Adam Schartoff is a freelance film journalist living in Brooklyn. He’s the founder and programmer of filmwax, a film series based in Brooklyn’s Park Slope. He’s checking in this month with dispatches from BAMcinemaFEST 2011.
Alison Ellwood, filmmaker and editor, has been collaborating with Oscar-winning documentary director Alex Gibney for many years now, spanning Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (which was seen on PBS’ Independent Lens), Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson and Catching Hell. Their latest project, Magic Trip, with Ellwood taking the wheel this time around, takes us on a psychedelic road trip with Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and the Merry Pranksters, with entertaining — and mind-blowingly coherent — results. With the blessing of the Kesey family, Ellwood began excavating the remarkable trove of footage taken from the cross-country trips.
Had you been of age at the time when Magic Trip took place, would you have joined the Merry Pranksters?
Alison Ellwood: If I had the opportunity I would have gotten on the bus, yes. Now, whether they would have had me is another question.
Why the Merry Pranksters of all subjects? You were knee high at that time, weren’t you?
When I first looked at the footage, it was shaky and the copy I was looking at was pretty lousy quality. There wasn’t a shot that lasted more than two seconds. It was dizzying to watch. But there was something about it that sucked me into it. I felt I was there. I felt I could smell the bus fumes. It felt very immersive and real to me.
I talked to some friends of mine, Joan Churchill and Hart Perry, to name two. They’re both familiar with the footage and told me I was crazy to take this on, telling me, “There’s nothing there.” I explained to them that I felt something special. It took a long time to wrangle it and get it to make any sense. But it was experiential the first time I saw it and remains so until this day. I hope other people feel the same way. We’ll see.
Describe how you came to the footage in the first place.
Well, the first time I saw it we ordered some DVDs from Zane Kesey, Ken’s son. He distributes DVDs through his website. Amidst those DVDs were various attempts by Ken and the Pranksters to try and put the material together. Now, I can watch the footage and understand what they are doing but when I first saw it I was like, “What is this?” Interspersed with these crazy things they would act out was some of the original bus footage. They would shoot these crazy interviews with George and Ken. They would film themselves sitting in the bus, projecting the footage against themselves. Making up some crazy narrative.
Did the film from Zane have audio synced to it?
The video stuff that they shot was synced. In the film stuff there was the occasional sync. We found footage of Cassidy driving that was in sync in a few places. That’s basically all we found.
How did you piece it together?
When we got the material, we had 16mm material and tons of reel-to-reel audio. Don Fleming (audio restoration expert) began going through that and pairing footage with location, like if it was in the New York World’s Fair or at La Honda (the home base of the Pranksters). Don would highlight where there was some good audio, then we would try and sync it up using sync points. Sync points are movements or when someone started with a word with ‘P’ or ‘B’, those are easier to identify. We even used a lip reader at one point, but they had no idea.
Lindy (Jankura, co-editor) and I spent weeks on this and we probably found about six places to sync. They never once slated the queue system. Back then you would record audio and the film separately, then you use a clapperboard. That’s what those are for, to use with a sync point. Then you can line everything up. They didn’t know what they were doing. They weren’t filmmakers though Ken was very into technology.
There was a very heavy burden on the editing of this film. Alex (Gibney, co-director) calls it archival vérité which is what it really is. No standardized interviews or anything like that. Why see people looking so much older than they were. They were so young and beautiful then. Not that they aren’t now but it just takes you out of that world.
In the last part of the film, you show Ken from about 10 years ago (Kesey passed away in November 2001). The bus was on his property, sitting in a swamp and it was overgrown with weeds. Do you know what ultimately happened with the bus?
Zane had the bus pulled out of the swamp. I believe it’s just sitting in one of the garages at the farm. Several years ago, probably about twenty years ago, Ken had a second bus made up. That bus actually went to England. They put it on a ship and it actually did a tour. That second bus came back to Oregon, and to this day Zane will pull it out. We had a big screening in Eugene about six weeks ago. We took the bus out and drove around town. I guess it broke down a couple of times…
Keeping with tradition.