In 1964, Ken Kesey, author of
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, embarked on his legendary, LSD-fuelled cross-country road trip to the New York World’s Fair. He was joined in the groovy Magic Bus by “The Merry Band of Pranksters,” a renegade group of counterculture truth-seekers, including Neal Cassady, who was immortalized as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Part of their intention was to document the trip and make a film about it, but Kesey distrusted "experts" and refused to bring an experienced cameraman and sound person on board. As a result, the sound and footage could not be synced, and attempts to assemble some semblance of a movie out of the 100 hours of raw footage proved futile, until now.
Director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Gonzo) and co-director Alison Ellwood have crafted a kinetic, kaleidoscopic documentary out of the footage, resulting in what they're calling archival cinema verité. Eschewing the talking heads deployed for traditional historic documentaries, the movie, dubbed Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place seeks to recreate the experience of being on the bus, immersing the viewer right in the thick of the freaky action, with audio culled from the words and recordings of Ken Kesey, as well as the observations of the passengers as they watched the footage not long after the trip. It's a trip to finally step inside this strange historical moment, and we recently spoke with Gibney about how the daunting project came together. It's currently screening at Cinema Village.
I was always interested in these guys, so I'm glad that finally something was done with all this footage that they shot. It's a film that's been almost fifty years in the making.
What possessed you to do this? Because to me it seems like a huge undertaking. It was huge and it's taken a long time. Alison [Ellwood, co-director] and I first thought about doing this when we were on our way out to Sundance for Enron, which was 2005. So that's a long time. But there are a lot of funny connections I have to this story. I actually played McMurphy in a high school play of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and then I was a big fan of the book The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. And these guys have always interested me. Kesey in particular. I loved his writing. I also loved his kind of anarchic spirit. There's something very original about him. So when I saw that this footage existed I just thought, "well wouldn't that be interesting to make a movie out of that material, to go back and resurrect it." And I didn't know at the time that they had been trying to make it for a long time. I didn't know what condition the footage was in. All of that. But it just seemed like it would be something fun to do: sort of archival cinema verité.
Did you ever meet Kesey? I never did.
Did you have any personal interaction with the people in the film? Yeah, I mean, the first instinct was to go out and do this in a much more traditional fashion. Go out, meet the survivors, and interview them on camera. And we started that. I interviewed Tom Wolfe. It just seemed very unsatisfying that way for a lot of reasons. One was: the footage was so wild and alive and then there was something about these people 45 years on kind of looking back. It seemed just too staid for that trip.
It seemed to want to be its own thing, to just be on the bus. Some of the stories had kind of congealed and become fictional. Some of the people were tired of telling them and they kind of made up new stories. It just didn't ring right at all. But the footage seemed really intriguing. We had been warned by people: stay away from the footage because it's not well shot. And it wasn't well shot. But we found a few things that really helped. One was still photographs taken by "Hassler" Ron Bevirt. Also, we found these audio tapes that Kesey had been making with the help of a guy named John Teton, in order to make a book that he did called the Further Inquiry, which is kind of a screenplay.
They were always trying to make this movie and they never made it, but they have this screenplay of it and they interviewed all the participants, showing them footage of the bus trip as they interviewed them so it would spark their recollection. Those tapes ended up being incredibly valuable. Then we decided to flip it on its head. Instead of doing the traditional thing, we decided to dispense entirely with on-camera interviews and just be in the moment as much as possible.
So just for people who haven't seen it? At certain points it seems as if people are being interviewed? But that's actually some sort of re-creation, right? Yeah. Sometimes the actual questions being asked are included. Sometimes in order to be able to get the right moment at the right time and because it wasn't always clear, we inserted and created a character of the interrogator, played by Stanley Tucci, who comes on in a faux march of time right at the beginning and continues to ask questions throughout, to which you have the real responses. But, yeah, so that was an artifice that we added that enabled us. Sometimes the questions are rather long and the questions allow a certain amount of explanation that would have otherwise been very difficult to put in. We could have narrated it. But we didn't really want to narrate it.That seems kind of wrong. So we have this character who asks questions.
Timothy Leary and Neal Cassady in MAGIC TRIP, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo © Allen Ginsberg, CORBIS.
