It took only one chapter to convince Peter Straughan he wanted to write the screenplay for the film version of The Men Who Stare At Goats. It was the chapter in which a former real-life US general recalls how he once tried to walk through a wall using only the power of his mind. “Yes, I want to do it,” Straughan realised.
“Such true, strange, odd stories. The book is like an octopus centred around the figure of Jim Channon.”
Peter Straughan, screenwriter
He had been sent the book by UK producer Paul Lister, who owned the film rights to Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book about the more eccentric side of US military tactics, and a covert unit which believed wars of the future could be won by tapping into their own extra-sensory abilities.
“I thought it was so funny,” says the UK- based Straughan. “Such true, strange, odd stories. The book is like an octopus centred around the figure of Jim Channon.” Channon, played in the film by Jeff Bridges (under the new character name, Bill Django), was the head of the psychic unit. Straughan’s task was to harness the wriggling octopus into a linear, compelling and coherent story.
“I went through and highlighted all the bits I wanted to be in the film,” Straughan recalls. “And then I worked out how to do it. Do we make up a war like they did on The West Wing? But it was decided, as in the book towards the end, to use the Iraq war.”
Straughan’s first draft told the story of a US journalist (eventually cast as Ewan McGregor) in search of his big break who befriends the mysterious Lyn Cassady, played by George Clooney (Clooney also produced the film through his Smoke House outfit and briefly considered directing it before handing it over to his Smoke House partner, Grant Heslov).
“Very, very little was changed from that first draft,” says Straughan.
“Obviously Grant and George worked on it, but very little was changed.” Straughan’s credits include co-writing the UK films Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution and How To Lose Friends & Alienate People. He did not start writing until he was 30, first with stage plays in Newcastle in his native north-east England. He found an agent, moved to London and started working with director Paul Weiland, for whom he wrote Sixty Six, a film based on Weiland’s childhood.
Straughan has since written The Debt directed by John Madden and currently in post-production, and a comedy with Ronson called Frank about a man who believes he is a musical genius, which made this year’s Brit List - the roster of the best unproduced screenplays in the UK and Ireland. The project is now in development at Film4 with Jack Black understood to be in talks to star.
“I stayed away from Jon for as long as possible,” recalls Straughan. “The Ewan McGregor character is a journalist sort of based on Jon, so I didn’t want to be influenced by the real person. But I’d run ideas past him and we ended up going out to the Puerto Rico location together.” And now? “I want to direct.”