Interview: Alex Gibney, writer-director of Magic Trip – Ken Kesey’s Trip for a Kool Place
Documentary on iconic 60s group the Merry Pranksters
What was your inspiration for making a documentary about the cross-America bus trip undertaken by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in the summer of 1964?
I was going out to the Sundance film festival in 2005 with my film Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. I happened to read an article about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in The New Yorker by Robert Stone, who had been on the bus with them. He mentioned that there was all this 16mm footage shot by Kesey of their trip across America. I started talking to my editor on Enron Alison Ellwood, and we contacted the Kesey estate. He was a writer I really admired in high school. I actually played Randall McMurphy in a stage version of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest: fortunately very few people saw that.
Why did you decide to use only archival film and audio footage in Magic Trip?
I began making the documentary in a much more conventional way. We interviewed Pranksters who were still alive like Robert Stone and Gretchen Fetchin, but we found it very uninteresting. It felt like 2 different movies – there was this very fresh-feeling footage from the past, and then these people looking back. Fortunately we found the audio tapes that were recorded by the Pranksters themselves, at a time much closer to the original trip. They gave us a way of telling the story. Without them you can’t penetrate the material. In some cases we had to use actors’ voices because the transcripts were in such poor condition.
How would compare Ken Kesey to Hunter S.Thompson, who was the subject of your earlier film Gonzo?
There are similarities between them. They both saw themselves as patriots with a libertarian streak, and they both lived in nature. Hunter used to send faxes to Kesey saying, ‘Get me some acid’. Kesey would send a piece of paper back saying, ‘Here’s your acid.’ I think Kesey was more level as a human being. To me Hunter was bi-polar. He medicated himself with drugs, although it was the alcohol that killed him.
What do you see as the most important legacy of the ‘Magic Trip’ undertaken by Kesey and the Merry Pranksters?
There was something very idealistic and pure and naive about the Pranksters. They wanted to have fun. Their most important legacy is the search for freedom, the idea of, ‘Don’t mess with me, I can do my thing.’ The downside of that is that you now have the Wall Street executive who listens to The Grateful Dead. The upside is the distrust of authority, the notion that you can be who you want to be. Kesey, like Bob Dylan and George Harrison, learnt a hard lesson. Just when people catch up to you, you have to keep searching for where you want to go. You can’t just bask in the glow of the adoration of your followers.
Magic Trip – Ken Kesey’s Trip for a Kool Place is on selected release from Fri 18 Nov.