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 actually make the documentary feature “Magic Trip,” now in limited theatrical release by Magnolia following a run on VOD. The picture was pieced together from 40 hours of restored 16mm footage filmed by Kesey and crew during that 1964 journey from California to New York – where the counterculture author was traveling to promote his second novel, “Sometimes a Great Notion.”
The assembled material has been transformed by filmmakers Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, who got in touch with Kesey’s estate, screened some of the original footage, and decided there was definitely a film there – provided it could be restored.
They were able to do so at the UCLA Film and Television Archive with a grant from Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation. In creating the docu they combined some of Kesey’s material with archival footage from the period, added extensive graphics and animation from vfx house Imaginary Forces and got Stanley Tucci to narrate. Ellwood spoke to Variety’s On Production:
Peter Caranicas: How did you end up doing this film?
Alison Ellwood: In 2005, when Alex (Gibney) and I were headed to Sundance with our film “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” we read an article in the New Yorker by Robert Stone. He was talking about the footage shot by Ken Kesey and the Pranksters on their trip, which was sitting in Ken’s barn in Oregon. We contacted the Kesey estate and started negotiating with them.
PC: What did you think of the footage when you saw it?
AE: The first stuff we saw was what Ken had at one point transferred to videotape. He must have done one-light transfers of some of the material. So we were able to see a bit of it, and we said, wow, if we can get this restored and looking beautiful, this can be spectacular.
Then we got a grant from Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation to have the footage restored at UCLA. That process took a long time. It was off and on for number of years. Over course of that period, as we would get new material in, we would overcut the old video copies with new footage that UCLA had restored.
PC: How was it different from what you had seen earlier?
AE: It was just night and day. The quality, the colors were so vibrant.
PC: Was all the original material on 16mm?
AE: Yes. One of the big problems with the project was that Ken and the Pranksters shot reversal film, so they had positive images, as opposed to negative. With negative they would have had to duplicate the film in order to do things like project or edit. But because they didn’t shoot in negative they unfortunately were able to both project and work with and edit the original material.
PC: What were the problems with the film?
AE: It was really chopped up. There were scratches from projectors, some of the footage was burned from projector bulbs, sprockets were broken – and they were using a hot splicer to edit it together, so frames were missing – in some cases chunks of the material weren’t able to be restored. It was just too badly damaged. Luckily we were able to get most of it.
PC: How long did the entire project take?
AE: From inception to finish, we worked on the project on and off for six years. We started at Sundance in 2005 and ended at Sundance in 2011. As UCLA was doing restoration we would put it aside and wait for them to send us more stuff, and then we’d pick it back up for a while.
PC: How did you come up with the style of the film?
AE: We decided we weren’t going to do a traditional documentary where you cut to taking to heads reflecting on things. We were going to keep it as much as we could an immersive, experiential film.
PC: Talk about the portion of the film where Kesey talks about his first acid trip.
AE: We had Ken’s 1960 VA hospital recording of his participation in a government-sponsored LSD test. He recorded himself and must have taken the tape with him. Alex found it in a white box that said “VA hospital 1960.” And when we listened to it, sure enough it was the actual recording of Ken being administered LSD by the U.S. government.
Obviously there was no film footage of that, so we decided we would animate (that portion). We got Imaginary forces and director Karin Fong, who’s an amazing designer, on board. We cut together a four-minute piece from what was probably a 45-minute tape.
PC: Did they record audio during the bus trip?
AE: In most cases they didn’t, but they did occasionally, and we found some nice moments, like when Cassady was driving up the New Jersey Turnpike doing his ranting. We also found sync (from parts filmed) in Pensacola and New Orleans, and from snippets in New York. But when they shot their film they certainly didn’t know about slating and syncing. We went through a lot of audio, listening for any possible thing that could be from a scene – anytime somebody said a word that begins with a B or a P I’d put it in and we would try to match that up, sometimes digitally. But just try syncing Neal Cassady! We hired a lip reader to help us, but after a couple of hours he threw up his arms and said “I’m sorry, I don’t know what these guys are saying.”
PC: You have a background as an editor. What were the challenges with this film?
AE: Organizing and making sense of the stuff. It was a big jumbled mess when we got it. We had a chronology of the trip. The challenge then was to make it more than just about watching a bunch of kids get stoned.
PC: How big was the film’s budget?
AE: I don’t know exactly but it was over a million.