long did you guys actually have to shoot this?

Grant: We shot it in 42 days.

That’s fast!

Grant: Yeah, that was fast.

What was one of the biggest challenges getting into this film? Was there anybody that ever fought you on getting it made seeing as war films, even if they’re not directly about war, are hard to sell?

Grant: The challenge, as it always is, is there’s never enough money and there’s never enough days. Trying to get all that to work, the was the big challenge really. Once we had the number we could spend, thats it, you know. You build everything to that number. Your stealing from this to pay for that and that’s always the way it is. It doesn’t matter what the budget is.

What was one of the more interesting days on set?

Grant: I’d say the days that stood out the most had to do with the weather, cause we had a lot of crazy weather. There was a day when there was a shot of Ewan and George where they wake up in the morning in the desert. There was a massive sandstorm, like to the point where you could barely see, but we had to shoot because we didn’t have a choice, it’s according to the schedule and you can’t say, “Oh well, we’ll come back tomorrow.” Basically, the whole crew was wrapped up in snow gear, jackets and hoods and goggles. Poor George and Ewan had to sit out in that sand and just get pelted, and it was brutal. It was so bad we lost the camera. That was one. Another day that really stood out was, we were shooting in another part of New Mexico and its supposed to be the Iraqi desert. We were shooting an exterior shot in the back of a truck and it started snowing. Temperature dropped, it was freezing, so we had to stop shooting and wait for all the snow to melt.

It looked like you were shooting in the summer, when was it?

Grant: It wasn’t summer. It was early December in New Mexico in Albequerque, it was unfeasibly cold.

Lucky you guys right?

Grant: Yeah, yup. (Laughter) And there was a hurricane in Puerto Rico, so there was that.

This just screened over at London Film Festival. How was the response there? Do you notice there’s a different response overseas as there are in the states to the film?

Grant: No, the response was great. The truth is, the guy who wrote the book and the guy who wrote the script are British. I think this film has a bit of British sensibility to it, so it was really well received there, I couldn’t have been happier.

Watch Heslov’s amazing film, The Men Who Stare at Goats in theaters November 6th!

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