The Men Who Stare At Goats: Jon Ronson interview

As The Men Who Stare At Goats opens to critical acclaim, we chat with the writer of the book it's based on, Mr Jon Ronson...



“In my interview with Barry Donovan on Den of Geek, I stated that Dave McKay was “slightly psychopathic” and that he instructed members of his religious group, the Jesus Christians, to donate their kidneys to strangers. Actually, neither claim was fair. I was wrong to call Dave slightly psychopathic, and in my year studying the Jesus Christians I didn’t find any evidence that Dave was instructing his members to donate kidneys.  I apologise for making those statements.”

Editor’s Note: We have amended the following interview in the light of this, and apologise for any inconvenience or distress caused.

We were lucky enough to speak to the writer and documentary maker Jon Ronson just before the BFI premiere of the film based on his book, The Men Who Stare At Goats. And here’s how it went…

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How many times have you seen the film now?

It will be the fourth time I’ve seen it. I saw it once at a screening they put on for Kevin Spacey – me, Elaine and Joel went along and Kevin Spacey and about 20 of his friends. And then I saw it at the big premiere in Venice, and again at the big premiere at Toronto where I was sat right in front of Michael Moore. And Peter Straughan who wrote the screenplay was sitting next to Bill Murray, who apparently laughed all the way through it. I think Michael Moore was quieter, but Bill Murray loved it.

The first time I saw it I really liked it a lot, y’know, I thought it was wonderful; really sweet and warm. It’s never a good idea to see anything three times in a week, but now a few weeks have passed, I’m looking forward to seeing it again.

You’ve probably heard this before, but the vibe I got from the trailer was very Coen Brothers-esque.

I’m a big Coen Brothers fan and I suppose it’s partly to do with me because I wrote a book that was a weird mix of absurd and serious and dark and buffoonish and that incongruity is something you get in a lot of Coen Brothers’ films. So, I suppose it’s a mix of the cast and the type of story. I know Grant Heslov is a fan of the Coen Brothers so he probably would take that as a compliment.

Do you feel any sort of ownership toward the film?

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If people really like the film it’s not because of me. I wasn’t involved in the screenplay and I wasn’t involved in direction, so no, I don’t. Actors must be like this all the time; they’re promoting things that they’re in but didn’t direct. This is the first time ever I’ve been promoting something that I wasn’t in charge of. It’s lucky that I really like the film because otherwise it would be a hard thing to do.

It would be wrong for me to think I owned it because I had nothing to do with it. There’re scenes and conversations in the film that are taken directly from the book, but it’s definitely not mine.

Did you feel any responsibility as to how the characters were portrayed in the film?

My first answer to that is that the characters are portrayed better in the film than they are in the book. It’s a really humanist film whereas in the book I’ve tried to be nice to people but their feelings weren’t top of my list of priorities because I was trying to retell this extraordinary funny and dark military story.

I think in the film it seems like one of Grant Heslov’s main objectives was to make a film that was really warm and respectful. So I think that I’d be really surprised if anybody from the book doesn’t like the way they’ve come over. And, in fact, Jim Channon has seen the film and likes it more than the book.

The film has so much positive buzz; has that lead to your other book in a similar vein, Them: Adventures With Extremists, being fastracked into production?

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I wish it did, but no. I think the existence of the film has helped with Them. This is going back a year now, but I think Universal had to make a decision whether to keep the film or let it go and they decided to keep it. And I don’t know how much that was to do with Edgar [Wright] still wanting to make it and the fact he still had a Mike White script, and you know Mike White scripts are rare jewels.

What seems to be the case is that Edgar is finishing off Scott Pilgrim and he’s got, like, three films in a holding pattern like an air traffic controller. His three planes just circling the Heathrow of his mind. And I’m just hoping that the next one to land is Them. It could be Ant-Man, it could be The World’s End that he’s doing with Simon Pegg, and there’s this other film called Baby Driver that I know nothing about. The fact is that there’s nobody better to make Them than Edgar, especially having read Mike White’s script, I know that Edgar will do it brilliantly.

Men Who Stare At Goats took four years, so this isn’t unusual. Scott Pilgrim was optioned before Them, so in terms of chronology, it’s fair that Scott Pilgrim was made before Them, and Ant-Man was optioned the same time as Them. So, even if Ant-Man comes next, I can’t be too annoyed.

I was on the plane the other day coming back from Toronto and there was so much crap to watch and the only two decent things to watch were Spaced and Adventureland and it made me think that Edgar and Greg Mottola are two of the best directors around at the moment.

How about the adaptations of your other books?

There was talk of turning my columns into a movie, but frankly, I was worried that, because it involved my family, it would cause problems. What if my wife or son didn’t like the way they were portrayed? I got paranoid, so when the option came up I decided not to renew it. I didn’t want to be like Julie Myerson; didn’t want my family to be too public ,so I decided not to do that. But there are some other options of mine.

