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Alex Gibney's Magic Trip

The documentary maker re-creates Ken Kesey's untold journey across the US with the Merry Pranksters by using original footage and archive audio

In 1964, novelist Ken Kesey - fresh from the success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest - decided that his next project would be a film. Declaring “If Shakespeare were working right now, he wouldn't be working with a quill pen”, Kesey reached for a camera to document what would become a legendary trip across the US, one that would become immortalised in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Cool Aid Acid Test. In a converted vehicle named the Further Bus and with Neal Cassady (the real life inspiration for Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty in On the Road) as its driver, Kesey and a group of friends named the Merry Pranksters set off on a LSD-fueled journey from California to New York.

Whilst Wolfe’s book became one of the most famous works of the era, Kesey’s footage never reached a wide audience. Fast forward 40 years and documentary makers Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr Hunter S. Thompson) and Alison Ellwood have decided to tackle what initially seems like an impossible task: to transform Kesey’s film into something that could be shown in cinemas today. In Magic Trip Gibney and Ellwood use the original footage, alongside archive audio to re-create the spirit and mayhem of the original journey, whilst simultaneously capturing a moment in time from where the origins of the sixties counter-culture scene would soon blossom. Dazed sat down with Gibney to chat about the joys and challenges of wrestling Kesey’s material into a feature film.

Dazed Digital: When did you first encounter the Further Bus and this legendary trip?
Alex Gibney:
I read the Electric Cool Aid Acid Test, so that’s the first time I knew about the bus and the trip, but I didn’t really come on board with the idea of making a film until I read an article by Robert Stone, a novelist who’s actually in the film briefly, when he talked about all this footage. The idea that there was 30 hours of 16mm film - I thought, wow that would be something, to take that moment and be able to have that much footage which you could cut in a way that’s not the traditional ‘look back’ historical documentary but there would be enough so it could be an immersion experience. So that’s what got me and Alison [Ellwood] turned on about doing it. 

DD: What did you think when you actually got your hands on the footage? 
Alex Gibney: We thought we’d made a horrible mistake! We thought, we’re never going to be able to make something out of this. At the same time we kept coming back to it and thinking, well there is something very fresh about it, it feels very raw and innocent. It wasn’t until we got the audio tapes, of the pranksters themselves talking about the trip that we had the material that we knew we could make it into a story that other people could understand. 

DD: And it’s the Merry Pranksters, the characters on the bus, who really make the film isn’t it?
Alex Gibney:
First of all, they’re great looking! And also, they come alive, not only do they come alive as people but they even invented roles for themselves to play...Gretchen Fetchin the Slime Queen...Sir Speedlimit... they were, in their minds, making a movie. 

DD: I loved the fact that that was also their tactic for distracting the police when they got pulled over... 
Alex Gibney: Right! They’re playing at making a movie, they didn’t know some of the most basic shit. They would come out with their cords all a-kilter and they had cameras to show and that would cause the police to ignore the fact that Neal Cassady didn’t even have a valid driver’s license!

DD: And Cassady is such an important part of the trip...
Alex Gibney:
Yes, he’s vital. He’s this mythic character from On the Road and suddenly you see him. I mean we’ve all seen pictures of him but the footage of him is just so great and also to hear him in sync doing this non stop patter, this free association - they called him the radio because he just never stopped. 

DD: One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is the way it captures that period in time, the end of the beat generation and the very start of the sixties hippie culture...
Alex Gibney:
Yeah, they’re kind of the origin stories of the sixties whether it be the origins of tie-die or the whole notion of these kinds of cross-country trips [when] suddenly everybody started hitch-hiking everywhere and this sense of freedom, sexual freedom, drug freedom and individual freedom. Not so much the political aspect of the sixties but the cultural aspect starts with them. They’re not starting out thinking they’re going to start any movement they’re just trying to take a trip that in a way was kind of a literary trip. [For] Ken Kesey this was his next novel, it was like a live action novel where things are utterly chaotic and unpredictable but he’s steering and guiding it like an author would but it takes place at this moment when they all have one foot in the fifties and one foot in the sixties. 

Magic Trip is in cinemas from 18 November 2011 and released on DVD on 28 November 2011