Like Mao’s Long March: An Interview with Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood

When Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters embarked on their famous bus trip across the United States in 1964, they ended up shooting 40 hours of footage for a documentary. What they didn’t know was that it would take over 40 years to shape the footage into something even remotely watchable, which is to say: something very special.

Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, who won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2007 for Taxi to the Dark Side, and his directing partner Alison Ellwood dug deep to craft a fascinating, visually stunning movie out of the film found in damaged, rusted canisters stored in the Kesey family barn. It took three years to scrub and restore the footage and match up what audio they could to the scenes. They even went so far as to employ a lip-reader to help them match over 150 hours of audio clips to the silent footage.

Gibney and Ellwood worked closely and smartly, as they had previously on the 2005 film Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and the 2008 documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (where Ellwood is credited as editor). Their hard work pays off in this wild, spacious, funny documentary. Kesey and the Merry Pranksters famously shoot across the country in a painted bus, waking each city up to The Sixties. The documentary unfolds itself much like the trip it depicts: you’ve just got to hang on for the ride.

Both of Gibney and Ellwood look careful and kind, and just watching them talk about the film briefly, it’s easy to see why the Kesey family trusted them with this project. The pair sat down with PopMatters to discuss the process of making the film, why Kesey was successful, and how the Prankster’s trip was something like Mao’s Long March.

* * *

What made you decide to tackle a documentary about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters?

Alison Ellwood: When we were on our way to Sundance in 2005 with Enron [Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Gibney and Ellwood’s Oscar nominated documentary], we read an article by Bob Stone in The New Yorker [The Prince of Possibility] and he mentioned that there was this footage of this trip, so after the festival we contacted the Keseys and we looked at a couple of films that they had made that had some of this footage in it and we thought wow, if there really are forty hours of this, this is gonna be something special. Then [there was] a long process of getting this footage restored, and the audio: there’s forty hours of footage and there was an additional 150 hours of audio.

Alex Gibney: But I think it was the footage that drew us to the enterprise, Without knowing that that footage was there, I’m not sure we would’ve embarked on this. We found out a lot more about that footage as we explored, and we didn’t realize that we were walking into a movie that people had been trying to make since 1964. I mean, we knew they had taken footage, but we didn’t understand that it’d been taken with the idea that they were gonna sculpt it into a move that they were never able to do.

The footage was beautiful…

Alex Gibney: Well, that’s testament to [Alison]. They might have thought about bringing a really good camera person on board because they always have it at the long end of the lens. It’s very shaky. We’re more used to that now, but back in the day it must’ve been almost unwatchable because people were not used to the shaky cam.

I give them credit for one thing though, with video now, what you see is what you get. They had to have the film developed, so they knew how to use a light meter pretty well. All of it is rather nicely exposed.

I’ve read about the seemingly gargantuan task of shaping this damaged footage into the film we see. What was that process like?

Alison Ellwood: That was done at UCLA with a grant from [Martin] Scorsese’s Film Foundation and the History Channel. It took close to three years, I guess, off and on they worked on it. I mean, it was a mess, most of the footage. There were a few pristine cans, but they shot in reversal, which is a positive image, which meant that when they got back they could project it, for instance, they didn’t need to copy it. So they did, they projected it, and then they started editing it. So, sprockets are damaged, scratches are created, frames got lopped off when they edited it together. So, you know, over the course of all these years, when they either showed it or worked on their film, there was a lot of damage done. All of that had to be repaired, it had to be cleaned. Some of it had shrunk too much to even go through the process, so we don’t even know what it is.

What did Ken Kesey and the Pranksters mean to you before this project and has anything changed?

Alex Gibney: I knew Kesey from the novels, and the play based on [Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the] Cuckoo’s Nest, and I knew about the trip — both of us knew about the trip from having read the Tom Wolfe book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but, you know, in Wolfe’s version of the story, he’s creating a coherent narrative, he’s helping to create the myth. What was so interesting about the footage is you see them kind of making it up as they went along. I mean, they’re on a road trip, and they’re trying to find meaning in it, but at the same time they’re just on a road trip. So, it gives you a real insight into how moments and myths are made out of the most prosaic kind of events.

Something that you don’t think, or can’t imagine can be important somehow turns out to be fantastically important once they take this trip. I mean, it’s not nearly as important historically, but when you think about something like Mao’s Long March, you know, it was a small group of people who went on a long journey, but there was something epic about it that they were able to turn into this magnificent myth, which then gives the fuel for the Chinese revolution. Now, this is not that, but still this trip then becomes mythologized into one of the key origin stories of the ’60s, which in it’s way, it was.

There’s nothing of Tom Wolfe in the film. You worked with him on Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, was he asked to be a part of this project?

Alex Gibney: We thought about it, but we made a pretty crucial decision early on, which was, after having shot a couple of on-camera interviews, they weren’t that satisfying, and it was taking us out of the immediacy of the footage. And Wolfe, as good and as interesting as his book was, he wasn’t on the bus. So, it seemed like it would be more interesting if part of the rule book for this film was to just focus on what they shot and what they recorded. In a weird way it also set us apart from ongoing contact with the Pranksters and the Kesey family, at least for a long period of time, because it wasn’t about so much what they could tell us, as what we would find in the material. Now, ultimately, we did start to check things, both with this guy Bob Fagen, who’s writing a biography of Kesey, and with the family. But for the longest time, we kind of put the other versions of the story to the side and just focused on what we could see and what we could hear from what they recorded close to the moment in time.

