Oscar-Winner Alex Gibney On Taking A 'Magic Trip' With Ken Kesey

Oscar-Winner Alex Gibney On Taking A 'Magic Trip' Over The Cuckoo Nest

"Is there everything about him that I like? No, but I didn't come out thinking, 'I wish I knew less.' I still think he was someone determined to reckon with the world on his own terms, and that's a pretty big thing."

Oscar-winning film director Alex Gibney is talking about Ken Kesey, fabled author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, and he can take an informed stance. He has spent the best part of six years all-told working on collating and editing original footage for Magic Trip, telling the story of Kesey's 1964 trip across America to New York, with the Merry Band of Pranksters for company.

"Ken was all about magic and fun, he felt people didn't play enough in a terribly serious age," explains Gibney. "People were busy being cogs in a creative machine, but what about fun? So Ken was encouraging everyone to go out and play, and sometimes that's important."

Alex Gibney: "There are a lot of people who so desperately need heroes... the hero thing is a weird and interesting phenomenon, where we all seemingly need heroes, and then we're willing to forgive them, instead of looking at what they do and what we like. We seem to need to make excuses for them so that they become perfect, so that they don't disappoint our sense of heroism, which is a terrible mistake. I think people like Ken Kesey instinctively resist that, and instead continue to play loud.

If this all sounds like the glorification of a bunch of clichéd Haight-Ashbury tree-changers, Gibney is quick to emphasise that Kesey and his pals were far ahead of the pack:

"They were before all the tree-huggers, they were explorers and inventors," he explains. "Once you got to Haight-Ashbury, it became about fashions, about joining in, some sense of who you should be, and these people were trying to explode out of all that, and create some sense of freedom for themselves.

"A lot is silly, you see them prancing around "playing" their instruments, trying to be John Coltrane, which you can't be just because you have a saxophone."

Gibney is keen to stress the relevance of this kind of seemingly hedonistic thinking nearly half a century later in an age of austerity:

"I didn't think about it when I was making the film," he reflects, "but you look at what is going on with Occupy Wall St. A lot of it is silly and undisciplined with no policy papers to come out and be useful to a think tank.

"But the very impracticality of it, that it's not aligned to any specific political community, brings it glory and grandeur, because it expresses a feeling, that it's important to say no often enough... with humour."

The problem with this, of course, is that the more successful any group or individual becomes, the more people join their slipstream, and so the less original and free they end up being. Gibney agrees:

"Sheer numbers become establishment. That's the problem, and Kesey was obsessed with the problem of how to stay free. He and George Harrison and others realised that every time they got to a place where people think they've got you and can follow you and want you to keep doing what you're doing, it's time to do something else."

This is something that Gibney has had to deal with himself, since becoming a one-man brand for a certain type of documentary, winning an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, and enjoying success with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and Client 9. He agrees this has had a fundamental professional effect:

"It's been good and, in a way, freeing. It's such a great badge of honour and success that you don't have to worry about chasing that any more. I didn't do it to win an Oscar, but having won, it allows you a certain creative freedom. I've climbed Everest, now I can look at another mountain."

With such a strong recognisable brand himself, how does Gibney stay fresh and untethered?

"You try to do what's interesting to you, rather than what's expected. I like to embrace ambiguity, and some people have a problem with that, they need the power-point presentation to tell them what's right, what's wrong. I've been doing a bunch of sports documentaries recently, but finding interesting parts to them, so I would say, exploring. Taking a leaf out of Ken's book - exploring, staying curious."

After exploring the hedonism of Kesey, the terrorism that plagued the last decade, where is such curiosity taking the director next?


How logical. With or without the cooperation of Mr Assange? "We'll see."

Never mind all that, where's the Oscar?

"Downstairs bathroom. As you face the toilet, it's on the porcelain top. The theory is everyone can see it, and if you want to hold it up to the mirror you can, but you only get 45 seconds, then the music starts."

Magic Trip is released on Friday 18 November, and on DVD and Blu-ray on 28 November. You can watch the trailer here:


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