The Magic Trip co-director chats Gonzo, Kerouac and finding the counter-culture pulse.
A compelling and fitting homage to the Beat era, Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood’s Magic Trip features a meticulous reconstruction of footage shot by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on their colourful road trips in the early 1960s. LWLies sat down with Gibney at the BFI London Film Festival back in October to discuss the difficult reconstruction process and his experiences of making a film about another very different counter-culture icon, Hunter S Thompson.
LWLies: With a career as varied as yours, how do you go about choosing a subject like this?
Gibney: Well, you say choose, I mean there’s a famous sports aphorism which is ‘luck is when opportunity meets the prepared mind.’ So very often these subjects choose me. Somebody says ‘would you like to do a film about…’ and if I feel that there’s something interesting in there for me then, yeah sure, I’ll take it on. But it’s not always like ‘let’s go over the series of ideas I have and choose one I’m gonna do next.’ It rarely works out that way.
So which was Magic Trip?
Well that was actually one that I was interested in doing. I read an article by Robert Stone, who was briefly on the bus and is in the film, and he was talking about all this footage of that famous trip. And I had played McMurphy in 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest' at high-school and I had read 'The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test' but I thought, as a filmmaker, the idea of having a moment from the past which was so well covered by film that you could kind of cut together like a cinema vérité doc, I thought that would be fun. It was a trip that had always interested me, so I set out to try and do it. And my editor Alison Ellwood was my partner in crime as was this guy from here, Will Clarke from Optimum, so way back when, I guess back in 2005, we said ‘let’s make this movie’, but it took us a long time.
How did you go about obtaining the footage?
Well we went to the Kesey estate and the Kesey family and asked if we could have the rights to use it, could we have the rights to quote Kesey and, yeah, we made a deal with them. But the hard part was really after the deal because the footage had been rather badly mangled when the pranksters themselves had tried to make versions of this film. The problem was that they’d shot in 16mm reversal and reversal, as you probably know, is positive, so unfortunately they were cutting the original. So it was damaged and there were a lot of scratches which had to be fixed and nobody had ever really bothered to do the things that you needed to do to sync the film back in the day, so we had to try and find ways of syncing it up. It was a tremendously difficult process to try and put it all together. The audio had to be restored. Even the audiotapes were recording at different speeds and there was a generator on the bus that was tied to the audiotape recorded and whenever the generator was running low, so did the tape recorder. So there were a lot of problems.
How many hours did you have to sort through in total?
I would say there were around 40 hours of footage.
And did you sat through everything?
Yeah… Well, Alison did. I wouldn’t say that I did. I mean, I think Alison is the great hero of this film because she immersed herself in it. She became the explorer, trying to make sense of it all because a lot of it was not very well shot and I don’t think they had much of a vision of where they were going or what they were doing. And Kesey was much more comfortable in the literary world than he was in the cinematic world I think. He hadn’t really assumed mastery over that medium, so it was hard and Alison was really the one that waded in deep.
And was it a case that you were looking for a narrative thread in the footage and did you have a story in mind that you wanted to tell from the beginning or was it kind of pot luck based on what you found?
I think it was a little bit of both. One thing we were looking for were scenes. Moments that were not to be narrated over necessarily but which would live and breathe as a scene and there were a few. And we kind of put those scenes together and then slowly but surely tried to figure out how we could connect them in to a larger story, so I think that was sort of the first part of the process. And then there was other stuff we found that was not necessarily part of the bus trip that ended being terribly important to understanding the story.
I happened to be rummaging around in Kesey’s barn and I stumbled upon this audiotape, which said ‘Veterans Administration Hospital – 1960.’ And I thought to myself ‘Wow, I wonder if this is what I think it is.’ And I had the audio restored and it was, it was Kesey recording his impressions of taking what we think was IT-290 at the Veterans Administration Hospital. So it was such great material that we had to find a place in the story to put it.
And at what point did you say to yourself ‘Okay, we need to get the running time down’. What would your ideal running time have been?