In reading about the Pranksters and the Trip, I got the impression that some of them were unhappy with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Alex Gibney: Some of them hated it. Kesey didn’t mind it so much. He was quoted as saying it was about 97 percent right or something like that. Some of the Pranksters hated it. I think it did help to put them on the map.

Alison Ellwood: No doubt.

Alex Gibney: But, you know, Wolfe had an agenda. He saw things in a certain way. He rendered Kesey as a kind of evangelist. And there’s one moment in the film, and maybe it was one of the things Wolfe saw that turned him onto that, where you can kind of get that vibe: it’s part of the Acid Tests. Kesey’s there without his shirt on and he’s kind of talking about what people should do, so it’s almost like giving a sermon. You can see that aspect of it.

Alison, how was your role in this project different from the other films you’ve done with Alex?

Alison Ellwood: Well, essentially, this project was all editing, because it was all shot footage. I think that was the main thing, we were just working with material that already existed. And, you know, we have a really great working relationship, and we’ve worked together for years and years, and it just felt like a natural extension.

Alex Gibney: I would only add one other thing, which is that Alison did something, I mean, burrowing so deep in the footage, she found a rhythm in the footage that really comes across and allows the story to be told. Without Alison finding that rhythm, there’s no film. And that’s kind of a vision in and of itself, to be able to see within the footage what the natural rhythm of it is.

How was the process of telling this story different from that of Enron or Hunter S. Thompson?

Alex Gibney: It’s more like a cinema verite film, except that it’s archive, you know, where instead of knowing that you have to sculpt a grand narrative, you’re working to find the most powerful elements of the material that’s at hand. There’s no on-camera interviews, there’s no narration. There’s a character who’s asking questions, but it’s more like archival cinema verite.

Alison Ellwood: In some ways, all of these films are unique and present unique challenges in terms of finding the story. But that’s ultimately what it’s about is: what is the story? And finding the story in this was the tricky thing, because you have an event, a series of events that happen, but those don’t necessarily make up a story. The important thing was finding what is the story, and that was context and subext and all those things that give it deeper meaning.

Alex Gibney: That was the other challenge in terms of making the film was that, you know, there’s the footage at the center, but what Kesey and the Pranksters never succeeded in doing, was giving the people enough sense of context so they could see interesting stuff inside the footage. And it was figuring out just how to give enough context and other background detail, not only on the trip and the time, but also on Kesey himself, so that you had some sense of what this is about. I mean, you can’t really understand what the trip is about unless you know that Ken Kesey is a writer. Unless you know that he had these very successful novels and then was trying to move on to some new form, because in a way the bus trip was an attempt at a new kind of living literature.

The search for art in everyday life…

Alex Gibney: We’ll never know. [laughs]

Alison Ellwood: Probably a little of both. They certainly were consummate performers, all of them, especially Ken. But, you know, it seems to me that they’re not focused that much on the fact that the camera’s there.

Alex Gibney: They would certainly stage things for the camera all the time.

You’ve called the film “archival cinema verite” and it does play very much like that. There are moments when after effects and animation are used. How did you decide when to use effects and when to pull back and let the footage breathe?

Alex Gibney: Well, the three key sequences, aside from the main titles, which were intended to be very sort of playful and evoke not only stuff from the Jail Journals [Kesey’s Jail Journals, written by Kesey while serving time in San Mateo County for pot possession] but also this playful sense of a cast of characters that they had made themselves into: Sue Speedlimit, Gretchen Fetchin the Slime Queen. You’re entering a world in which these people are playing themselves, so that was a kind of a fiction. It seemed to make sense to move that way. And then in the trip sequences, those are sequences where you enter the realm of the imagination, that seemed appropriate to go there, particularly in the case of one where … well, in two of them actually: in the case of Ken’s being administered LSD, we had an audiotape, which was a huge discovery, but there was nothing besides the audiotape. So, it was left to us to kind of imagine. Then, in the case of [fellow Prankster] Stark Naked, there was a very famous story about her getting naked on the back of the bus but there was no footage of it, so it was something also left to us to imagine. It was the flights of fancy, it was the imagination where it seemed to make sense to go to that place.

What was it about Kesey that made him a successful person in that sort of Slouching Towards Bethlehem scene that seemed to burn so many people out?

Alex Gibney: I think one of the things that kept Ken alive was that he’s a lot like Bob Dylan, he was a shapeshifter. As soon as people caught up to what he was doing, he’d kind of reinvent himself and move someplace else. He never got caught in an addiction to a certain moment in time. He was always trying to move forward, he was always trying to explore, and I think that kept him young and fresh.

Alison Ellwood: I also think, you know, what he says in the film about drugs becoming a fashion, he did take drugs probably all through his life, but never constantly, like other people did. He physically avoided being burned out.

What there anything you had to leave out that you wish you could’ve put in the film?

Alison Ellwood: Mexico. There’s a beautiful sequence when they go to Tijuana and watch a bullfight. I’m a person not into bullfighting, but the sequence is extraordinarily beautiful. They’re in their red and white shirts in the middle of this stadium and this bullfight’s going on. It’s just extraordinary footage. It’ll be in the DVD.

* * *

Magic Trip will be released by Magnolia Films on August 5.