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30th Jun 2017

‘The liberal media acted like dicks’ – Jon Ronson on Okja, Donald Trump and Arsene Wenger

His new Netflix film is one of the year's best.

Wil Jones

To describe Jon Ronson as the written word’s version of Louis Theroux would be rather reductive – but still pretty accurate.

The Cardiff-born journalist took on a similar bemused-Brit-abroad persona for his breakthrough book Them: Adventures with Extremists, where he met with conspiracy theorists, the KKK and a young Alex Jones (who at a time when he just seemed like just an entertaining crackpot and was not, terrifyingly, an actual force in US politics).

His next book The Men Who Stare At Goats was adapted into a film starring Ewan McGregor and George Clooney, and his subsequent works have had a knack of grabbing the zeitgeist; The Psychopath Test covered mental health and the medical industry, and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is basically the definitive text on social media pile-ons and the effects they have on society.

Now living in New York, Ronson has made a move into screenwriting. He co-wrote Frank, the Michael Fassbender-starring tale of his time playing with indie outsider Frank Sidebottom and his band. Now, he has teamed up with the brilliant Korean director Bong Joon-Ho to write the screenplay for Okja. A Netflix exclusive movie, Okja is an acclaimed satirical sci-fi parable about a small girl who goes on a mission to rescue the mythical beast of the title after it is kidnapped by a powerful, multi-national corporation, and stars Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano.

We caught up with Ronson to talk about the film, living in Trump’s America, and the most important subject of all: Arsene Wenger.

What made you move into fiction? Your books are non-fiction, Frank was based on a true story, but Okja is obviously based on something that doesn’t exist…

Can I beg to differ about Okja being about something that doesn’t exist? I think Okja is based on only a slightly altered reality. We love pigs, and we eat them.

So is Okja based on anything you’ve written about directly then?

The reason I got the job was that Bong Joon-Ho was a fan of Frank, and he thought that kind of humour could make its way into Okja. He wrote the original draft of the story [but] there were lots of themes in it that were things that I’d written about in the past. Like for instance, Tilda Swinton’s character could be a psychopath, and I’ve written about psychopathic CEOs. And also the Animal Liberation Front. I’ve written a lot about fringe groups, and the dynamics within them. I’ve never written about the ALF before, but I’ve certainly written a lot about quote-unquote ‘extremist groups’.

Have you always wanted to move into writing fiction, as well as doing journalism?

It really wasn’t something that I’d wanted to do, I was always really happy doing non-fiction. It was all from meeting Peter Straughan when he was writing The Men Who Stare At Goats screenplay. He suggested we collaborate on something, and I’d just done something for The Guardian about being in Frank Sidebottom’s band. Peter really loved it, and he really loved the idea of a movie where the lead character wears a fake head and never takes it off.

When I started screenwriting, I just couldn’t work out how to do it. With journalism, what’s happening right in front of you is your story. Fiction could be fucking anything! And that just freaked me out. It’s like getting a board game without instructions – I don’t know what the fuck to do. But then after a couple of years working with Peter I began to get it, and I began to understand that the rules are not that different to journalism.  I loved writing Frank and Okja, and I would do it again if I’m asked to, but it’s not like I want to move into fiction now. it’s more just like an amazing opportunity getting to do this.

Your recent books have been bestsellers, and have been adapted into Hollywood films. Now that you’re becoming a recognisable face, does that make journalism harder? As opposed to being an anonymous reporter, you’re a known quantity…

To be honest I’ve found being more well-known more of a help than a hindrance. Once in a while, people will google me and find something they don’t like. But mostly that doesn’t happen. For instance, I’ve just finished a year and a half in the porn world, making a podcast series for Audible. And I think a quite a lot of the porn people, who I’ve become good friends with, knew who I was, and were happy for me to be there for that reason. They liked the fact that I was pretty well known. So actually I think it helps more than it hinders.

