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Originally published August 24, 2011 at 12:55 PM | Page modified August 25, 2011 at 2:15 PM

Director talks Kesey, LSD, 'Magic Trip'

The Academy Award-winning director discusses his latest documentary, "Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place" (playing at the Varsity, in Seattle).

Seattle Times arts writer

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There are many ways to screw up a story about the '60s — from nostalgia to cynicism — but filmmaker Alex Gibney somehow manages to avoid them in his artful and refreshing documentary "Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place."

Composed primarily from 40 hours of long-neglected footage of the 1964 cross-country bus trip Tom Wolfe enshrined in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," the film is playing at the Varsity. Gibney, who won a best-documentary Academy Award in 2007 for "Taxi to the Dark Side," discussed the new film when it played at this year's Seattle International Film Festival.

"The '60s has now become a kind of stereotype," he explained, speaking of the challenges he faced. "So we had to create this sense that these guys were doing this stuff before the '60s as we know them had started."

Indeed, for people who didn't live through that era, the biggest surprise may well be that Kesey and his "Merry Pranksters" were not longhair, bead-wearing "hippies." Except for nonstop talker Neal Cassady, who drove the bus (and whom Jack Kerouac valorized in his book "On the Road"), they were rather clean-cut, idealistic bohemian college types headed for the World's Fair in New York.

"When they go to the World's Fair, they're looking at that as a vision of the future," Gibney said. "But when they get there, they realize they should have looked in the mirror — because they were the future."

That vision, of course, was very much tied up with LSD, which, after the road trip, Kesey championed publicly, hoping, as did the beats who preceded him, it would rouse America from its materialistic slumber.

Gibney and co-director Alison Ellwood started out thinking they would intercut interviews with the remaining Pranksters and Kesey's widow into the archival footage.

"[But] when we went down that road it was not very satisfying," he said. "It just felt wrong ... like a nostalgia trip, in a peculiar way, and I thought it's much fresher to just be in that moment, to be on the bus rather than to be constantly going back and forth all the time."

The result is a film that — unlike the book by Wolfe, who was never "on the bus" — tells the story from "the inside out," said Gibney. "Most of my films are narrated, but this was like making a cinema vérité archival film."

Gibney originally considered ending the movie after the fair but eventually decided the trip back was crucial.

"It's on the way back," he said, "after they see [LSD guru Timothy] Leary, and they realize Leary's not the answer for them, either; from that moment on they're floating and it's very free-form. Cassady's gone. He's not drumming that beat in that single-focus direction. They're meandering, because they're trailblazers ... they're doing something new."

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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