Jon Ronson, Staring (At 'Goats') From The Sidelines The Men Who Stare At Goats was in production before Jon Ronson could even finish the book the film is based on. And while the film-adaptation process was a wild, lonely ride for Ronson, he tells NPR's Robert Siegel that he learned a few good lessons from the experience.
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Jon Ronson, Staring (At 'Goats') From The Sidelines

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Jon Ronson, Staring (At 'Goats') From The Sidelines

Jon Ronson, Staring (At 'Goats') From The Sidelines

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In many cases, before there's a movie, before there's even a screenplay or a treatment, there is a book. And before there are actors on the screen playing roles, there are characters described on a page. Well, this week, we're going to hear from three writers whose books were made into recent movies. They're all very satisfied with the movies in question, and they all have interesting things to say about what changes in the story when it moves from the page to the screen. Tomorrow and Thursday, we'll hear from the authors of "Up in the Air" and "An Education."

Today, we begin with Jon Ronson, whose book is about the U.S. military's dabbling in the paranormal, "The Men Who Stare at Goats."

(Soundbite of movie "The Men Who Stare at Goats")

Mr. JEFF BRIDGES (Actor): (As Bill Django) We must become the first superpower to develop superpowers. We must create warrior monks - men and women who can fall in love with everyone, sense plant auras, pass through walls, stop saying mindless cliches and see into the future.

SIEGEL: Ronson is a British reporter and his book was nonfiction. The movie is fictionalized. The movie rights were sold on the basis of the first few chapters, and Ronson says he didn't hear from the producers.

Mr. JON RONSON (Author, "The Men Who Stare at Goats"): I suppose I was a bit cynical because I thought these people talk a good talk, and, you know, I'm not sure that anything will happen. So actually, I didn't think that much about it and I just finished the book. And - but then the first exciting thing that happened was they got a screenwriter called Peter Straughan to write the screenplay. And like the producers, he didn't really want to have anything to do with me.

I bumped into him one time when he was writing at a Starbucks in Central London. And I swear, when he saw me walk into the Starbucks, the blood drained from his face. Like - it was like a sort of ghost had walked in. And he obviously - you know, the last thing in the world he wanted was for me to go up to him and ask him how it was going, which I immediately did, and he kind of went, it's going fine. And then he sent it to me when he finished it, after about 16 weeks, I think it took him to write it. And I loved it. And then everything thawed. Everything was okay.

SIEGEL: One measure of the difference between the book and the film based on it is the opening line of your book is: This is a true story. On the screen at the beginning of the movie, "The Men Who Stare at Goats," it says - I'm paraphrasing - more of this is true than you would think...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: ...what you're about to see.

Mr. RONSON: Yeah.

SIEGEL: So clear - and then your book begins with the story of a real U.S. Army general, Albert Stubblebine III. The names of the characters in the movie are fictionalized.

Mr. RONSON: Right.

SIEGEL: So there's a basic shift there. Is it - is this reportage you can take to the bank? Or is this a fictionalized take on that very same reporting?

Mr. RONSON: Well, one time, I was asked to put a percentage on what was true and what wasn't true, and I think about between 60 and 70 percent of the film is true - the whole backstory and a lot of the crazier stuff. And the thing that Peter fictionalized, actually, was the more mundane stuff. It was the kind of buddy movie aspect of things.

I mean, I think this sort stems from the fact that Peter had a bit of a problem. And that unlike some of the things I've written, in "The Men Who Stare at Goats," I didn't really learn and grow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RONSON: You know, I started off as a nonbeliever in the paranormal and I ended up as a nonbeliever. And I mean, I think I wrote a really interesting book and an all - history about these secret military endeavors. But as a character, I didn't change. And, of course, you need people to change in movies. And so, he kind of needed to fictionalize it.

SIEGEL: Describe what it was like to actually see the film for the first time. You'd seen the script, you'd seen the scriptwriter in Starbucks. What was it like when you first saw "The Men Who Stare at Goats"?

Mr. RONSON: Well, the very first thing I saw was I went to Puerto Rico for a couple of days and watched them filming it. And I was really gratified because they were playing it very deadpan, which I thought was the right thing to do. So even then, I thought, okay, that's good. And then a few months passed, and they called me and said they were having a screening for Kevin Spacey at a screening room in London, and did I want to come? So I don't know. I felt - I suppose I felt slightly disconnected because I thought, this is their thing and it's not mine. You know, this exists separately to my book. I kind of thought, am I going to enjoy this as a member of the audience, as opposed to, am I going to enjoy this as the provider of the source material?

And I sat down, and Kevin Spacey was there with his pals, and I was there with my wife and son, and right from the beginning, I thought: This is a kind of unexpectedly gentle, batty, kind of mad sort of film with a good heart to it. And I didn't anticipate that because, you know, my book isn't that gentle. It's quite dark. And so it took me a kind of moment to realize it, but then I really liked it. I thought it was very different to my book, but it just kind of worked, I felt, on that level.

SIEGEL: I understand that you wrote a screenplay along with Peter Straughan, who wrote this screenplay. From that experience, what have you learned about the principles of writing a movie that are different from the principles of writing a book?

Mr. RONSON: Well, actually, I've learned some things from screenwriting that I think are helping me with the book I'm writing at the moment, and one is - the two things Peter would always say to me is - when we were writing the film "Frank" together is, you know, it eats up ideas. Film eats them up. You know, don't be lazy. Just, you have to have idea after idea after idea, and you have to keep moving. You have to - you know, audiences will get bored. You know, they get bored very, very easily, and they get bored if you repeat a beat. So if the film tells you something, and then it tells you the same thing a few minutes later, you know, audiences are very unforgiving.

And actually, I took all of those things to the book that I'm writing at the moment, funnily enough. Now, I'm not trying to write a book that will be like a film, but I think they're all good lessons: keep it moving, don't repeat beats and so on.

Now, in terms of the other way around, I would say that the problem with film is that it has to follow a very standard three-act structure. You know, in Act One, you put a guy up a tree, and then in Act Two, you throw stones at the guy, and then in Act Three, you safely get the guy down from the tree again.

And the wonderful thing about books is that, you know, if you can keep it moving and keep people interested and keep it surprising, you can do whatever-the-hell structure you like, and I love that about books. I love the fact that I don't need to follow any preordained narrative pattern.

And that's why in the end, if you said to me you can only do one thing for the rest of your life, I would - in a heartbeat - I'd choose books.

SIEGEL: Well, Jon Ronson, author of the book "The Men Who Stare at Goats," thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. RONSON: Thank you.

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