British TV documentary Crazy Rulers of the World explored some of the US Army’s stranger tactics in the war on terror – namely the training of ‘psychic spies’, who attempted to learn to use the paranormal in military combat (walking through walls, invisibility, ‘remote viewing’ – using extra-sensory perception to gather information about unseen targets). It’s crazy, but true, and the topic of a subsequent book by journalist Jon Ronson and now a film directed by Grant Heslov (the Oscar-nominated screenwriter for Good Night and Good Luck). Here, Heslov tells us about his own interest in the paranormal and reveals that he’s good mates with The Fonz.
When did you first encounter Jon Ronson’s book? Or did you ever catch the original, Crazy Rulers of the World? There was a script that I read first, and then once I’d read the script I wanted to pursue it as a film. Then I read the book, and then I saw the documentary, so that’s sorta how it all happened.
Did you have any personal interest in the subjects Ronson covers 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. I was a bit of an insomniac. He 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. I looked it up online, but I never went through with it. I was fascinated by that world and then, y’know, five, 10 years later, I came across a screenplay and I loved it. The tone was just right. I thought it was funny and had some cool things to say. I was genuinely interested in that world.
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 was we had to play it totally straight. We could never make fun of any of these characters, we could never weaken the audience. That was the trickiest thing about making the film and the thing that I paid most attention to. 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 was something I could do well.
Have you had any 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 – that, to me, is some of the best training you can get. You work with great directors and terrible directors and so you learn: you take what you think will work for you.
One of your first acting roles was in Happy Days. Was it a good learning experience? Well yeah, it was the very first professional acting job I’d ever got. The week I was in it, Henry Winkler – y’know, ‘The Fonz’, ‘Fonzie’ – was also 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 a huge, huge part of my life. About six or seven months after I did [Happy Days spin-off] Joanie Loves Chachi, I got [that] 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 very excited and sad. The Men Who Stare at Goats is in cinemas now.