Did you speed up any of that footage of Neal Cassady? Because he's moving so quickly. It seems impossible that he actually moved that fast. Well, no, we didn't speed it up. It's him. Every once in a while there are some sync tricks that have to be done because the audiotape was not always recorded properly. It was the tape player off and harnessed to a generator on the bus which pulsed, so the speed changed and so sometimes changes had to be made in order to keep the sections that are in sync in sync. But no we didn't speed that stuff up.
It's really amazing having read about Cassady in On the Road and other books and then actually seeing this footage. It's a revelation for all sorts of reasons. He is a mythical character and then to see him in the flesh... but not just that—because we've seen bits and pieces before in other footage. But to see him yammering on just nonstop. So fast. It's wild. It's one of the most interesting things about this experience, I think . It's seeing Cassady, in the flesh, in sync, driving that bus.
And he doesn't do the return trip right? Right. You can see that there's a whole different rhythm to the return trip, which we initially weren't interested in and then became increasingly more interested in. It's a much more laconic trip on the way back. Neal Cassady was like a drummer setting a very fast beat. The beat on the way back is much slower. It's like a waltz.
When they were in New York, they went to the World's Fair. Can you describe how that went? Their mission was to go to the New York World's Fair. They wanted to see it. And that was supposed to be that grand party and this grand vision of the future. And in some ways it fulfilled their expectations. If you're doing a lot of drugs and you're going to exhibits like the DuPont Plastic People exhibit or Better Living Through Chemistry, and also Futurama and things like that. That had to be sort of tailor-made for drug taking. At the same time, I think they looked at that vision of the future and it all seemed very corny—as if that vision of the future had already congealed into a vision of the past, the country that we were leaving behind. And they left the World's Fair thinking we're not following anybody into the future. It's wide open and now we're exploring. In fact, and I don't think they knew it at the time, but they were the future.
Right. They had an encounter with Timothy Leary. To you, is that an important part of the film? Does it say anything? The encounter is kind of a bust, but I think that's interesting. It was supposed to be the West Coast acid heads meet the East Coast acid heads. Well, the East Coast acid heads basically ran and hid when they saw the pranksters coming full of smoke bombs and tootling instruments. They were all kind of free form and party, and the Leary followers were much more rigid, interestingly enough, when it came to experiencing LSD. "We shall have the trip but we shall have the right room and the right sounds. It should be more controlled." Very much coming out of an academic environment. Kesey had been to graduate school but was anything but the traditional academic. These were wild free-formers. It was oil and water. They wanted to connect, but Leary didn't want to connect at all. They felt a little bit miffed so they went off and continued their party. Like, okay, 'You're not on our wavelength, we're moving on.'
It reminded me of Hunter S. Thompson, and that amazing passage in Fear and Loathing where he talks about all of the pathetically eager acid freaks who followed Leary, the failed seekers. You also made that film Gonzo, and he was around the West Coast around that time, for the "great San Francisco acid wave." He saw what Kesey ultimately saw, which was what happens when drug taking becomes a fashion rather than a true kind of free form exploration. I think that was interesting. Of course I can't help but chuckle when I think about Hunter and Kesey, because Hunter was always trying to get Kesey to get him LSD. Hunter was a big faxer, so he would fax a request to Kesey to send LSD. Then Kesey would write on a big piece of paper LSD and fax it back to him.
Did they also have some encounter with Kerouac in New York? They did. And that's an interesting moment. They get together and have a party in New York City and Ginsberg is there and Kerouac is there. Ginsberg is still on fire. You can see him; just exploding with vitality and ideas and charm. Kerouac is a broken man at that point. He's just huddled at one end of a very large couch nursing a 16 oz can of Budweiser, sullen and disconsolate. There's a big party going on around him and, in a way, it's being held in his benefit, but he's not at all interested. He's moved on. He's become a kind of shell of his former self. And Cassady, the guy he made famous, is spinning around and now he's lovers with Ginsberg and everything else. The world has kind of passed Kerouac by. It's a sad moment.
Neal Cassady at the helm, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
And wasn't there some incident with an American flag? Kerouac was becoming much more conservative and he didn't like that they were messing with an American flag. And that was ironic in a way, because Kesey thought of himself as the ultimate patriot, the ultimate American. To him, this was a real pioneer's trip. They were doing what Lewis and Clark had done but in a very different vain. Yeah, Kerouac had become a real bitter and kind of selfish character—always very disapproving of others.
