Alison Ellwood on Magic Trip
The saying goes that most documentary magic happens in the editing room. That’s an understatement for Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place, a found footage documentary assembled by Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood.
Magic Trip takes us back to the cross-country road trip taken by Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters in their psychedelically painted bus, interchangeably called “Further” or “Furthur.” The trip was immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s pioneering work of New Journalism, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Fresh off the success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey took the book’s proceeds to buy a bunch of film and audio equipment with which to film the Pranksters’ road trip to New York’s World Fair. For various reasons—not the least of which was their drug-induced state—that film never happened.
Working with over 100 hours of footage and even more audio, Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood sought to realize what the Merry Pranksters couldn’t. The result is an impressive triumph over constraints. Because much of the audio couldn’t be synced, Gibney and Ellwood methodically weave audio interviews with source sound to create a multi-sensory experience worthy of the subject matter. They eschew talking head interviews, and beautifully render the Pranksters’ acid experiences with animation sequences.
Filmmaker spoke with co-director Alison Ellwood over the phone. Before assuming the role of co-director, Elwood edited several of Alex Gibney’s films including Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, and Catching Hell.
FILMMAKER: I remember reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and being consumed with the mystery of what happened to that footage. Did a similar intrigue inspire you and Alex Gibney to track down the footage and edit it into a film?
Ellwood: Alex and I read an article by Robert Stone in the New Yorker when we were on our way to Sundance in 2005 with our film Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. And after reading the article and talking about the footage, we contacted the Kesey estate — at that point, Ken had already died four years earlier — and we started a long negotiation. In the meantime, [the Kesey estate] sent us DVDs of the video transfers that Ken had made up at some point. I don’t know exactly when, but he must have had it done 15 years ago. So we had these DVDs that Ken and the Pranksters had made, which initially didn’t make any sense at all to me. Now they do. (Laughs) And the film itself was in boxes in a barn up at Kesey’s farm in Oregon. Then we got grants from Scorsese’s film foundation and the History Channel. As a result of that, we started the restoration process at UCLA, which, off and on, took three years for them to do. It was a big mess.
FILMMAKER: What were the biggest challenges working with the material?
Ellwood: The biggest problem was that they didn’t have a clue how to make a film. They didn’t know what they were doing. And they were high, which didn’t help. They didn’t know that you had to do slate for audio and film to sync up. In all the footage, I saw one slate used the entire time, and that was when they hired a professional sound man in New York to go to the World Fair with them, and that guy just threw up his hands and said, “This is too chaotic.” (Laughs) We hired a lip reader to come in and help us try to figure out what people were saying, and that guy gave up. And then we methodically went through and notated where things could possibly sync up. And we did find a bunch of places. We got the Pensacola scene all in sync, we got the New Orleans scene in the basement all in sync, we got a bunch of sync of [Neal] Cassady driving up the freeway on the New Jersey turnpike. But to be honest with you, I’m not sure they even recorded audio at the same time they filmed half the time. I think they just thought they’d figure it out later.
FILMMAKER: Was any part of those technical challenges enjoyable? Because they did give you certain creative liberties.
Ellwood: Yeah… At times you wanted to pull your hair out, at other times it was really exciting. It was a mix of both things. I mean, Alex and I worked on it off and on for six years. So we were able to get some distance from the frustration of it. Then we’d go back in and we’d find sync or something, and it would be really exciting. The biggest challenge of this film was giving it a larger meaning than just watching a bunch of people stoned out on acid. And we tried a lot of things that didn’t work. Hopefully what we ended up does work. We feel it does.
FILMMAKER: I definitely think it does. But I also get the feeling that the film consists of two halves competing against each other, because you had to draw from sources outside the Pranksters’ footage in order to contextualize their trip in history. Were you at all reluctant to go beyond the Prankster’s material?
Ellwood: No, not really. I really think it was important to understand the historical context out of which they sprung. It was really the ’50s, still. We think of the ’60s as being so wild and everything, but they really didn’t start until the end of the decade. And these guys were really launching out of the ’50s. I do think it’s important to show that context, and also the things that were going on simultaneously. There’s not a lot of that historical footage. But where we used it, we used it to try to help explain the time in which they were doing these things.
FILMMAKER: Did it take you a long time to get into a rhythm with the material, to figure out the appropriate relationship between the audio and video?
