In many cases, before there's a movie — or even a screenplay — there's a book, and before there are actors on celluloid, there are characters described on a page. British reporter Jon Ronson, author of The Men Who Stare at Goats, is one writer whose book made it onto the big screen, and he says it sometimes seemed as if his creation were making the journey on its own.
The movie rights were sold based on the basis of just the first few chapters, and Ronson says he didn't hear from the producers for a long while.
"I suppose I was a bit cynical," he says. "Because I thought, 'These people talk a good talk, and I'm not sure anything will happen.' So actually I didn't think that much about it, and I just finished the book."
Then a screenwriter — Peter Straughan, who had worked on the offbeat How to Lose Friends and Alienate People — was assigned. But like the producers, Ronson says, "he didn't really want to have anything to do with me."
"I bumped into him one time when he was writing [the screenplay], in a Starbucks in central London," Ronson says with a laugh. "I swear when he saw me walk in, the blood drained from his face. ... 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."
Sixteen weeks later, Straughan sent Ronson a finished screenplay.
"And I loved it — and then everything thawed," Ronson says. "Everything was OK."
'More Of This Is True Than You Might Think'
Ronson's book was nonfiction — an oral history about the U.S. military's secret experiments with the paranormal. Straughan's screenplay, and the film Grant Heslov made from it, is a mix of bankable reportage and imaginative speculation. The names have been fictionalized; events have been invented.
"I think about 60 or 70 percent of the film is true," Ronson says. "The whole back story, and a lot of the crazier stuff. The thing that Peter fictionalized, actually, was the more mundane stuff; it was kind of the buddy-movie aspect."
But then Straughan was working with a handicap, Ronson says.
"In The Men Who Stare at Goats, I didn't really learn and grow," Ronson says. "I started off as a nonbeliever in the paranormal, and I ended up as a nonbeliever. I mean, I think I wrote a really interesting book ... but as a character, I didn't change — and of course you need people to change in movies. So he kinda needed to fictionalize it."
Ronson got his first sense of how Straughan's treatment might play on-screen when he spent a few days on a location shoot in Puerto Rico.
"I was really gratified, because they were playing it very deadpan, which I thought was the right thing to do," he says.
Then months passed, and Ronson's sense of connection to the project diminished again.
"I thought, 'This is their thing, and not mine. This exists separately to my book,' " he says.
The next look Ronson got at the movie was at a London screening of the finished product.
"I kind of thought, 'Am I going to enjoy this as a member of the audience?' " Ronson remembers. "As opposed to, 'Am I going to enjoy this as the provider of the source material?' "
As it turned out, he liked it just fine.
"Right from the beginning, I thought, 'This is a kind of unexpectedly gentle, batty, mad sort of film with a good heart to it.' And I didn't anticipate that, because my book isn't that gentle — it's quite dark. So it took me a moment to realize it, but then I really liked it. It was very different to my book, but it just kind of worked."
Learning About Lean Writing From An 'Unforgiving' Audience
Ronson, who has also worked more closely with Straughan on another in-development screenplay, says he has learned a couple of lessons from his collaborator.
One thing Straughan constantly hammered home, Ronson says, is that a movie "eats up ideas — film eats them up." The lesson: "Don't be lazy. You have to have idea after idea after idea."
"You have to keep moving," Ronson says. "Audiences will get bored. They'll get bored very, very easily. They'll 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, audiences are very unforgiving."
That emphasis on freshness and movement is a quality Ronson has taken back to a book he's writing now.
"I'm not trying to write a book that will be like a film," he stresses, "but I think they're all good lessons."
On the other hand, Ronson says, mainstream movies — most of them hewing cautiously to a tried-and-true three-act storytelling formula — could stand to look to literature for inspiration now and then.
"The wonderful thing about books is that, if you can keep it moving and keep people interested and keep it surprising, you can do whatever-the-hell structure you like," Ronson says. "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."