I remember seeing this old footage of him on William Buckley's show and he's drunk and just getting derisively mocked by Buckley. Right. Yeah and it was easy to mock him because a lot of people like Buckley used to like to mock his writing. But you can see in a brief clip we have of him, a rather famous one of him, on the Steve Allen show reading On the Road to Steve Allen's piano accompaniment and there's a real twinkle in his eye there, and you can feel the headiness and the sense of wonder and confidence. He's on fire. But by 1964, the fire was mostly out.
Ted Streshinsky, CORBIS
I've taken LSD and i enjoyed it. I'm not dismissing the fact that people have very bad trips and under the wrong circumstances it can be terribly dangerous. I took it and I enjoyed it. I felt it did help to open up my mind. I also agree with Kesey's sentiment in the film that once it becomes a kind of cheap fashion it's lost its power and its allure. It's an exhausting drug, so it leaves you very much drained but it does point you in the right direction in some ways.
So in that sense, I felt I was very much interested in what these folks had done. I think it gave me some insight on how to put together the drug taking sequences, which are usually hopelessly mangled in movies. I feel pretty good about what we did on this one. When you begin to hallucinate, it's not like somehow you enter this cartoon word. Things begin to morph. They change shape. You hear colors. You see sounds. But it's not a completely different world. It's just a world that changes shape and structure.
It reminds me of that documentary about the making of Fear and Loathing where people who were initially going to direct it meet with Hunter and say they want to do an animation sequence. And Hunter just loses it. It's the wave sequence. That's in Wayne Ewing's doc. It's actually Alex Cox and his screenwriter, and they go in and talk to Hunter Thompson and they say, "You know it'd be really cool if we just animated that. We'll have a surfer like riding this wave. It'd be really cool." Hunter just explodes because, to him, that speech is one of the most moving. And I agree with him. It's one of the most moving speeches or passages in the book, where he's talking about the kind of cultural momentum. And there was a sense of momentum and purpose. The wave crashed and then it was over. It's a little bit like what happened to Kerouac and he felt that they were somehow cheapening it and trivializing it into some kind of drug-addled cartoon, which is not at all what he had in mind.
Looking into the future, do you think that kind of powerful counter culture movement will ever be matched? I always get uncomfortable answering questions about cultural direction. It was a funny thing about the '60s because there was a sense of a wave. There was a sense that things were really changing. But I think that those forces of change were also tearing themselves apart, because they were prone to the same problems that we all face: ego, divisiveness, and a determined resistance to change. I think at some point the counterculture back in the day became very snooty and exclusive.
I sense it at times. I'm very disappointed in Obama but the moment where he stepped on the stage in Chicago [after winning the election] was a great cultural moment. It seemed like a lot of people worked very hard and had a sense of hope and a sense of possibility and came out of their shells to deliver something very unique and special. They may have invested in him hopes that he as actual person was not able to fulfill. I think that's what we're seeing now. But that moment was a great one, so it's not like it can't happen.
Are there any other countercultural figures or moments in history you'd like to make films about? I don't know. Maybe. I'm doing one that's more in the present now. I'm doing a film about WikiLeaks. And that has certain cultural issues attached to it. I'm trying to disentangle that from the myth and the reality. What has changed and what has not changed. Going back into the past, I don't really know for the moment. In Hunter and in Kesey, there wasn't really a plan here. The Hunter film was offered to me because he had just recently passed away and somebody who saw Enron wanted me to do it, so I took it on. Though I certainly read Hunter. This one was one that I initiated because I had been a fan of Kesey for all of those reasons. But it wasn't like I had been doing a kind of systematic analysis of cultural figures in the past and ticking them off one by one. It's much more random than that.
Is Julian Assange working with you on this? Do you have his cooperation? I would say it's both. I went to him early on. This film is commissioned. I have complete editorial control and I went to him early on and said to him: I'm doing this whether you're in or you're out and I hope you'll cooperate. Since then, we spent a lot of time on the phone and a lot of time in person. I went to his 40th birthday party.
I saw the invitation to that! It's not what I would call an authorized film in that sense, because I was very wary and told him I was not going to do it like that where he had any control.
And when is that expected to come out? Some time next year.