I suppose I look at every one of my films and think ‘If only I could have made this shorter.’ But at the time we thought we couldn’t cut it down any more, but we wanted to keep the trip true to itself and yet provide just enough context so you had some appreciation of where this all sat. It’s interesting, once they get back from the trip there’s this series of acid tests with The Grateful Dead and stuff like that and without that material you don’t really understand how this trip became a myth which then lead to a sense of what the '60s would become. You also get a sense of how Kesey himself, like Dylan and maybe George Harrison or Lennon even, every time their fans caught up with them they wanted to go some place different. And just the moment when the bus is taking off for Woodstock and it’s going to be a centrepiece of this new counter-culture, Kesey didn’t want any part of it. He wanted to go some place different.
With regards to storytelling, you used a voiceover narration by Stanley Tucci that plays out like an interview with these people. Why did you choose to approach it like that?
Well the reason is that we had the answers but we didn’t have any of the questions and so in a way it was that simple. And for people who weren’t there and who weren’t on the bus, you need a little bit of context to be able to understand it. If you listen to the questions you’ll find there’s quite a lot of information in there that allows you to have a greater understanding of where you’re going and what the answers might mean. It was tricky.
There’s a beginning sequence for the first two-and-a-half minutes of the film which you had to understand enough about what this time period was because, sure it’s the 60s, but it all feels the same, but this was really pre-summer of love. This was one foot in the '50s and one foot in the '60s and you also had to know a little bit about when this trip happened, what kind of place it was and also where this film came from. So that early sequence is an attempt in a kind of mockumentary way to present some of that exposition.
And what generation did you view the film as being for when you were putting the film together? Who did you have in mind as an audience?
Well I kind of hoped almost anybody could come to it and that’s one of the reasons why we opted not to shoot interviews. I mean we started that way actually, we started shooting interviews with the pranksters today, reflecting back and we didn’t like the results. We found that their storytelling was very erratic but there’s something about the kind of nostalgia of looking way back when which sort of said to people that this was for the generation that went through it. And I kind of wanted to create more of a feeling of being on the bus and a kind of present day, even though it’s about the past. I wanted it to be more of an immersion experience so you feel like you were there.
So was that what the point of the voiceover re-enactments were for the likes of Jane Burton and the rest of the people on the bus?
Oh well that was actually more technical. It was both technical and also the idea of putting you there because there were these audio tapes that we discovered of the pranksters who had been interviewed by Ken Kesey not too long after the bus trip, so it was more contemporary to that moment. But some of them were rather badly recorded. They were very difficult to hear and in the case of Jane Burton she also had a horrible cold so it made her almost impossible to understand so in that case we felt it was better to preserve her words and the vibe of who she was so we hired an actress and had her inhabit the role.
In the case of Stark Naked, that was the one tape that was oddly missing, but there was a transcript of what she had said. But in the case of George Walker the recording quality was quite good, so we used George’s original. We did the same thing with Neal Cassady and of course Kesey. For the ones we used actors for, we wanted the voices to be young voices, not voices of older people looking back. We wanted people to feel like it was of the moment.
This felt like a natural progression from Gonzo because both Kesey and Thompson are considered counter-culture icons. In terms of approaching the subject of Hunter, how was the process different?
That was something where I did something completely different. We had people looking back and some people who were quite close to him. So it was more of an attempt to get to know him better.
A more intimate portrait?
Right. You know, there were times where we did make the decision that at he heart of that one there was a narrator that was intentionally undependable, and that was Hunter. The only narration you hear in the film are words that were written by Hunter but read by Johnny Depp, but they’re Hunter’s words. And that seemed interesting, where the interview subjects are telling you something that we might regard as truthful and Hunter’s telling you a different kind of truth – the poet’s truth, which is both more profound but somewhat misleading from time to time.
A warped version.
The Gonzo version.
Absolutely. So what attracted you to Hunter’s story?
Well that was one, unlike Kesey, that was brought to me not long after he died. I never knew him, but I guess what attracted me to him was, as a person, he seemed to kind of embody the best and the worst of America all in one guy, which I thought was fascinating. And also, in his political writing, he had a willingness to depart from the conventions of that kind of writing, sometimes to get out a deeper truth and sometimes in a terribly funny way. He was caustic, he was irreverent, he put himself in the writing and he came out of it with something very different to what most writers would, in a way that was both dishonest and honest at the same time.
Magic Trip is in cinemas now and available on DVD and Blu-ray November 28.