Alex Gibney talks Kesey, Cassady and Magic Trip
From Clash, December 2011.
In 1964, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey embarked upon a road trip in a psychedically decorated bus with the Merry Pranksters, a community of LSD-loving free spirits which included Neal Cassady, who inspired the character of Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. En route, they shot a documentary about their adventures which wasn’t completed until Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney focused their archives into the new film Magic Trip.
Crafted from hundreds of hours of footage, the film also uses Stanley Tucci’s fictional interrogator to help build a coherent narrative to this mythological journey which continues to assert a strong influence over American fiction. “What was fun about this was the reality,” emphasises Gibney, who won an Oscar for his documentary Taxi To The Dark Side. “Sometimes it was incredibly magical, and at others dirty, dusty, prosaic and ordinary.”
Even at its most ordinary, the journey is illuminated by the eccentricity of its passengers. “To see Cassady in person is both incredibly invigorating and a little bit terrifying,” says Gibney. “He’s such a fantastical character that you would’ve believe him in a fictional film.” Although past his prime, Cassady displays much of the intensity that made him an inspiration to Kerouac, who himself clearly declines throughout the film; initially burning with life, he later becomes burned-out and disconsolate.
Yet it’s Kesey who’s central to the film’s most captivating scene. Gibney discovered an audio tape (which he describes as “jaw-dropping” and “precious”) which documented Kesey’s reaction to being given a dose of LSD under scientific study, and which Gibney subsequently set to visuals created by the Imaginary Forces team.
“We worked very hard to come up with something that evolved out of reality like a real trip. There’s so many of those trip sequences that are just so awful,” he chuckles. “We wanted to find something that felt real because it’s not like you drop a tab of acid and suddenly everything’s a cartoon. It creeps up on you until you start to explore a different kind of mindspace. It happens very gradually.”
Kesey and the Pranksters, concludes Gibney, wanted to create a “freeform living theatre” from their footage: “You improvise based on what you found, what you saw, what you heard. You didn’t over think it.” With this brilliantly engaging trip into the Beat era, Gibney has helped to bring that ideal to life.