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Stranger Than Fiction
Some stories seem destined to be made into movies—like this one: an army of New Age warriors is bankrolled by the U.S. government to develop methods of combat using only their minds. Amazingly, this story is true. In his extensively researched bestselling book The Men Who Stare at Goats, journalist Jon Ronson uncovers the history of the First Earth Battalion, and in the process sets the stage for an astonishing and hilarious cinematic look at a virtually unknown chapter of American military history. 

When producer Paul Lister received the first two chapters of the book from Ronson's literary agent, he found the title irresistible. "It's such a great title,” says Lister. "It made me pick up the book right away and say, ‘What is this?' And it's the central idea in the movie. 

"The chapters were very funny,” he adds. "I couldn't wait to get the rest of the book. It was full of strange, true stories that had resonance. That was the draw for me—I thought, ‘Hang on a minute. How can something so funny and strange be real?'”

The book contained enough offbeat revelations for two movies, but it didn't conform to a traditional three-act narrative. Screenwriter Peter Straughan was brought in to further develop the story into a script. "As much as I loved the book, it didn't really present as a movie,” says Lister. "Peter came in with the vision we needed to transform it. He moved away from pure fact into a fictionalized series of events and characters inspired by the book. 

"Peter delivered an unbelievably strong first draft,” the producer continues. "It was smart and funny and fresh. There's just nothing else out there like it.”

The screenplay attracted the attention of Grant Heslov and George Clooney, partners in the production company Smoke House. Heslov, producer of films including Good Night and Good Luck (for which he also garnered an Academy Award® nomination) and Leatherheads, was planning his feature film directing debut when the script came his way. 

"I fell in love with it,” he says. "I read a lot of screenplays and this one made me laugh out loud from beginning to end. Jon Ronson captured this world in a very real way and Peter adapted as only a really great writer could. When I gave it to George to read, he said, ‘You know what? Let's do it.'” 

Clooney brought more than his cachet as an actor to the project. "George is a fantastic actor and perfect for the role of Lyn Cassady,” says Lister. "But he isn't just a movie star. He and Grant know how to make a movie. They can put all the elements together. 

"The slightly subversive nature of the material is perfect for them,” adds the producer. "It's got a political edge. It's got humor. The point-of-view really gelled with the way they see the world. It was great to have them as the motors that drove this forward.”

Straughan's screenplay added another, more emotional layer to The Men Who Stare at Goats. "On the surface, it is the story of a group of men in the military who study psychic warfare,” Heslov notes. "But it's also a road picture about two guys who are both lost in their lives and who forge a real relationship.” 

In the film, the fictionalized First Earth Battalion is called the New Earth Army. "We also refer to as it ‘Project Jedi' in the film,” says Heslov. "They actually called themselves Jedi Warriors. It was all about freeing your mind and coming up with new nondestructive methods of warfare.” 

Lister finds the idea of a group of forward-thinking military men who come together to embrace the spirit of the New Age inspiring. "They wanted to find new ways of fighting wars without harming anybody,” says the producer. "In our story, this fantastic, idealistic, new way of fighting wars gets corrupted, which is also what happened in the real world.” 

Jim Dever, a retired sergeant major in the Ma

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