Ellwood: It did. Very early on, we abandoned the idea of doing traditional interviews where older Pranksters would look back and talk about what they did. We went with the interviews that were done on audio only about 12 years after the actual bus trip. They sat in front of a Steenbeck, and someone recorded their thoughts and reflections. We wanted it to be an immersive experience. We wanted to stay on the bus. And we felt like getting off the bus to go to interviews would take you out of the moment. What was hard was making as many scenes as possible be about something other than what you were immediately looking at. We didn’t do it always, because sometimes it’s just fun to watch them doing what they’re doing. But we went with those much more experiential interviews so as not to take people out.
The end of the film was really a struggle. There was a lot of wonderful footage of the trip back that had a very different pace to it, partly because [Neal] Cassady wasn’t driving. And also, they didn’t particularly care that much about that footage, so they didn’t hack it up. They didn’t try to incorporate it into their film, so it was really pristine. But we left out a lot of the return trip. There were some lovely moments, but they just had no place. They’ll just have to go in the DVD extras.
FILMMAKER: Do you know what kind of film the Pranksters had envisioned?
Ellwood: I don’t think they have a clue of what they wanted to do initially. It was an experimental thing for Ken. I think he sets it up early on in the film when he says, “If Shakespeare were writing today, he wouldn’t be using a quill pen.” He wanted to go out and see if people talk like they do in books and in movies, and they don’t. It was a living art experiment.They did make a series of probably three or four films that are about an hour, 40 minutes long each. For the uninitiated, they are utterly incoherent. (Laughs) But now, when I look at those films I know what they were trying to do.
FILMMAKER: Was Tom Wolfe present for any part of it?
Ellwood: He wasn’t on the bus at all. He spent a lot of time with them afterwards, and he wrote an incredible book, and he researched it thoroughly. But he came in later, and that’s why we didn’t include him in the film. We wanted the only people who talk in the film to be people who were there — other than Stanley Tucci [the narrator], who does ask questions. But that was just a device that we came up with.
FILMMAKER: That was an interesting device, having the narrator personally address the subjects. How did you and Alex Gibney conceive of that?
Ellwood: We had all these different interviews that were done with Ken over time. We used Terry Gross’ interview from NPR’s “Fresh Air” program. There were a lot of other people who interviewed him as well. But it just became chaotic with all the different voices, and often the recordings of the interviewer were bad. So except for Terry Gross, we decided to use one voice. In some cases, we wrote questions rather than take down questions that were actually asked. We wrote questions that would help the exposition a little. Because you can ask a question a slightly different way that helps you frame where you are at any given moment.
FILMMAKER: As far as documentary subjects go, I don’t think you could’ve hit a bigger jackpot. Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady and all of the other Pranksters have these great onscreen presences, these bursting personalities, and these great myths surrounding them. It’s incredible that you were able to bring forth their personalities with such technical constraints.
Ellwood: It was challenging. But like you said, their personalities that just cut through. To see Neal Cassady in the flesh, just ranting and raving and going on and on, and the physicality of him… And Ken’s charisma just exudes from the screen. They were just these really powerful characters, and it’s just lovely to see them come to life like that.
FILMMAKER: I interviewed Alex Gibney at the Tribeca Film Festival when he was screening Catching Hell, and he was in the midst of three other projects at the time. Having worked with him for so long, do you adhere to a similar breakneck schedule?
Ellwood: Yeah. we were going back and forth on all these films together. We’d do this for six months, stop, then do something else for six months. But it actually helped to get a bit of distance on this one. Because we would crack something, or think we’d made a breakthrough, and then we’d come back three months later and say, “What is this?!” (Laughs) “This makes no sense!” So I think that the time that passed, as frustrating as it sometimes was, was helpful. Because you can get so in the moment, so tuned into something, that you don’t have the luxury of stepping back like were able to do on this.
FILMMAKER: Did you two have any trouble contending with your commissioning and financing partners?
Ellwood: We would show them cuts, and they would give notes. And they certainly had some strong thoughts along the way as we would present things that were sort of crazy at times. But they really entrusted us to figure it out. Anyone who’s working with Alex, and me too at this point, knows what they’re going to get. If it’s not working, we’ll figure it out. They would give helpful suggestions at times, but we weren’t constantly cutting based on what they were saying. They were good partners.
FILMMAKER: Are you pleased with what you came up with?
Ellwood: I am. I think it’s really a lot of fun. It’s fun for me to watch after all this time of working with the material, which is always a good thing. Because some times you get to the point — especially after working on a project for six years — where you think you can never watch it again. But I really enjoy watching it, and I’ve really enjoyed the reactions I’m getting from a lot of young kids who say they were not born in that era and had no idea what it was actually like. And it is mythologized to such an extent that they feel like this is a chance, more than any other time, to experience it.
Photo courtesy Jigsaw Productions