Exclusive: Alex Gibney & Alison Ellwood Take a Magic Trip

In 1964, “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” author Ken Kesey gathered a group of friends and artists, collectively known as “The Merry Band of Pranksters,” they painted a school bus in all sorts of psychedelic patterns, dubbed it “Further,” then hit the road for a cross-country trip to the World’s Fair in New York. Along the way, they hooked up, took plenty of acid, freaked out, visited various celebrity friends and eventually got back to California where they set up a series of parties called the “Acid Trip” which helped to kick the drug-fueled “Flower Power” movement into overdrive.

All of that is documented in Magic Trip, the new documentary from filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), this time co-directing with his long-time editor Alison Ellwood. What makes this different from Gibney’s other work is that it’s made up almost entirely from archival film, audio tapes and photos taken by the Pranksters themselves while on the proverbial trip, and the filmmakers have diligently restored all of it to put together the definitive story, narrated by the Pranksters and the late Kesey himself (via interviews done before his death).

Here at CS Headquarters East, we’ve interviewed Gibney a number of times, going all the way back to Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and his long-time collaborator Alison Ellwood was definitely a new addition to the equation, not only to the interview but also in setting this film apart from Gibney’s prolific body of work. She only really jumped into the conversation a few times, but we were given a good chunk of time to talk to them about the movie.

ComingSoon.net: Even in the notes, you mention that this is a very different movie for you, partially because you were working closely with Alison on it. I remember you mentioning this project when we spoke for “Gonzo,” so where did this begin? Did it begin with someone contacting with you that they had the footage of the bus trip?
Alex Gibney:
This was actually one we initiated. We were on our way to Sundance for “Enron” and we read a piece in the New Yorker by Robert Stone who had been on the bus briefly about all this footage that existed of this epic trip. We thought, “Wow, that would be interesting if we can get our hands on that footage to make a movie out of that.” I think it really started not with the idea of
“Let’s do a movie about this important moment in history” but it was “There’s footage!” With the footage, that would make an interesting film so we kind of proceeded from the film that we thought might exist.

CS: I assume that both of you were very young in 1964 if you were even alive, but what was your connection to the material and how did you first hear about Ken Kesey and the cross-country bus trip with the Pranksters?
Alison Ellwood:
I just remember reading about it in “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” of course, and I was a huge Ken Kesey fan. There was really no other connection for me to this material other than that, but when I first saw the material, I was like, “There’s something here. We have to do something with this.”
Gibney: My connection was pretty similar. In high school, I actually played McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” I’m sure I was very bad, but it gave me a connection. That was the play version that they went to see in New York that Kirk Douglas had commissioned and had Dale Wasserman write. So that was an extra added connection for me.

CS: Was Ken Kesey still alive when you first got involved with this?
Gibney:
No, he died in 2001.

CS: And at what point did you start going after the Pranksters to talk to them?
Gibney:
We started hanging out at the Barn and going through archival material and we started to talk to the Pranksters and indeed started interviewing on camera, but then we decided to abandon that approach, and that might have been the biggest and most important decision that we made, rather than do the traditional way where you talk to people who were involved and they reflect back. There just seemed to be something odd, it was pulling us out of the material, and we even had an interview with Tom Wolfe – I interviewed him, too, from “Gonzo” and we started intercutting him with some of the footage, see how that would work. It just seemed all wrong. There was something visceral and important about the footage and the way they were then, that was better if we could stay there in that moment rather than pulling out and back. It doesn’t mean that’s always a good approach, but with this film, this material, it seemed right, and that was the biggest breakthrough.
Elwood: Because there was so much footage of the moment, too, that you could stay there for a long time, which is not always the case with these films.

CS: I read somewhere that you had over 100 hours of film to use for this?
Gibney:
I don’t know. Closer to 50 in terms of film, but there was also a tremendous amount of audio tape.

CS: Alison, you had already edited “Enron” by the time you discovered this, so have you literally been working on this movie since then around other things?
Elwood:
Yes, absolutely. The footage took quite a while for the restoration to happen, too, and what we worked with originally was some DV cammed taps that Ken had made at one point of most of the material. He had just done some inexpensive transfers, so the quality wasn’t great, so as the restoration would come in, we’d get the new material from UCLA, there’d be this amazing color and really rich and so, we’d overcut all of that material, so it was a constant process of waiting for stuff to come in.
Gibney: And then there was new material.
Elwood: Yeah, and then there was new stuff that no one had ever seen.

