Director Alison Ellwood on Ken Kesey's Magic Trip, old footage and on-screen acid trips
It's finally here: The footage that Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters shot on their 1964 coast-to-coast trip on psychedelic bus Further has been made into a full-length film. Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place screens on Thursday, August 30, at the Boulder Theater; we spoke with co-director Alison Ellwood about the production process and how one portrays an acid trip on film.
Westword: How did you and your co-director, Alex Gibney, first hear about the Further footage?
Alison Ellwood: We were going out to Sundance in 2005 for our film Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and we'd read an article in The New Yorker by Robert Stone that mentioned the forty hours of footage. After the festival, we got in contact with the Kesey estate and entered negotiations.
Is there a narrative that ties Magic Trip together?
We hope so, we hope people think that there is -- we do! There is the actual trip that took place, so there's some kind of chronological structure, but it's also the idea of bursting out of this black-and-white-world into exploration of the country, psychedelia and color and what the '60s were really about, sort of the origin story. We think of the '60s being wild and crazy, but that didn't happen till '67. The early part of the '60s were really the '50s, so those guys were coming out of that world.
What were some of the challenges you encountered in making this film?
The material is problematic because they shot reversal film, which meant it was a positive image, which meant they were able to project it and edit it without making duplicates. So the footage itself was in really bad shape. And then making a story and making it have more meaning than just a bunch of young people frolicking around the country, getting high on drugs. Ken was interviewed so many times, and we found interviews that had been done with the pranksters about twelve years after the trip in the barn at Kesey's house. We started really feeling like now we have a story, we have deeper meaning, and in the case of Jane (Burton) -- who's so dry and witty and at times absolutely negative about the trip -- so we had those different perspectives in there.
What surprised you about the footage?
You look at it and you see how patriotic they are -- the red, white and blue flag; how young and clean-cut they all looked -- I guess that kind of initially surprised me; I thought they'd have more of the '60s edge to them and they just don't. The trip back footage is so beautiful, and they weren't as interested in the trip back in the films they were trying to make with the material, so as a result it was really pristine. So there were whole reels that they'd never really touched. The lack of sync was surprising and really challenging, but we figured out ways to layer the audio, because they recorded a lot of audio -- just not necessarily when they were filming.
How does this film fit into the overall mythos about that trip, including Tom Wolf's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test?
The book is wonderful, but Tom Wolfe wasn't on the trip -- he talked to these guys after the trip. This is going on the trip with them: You get on the bus at the beginning of the film, and other than a few scenes with archival footage and some animation sequences, you're on the bus with them. It's very experiential.
Did you use animation as a way to capture the psychedelic experience?
We did. We did it in an old-school way; Karen Fong, who's an amazing designer, did the animation with us. We wanted it to start from a place of reality and get more extreme as we went in, but everything is hand-painted over images. We found an old tape recorder -- one of the first acid trips Ken Kesey took was in the VA hospital, and he audio-taped the session and took the tape with him after the VA session; we found an audiocassette in the barn, and sure enough, it was the real thing. And one other sequence was Stark Naked -- one of the Pranksters did a striptease at the back of the bus; they talk about it but didn't film it, so we sort of did a quasi-recreation. So it's all their footage.
Have you heard any reaction from any of the Pranksters about the film?
All the Pranksters are totally positive with it; everybody's completely on board. They were very hands-off and let us do our thing.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I just think that because of the time in which they did this trip in 1964, JFK had just been assassinated, there was just a tremendous sense of fear of the bomb and people had very much a bunker mentality, and I feel that we're in a very similar place now. It's no longer fear of the bomb, per se, but fear of terrorism and economic meltdowns -- the same fearmongers are out there, and that was the time that they came from, and we can relate to it today.
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