In 1964, author Ken Kesey swapped his pen for a film camera and set out on a cross country odyssey with a busload of LSD-driven hippies known as the Merry Pranksters. The gang were unable to edit the 40 hours of resulting footage into a feature film for various reasons, but recently filmmakers Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side) and his frequent editor Alison Ellwood have stepped up to the challenge. The result is Magic Trip, which traces the rise and fall of the acid culture within the context of the tumultuous ’60s.
Cinedelphia recently chatted with co-director Ellwood to discuss the history of the long dormant Kesey footage as well as the process of creating a film that is greater than its loony subjects.
CINEDELPHIA: You have a very impressive history as an editor, but this is your first feature film directing credit. Did you and Alex set out as co-directors on this project?
ALISON ELLWOOD: We set out to co-direct and we both knew it was going to be a big challenge to edit. I’m the one who approached Alex about doing this story so it was always the agreement that we would share directing credit on it.
C: You’ve worked with him on at least three projects?
AE: A lot more than that. Enron, Gonzo, Casino Jack…a lot of films.
C: How did your relationship begin?
AE: We met in Los Angeles probably 15 years ago, I worked with him when he was in L.A. on a couple of documentary TV series he was doing. Then he went back to New York and called me when he was doing the Enron film and asked if I would move back to New York for a while to do that, which I did. Then I decided to move back permanently and we just kept doing films together.
AE: Well they tried for years to make it into a film. Initially they just played the reels through a projector at the acid tests, I think they played 30 consecutive hours of it and as time went on they played less and less of it. Then Ken tried to edit it and the Pranksters tried to edit it and they did make about three or four films out of the material. In the mid to late 90s they released DVDs of some of the material they’d put together. They did these skits and intercut them with some of the footage. I don’t think they knew what they were doing as filmmakers and I think they were too close to it and didn’t have the perspective and the distance to take it and make it into something that other people could fully understand.
C: So how did the footage end up in your hands?
AE: We read an article in the New Yorker by Robert Stone when Alex and I were going to Sundance in 2005 with the Enron film and it mentioned that there were 40 hours of footage that had been shot. So after the festival we contacted the Kesey estate and had a protracted agreement with them. They sent us DVDs of all of the footage that had been shot, video transfers that had been made long ago. So at least we could see what was there so by the time we got some film grants, we got grants from Scorcese’s Film Foundation and the History Channel. The material is at UCLA for restoration because of all of the damage that has been done to it over the years through projecting and through their attempts to edit it.
C: Obviously the majority of the 40 hours of footage didn’t make the final cut, was there anything of particular interest to you that wasn’t included?
AE: Sure, there are some things that were a lot of fun to watch, particularly the trip back, which was a much slower pace without Cassady behind the wheel, which I think was a huge factor in the frantic pace they took getting to New York. One of the last scenes was so hard to let go, but it will be on the DVD extras, of a trip that they took to Mexico. They went to this bullfighting arena in Tijuana and the footage is just unbelievable. The trip back is very beautiful and interestingly they weren’t that interested in that material so they didn’t hack it up and it was in much better shape than the rest of the footage. And a lot of that stuff will be in the DVD extras.
AE: It’s probably 75% Kesey footage, 15% archival, and 5 or 10% animation that we did, probably not even that much. I don’t know what the mathematical percentages are, but it’s almost all their footage, archival material from the era, and then the animation.
C: There’s one animation sequence in particular that stands out, when Kesey first experiments with LSD.
AE: Yeah, we were really lucky enough to get Imaginary Forces to come on and work with us and they did a fantastic job with that. We found an old Woolensac tape recorder and we wanted all of the animation to start from a place of reality and get progressively stranger.
C: Are the majority of the film’s voice-overs new interviews that you conducted with the Pranksters?
AE: Only Bob Stone was a new interview and we re-interviewed Gretchin [Fetchin] at one point just to fill in some holes. Most of the Prankster interviews were done about 12 years after the trip, Kesey hired a friend of his to sit down with the remaining Pranksters at that point. He played them the footage on a film editing machine called a Steinbeck and he would question them on their thoughts. Most of it came from that. Stark Naked’s tape had disappeared so we only had a transcript of her interview and three of the others were in such bad quality, the mic was way too far away from the subject, you could barely hear what they were saying. So in four cases we had actors re-read the transcripts, but its still all of the original Pranksters’ words.
C: Why didn’t you do new talking head interviews with the participants?
AE: Well we thought we were going to do that at first and we interviewed Bob Stone on camera, he was more of a minor player in the film, he hung around with those guys, but he wasn’t a part of that trip himself, he was on the bus in New York. We were going to go the more traditional route and then we found these older interviews and they just seemed so fresh. We decided that we wanted it to be an immersive experience and not get off the bus, cutting to older Pranksters looking back on the time would take viewers out of the moment so we decided not to go that way.
C: Why the choice of Stanley Tucci as narrator?
AE: We had just worked with him on Casino Jack and the United States of Money and Alex is a buddy of his. We wanted the narrator to have a little attitude, but not be over-the-top and he just seemed like a natural choice. He happened to be available so we just had him do it.
I’m not sure that I was thinking of that so much while I was making the film other than wanting it to be something more than just watching these people running around getting high on drugs. When Ken and the Pranksters started this in ‘64 it was very much like the 50s, it was a time of tremendous fear. Cold War, the bombs, Kennedy had just been assassinated. I feel that we’re in a very similar time of fear now between terrorism and economic meltdowns and what have you. There was a playfulness that Kesey was coming from or rather a place he wanted to get to. Y’know, get out of the bunker, get out and play, don’t fall in line with what the fear mongers want you to believe because there’s something more out there. And I think that that resonates very true today, at least to me.
Magic Trip opens this Friday at the Ritz at the Bourse.