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I wrote this piece about being in Frank Sidebottom’s band. Me and Peter Straughan have written a sort of comedy loosely inspired by that called Frank and there’s another story I wrote – I can’t really tell you what that is – that’s been optioned as well. So there are a few.

I remember reading your very last weekly Guardian column where you said your son wanted you to stop writing them, so you did. Do you think you’ll write again something with such personal insight into your family life?

I wish I hadn’t done it at all, to tell you the truth. The irony is that why I started doing it was to spend more time with my family because I was going off to America ten times a year. So I needed a way to stay home so I started for that reason, but I think it was a mistake.

I’m pleased because I wrote things I wouldn’t have otherwise written and they are well-written, but I’m not a fan of writing about your personal life; I’m not a fan of the potential inevitable crossing the line and the exploitation. I don’t think I really did anything terrible, but the danger was really there, so I wish I’d never done it.

Did you find your family life easier to write about than conspiracy theories might be? Or was it similar because you’re still searching for a narrative in whatever you’re writing.

Exactly, and the relentlessness of doing it every week, I got really miserable. Writing a weekly column if you care about it and take it seriously can really screw with your head. There were times when I was getting insomnia because I was panicking so much about it. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, because the last person anybody should feel sorry for is a weekly newspaper columnist.

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Basically, what I’m saying is that writing a weekly column is not a good idea if you’re a perfectionist because it’ll inevitably not be perfect and that’ll screw with your psyche. So I’d say that the column was harder to write than the books. The minute one’s over you have to start thinking about the next one.

When you’re researching a story do you find yourself creating an idealized version of it in your head?

I do, but I think what you need to do is allow yourself to get rid of that. You come up with the perfect story in your head, but when it all starts to all fall apart and the story that you wanted to happen doesn’t’ happen, you kind of go with that, and that happens all the time, especially with me.

A good example is the film I made and the chapter in Them when I went to Canada to hang out with David Icke and the opposition to David Icke. There’s this scene when the protesters are going to throw a custard pie in his face at Granville Books in Vancouver. The plan was that they’d pie him and he’d be so pompous that he’d sort of explode and everybody would see him for the fool he was. I got it into my head that that was exactly what would happen and it’d be the perfect end to the story and it would be just so unbelievably dramatic. What actually happened was that the protesters missed David and hit the children’s book section instead. I was standing there shaking my head thinking, “You useless fucking protesters. You can’t even throw a custard pie straight. You’ve spoilt the end of my story.”

Of course, the opposite was the case. At the time you’re amassing the material and not reflecting on it. You’re reflecting on it back home and on reflection the fact that the protestors came out of it worse than David was how the story should be.

When the extremists get crazy our responses towards that are even crazier and so the way the story ended in real life was perfect. When the idealized version of your story falls apart you’ve got to embrace that.

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I’m a big fan of your radio show, Jon Ronson On… When do we get a new series of that?

I think January. We’re at the final stages of two of the programmes. For some reason they only commissioned five this year, not six. Presumably because they noticed that our final programme every year was a bit crap. But you know what’ll happen – this year four will be good and the fifth will be shit.

We’re not getting tired of it yet; we were finishing one programme today called When Small Talk Goes Wrong, and it’s as good as any we’ve done.

I think we’re probably concentrating a bit more on using non-comedic people. We’ll have Graham Linehan, Charlie Brooker, Josie Long and Danny Robbins again, but most of the stories are people who aren’t famous who’ve got extraordinary things happening in their lives.

You’ve also had several pieces on one of my favourite shows, This American Life.

It was Sarah Vowell who got me involved because she was a fan of Them. The first thing I did was something about Omar Bakri and I’ve done about seven or eight since. It’s incredibly insidious. You haggle over every single word which I think is really good. They’re so tight, and Ira Glass is such a perfectionist so you’ll have these six-hour long Skype conversations where you’ll go over the script over and over and over again. It’s amazingly tight and perfectionistic, which is why I think it’s so good.

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I only know of two Brits who’ve ever been involved; me and Jon Langford from The Mekons. He’s great – you should listen to the Classifieds episode. It’s an entire programme based around one page of classified ads columns in the Chicago Tribute. It’s really, really good.

Your latest contribution featured a character called Tony cheating his way into Broadmoor.

That’s right, this is part of my next book. I think it’s going to be really good, but I’ve got a long way to go. They want it by July to publish it the following April or May and I’m slightly worried. I know July seems a long way away but books take a long time to write and it’s basically all I’m doing at the moment, both writing up stuff I’ve already done and also trying to get some new adventures going. It could be really good, I think. I’ve got a good feeling about it.

I’m looking forward to it! Thank you for your time, Jon. It was a pleasure talking to you.

Jon Ronson’s website is:

You can follow Jon on Twitter at:

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And Jon’s most recent contribution to This American Life can be heard here:


Interviews at Den Of Geek