CS: What was the new material? Just stuff they’d never used when showing the films at their parties?
Gibney:
Yeah, and it’s interesting, too, because you can see in the actual quality of the footage, they were not that interested in the trip back, which we found rather interesting, but that material looks a lot better, because it hadn’t been so handled. Some of it is actually pristine. There is that scene at the lake where they’re taking IT-290, Lake Tranquility, and it’s just beautiful.

CS: There a lot of interesting aspects to the trip but the personal connections and how the relationships evolved over the course of the trip is really interesting. Are the Pranksters still very much in touch with each other?
Gibney:
The Pranksters are still very much in touch with each other. There’s disagreements, grudges, but a lot of them have gathered and settled in Eugene, Oregon, which is kind of Kesey Headquarters. A lot of them are there; not all of them, but a lot of them are. Somehow, after going hither and yon, they all migrated back to Eugene, so when we had a screening out there, both Alison and I were terrified about it, because we’re going to show this material to the people who were in it. They all showed up, the Pranksters and the Kesey family. It’s still very much their territory.

CS: What’s always interesting about a doc that’s historical, the fact that neither of you were there but you were interpreting all these different stories and trying to create the definitive documentation, so with that in mind, what was their reaction like? Did they think it was a fair and true retelling of the story?
Elwood:
Yeah, I mean, I think the best compliment we could have gotten was George Walker, one of the Pranksters, got up on stage with us and he had a big Mad Hatter hat on. He got up on stage took the microphone and said, “I just want to say that we’ve been trying to do this for 40 years. My hat’s off to you guys, you did it.” That was the best. They seemed pleased.

CS: The Pranksters have a very ideology than what you can take as a documentary filmmaker because they just got on the bus and made it up as they went along.
Gibney:
Yeah, and they have a very flexible approach to myth and reality. (chuckles)

CS: Did you try to incorporate some of that approach into this?
Gibney:
I think the narrators at the core of the film are undependable, and so I think that’s the first thing you have to keep in mind, but at the same time, I think in terms of structuring the film, we allow for our own point of view to emerge but I think it was also intuiting a lot of what they were thinking, so that comes across, too. It’s having a lot of different voices in the film, which I think we do in a lot of the films that we’ve done.

CS: Oh, absolutely. “Client 9″ and “Casino Jack” all had that sort of thing, but they had a little bit more flexibility in how you told the stories unlike this which we can see taking place for ourselves on film.
Gibney:
Yeah, but I think that was the mission though, and it was important to keep to that mission, which is to let that footage tell the story, focus on that. Now, we were also faced with issues like how to provide context and also create a little bit of biographical information about Kesey, because Kesey really is the star of the show, and we had to find ways of doing that within a rulebook that seemed to make sense within the context of this road trip.

CS: Was all the audio of Kesey from one interview?
Elwood:
No…
Gibney: Lots of different interviews.
Elwood: (It came) from all over.

CS: What about working with Imaginary Forces for the animation? You’ve done graphics in your movies but nothing quite like this. Can you talk about how you approached them and how much leeway you gave them to be creative.
Elwood:
Well, they were just terrific. Alex initially approached them and thank God they agreed to do this, because they just added a whole other layer to this. We worked with them a long time and they did storyboards. We started with the acid trip, the three and a half minutes of Ken’s recording himself taking acid. We started with that and they did a shoot with some of the things with the tape recorder, the glass, the bed, and the idea was to have it crazier from there.
Gibney: I think that was the key element that Imaginary Forces was just great about fulfilling (with just) a kind of simple bit of guidance from us, which was move from the real out. Don’t just pop into some sort of cartoon village that represents somebody’s kooky notion of what an acid trip is. An acid trip moves from the real out and things start to morph and change, but you’ve got to start with the real stuff, and then they found great ways of integrating other elements, too. For example, the written graphics are all done in a style that’s reminiscent of how Kesey wrote in his jail journals, so there’s pretty careful thinking done about how this material should be handled. As they played with it, it got more and more interesting but also, Karin Fong, who is a visionary, she’s done a lot of cool stuff. She was a big fan of Stan Brakhage and other folks and she found ways to reference those experimental filmmakers who liked to play the medium: burn the frame, show the sprockets, so there’s a lot of drawing on the film and pulling it apart and scratching it.

