“I think one of the reasons the audience came in such large numbers was out of curiosity. They didn’t want to take LSD, but the reviews and comments said the film came close to an LSD experience.” -Roger Corman, Director
In 1967, American International Pictures released The Trip starring Peter Fonda to the delight of curious masses. Crowds flocked to cinemas during the Summer of Love to experience a new motion picture featuring the hot topic of the year.
Written by actor Jack Nicholson and directed by horror film veteran Roger Corman, the film broke new ground in the world of independent cinema and paved the way for 1969’s Easy Rider.
Viewed today, The Trip is campy and hilarious, featuring a simple plot – a protagonist who takes LSD for the first time. The highlight of the film is dazzling set design and special effects produced using analog methods that are primitive today, but were ahead of their time in 1967.
Peter Fonda Visits Wonderland
In the first scene, we are introduced to Fonda’s character, Paul Groves, a fashionable TV director filming a commercial on the beach. His estranged wife (Susan Strasberg) shows up to tell Paul he missed a divorce meeting.
It’s clear that Paul is having a crisis, but it’s unclear exactly which one of the two initiated the divorce. The conversation is civil and bursting with the innocence and bad acting of 60’s era films.
In the next scene, Paul descends stairs into a club called “Bead Game” to meet his trip guide, John (Bruce Dern). Paul and John meet up with mutual acquaintance Max (Dennis Hopper) to pick up the goods. Paul retreats with John to swallow the acid capsules.
Like most first-timers, Paul is giddy and nervous. John tells him to relax and gives him an eye mask. Paul lays back on a futon, places the mask over his eyes, and the circus begins.
Music kicks in and the screen fades from blue into pink. Kaleidoscope shapes parade before our eyes. Some look like moving paper snowflakes, others look like cave paintings shifting around.
Suddenly, Paul wakes up. He sits up on the futon and declares, “I feel like everything is alive!” while John stares at him like a creepy therapist.
Paul mumbles a few sentences, runs across the room, grabs an orange and starts freaking out about the orange’s glowing life force.
The weirdest scene features Max appearing to Paul as a St. Peter-like figure in a foggy room with a carnival carousel. Max demands to know Paul’s human name and questions his career, failed marriage, and his general existence.
“I haven’t done anything!” Paul declares, and a dwarf randomly circles the carousel and screams, “Bay of Pigs!”.
After breaking Paul down to the point of confused submission, Max delivers this sage wisdom:
“I wish there was some hip way of telling you this, baby, but you’re part of an ever-expanding, loving, joyful, glorious and harmonious universe.”
To which Paul responds, “Funny!”, and Max scolds him for playing his “personal games” in this harmonious universe.
Behind the Scenes – Special Effects
“Right after Big Sur, I knew I could never reproduce this on film. The images, the feelings, the emotion were so overwhelming that there was no way to translate that from your mind to the screen. You could get some of it, which I think I did, but you could never get it all.” -Roger Corman, featurette documentary
Attempting to recreate the effects of LSD was an ambitious undertaking, so Roger Corman turned to Peter Gardiner of Charlatan Productions, a professional who produced psychedelic effects for TV.
Gardiner referred Bob Beck, known for creating rock band light shows, and award-winning cinematographer Allen Daviau, who later directed cinematography for E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. The three teamed up with Gardiner overseeing the operation, and they began creating effects for the film.
A post-film documentary film, and a 1968 edition of American Cinematographer that I discovered during my research provide fascinating insight into the amount of work behind creating special effects for The Trip.
The effects team used mixed media in the truest sense of the phrase; they used multiple analog sources combined to create one overall show.
They used different camera lenses, light sources, and they copied symbols and designs on film strips. Next, they re-photographed the film strips through color gels to create a “master strip” which they used with colored lighting. During the featurette, Corman discussed how the success of the film involved a combination of set design and special effects:
“I worked with Bob and Allen in one way, primarily post-production, but some of the other work was done during production… body paint on people and at the same time I was using very strange lenses; a couple of lenses broke up the image into sections. A lot of it was done on the set, in the camera, and then a great deal was done by Bob Beck and Allen post-production in which they took our images and treated them with multiple layers of images they created, which sometimes weren’t even images, just light and liquid flowing across the frame.”
The budget for special effects was limited to a flat $10,000, so the effects crew had to utilize various resources and hone a creative approach to honor Jack Nicholson’s script. They were also limited by a three-week time constraint, so they had to move fast.
“For the love scene we had liquid projectors, we had carousel projectors at odd angles, strobe lights… waves of color and various types of symbols and psychedelic visuals that Bob came up with… we were there to show up and bring whatever we had. By throwing (symbols) out of focus and overlapping, you’ll see one source panning on and another source panning off as the cameras move. We were able to get an interesting texture over the scene. It was very abstract… we were doing everything we could to keep it happening.” -Allen Daviau
Combining the analog effects was a complex process. In the article Beck wrote for American Cinematographer, he discusses the equipment problems he overcame and the many resources involved, including the design and construction of equipment from scratch.
