Thursday, August 4, 2011

Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood on finding the story in Kesey’s Magic Trip

Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney has a gift for taking chunks of recent American history that we think we know all too well and making them feel new, either by clarifying complex issues (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) or by showing old facts in a new light (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer). He’s at it again in Magic Trip, the story of how Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters helped ignite the ‘60s, starting with their cross-country bus trip in 1964. I talked to Gibney and Alison Ellwood, his editor on five earlier films and his co-director here, in New York City last week.

This seems like it would be a hard movie to market because Baby Boomers might either go or skip on the assumption that it’s a nostalgia trip, which it really isn’t, and younger people are sick of hearing boomers go on about how great things were in the ‘60s. What are you doing to try to break through those preconceptions and convince people to see the film?
Alex Gibney: The trick is to try to get them to hear that this is not another ‘60s nostalgia film. This is the origin story, or one of the origin stories.
Alison Ellwood: The kids I talk to say that they’ve heard a lot about the ‘60s, but it’s so mythologized to them. This is the closest that they’ve come to feeling like they’ve actually gotten a real taste of it.

In the film, you call Kesey “The man who invented the ‘60s.” Of course, history is never created by a single person.

But one person can help crystallize something that’s in the air and push it in a certain direction. How do you think Kesey influenced the way our culture evolved in the ‘60s?
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a classic ‘60s novel. It’s all about –

Fighting back against corporations.
Yeah, the combine. And it’s about freedom—personal freedom. That’s what Kesey was really into. Part of that is sort of bedrock Americana, but part of it is what the counterculture became: We want to wear our hair long; we want to paint our buses. At the same time, as much as he advocated for broad cultural change, as a person, I think Ken was very distrustful of moments or movements that proscribe for people what they should be. I always think of him more like Bob Dylan, who was the ultimate shape shifter. Every time the culture seems to catch up with him, he gets uncomfortable and moves off someplace else.

One of the ways he was ahead of his time is that the Merry Pranksters filmed every step of their journey and then shared it with as wide an audience as they could. Their weekly screenings afterward at Kesey’s farm of the movie they made of the trip were about as viral as a film could get before YouTube. Do you think the way they mythologized themselves, documenting everything they did and assuming other people would find it fascinated, was an important part of their appeal?
I don't know if the narcissism was part of the appeal, but I think Kesey understood the power of mythmaking. On the one hand, you can look at that footage and say: This is just a bunch of kids going on a road trip. But I think Kesey was already starting to imagine it as something bigger.

The problem was, it was very hard for anyone except for the Pranksters to get anything out of those movies. They were filling in the blanks, but everyone else was, like “What’s all this jittery camera stuff?”
AE: “What are they doing? Where are they going?”
AG: Yeah. Nobody had any kind of context for the story.

So was it just kind of playing in the background of a big party?
AE: They put it together for themselves, so it only made sense to themselves. It was complete inside baseball. I told Alex the scariest part for me on the project was when their films started making perfect sense to me. [laughs]

I was really impressed by how you took a tangle of old footage and turned it into a coherent story about American culture. Sometimes this does just feel like a bunch of kids on a road trip, but the context you bring to it makes it more than that, by picking out trends like the birth of the drug culture and the reflexive distrust of authority and the DIY movement that rose up in reaction to slick consumerism and mass production. And you really stick a pin into the birth of that moment where, as Kesey puts it, “the trip became more important than the destination.” How did you find a story in all that footage?
well, we had the chronology of the trip, there and back, and we had certain events that happened after they returned as it got later in the ‘60s.

So you knew from the start that that chronology would be a narrative thread?
Well, we weren’t going to have them start in New York. [laughs] They had a destination, they got there – and there was a dramatic turn, because they were excited to get to the World of Tomorrow, but it’s the world of yesterday. And they’re the world of tomorrow, so they need to go on and find tomorrow.

But how to context to help give it a bigger meaning, that’s what took the longest time. If you understand that this bus was exploding out of the ‘50s, not out of what we think of as the ‘60s, that’s a huge thing to know. The Yellowstone thing was a big turning point for us in figuring out how to tell the story. When they go through Yellowstone and Ken sees the sign: Beware of the bear. And he says, what did that used to mean? It used to mean, “Be aware of the bear.”
And now it means, “Be afraid of the bear.”
Yes. We said, okay, each scene has to have that kind of double meaning, deeper meaning.