And I still love journalism. I remember going on the set of The Men Who Stare At Goats, and thinking it was all very glamorous, but it’s not real. If I go to a Ku Klux Klan compound, that’s real. [The film set] was like the illusion of reality, but I deal in real reality. But then, I don’t see it that way anymore, because it’s art. What Bong does with Okja will stay around for a long time. And it’s not easy to do that. Journalism can do that, but it doesn’t do it in the same way. Okja can make you really cry, and get inside your head, in a way different to journalism.

Your last major work was the Kindle ‘single’ The Elephant In The Room, which saw you head to the 2016 Republican National Convention, and reuniting with Alex Jones. It ends with you suggesting a very bleak future if Donald Trump became President – how do you feel now that that actually happened?

I think that things are depressing! I think that a bunch of things are about to become the norm, which weren’t a year ago. Did you follow the story of Ben Jacobs, the Guardian journalist? He asked a politician in Montana a question which he didn’t like, and the politician bodyslammed him – that’s new! I heard NPR voters interviewing voters in that district about it, and this one woman said: “That didn’t even happen”. And that properly chills me – that Trump’s constant refrain of “fake news” is having that kind of impact. If something could destroy your world view, you just decide that it didn’t happen. That’s a form of madness. That’s the sort of thing people like Alex Jones would do. And it’s like those people have won!

Now, I think it’s important to figure out why that has happened. Did the liberal media act like dicks, and is that why people feel like that? I think the answer is ‘yes’. That’s what I wrote about in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. People on the left have been aggressive assholes, and it’s no wonder that [this has happened]. So it hasn’t come from nowhere, but I do find it really chilling.

It seems like that attitude is prevalent on both the left and right at the moment though, with both constantly bemoaning the ‘mainstream media’…

I agree with you. I think both sides are to blame. You know, Obama was warning about this stuff, about people retreating to their corners, and the centre collapsing. He’d been saying that for a couple of years. It’s very dangerous when people retreat to their corners and scream at each other, and that’s what happened. And sadly I don’t see it getting better. Because [even if]  Trump is a flash in the pan, and people look back on this as a bad memory, after that I think things will just go back to what created the milieu for Trump to get elected in the first place.

The left aren’t learning from this. I believe in talking to each other, and listening to each other and respecting each other, and people finding a common ground. I guess I’m a centrist in that way. And I know that centralists aren’t perfect either – you can see why people would call them weak assholes, or whatever. But I think it’s a better system than the one that’s in place now, that’s basically the louder and more extreme you are the more plurality you receive – on both the right and the left. And you’re getting people dying on a train in Portland, you’re getting Trump as President. Everything is fucking oppositional, everything is polemical. Everything is just people screaming at each other, and that’s why we’ve got Trump.

Talking about the left, what’s your take on the rise of Jeremy Corbyn? (This interview took place a week before the General Election)

To be totally honest, because I’m living in New York at the moment, and I’ve got all of Trump to deal with, I’m slightly out of touch with what’s going on in Britain. So I can’t really answer that question. I mean, I’m hoping that Brexit gets reversed. Cause if it happens we’re fucked.

Do you see anyone on the left coming through in the US, that could challenge Donald Trump?

Well, it could have been Bernie Sanders. The guy I really like, though I wonder what his wider appeal is, is (former comedian and current Minnesota Senator) Al Franken. He’s now a Democrat politician, and charismatic, and well loved, and I certainly love hearing him talk.

Since Trump’s election, there’s been talk of celebrities, all the way from Oprah Winfrey to The Rock, running for President. Do you think Trump will set some sort of precedent for that?

No, because I think Trump is doing such a terrible, terrible job that I think people will think twice about outsiders in the future. The nobility of politics may have a comeback.

Finally, as an Arsenal fan living in New York, the big question: Wenger In or Wenger Out?

I sort of feel if we loose Alexis and Ozil, he should probably go. I say that, I’ve seen videos of Arsenal fans beating each other up over it, and I don’t feel that strongly. When I lived in London and I was going to every match at the Emirates I was that passionate about it, but I’m a bit less passionate since I’ve lived in New York. But when you’re there, it really matters. I remember one guy turning to me and saying “If we don’t qualify for the Champions League, I’m going to kill myself”. I thought it was funny, but it’s not – it really really matters.

Okja is streaming on Netflix now.