Errol Morris Tells "Psychedelic Love Story" Within Pandemic Production Constraints
Errol Morris
Oscar-winning documentarian reflects on a tale that brings together different aspects of his filmmaking repertoire
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Errol Morris, a lauded documentarian whose accomplishments include an Oscar win for The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003), didn’t seek out his latest film, My Psychedelic Love Story (Showtime Documentary Films). Rather its protagonist, Joanna Harcourt-Smith, sought him out to help tell the story of her deep emotional and spiritual connection with Timothy Leary, an icon in the 1960s’ counterculture movement.  Leary, aka the High Priest of LSD, had described Harcourt-Smith as his “perfect love.”

Harcourt-Smith in turn thought that the perfect filmmakers to do justice to her relationship with Leary were Morris and his son Hamilton, a journalist known for the TV series Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia which delves into the chemistry, history and impact of varied pyschoactive drugs. She was impressed by that Vice show as well as Errol Morris’ career body of work, particularly Wormwood, a six-part Netflix event which bowed in 2018 as a mix of straightforward documentary elements along with re-enactments that played like a narrative drama featuring a cast headed by Peter Sarsgaard, Tim Blake Nelson and Bob Balaban. 

While Hamilton Morris ultimately didn’t get involved in the project--based on Harcourt-Smith’s book, “Tripping the Bardo with Timothy Leary: My Psychedelic Love Story”--Errol Morris agreed to take it on. The initial plan was to make My Psychedelic Love Story a documentary/narrative hybrid like Wormwood. An extensive on-camera interview with Harcourt-Smith in December 2019 laid groundwork for the film but the intent to adopt a Wormwood-like format fell by the wayside when COVID-19 emerged in early 2020. Rather than scuttle the project, Showtime asked Errol Morris if he would be willing to proceed with it as strictly a documentary. Furthermore, Showtime wanted to move up the film’s delivery from 2021 to this year. 

“I would rather be making a film than sitting around thinking about making a film,” said Morris, explaining in part his decision to move ahead. And with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, Morris now thinks he made the right decision as My Psychedelic Love Story wound up premiering as the closing night film at the virtual AFI Fest in October--and it is set to debut on Showtime come Sunday, November 29. Morris observed that the constraints of the pandemic--dealing with the likelihood of not being able to shoot much of anything for a prolonged stretch--helped to promote ingenuity and creativity to somehow get the film made and the story told in a distinctly different and interesting way.

Morris noted that he and his colleagues bonded and were spurred on by the challenge. He cited assorted contributors including a team that uncovered amazing archival material, and graphic designer Jeremy Landman who in tandem with the director created a world of graphics that advanced the story. Morris described the graphic treatments as “unique and unusual.” Psychedelic-style graphics and typography helped to infuse the film with a 1960s’ era visual feel. Leary appears in archival clips and is heard in excerpts from audio interviews. Pop culture references also made their mark and clips from notable films underscored aspects of the tale, including Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, Mata Hari starring Greta Garbo, Billy Wilder’s film noir classic Double Indemnity, and even Morris’ Wormwood

Morris deployed multiple cameras, selectively opting at times for his now famous invention, the Interrotron, which allows the director and his interview subject to talk to each other through the camera lens itself. Morris places his live video image on a teleprompter and the person being interviewed can see and talk to him while looking directly into the camera. 

Alluring mystery
However, first and foremost in making a viable documentary is having a story to tell. The Swiss-born, Paris-raised free spirit Harcourt-Smith became Leary’s lover. One school of thought regards her as a spy of sorts conspiring to get close to Leary and to somehow undermine him. Leary’s story includes his exile from the U.S., his return and reimprisonment, and then his seemingly inexplicable decision to cooperate with the authorities and “narc” on his friends.

Morris was drawn to the mystery and as he got deeper into it he came to realize that “this was the story of a person trying to figure out her own story. There’s something interesting about a story involving Timothy Leary that wasn’t with Timothy Leary but a story that came from left field if you like.”

Morris saw it in a sense as akin to a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern way of writing history, the reference being to two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “You’re not interviewing Hamlet. You’re interviewing somebody who might be seen as on the periphery of the story. But somehow her story is worth telling in and of itself on its own--and for the insight it gives you into Leary as well.”

Morris observed that Harcourt-Smith is “puzzled about what her role was...but not puzzled by her love (of Leary). She was puzzled why the love affair came to an abrupt end and the role the federal government played in their lives.”

Harcourt-Smith herself is a prime factor behind the documentary being engaging despite the aforementioned production and shooting constraints imposed by the pandemic. Morris described her as “a compelling figure,” adding that “to know Joanna is to love Joanna.”

Morris admitted he was “worried at first” about a straight interview having to carry the entire film though he deployed that successfully in prior documentaries. Harcourt-Smith’s uniqueness and individuality, affirmed Morris, were more than up to the task of carrying My Psychedelic Love Story. The director added that a prime lesson learned over the years was that “if you want to explore a story, you interview a lot of people.” But when you want to explore an individual, interviewing that person--particularly one as engaging as Harcourt-Smith--can more than suffice.

Particularly gratifying for Morris was that Harcourt-Smith, who passed away last month, got the chance to see My Psychedelic Love Story and enjoyed the film. “I feel lucky that she loved it,” related Morris. “She watched it the week she died--four, five or six times--and was deeply enthusiastic about the film.”

Coming together
In a sense, My Psychedelic Love Story reflects a coming together of dynamics in Morris’ work over the years--portraits of quirky, eccentric personalities as in Vernon, Florida, and delving into serious issues as in the stellar political documentary The Fog of War and the groundbreaking true-crime doc. The Thin Blue Line

Those serious undertones are part of My Psychedelic Love Story as it touches upon President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs justifying the skirting of civil liberties in the case of Leary. “I find it amazing,” assessed Morris. “This was kind of an international manhunt (in pursuit of Leary). Timothy was convicted of possession of about an ounce of marijuana on the Mexico/U.S. border, sentenced to 20 years.” 

Morris went on to observe that “the entire apparatus of the federal government” was “mobilized to bring him to justice, to bring him down.” The secrecy, mystery and covert nature of the operation persist as Morris included an on-screen notice in My Psychedelic Love Story that upon being contacted, the CIA would neither confirm or deny the existence of any material related to Leary or Harcourt-Smith.

My Psychedelic Love Story continues Morris’ relationship with Moxie Pictures which served as a production company on the documentary. Morris described Moxie CEO/partner Robert Fernandez, a producer on the film, as a valued friend and collaborator. At one point, Morris had also been handled by Moxie for commercials and branded content. But the director explained that he  made a decision awhile back to keep his documentary and commercialmaking pursuits at separate shops. Morris has a longstanding and ongoing successful commercialmaking career. Biscuit Filmworks currently reps him in the ad arena. 


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