In 1964, novelist Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and a group of free-spirited pals that came to be known as the Merry Pranksters boarded a revamped school bus painted in psychedelic colors and dubbed Further for New York’s World’s Fair. At the wheel was Neal Cassady, immortalized as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road. They took LSD and called their parties Acid Tests. Their house band was the Grateful Dead, then known as the Warlocks. The adventure said goodbye to 1950s America and ignited the 1960s. It was the source of Tom Wolfe’s seminal nonfiction book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. And it was captured on film, though for multiple reasons, including Kesey’s death in 2001, the long-planned documentary was never put together until now. Academy Award-winner Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer”) and Alison Ellwood took the archived, nearly-forgotten footage and turned it into “The Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place.” “Ken Kesey emerges as the film’s hero,” said the San Francisco Chronicle. “He is presented as a great American adventurer, the psychological equivalent of Lewis and Clark.” Entertainment Weekly added, “It’s like seeing the birth of the ‘60s.” The documentary is now available on XFINITY On Demand, and if you even have to ask yourself why watch, you probably don’t understand the ‘60s. Or want to. But why should you see the movie? “Two reasons,” says Gibney. “One, it’s an original and important piece of our history. It’s the moment that launched the 60s and it’s hard to believe there were cameras there to capture it. The second and more enduring reason: It’s fun. It’s plain fun.” Speaking with Xfinity TV from his Manhattan office, Gibney provided some backstory about the making of the film that is, as he said, quite groovy.
How’d you get involved in the movie? Sometimes the movies go to me, sometimes I go to the movies. This was one where I went to the movie. Allison Ellwood and I were on our way to Sundance where “Enron” was screening and we read an article about this footage. Maybe I should have known about the footage about this famous bus trip in 1964. But I didn’t know that they’d taken so much. It was 16 mm and I thought wow, if we can ever get our hands on that footage, wouldn’t that be something. And that began a long odyssey.
For those who don’t know, what was the trip? The trip was what became a kind of origin of the ’60s. It was a trip across the country from West Coast to East Coast made by Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Neal Cassady, the famed hero of Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road, as well as a bunch of friends and well wishers. They went across the country in a painted bus, which doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but it was 1964, the time of the TV show “Mad Men.” The country had one foot in the 50s and the other in the 60s. The group was dressed in red, white and blue t-shirts. It had a kind of frat-house quality to it, with one significant detail making it different: in the refrigerator of the bus was a big pitch of orange juice and that orange juice was laced with LSD. And they were embarking on a different kind of trip, an LSD trip, and it became a legendary voyage that launched the Sixties. The original mission was to go to the 1964 World’s Fair, but when they got there they found that mission was about the past and in a way they were the future. It wasn’t about the destination; it was about the trip they were on. And they followed it through. When they got back to California, they began showing the movie they’d been shooting along the way and the backup band at these parties was a small group called The Warlocks, which became The Grateful Dead. So this sort of counter-culture notion was launched.
Cassady is the link between the Beats and the counter-culture of the 60s. He drove the bus out there. He wasn’t on the bus back. What’s your take on his presence and non-presence? He was critical. He was like the drummer in a band. And man, he set a fast beat. Pretty much because he was on speed the whole time. He was also a legendary figure. He was part of On the Road. So to have him as the driver of this bus lent a kind of mythic quality to the whole enterprise. He’s quite a character. He’s a nonstop talker. They called him The Radio. He wouldn’t stop talking. He was sort of rapping in this weird sort of free verse as they went across the country. He was a kind of a Beat action hero. He looked the part. He had a rock jaw. His body was ripped. So he was terribly important in terms of making this a kind of mythic trip. I suppose the guy in charge of creating the myth was Ken Kesey, who was a novelist. But even as he began to tell the story to others or show the film he’s kind of myth-making as he goes. To some, it looks like a lot of kids taking a road trip and getting high. In some ways, it was. But Ken is already making it something much more. Interesting, on the way back, Cassady left the bus to hang out with Ginsberg, Allen Ginsberg, the author of Howl. You can feel the mood, the rhythm is so much slower. There’s a kind of beauty in the slowness. It’s because Cassady is no longer at the wheel. They switched drummers, and the new drummers played at a slower beat.
What other notable figures show up in the movie? Allen Ginsberg, of course. He shows up in New York and introduces them to Timothy Leary. Leary doesn’t show up, but they arrive at his compound and Leary is tripping. He fears the Pranksters are too fun-loving. He wanted to be more of a scientist about the whole thing. They’re greeted instead by Richard Alpert, who’s better known as Baba Ram Das. The other key counter-culture figure they meet in New York is Jack Kerouac. Sadly, Kerouac by this time has become a disillusioned figure. He’s a dark, brooding character. You can see him on a corner of the couch, nursing a 16 ounce can of Budweiser. The Pranksters are trying to engage him in a party, but he doesn’t want to. He wants to look sullenly ahead and sip his Bud. The Grateful Dead are also in it, including Jerry Garcia. They were very generous with us. In fact, the film ends with Kesey leading a rendition of the Dead’s ‘Truckin,” singing “what a long strange trip it’s been.”
You said this film was 50 years in the making. Why? What took so long? The Pranksters had cut it themselves and put it together from time to time in various incarnations. Allison and I have some friends who actually worked on it. When they heard about us, they said, Oh, this is a fool’s errand. So they tried to make it, but never succeeded. In part because the versions they made always made sense to them; they just didn’t make sense to anybody else. Also there were huge technical problems. They bought all the right equipment with royalties that Ken got from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But they didn’t know how to use it. Most of the footage wasn’t synced. Long story short, the footage finally ended up in cans – some in L.A. and some in the barn of Kesey’s home in Eugene, Oregon. We convinced the Kesey family to let us take the film to the UCLA archives, digitize it and work on it from there.
What was the Kesey family’s reaction when they saw your film? I think it was very positive. We were nervous when we showed them the film. The deal was they’d show it in the big theater in Eugene, which the Kesey family owns, if the Kesey family liked it. Well, the Keseys liked it and a lot of the Pranksters came to the screening and we got a thumbs up. But Alison and I were really sweating bullets.
Did Ken leave any instructions about what he wanted done with the film? No, not really. One big help that Ken was to us was that he made a screenplay that he published called The Further Inquiry, As part of that book, he had a guy interview all the Pranksters. Often while being interviewed, they’d watch pieces of footage to help them recollect. We have those interviews on audio which we used as kind of narrative glue, to be able to tlel the story.
Do you have a favorite part? Or parts of the movie? I do. It doesn’t necessarily make that much sense. I love the part where they’re at Lake Tranquility in Canada, and they’re all tripping and there’s something so peaceful about it. You can hear Robbie Coltrane playing Greensleeves and there’s a kind of sense of wonder and peace and bliss. If I could mention two others: One is when Ken bursts out with what looks like a magic wand and a cape. He looks like a cross between Captain America and Thor. He’s talking about freedom. It’s a wonderful moment. There’s another great find I should mention. An audiotape find. It wasn’t part of the movie. But we found this audiotape in the barn labeled Veteran’s Administration Hospital 1960. It turned out that was an audiotape of Ken being administered an hallucinogenic drug, early LSD, by the CIA. Ken describes his hallucination. It’s also one of the great moments of unintended consequences in history. Here’s the CIA looking for an interrogation drug and they end up giving it to Kesey, the writer, who then popularizes the drug for a generation and basically ignites the 60s.
Where’s the bus today? It’s in a garage on the Kesey property.