Yes, it was really interesting what he was saying about how Americans were becoming much more ruled by fear. You cut from his quote to the famous daisy ad that helped get LBJ elected.
Fear was really in Ken’s mind. He felt that one of the things they were trying to accomplish with the trip. They were going out and saying to everyone: “Come on out of your bomb shelters and join us. Have some fun! Play—we’ll do some magic tricks.” Everyone was too afraid. And the antidote to that was being ready, willing, and able to play.

It’s kind of ironic that it was the CIA that turned him on to acid in the first place.
that is very ironic. I think that contains within it a certain larger irony about the ‘60s itself: That acid, which was seen as a force of liberation, was being developed by the CIA as a force of just the opposite, a force of imprisonment and interrogation.

One of the contrasts you play with a lot is the one you just brought up – that the Pranksters are the face of the future, while this World of Tomorrow world’s fair they’re headed for in New York is anything but. Is that contrast something the Pranksters themselves were having fun with in the films they made of their trip, or is that something you guys drew out of it?
I’m not sure they had the sense at the time that they were the future, but they continued to explore. That’s what’s so interesting about this trip: It really is a big exploration. They didn’t quite know what they were looking for, but they were doing stuff that would later become very fashionable.

In fact, the things that they thought would be the most meaningful often turned out to be the least, like their “summit” with the East Coast acidheads.
Right. That was a bust. Kerouac: disappointment. World’s Fair: disappointment. Leary: disappointment. Everywhere along the road, they’re trying to make connections with people they think are their guiding lights, and, whether they realize it or not, they’re the ones who are more vital. So they just keep on going. Later on, Kesey looks at his own group and says, “Maybe we’ve gotten stale too,” and then he moves on. But they were constantly looking for inspiration.

Did you tape any new interviews for this or did you use only old ones that you found?
We started out doing it in a much more conventional way, which was to videotape interview with the survivors and get them to talk. We even played around, for a trailer, with an interview we had with Tom Wolfe from Gonzo. We intercut it with the material, and it didn’t look right at all. The footage kept looking much more present and interesting than the commenting upon it. But at the same time, the footage on the own wouldn’t explain itself. We had to find something. We found these audiotapes, which had been recorded not too long after the bus trip.

Who were they recorded by? Where did you find them?
Kesey had them. A guy named John Teton had gone out and recorded interviews with all the Pranskters – some of them very bad quality, which necessitated having actors re-record them. We couldn’t go back to the original people, even if they were still alive, because their voices would have been much too old. Some of them, only the transcripts survived. But if we could, we used the real voices.
AE: He did them for research purposes. He was doing something called Further Inquiry, which was basically a screenplay—
AG: —for a movie they kept trying to make. Part of the beauty of them, for our purposes, is that as they were recording [the people making the tapes] would show [the Pranksters] the footage. That would spark their memories – oh, I remember this! There’s Sandy scratching his balls. Or I remember this: That day didn’t do anything for me.
AE: Or, in Stark’s case, I remember this; I don’t remember any of that. [laughter]
AG: The music of that time is kind of interesting, because 1964 is right at the moment when things are changing. The Beatles come in that year. We put in a lot of songs that people might recognize, but the versions are different because they’re the original R&B versions. Like Twist and Shout – it’s not the Beatles; it’s the Isley Brothers. R&B was just being discovered and made into rock and roll by white kids. Also, jazz was still very present then. Jazz kind of disappears in the later ‘60s, but for these guys it was really present. And there are kind of half-country, half-blues songs, like King of the Road. It was a moment that was kind of right on the edge.

I remember hearing some music that was on their radio.
Yeah. Some of it is just on the soundtrack – it’s what they were listening to. A lot of Coltrane is like that.
AG: We would pick stuff based on the kind of stuff they listened to. They did listen to a lot of R&B. And you could hear Cassady singing Love Poition Number 9 as they’re going up the Jersey Turnpike.

That was also an interesting year because so many historically significant things were happening then, not just in music but that was right after JFK had died, and the year MLK was marching.
It was a really tumultuous time. That was one of those moments where you needed just enough context. That moment with Martin Luther King, Jr. was much longer in an earlier cut.

It’s like, let’s focus on this and see something that’s a little bit different than maybe we all remember. The stereotype has been so prevalently conveyed. Those shots of Haight-Ashbury used to be a longer section too, but we realized that Haight-Ashbury is so familiar that you get it in a second. All you need to do is show a little bit of it and then you can move right on.

Interview conducted for TimeOFF