CS: Which is a lot easier to do now with computers.
Gibney:
Yeah.
Elwood: And literally painting on it, too.

CS: Even though you had footage you could use, there’s always the danger of using animation in a movie like this where it turns into “Chicago 10″ territory where you replace stuff with more interesting visuals done by the animators.
Gibney:
I think that was our great fear that we didn’t want to leave that territory. We wanted to morph it from time to time. The other interesting trip sequence that Imaginary Forces helped us with was the trip sequence in Wiki-up and we had magnificent photographs, particularly of Gretchen Fetchen and Slime Queen as she’s really peaking on acid, and we also have her talking about it, but their ability to create a world where you visually feel what she’s talking about, that somehow she’s making contact with the forces of nature, that the algae is talking to her. I just thought they did a great job of that but you never leave the moment, you’re in the moment. I think that was the key thing about this stuff ’cause we really didn’t not want to do something that would be some kind of artificially-imposed vision of a trip. It all had to move from the real stuff.

CS: Alison, where do you go from here? You went from being editor to being credited as co-director, so do you look for another project to direct on your own?
Elwood:
Yeah, we have some projects that we’re pitching to different people. I’ve got a lot of my own projects going on on the side, so I want to continue directing.
Gibney: There’s a film that Alison wants to do about anthrax, which is a great film. It’s a real peel-the-onion kind of film that is explosive. It gets into the cynical manipulation of reality and how corporations put citizens in danger in order to make lots of dough. It’s great, so that would be something Alison would direct and I would produce and it’s a very interesting film.

CS: I’m always interested in your choices, particularly the fact that whenever I talk to you, you mention a movie you’re working on and then two other movies show up out of the blue in between those movies. You have “Enron” and “Taxi to the Dark Side” about real world issues taken from the news, and then you have things like this which are more historic but also more playful. I was curious about the decision which films you focus on. Is it very natural from one to the next?
Gibney:
I think it’s also about being open to doing different kinds of things. You don’t want to get caught in a rut and one of the lessons you can learn from Ken Kesey is that it’s important to play. (laughs) When I was doing “Taxi to the Dark Side,” I don’t know what I would have done with myself if we weren’t doing “Gonzo” at the same time. It’s very hard to keep a balance when you go into that very dark place and something like “Gonzo” was a tremendous ballast to that.

CS: It also feels like from “Freakonomics” to “Client 9″ to this, you’re moving away from a style that you established in “Enron” and “Taxi,” so are you actively trying to find different ways of evolving the documentary format and find new ways into material?
Gibney:
I hope so, but I’m also a big believer, not in any kind of personal style, but a big believer in a style for each story should be different because the story’s different. You try to search and find the style that seems right to tell that story, so the style for “Taxi to the Dark Side” is very different from “Enron” because the stories are different. Same thing with “Gonzo,” same thing with this. I think the fun of this one was to set those guidelines for how to tell this story because we had that footage, and that’s why we abandoned the on-camera interviews. We shot some but we abandoned them because it just didn’t seem right for this story, right?
Elwood: Yeah, definitely.

CS: As an editor, how do you keep things interesting for yourself, because obviously, when you’re making a documentary, the editor is the one who is spending the 18 hours a day going through stuff, so how do you keep things fresh when you’re working so long on a movie like this?
Elwood:
Well, we worked on other things in between, which helped keep this one fresh over the course of six years, but basically, most of it’s a struggle but when you find those moments when it clicks, it’s so exciting and that’s what keeps you going, those little moments when something finally works.

CS: As you probably know by now, I’m a big fan of documentaries but they seem to go through peaks with movies like “Fahrenheit 9/11″ and “Inconvenient Truth.” I’m curious where you feel the state of documentaries are right now. You’re releasing three or four a year and do you find people are finding these on DVD.
Gibney:
People do find them. You know, it’s interesting how that works, too. It’s not always easy. The marketplace is shifting now, so from a business perspective, I think it’s more difficult, not just for documentaries but for independent films in general, fiction and non-fiction. But it is interesting how people come to these films. We did a film called “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” and when it first came out, for whatever reason, it was not very successful theatrically, and I don’t know exactly why but people didn’t come to it. Now a lot of people are coming around to it, particularly because it’s so evident now with this ridiculous debt crisis debate that money is just ruling Washington, DC and that these guys have created a kind of call girl services for big corporations. So people are coming back to that film and I get all these calls now like “Wow, I just saw ‘Casino Jack,’” and I’m thinking, “You saw it now?” But they are getting to it, so I think it’s interesting how it works. And yet other things like “Client 9″ through Magnolia, they created a hugely interesting financial model of this called “Ultra-VOD” where they target a tremendous amount of marketing around it and people on cable systems all over the country were watching it in a very concentrated period, and it made a lot of money, which is always good.

