The Men Who Stare At Goats transports you from the Vietnam War to present-day Iraq, that journey through time succeeds largely thanks to Jeff Bridges and George Clooney. We asked director Grant Heslov how they pulled it off. Minor spoilers...
In Men Who Stare At Goats, in theaters today, Bridges plays Bill Django, a Vietnam veteran who founds a group of "psychic soldiers," who are warrior-monks steeped in the counterculture. And the film follows him from the 1970s to the present day. Meanwhile, George Clooney is Lyn Cassady, the best of Django's psychic soldiers, who takes a young reporter, played by Ewan McGregor, under his wing.
Both Bridges and Clooney manage to play their characters in the 1970s (in Bridges' case) and the 1980s (for both actors), as well as the present day. It gives you hope that Bridges really will be able to pull off his role as two different Flynns, an aged version and an ageless copy, in Tron Legacy.
So how did they manage to make Bridges and Clooney appear to span a few decades in the movie's flashbacks and present-day sequences? Heslov explains it was a tough decision:
We spent a lot of energy on that, even when I was just starting casting and George [Clooney] and I were talking about him doing the role, I was [wondering], "Do I have a younger guy play George in the past, and then George plays himself in the present? Or do I have George do it all?" And the more I thought about it, the more I hated the idea [of another, younger actor stepping in.] It's always hard to jump back and forth in time. I just felt like, if I had another actor playing George, the audience would be questioning, "Does he look enough like George?"
So once they had decided to use the same actors throughout, "it was just a question of how to back it up," and where to place the actors' current ages in the narrative. And how to use wigs and mustaches, among other things, to make the actors look younger in their flashback sequences.
For the 1970s sequences, they pulled Jeff Bridges' face back, to tighten the skin. "They use this kind of tape," explains Heslov. "They basically pull back under the hairline, and they tape it and pull back a little more, and then they use strings." The make-up people "use all sorts of gadgets" to get rid of Bridges' wrinkles, which sounds a bit painful. "It was fun, but it was time-consuming." Luckily, Bridges is "kind of a perfectionist," who "loves all that character-detail stuff." some actors don't want to be bothered, but Bridges will obsess over every aspect of his characters, including wardrobe, hair and makeup.
Also, for scenes set in the past, Heslov used as much soft light as possible, and in the present, "it was all about as much harsh light as we could use."
Escape From The Valley Of Elah
The majority of Goats' present-day sequences take place in Iraq, where Ewan McGregor's character travels to try and cover the war. So I asked Heslov if he was worried that his film would be lumped together with Iraq movies like Valley Of Elah and Stop Loss, which have bombed at the box office.
But Heslov says that he doesn't think of Goats as an Iraq war movie. "It has very little to do with Iraq, except that that's the backdrop of where the story takes place." The movie does touch on modern-day issues like torture and the military's habit of hiring huge contractors like Halliburton to take care of basic security and other functions, but "it was never my intention to make an Iraq war movie."
Counterculture meets military culture
One of the most striking images in Goats is the way Jeff Bridges' character brings a hot-tubbing, Zen, druggy counterculture influence to bear on the 1980s military. The merging of two opposite cultures in the "warrior monk" program is so loopy and weird, it feels like an alternate history. We asked Heslov if he thought the counterculture and military culture ever could really coexist, or learn from each other like that.
Heslov said he really does believe that the military is always exploring alternative ways of fighting wars. And he definitely does believe that in the wake of its experience in Vietnam and the 1960s and 1970s in general, the military was "beaten down by that experience, and they were searching for ways to change it up." But at the end of the day, Heslov thinks it would probably never have worked out, even if the individuals involved had behaved differently. Plus, if the military really learned to win without killing people, then it wouldn't really be war any more.
A debt to Dr. Strangelove.
Heslov says the weird blend of comedy and horror in his movie owes a lot to influences like Dr. Strangelove, M.A.S.H. and Catch-22. Certain directors, like Altman and Kubrick, have been very influential to him, and he did think about their works as he was creating this film.
Heslov says he tried to keep Goats from falling too far into horror or comedy, by keeping it as grounded as possible. Even at the most absurd points of the story, "I tried to keep it as real as possible, so the absurdness of the actual" situation would come through. Things like George Clooney trying to burst clouds with his mind, or people trying to run through walls, were played straight instead of playing up their silliness. "I hope that by maintaining that real tone, you could slide back and forth" between the absurd and the real.