by writer/director/editor Alison Ellwood
Imagine discovering a buried treasure chest or a time capsule! Then imagine opening it to find rolls and rolls of dusty, chopped up, unlabelled 16mm film and reels and reels of audio recordings. Well, that’s what it felt like to me when I began working on Magic Trip.
For all intents and purposes, this film has been in production for 47 years. It began in 1964 when author Ken Kesey bought some 16mm film equipment with the proceeds of his book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. With the intention of filming an epic road movie, he and his friends, the "Merry Band of Pranksters," set out on an acid-fueled road trip across the country in a psychedelic painted bus called "Further."
Ostensibly, Kesey and the Pranksters were headed for the 1964 World’s Fair in NYC. The fair was dubbed "The World of Tomorrow." But when they finally got there what they discovered was the world of yesterday. They didn’t know it at the time, but they would become the harbingers of the world of tomorrow by ushering in the psychedelic era.
When I first watched the footage that Kesey and the Pranksters shot, despite its unprofessional jerky quality, it spoke to me. It wasn’t that it jumped off the screen, but rather that it pulled me in. I felt like I was there—a kind of ghost passenger. I could smell the fumes of the bus; feel the heat of the desert and sense my heart pounding as I barreled across the bumpy roads and highways, my life in the hands of a genius/madman (Neal Cassady) behind the wheel.
Over the six years (off and on) that this film took to make, I’ve often asked myself, "Would I have been 'on the bus'?" My answer has always been unequivocally, yes! Whether Kesey and his crew would have had me is obviously another question. But, in my heart and mind, I would have gladly climbed on board—not knowing where it was going to take me.
As a slice of Americana history, the presentation of Magic Trip is unique. Unlike traditional documentaries with talking head interviews reflecting back on events, this film is intended to be more of an immersion experience. We want the audience to feel as though they climb on the bus and go on the trip—a trip where they literally witness the moment where the ‘60s began. The point of view of the film is not to determine what went right or wrong, but rather to provide a front row seat to that pivotal moment.
Kesey and the Pranksters did make several films out of the footage they shot. As a filmmaker I would posit that they were too close to their own experience to step back and see the context from which it emerged. But that wasn’t their job. They were the lucky ones living it—having fun with it! One of the scariest moments for me was when the films they did make started making perfect sense to me. I was too "on the bus" at that moment. As difficult as the start and stop nature of this production was, it did enable me to step back. Then each time I would re-immerse myself in the footage, I would see things that I had missed before.
People will take away different things from the experience of watching Magic Trip. That’s one of the things I love most about the film—it doesn’t tell you what to make of it all. Certainly, it won’t be a trip for everyone. But I do believe that for those willing to make the leap of faith, portals of thought will open. That was, after all, what Ken believed LSD was all about. It wasn’t necessarily about finding answers. It was more about getting to the right questions.