Working with actual footage and audio recordings from the participants, documentarians Alex Gibeny and Allison Ellwood recreate the cross-country journey taken by author Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. Opens Aug. 5.
Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney is among the most prolific filmmakers working, and tomorrow he unveils his sixth film since the start of 2010, "Magic Trip," co-directed by longtime collaborator Allison Ellwood. Using footage and audio recordings by the actual participants, the film recreates the cross-country journey taken "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" author Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, a journey that helped lay the foundation for the '60s counter-culture.
We recently visited with Gibney, to talk about how the project came about, the challenges of reconstructing history and LSD trips, and Kesey's own brand of patriotism.
PB: Did this project come to you, or did you go to it?
AG: We went to it. Alison and I were on a plane on the way to Sundance for “Enron” and we read this article in the New Yorker written by Robert Stone, who’d been on the bus briefly, and he talked about this footage, this 16 millimeter footage that existed of that trip and I thought, 'Wow that would be great.' So we went out and raised money and bought the rights to the footage.
PB: What kind of condition was the footage in?
AG: It was all over the place. A lot of it was up at the barn, the Kesey barn, some of it was very badly damaged. It had been cut up. Some of it had been lost, but there were some video masters that still existed, so we persuaded, we got help from [Martin] Scorsese’s The Film Foundation, so when History Channel came on board, they also helped us with some money for restoration and we persuaded the Kesey family to let UCLA come up to Oregon and take all the materials down to UCLA, where they were methodically catalogued and cleaned and repaired.
PB: So how did you find the focus of the film?
AG: What happened was, I went out to Eugene and I started taking to people, some of the Pranksters. We started to shoot some on-camera interviews. And normally, that process would have continued more aggressively, but it didn’t. We just felt that those on-camera interviews intercut with the footage didn’t feel right at all. It felt like it was pulling you out of the moment. And then we found these audiotapes of the Pranksters themselves talking about the bus trip, not too long after the bus trip. We gathered those and that was like the key to making in happen.
PB: I would assume that it benefited the film immensely to not have the Pranksters trying to reconstruct history 50 years later.
AG: Correct. And that was one of the problems we found once we started to interview them, is that, very often their recollections had become myth.
PB: This is a somewhat personal question if you want to take a pass. Have you ever done LSD?
AG: Yeah, sure.
PB: 'Cause your rendition of it is pretty good.
AG: I think it seems pretty accurate.
PB: I don’t want to get too deep into my own past, but it spoke to me on a certain level.
AG: We were very concerned about that, that was another concern. When we showed this film to the crowd in Eugene, we were terrified to know what they would think of the trip sequences. But we got the thumbs up, the Good Housekeeping seal of hallucinogen approval.
PB: Watching this footage (of the Trip), you must have developed some sort of personal feelings for these people. Are there any people that really struck you as someone you’d love to spend a cross-country bus trip with?
AG: I would have loved to have spent time with Kesey. He was just really a tremendously charismatic and exciting and interesting character. I mean, he’s the guy. Frankly, it’s interesting, watching that footage, some of the bus trip just looks exhausting and pretty difficult. And some of those things I’m not sure how much fun I would have had... So I’m not sure that would have been so interesting to me, but I think it would have been a pretty magical time. But Kesey— I’ve since met a bunch of the Pranksters and Kesey’s the guy I would have loved to have met.
PB: Would you say that the film offers a fair representation of the amount of drugs and sex that was going on on that bus? And how do you think they maintained their civility in those close quarters under those conditions?
AG: Hard to know. I think particularly the sex is an interesting question. They we’re kind of exploring where the 60s, the archetypal 60s as we’re gonna come to know them later, did a lot more. I think there was a sense that it was supposed to be OK.
PB: Do you think Kesey had any idea what he was doing? The impact that this might have, the touchstone that it would become?
AG: No. I think he had some sense of how this rather chaotic and sort of playful road trip might fit into a more mythic sensibility that he had, but I think he was also kind of making it up as he went along. And when they got back, you know, they thought they were making a movie and it was gonna be a movie that people were gonna go and see, like “Gone With the Wind.”
PB: What turned him off, was he just done with it?
AG: Yeah I think he felt that it had become—it was no longer free, in some ways it was kind of constricting. Kensey was all about freedom. He was a big Meville freak, always thinking about how to explore. And I think at some point, 60s culture became so dominated by fashion and a kind of herd mentality that it no longer felt free for Kesey.
PB: Kesey seemed to display something that was unique and couldn’t have existed three years later, I don’t think, which was that he was very much having fun with Middle America and sort of goofing on them, but doing so with an immense amount of respect and with very sincere patriotism.
AG: I think that’s a very good point. What later became this battle between freaks and straights was very much not what they were doing. Their intent was to lure people out of their bomb shelters, not to thumb their nose and them and say, 'We’re doing something cool and you are not.' It was to say, 'Come on out and play with us, have some fun.'
PB: Do you think he considered the journey a success?
AG: Yes. Well, he says in the film, 'My greatest artwork was the bus.' He felt he had created a moment that kind of passed into myth and legend. I think, you talk about if Shakespeare was alive today he wouldn’t be using a quill pen - the idea of using the camera and the microphone as a way of capturing something magical was very important to him. That having been said, Kesey could never find a way with those tools to do what he was able to do as a writer. I don’t think he ever really understood how to use those tools.
"Magic Trip" opens in select cities Aug. 5.