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When the truth is stranger than fiction; The script may sound far-fetched but George Clooney's new film, The Men Who Stare At Goats, is based on a Welsh writer's book about real-life military, as Rob Driscoll discovers.

Byline: George Clooney

GEORGE Clooney's latest movie features Iraq-based American "super-soldiers" with incredible psychic powers, apparently giving them the ability to walk through walls, become invisible - and stare at goats until they keel over and die.

Another far-fetched, comic-strip super-hero blockbuster? And the product of a wild Hollywood screenwriter's crazy, unleashed imagination? Not quite. The Men Who Stare At Goats may be a quirky and frequently hilarious off-the-wall comedy, but it's amazingly based on fact. You only have to ask Cardiff-born journalist Jon Ronson, who wrote the non-fiction book on which the screenplay is based, to discover that, in this particular instance, the truth really is stranger than fiction.

"I met all of them," says 42-year-old Ronson about the secret army of New Age warriors bankrolled by the US government to develop successful methods of extreme combat using only their minds.

"They were a group of military men, some highly placed, who desperately wanted to learn paranormal abilities. 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."

Now, Ronson's best-selling book has become the stuff of dreams; it's a glossy, star-packed Hollywood movie featuring the likes of Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges and Ewan McGregor. The Men Who Stare At Goats is the Welsh writer's third book, after Club Class, a travelogue in which he bluffs his way into a jet-set lifestyle, and Them: Adventures with Extremists, an investigative account of his experiences with people like David Icke and Ian Paisley. But was he ever nervous about what Hollywood might do to one of his labours of love? "Not at all," he smiles. "Just when I was selling it, Nick Hornby told me, 'Don't interfere, because they know how to make films, and we don't.' So I didn't interfere, and I read Peter Straughan's script, and I thought it was completely brilliant. Then when I heard that George Clooney, as star and producer, and Grant Heslov (the director) were making it, that was obviously incredibly exciting, so I was never nervous at all. It wasn't my film, so it was an easy ride for me; I watched it as an audience member and really loved it."

In the film, Ronson is effectively played by McGregor, in all but name. His character, Bob Wilton, encounters Lyn Cassady (Clooney), who claims to be part of an experimental US 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 stare a goat to its death. Now, the programme's founder Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) has gone missing.

Intrigued by his new buddy's hard-to-credit stories, Wilton decides to tag along. When the pair track Django to a clandestine training camp run by renegade psychic Larry Hooper (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.

When Clooney first heard about the screenplay, the attraction of its mind-boggling yet fascinating storyline was immediate.

"This is a script that's been around town for a while, and all of us have been aware of it for a bit," says the 48-year-old star. "It was named as one of the best un-made screenplays, so we were all anxious to get our hands on it, and see if there was a way we could do it, and Grant (Heslov) clearly had the right ideas.

"Jon Ronson's book had such a unique tone - there was a documentary done as well which was also very funny - and I thought Peter (Straughan) just nailed the script."

As for working with goats, Clooney has nothing but praise for his unlikely four-legged co-star. "I tell you, this goat was a particularly nice goat. We spent a lot of time together. The funny thing is, the goat was a great actor. He'd walk in and stare at the camera. If we could get Ewan to do that, it would have helped!" Ronson was inspired to write The Men Who Stare At Goats after hearing an unlikely story about a low-profile US 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 extra-sensory experiences.

In the movie, the First Earth Battalion has been renamed the New Earth Army - and is also referred to as Project Jedi. Yet Ronson insists there's not too much else that has strayed from the truth of his meticulously-researched book.

"Jeff Bridges' character Bill Django is based completely on Jim Channon, and he looks and sounds exactly like him," says Ronson. "George Clooney's character is based on four or five different people. You see bits of Guy Savelli, the goat starer, who now runs a dance studio in Ohio. Guy actually showed me his hamster-staring video, in which he stares at a hamster until it falls over."

From Ronson's very cynical and witty tone while relating such crazy stories, you can tell he's personally not convinced about the paranormal powers of this so-called new breed of military "super-soldier."

"I don't believe in any of it at all, I think it's all nuts," he smiles. "Grant Heslov, the film's director, thinks otherwise.

He's more hopeful and has a bit more belief that some of these psychic powers are actually possible.

In some ways I envy Grant's beliefs!" The Men Who Stare At Goats opens on November 6


George Clooney and Ewan McGregor in The Men Who Stare At Goats, main, and writer Jon Ronson, inset
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Oct 30, 2009
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