Beck used existing equipment, such as liquid projectors, but he also had to design and build several machines to achieve the film’s effects. Beck constructed 6 modified strobe lights for the nightclub scene because nothing powerful enough existed on the market to use in film production. He also constructed huge lamps to project psychedelic images on nude bodies in the dark.
Perhaps most fascinating of all, the effects team used a “color organ”. His description of the color organ is, in and of itself, psychedelic. A color organ is a piano-like device used to “play” colors:
“The tunes, frequencies, and intensities of musical notes served to modulate lamps that were mounted behind red, green, and blue filters which were then reflected from broken mirror segments onto a screen… and produced a weaving, ever-changing cloud-like effect of color and shifting forms floating across the screen”.
Synchronizing the strobes with the cameras was also an intricate task. Among other considerations, Beck had to determine the right amount of flashes per second to reach the desired effect while filming the dance scene.
The effects team received help from the film crew for the dancing sequence. Showing true teamwork and dedication to craft, the assistant director gave the dancers amyl nitrate “poppers” to heighten the atmosphere of frenzy:
“The Bead Game sequence was shot in an actual L.A. club, with minor modification by the film crew. Assistant director Paul Rapp remembered shooting the Bead Game sequence, ‘I bought hundreds of boxes of amyl nitrate, which was then sold over the counter. I was working with dozens of extras in the scene and I needed to get their energy up to a pitch…when I was ready to shoot, I got everybody higher and higher and brought out the poppers.’ (Bret Wood, Turner Classic Movies)
Roger Corman’s Trip
Corman researched LSD before production and decided he needed to take LSD to accurately reflect the experience he wanted to portray on film.
Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson helped influence this decision; both men were experienced acid psychonauts and they encouraged him down the LSD path. Corman corralled a large group of friends and headed to Big Sur, California to take acid. In the documentary featurette, Corman shares his experience:
“I was floating in the sky and the atmosphere seemed to be a golden orange, like a sunset, but the whole sky was a sunset. A ship started to sail through the sky toward me. The sails turned to jewels as it came closer, and I noticed it was a ship, but it was also a woman and her body was made from jewels… the sails of the jewels were moving in the wind. I remember seeing all the way to the center of the earth and thinking that I had just invented a new art form. The creator would lay spread eagled on the earth, looking face down. His creation, whether it was music or a painting or a motion picture, would transmit through the earth and anybody else who was lying face down on the earth would receive the piece of art uninterrupted.”
In 60’s parlance, Bruce Dern was “straight”. Dern had no interest in trying LSD, so he asked Nicholson and Corman for guidance about LSD in order to perfect his own role as a trip guide.
“[Roger] said to me that he took a trip, laid on the ground face down and looked into the earth and studied what was under the grass for about 7 hours. I said, ‘well there’s nothing under the grass’ and he said, ‘oh yeahhh… oh yeahhh, I saw all the way to the center of the earth.’” -Bruce Dern
American International transforms The Trip into Reefer Madness II
American International Pictures viewed the final product and determined that The Trip was cheerleading for LSD.
Since the film was already laced with plenty of “bad trip” sequences (inspired by Corman’s desire to be neutral) it’s evident that paranoia over industry reputation drove American International to take the bad trip imagery one step further.
After production (and without the knowledge or approval of Corman) American International overlaid a cracked image on Paul’s face in the final scene, an apparent sign of a victim cracked permanently. They also inserted a “Reefer Madness” style cautionary scroll at the beginning of the film.
Interestingly, an important member of the effects team was also concerned about associating too closely with psychedelia. In his article for American Cinematographer, Bob Beck arrives a peculiar conclusion for a man who wrote a feature article about building machines from scratch to create psych effects:
“Despite the fact that many of the unique lighting effects that have developed in recent years were first used in connection with the psychedelic scene, and in spite of the fact that I was involved in the production of several films about the experience, I feel very strongly that all of these “light show” techniques and optical effects should remain separated from the psychedelic label. I would greatly regret having such techniques saddled with the label and stigmatized”.
By inadvertently revealing their own fear and denial, both American International and Bob Beck provide valuable insight into the backlash that quietly brewed against the counterculture movement of the 60’s.
According to Wikipedia, the film grossed 6 million dollars. It’s clear that people were curious about the psychedelic phenomenon. The corporate gatekeepers guarded their palace. Business people in the music and film industries were divided between a desire to capitalize on the craze, and fear of rocking the boat to the point of derailing their careers.
Despite American International’s cheesy efforts and the film’s own campiness, The Trip is a masterpiece of its time. The crew and team descended on an ambitious project together within a limited budget and timeframe, and the result was a stunning exercise in creativity and efficient use of resources.
The film deserves a place in history as a breakthrough feature, right next to A Trip to the Moon by Georges Melies.
If you liked this, you might also enjoy Inside Waking Life