Forty-seven years after his cross-country odyssey with Neal Cassady and the Merry Pranksters in a psychedelically painted school bus, and 10 years after his death, Ken Kesey has finally emerged as the filmmaker he probably always wanted to be.
Kesey didn’t make “Magic Trip,” now in limited release by Magnolia. Rather, the pic was pieced together from 40 hours of restored 16mm footage filmed by Kesey and gang during that 1964 journey from California to New York, where the counterculture author was traveling to promote his second novel, “Sometimes a Great Notion.”
But the assembled material has been transformed by helmers Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood into a documentary feature replay of the bus trip that inspired Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”
“Notion” was made into a film in 1970 starring and directed by Paul Newman, but Kesey’s brushes with Hollywood weren’t entirely harmonious. His earlier book, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” hit the bigscreen five years later and won five Oscars, but the author expressed strong creative differences with producers.
Kesey’s own cinematic ambitions focused on the footage shot on the bus.
“Ken always believed there was a movie there,” said ex-Panavision exec Andy Romanoff, who was a member of Hog Farm, a commune that succeeded the Pranksters.
In the late ’60s, Romanoff rode another bus that “would show up at all kinds of events,” Romanoff said. “One day the bus was parked in somebody’s driveway in Malibu and Kesey comes in with a tank of nitrous oxide. I took a hit and went to heaven.”
Romanoff became friends with Kesey and for a time lived near his home in Oregon, where Kesey had set up a film editing suite. “They were trying to make sense of all that footage,” Romanoff recalled.
But the film ended up in boxes in Kesey’s barn. The author died in 2001 at age 66.
Four years later Gibney and Ellwood, traveling to Sundance to promote “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” read a New Yorker article by Robert Stone about the Pranksters that mentioned the footage. They contacted Kesey’s estate, screened some takes and were blown away — despite the film’s appalling physical condition.
“Ken and the Pranksters shot reversal film,” said Ellwood, so there was no negative to duplicate for a positive image. “They unfortunately were able to project and edit the original material,” she added. “It was badly damaged: chopped up, scratched and burned from projectors, frames and sprockets were missing” — another sign of Kesey’s filmmaking ambitions.
With a grant from Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, Ellwood and Gibney got the footage restored at the UCLA Film and Television Archive. “It was sometimes held together with masking or duct tape,” said UCLA film preservationist Nancy Mysel, whose team spent months hand-cleaning and digitizing the film.
“Magic Trip’s” most dramatic surprise includes no footage from the Pranksters’ cameras. Among Kesey’s belongings, Gibney found a white box labeled “VA Hospital 1960.” “It contained an actual recording of Ken being administered LSD in government drug tests,” said Ellwood. “He must have taken the tape with him.”
In the film, audio is played alongside images of a Wollensak reel-to-reel recorder, animated by vfx house Imaginary Forces and director Karin Fong. The scene documents Kesey’s first acid trip — and an early milestone in the birth of the counterculture.
Bookings & Signings
Montana Artists signed d.p.’s Steven H. Smith (“Weeds”) and Brett Pawlak (web series); production designer Laura Ballinger (“Girls”); and Prague production services company Partnership Pictures. Agency booked 1st AD Alan Goluboff on Paul W.S. Anderson’s “Resident Evil 5”; stunt coordinator Charlie Croughwell on Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight”; exec producer/UPM Bill Johnson on John Whitesell’s “Switch”; exec producer Don Kurt on BET movie “Gun Hill”; co-exec producer Paul Marks on NBC’s “Chuck”; UPM Bob Rolsky on CW’s “Ringer”; producer Mark Greenberg on ABC’s “Cougar Town.”