The social upheavals of the 1960s and '70s were fueled by a potent blend of sex, drugs and rock and roll, but only a few select groups elevated that combination to a religion. The Source Family documentary shines a spotlight on one such group, and a strange, fascinating piece of American history you've never heard of. Led by the charismatic Father Yod (aka Jim Baker), the Source Family ran a successful health-food restaurant, a revolutionary psych band and a unique social experiment in communal living, all while rubbing elbows with the Hollywood elite of the day. Original footage shot by Family members themselves is paired with interviews with those who were there, both inside and outside the Family, to tell a riveting story that proves once and for all that truth really is stranger than fiction.
Before The Source Family opens tonight for a weeklong run at the Sie FilmCenter, we talked with Maria Demopoulos, the film's co-director, about the Family, what it took to bring the story to the screen, and how such a strange and spectacular part of American history has been overlooked for so long.
Westword: How did you come to be involved with this project?
Maria Demopoulos: I've been friends with my co-director, Jodi Wille, for years and she found the Source Family through the music, which is how a lot of people know of them. Her ex-husband had found a short film about the Family at Amoeba Records and brought it home, and she saw the Source Family members and footage in the film, so she contacted them about doing a book. She started collaborating with [Source Family historian] Isis Aquarian and as they were working together, Isis said, "Oh, I have all these photographs and I have all these films." She'd been holding on to this footage and photographs and audio recordings for forty years! We kind of came across a treasure trove -- it was like we hit the jackpot.
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I grew up in Los Angeles and I'm very interested in Los Angeles history and I'd never heard the story before. I didn't realize until we started working on the film that the Source Restaurant was sort of this epicenter in Hollywood, a crossroads for the Laurel Canyon musicians, movie stars and hippies. All of these people would convene at the restaurant. It became almost like a spiritual center and also just a meeting place for all these people -- and the food was really good as well. They were basically a secret mystery school in the Hollywood hills. They had this very private life, but then they were living very publicly by owning the restaurant and dealing with the public all day. It's a fascinating story.
It seems like it's been lost to history almost, despite how ingrained it seemed to be in the culture of the time, being a celebrity hangout and all.
I don't think people knew about it. As we were making the film, a lot of people who were a bit older than us would say, "Oh, yeah, I used to eat at the Source, but I had no idea it was owned by this family." You've seen the footage in the film of them walking down Sunset Boulevard, but I don't know if people really knew the story behind the story.
Right, people just saw these weird hippies wandering around, which probably wasn't that unusual at the time, but they never put them together with the restaurant.
Yeah, and at the time, what a lot of people don't realize, was there were thousands, if not tens of thousands, of communal groups across the United States. This was just one of many, many groups. A lot of people just know about the cults that did bad stuff -- Jim Jones, the Manson Family. People don't really know that there so many more of these groups, and they were really commonplace.
At that time, there was a lot going on politically, and the nuclear family was fractured. A lot of those kids who joined the Source Family came from the Mad Men generation. Their parents were military parents, or they had very different politics from them. So a lot of these kids broke off and were searching inward for something different, trying to build a better world. So the Source Family was almost like a utopian group. They were really just trying to do something different.
It seemed like most of the people that you interviewed, who made up the nucleus of the Source Family, all had positive memories of it. There wasn't a lot of, "Well, that was a horrible mistake I made in a crazy time." They all seemed to have been profoundly affected by it in a positive way.
It's interesting. We interviewed over forty Source Family members and what was important to us was to get the authenticity of the experience through them. It kind of didn't matter what happened during that period; what mattered was what was coming through them and how they felt about it. A lot of of them attribute that experience as one of the most meaningful periods of their life. They'll readily admit that it was complicated and messy and painful and harrowing at times, and we really felt like we were getting a holistic point of view from them.
They were a living social experiment right in the middle of Hollywood, and they were doing something so different and so bold. Every day was a new challenge. Father Yod would come down to meditation and say, "Okay, today we're going to do this." He was constantly changing the rules and you just had to be along for the ride, so they were living very much in the present. I think that experience is unique and kind of unheard of now. They can look back at it and see it did profoundly affect them. A lot of visionaries of today, like Steve Jobs, lived in communes. It does affect them. You learn to think very differently. It was like a wild creative experiment, and I think that they realize that it was a very special and profound experience, even though it had all of those complications and all the messiness and pain and heartache. It was all of it.
This is your first feature film, and it's a big one -- big personalities, larger-than-life story -- was it intimidating to take it on as your debut feature?
No. I had been trying to get other features off the ground and almost did, so I was chomping at the bit. I was really ready for this. It was honestly just such a fun project. The research was fun, and it just tapped into so many things I'm interested in.
You mentioned you interviewed forty members of the Family, plus old co-workers of Father Yod and other people. Was there anything that came out of those interviews that surprised you?
As a documentarian, you're also a forensic storyteller. We would go in and we would do an interview and I would walk away with my biases. Then we'd do another interview and I'd completely do a 180 and my opinion about something would flip. My biases and prejudices would be challenged constantly. Somebody would say something and I'd be like, "Wait, did you just say this?" and new information would come through the interviews as we probed deeper and deeper. So we'd go back and interview people multiple times to investigate and get deeper into certain story points. It was constantly like peeling back layers of an onion. We had new discoveries along the way, new information we didn't know going into it. While I had certain expectations going in, I will certainly say a lot of new information was revealed as we were conducting interviews.
Were there members of the Source Family you weren't able to talk to, or who refused to talk to you?
I would say initially there were a lot of members of the Source Family that didn't want to speak, but we had Isis Aquarian on board as an associate producer and our liaison to the Source Family, so slowly over time everybody was willing to speak to us. We pursued celebrities who frequented the Source Restaurant and we weren't able to get any of them on camera. I think there was a stigma about being attached to Jim Baker [aka Source Family leader Father Yod], and they didn't really know the context of how we were presenting the material. We wanted to interview some of those celebrities, but they wouldn't participate. We also wanted to interview Elaine Baker, the wife of Jim Baker from when he owned a number or restaurants -- they opened up a couple of restaurants together -- and she didn't want to participate at all, either. For me, that was the interview we really wanted to get and couldn't get.
Are you surprised at the reception the film is getting?
Yes and no. It's been this kind of crazy whirlwind. The film has been selling out every screening in Los Angeles and we've been doing Q&As and it's been kind of nuts. The subject matter is so salacious and juicy and compelling, which is what drew me to the project. You can sort of anticipate that people will come, but then it actually happens and it's like "whoa!" Experiencing it has been wonderful, it's been really great, because we worked really hard on it. We worked on it for like six years. It opened last year at South by Southwest. It's been a fun ride.
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People are really liking it. We're getting an overwhelmingly young crowd coming to the screenings, people in their twenties to early thirties. I think that's because it taps into so many currents that are now topical -- sustainability and communal living and so many trends that younger people are interested in. There's also some appeal to a baby Boomer crowd, for nostalgic reasons, and also to people who are interested in spirituality. It's great, because we're cutting a wide swath.