CS: Yeah, I heard that Magnolia is doing very well on the VOD side of things but from our perspective, movie writers don’t really see that because we only have access to the theatrical numbers. I assume as a filmmaker, you want people to see movies in a communal environment. This movie especially I’d imagine you’d want people to see and enjoy as a group.
Gibney:
Yeah, I mean I’d love that, but at the same time, I’m a realist and I don’t get too precious about it. If you want to see it at home, because the local theater has sh*tty popcorn and a bad screen, fine. But if you go to a good theater and see it with a bunch of people and everybody’s engaging (in conversation) afterwards, that’s awesome. We try to make films that deliver on a big screen.

CS: I gotta say that as a critic, I’m spoiled because I literally see every movie at screening rooms that are pristine, great sound systems and mostly with critics who don’t talk or text.
Gibney:
Well, God knows that’s the way it should be, but it is dismaying. Maybe the worst example was “Enron” when we had the premiere–mind you, in the belly of the beast in Houston right across the street from Ken Lay’s favorite restaurant–and it also seemed like it was going really well and we all went across the street after checking the sound for the first real and it was going great, and then somebody comes running across the street. “I don’t know how to tell you this but right after Reel 1 they showed Reel 3.” So they went 1, 3, 2, 4, and miraculously, nobody seemed to notice.

CS: I’ve seen a few movies where I thought maybe they did that and it’s very confusing when it happens.
Gibney:
But that was particularly a drag for the premiere.

CS: You have a great relationship with Magnolia who has released all your movies except “Taxi to the Dark Side” and the stuff you’ve done for HBO. Are we any closer to seeing an Alex Gibney box set?
Gibney:
They are. They’re very close to that.

CS: What would you see as a throughline between all those movies from “Enron” to this if someone watched it from beginning to end?
Gibney:
I don’t know. They might have an epileptic fit (chuckles), I don’t know. That’s your job. It’s hard to know how to chart any kind of coherent progression. What’s that great sportsline, “Luck is where opportunity meets the prepared mind”? So when the projects come, you hope you’re prepared for the opportunity and then you take them on.

CS: Speaking of sports, what’s going on with “Catching Hell”?
Gibney:
Yeah, it’ll be on TV this fall. ESPN did a little VOD thing also but they’re going to show it…
Elwood: It’s on VOD now actually.
Gibney: And they’re going to show it on the channel.
Elwood: It should be on before the World Series.
Gibney: No, not quite that late. I think it’s in September now. Mid-September. But no, that was really fun I must say, that was fun to do.

CS: I imagine you’re a big sports fan.
Gibney:
Yeah, I’m a big sports fan and that story started out as a “30 for 30″ and it kind of expanded the borders. (chuckles) Very few people ever say this to me, but they said, “Please make it longer.” (laughter)

CS: And what about these other things like the Lance Armstrong doc that you’ve been working on for a while?
Gibney:
I think the Lance Armstrong film is very close to being completed in one stage, but there’s some events that are happening, rumors that he may be indicted, so we’re just kind of putting it on hold until we know a little bit more about what’s going to happen next.

CS: So we definitely won’t be seeing that in time for Toronto?
Gibney:
No, but there is a film I have at Toronto. It’s another sports film, it’s called “The Last Gladiators,” it’s about guys in hockey.

CS: But that’s exactly what I mean. You have these secret projects no one knows about like that one. So when were you making that one, between midnight and 6AM?
Gibney:
(laughs) That’s one that’s been kind of percolating for a while, and well, I finally finished it.

Magic Trip opens on Friday, August 5, in New York at the Cinema Village, in San Francisco at the Embarcadero Center Cinema and in Berkeley and Santa Cruz. It expands to Portland, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles on August 12.

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