Carrie Fisher had a psychedelic-induced encounter with a talking acorn. Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann recalls the time he dropped too much acid and his cymbals began melting mid-set, forcing him to leave the stage. Ben Stiller admits he only dropped acid once, and had such a bad trip that he called his parents, Jerry Stiller (who died just this week) and the late Anne Meara. These are just a few of the celebrity psychedelic experiences recounted in the entertaining new documentary film, Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics, now streaming on Netflix.
(Mild spoilers below.)
Psychedelics get their name from the Greek root words for “mind revealing,” since they can alter cognition and perception. LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is perhaps the best known, along with its popular siblings psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms); 3,4-methyl
The Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman discovered LSD while working with chemical compounds derived from ergot, a type of fungus that grows on rye, because he was interested in potential drug therapies. The fact that LSD’s molecular structure is similar to serotonin means that it can bind to serotonin receptors in the brain. A pharmaceutical company called Sandoz launched an LSD-based drug called Delysid in 1947 for the treatment of psychiatric disorders, and from 1950 to 1965 some 40,000 people were treated with LSD, including such Hollywood luminaries as Cary Grant.
The CIA also notoriously experimented—unsuccessfully— with LSD as a possible mind-control drug during the Cold War with the MKUltra project. And over time, fears began to grow about the unpredictability and safety of psychedelics. Stories of bad trips, temporary psychosis, and traumatic flashbacks began to proliferate, and the drugs became negatively associated with the counterculture Beat movement of the 1950s. Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary was dismissed from his position in 1963 for conducting experiments on students by giving then LSD and magic mushrooms. He set up his own private research program, and drew the attention of the FBI, culminating in his arrest and imprisonment. Then-president Richard Nixon declared Leary “the most dangerous man in America.” And ultimately LSD and its fellow psychedelics were classified as Schedule 1 under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act.
The ideal dinner party
It’s within this historical context that Have a Good Trip director Donick Cary decided, some 11 years ago, that he wanted to film a documentary of famous people telling stories about their experiences with psychedelics. “I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a long dinner party where you go around a giant table with all your favorite people and they share a story about hallucinogens?” he told Ars.
Cary was just a little ahead of the curve, since this was a period where many people were still pretending that they never experimented with such substances. “That’s where pop culture was for the 1980s and 1990s, unless you were at a [Grateful] Dead show or something,” he said. Nonetheless, he started filming celebrities telling stories in his spare time—which was limited, given his work on The Simpsons, Parks and Recreation, and Silicon Valley, among other projects—fitting them in whenever everyone’s schedules lined up. And because the project took so long, public attitudes toward psychedelics began to shift, and the stigma associated with those drugs started to lift, as word about the potential therapeutic benefits began to spread beyond academic circles.
The stark honesty and deeply personal nature of these celebrity stories of being under the influence of psychedelics provide a big part of the film’s appeal. “They’re sober when they’re telling their stories, so it’s real reflection,” said Cary. “They’re very intimate, because this is a taboo subject, but they’re also doubly intimate because they’re revealing what their brain reveals on this powerful substance. It’s like their subconscious is being revealed.”
Full disclosure: like Stiller, I have dropped acid exactly once, as research for a chapter in my 2014 book, Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self. (I am hardly the first writer to do so, nor am I the last. Michael Pollan wrote an entire book, How to Change Your Mind, about his exploration of psychedelics and the ongoing research renaissance into their properties.) I experienced many of the same things related by the subjects in Cary’s film.
Boulders seemed to breathe. When I laid down on an Oriental rug, the patterns laced up my arms like a fluid tattoo. Closing my eyes and listening to music produced an explosion of vibrant colors and patterns. At one point my spouse morphed into a giant purple dinosaur. I tried to take notes, but my hand kept melting into the paper, and what little I did manage to scrawl was embarrassingly inane, because things only seem to be more profound when you’re tripping. The real insight comes later.
And as we discovered when my spouse tried to capture part of the trip on video, it’s incredibly boring to watch someone on acid, because you can’t see what they are experiencing. I literally spent ten minutes staring fixedly at a wooden slat in a deck chair, before sagely pronouncing to the camera, “You have to go into the wood, down to the molecules.”
That was also a challenge for Cary. Since he didn’t want to just have a bunch of talking heads in his film, Cary opted for an eclectic mix of re-enactments and animated sequences to illustrate the various stories. “I wanted to bring each story to life in different ways, giving each person their own little short film with their own style and tone,” he said. “I also wanted to play with the transition between this reality, and the reality that your brain reveals on psychedelics. Animation was a really good way to morph between those.”
Nick Offerman appears, clad in a white lab coat, to offer occasional science-y tidbits. There’s also a recurring skit featuring a deadpan Adam Scott playing devil’s advocate as the host of a 1980s-style anti-drug After School Special, in which strait-laced teens accidentally ingest psychedelics at a party, freak out, and repeatedly jump through windows. (Spoiler alert: They get kicked out of the party after breaking one too many.) It’s an amusing send-up of a classic anti-drug film, Desperate Lives (1982). “That was my impression as a kid growing up, if you take psychedelics, it’s 50/50 you’re going to jump out a window,” Cary said.
It might sound like Have a Good Trip is just a random collection of celebrity psychedelic stories, but Cary is too skilled a professional for that. He sifted through more than 70 interviews, looking for recurring themes and potential through lines to connect the various segments and set up new ideas, whittling it all down to just 10 or 15 interviews. “The good side of having 11 years is that we could try different things, see if they worked, what was entertaining, what kept you interested,” he said.
That meant leaving a lot of amazing footage on the cutting room floor to keep the documentary to a reasonable 90-minute running time. “I talked to Carrie Fisher for two and a half hours,” said Cary. “She shared incredible stories, and it was hard to let those breathe, because we weren’t doing an hourlong special about Carrie.” The vast majority of those interviewed didn’t make it into the film at all. (One could envision many of those being turned into a spinoff half-hour animated series on Adult Swim or similar outlet.)
The overall scientific content of the film is relatively light, mostly provided by UCLA psychologist Charles Grob , who has been involved with FDA-approved research into potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics (MDMA and ayahuasca). For instance, a compound found in ayahuasca called banisterine shows potential for treating Parkinson’s disease, since it latches onto dopamine receptors in the brain—the same receptors that Parkinson’s destroys. LSD and psilocybin can be used to treat cluster headaches and severe migraines. Peyote has shown promise as a treatment for alcoholism. MDMA has been used to treat PTSD and terminal cancer patients; the latter subjects reported feeling less fear and anxiety about their approaching death as a result.
Only a fraction of this is mentioned in passing in Have a Good Trip. But that’s okay. It’s not that kind of documentary. With its breezy conversational tone, perhaps the film is best viewed as a gateway drug for learning more about these complicated substances. Not that Cary is suggesting everyone should be dropping acid or other psychedelics. He is a fan of Grob’s vision of licensed professionals walking people through the experience, determining the correct dosage in a carefully controlled setting. “It’s powerful stuff, so don’t just blindly take one, because it could lead to some really bad things,” Cary said. “Go cautiously and do your work. But I hope, in a weird way, that we came away with a very practical user’s guide for anyone even considering this stuff.”
“I think the real message for me was, let’s not live in a world where there’s just scare tactics [surrounding psychedelics], where we dismiss them just because they make us uncomfortable,” Cary concluded. “Let’s talk about them and figure out what the good is we can take from them as a society, and remind people that these are powerful tools that can be used in positive ways.”
Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics is now streaming on Netflix.
Listing image by YouTube/Netflix