I’ve finally completed my new series The Trip, which has been four months in pre-production and is my most ambitious project to date. Last winter I happened across a standing movie set (read permanent) out in the Californian desert somewhere in the depths of the Internet. It’s styled to look like a neglected mid-century gas station/ motel/ diner, and the 60s is my playground of choice for so many reasons. As I have spent the last seven years building little sets (often in my flat) to resemble the 60s period, to find something like this, pre-made (by a Hollywood designer no less) was really exciting for me, to the point where I actually couldn’t sleep for four nights dreaming up ideas for what I could do at the place. The attention to detail here is incredible, and the whole thing must have cost a couple of million dollars to build. There were so many rooms and options that I knew that I could put together something that I’ve always dreamt of doing; and that’s to make what’s essentially a short film from still photographs, with a contiguous storyline and a cast of characters that reads from start to finish.
Fortunately for me, there were stacks of location photographs on the set website (it’s called the Four Aces by the way), so that I was able to put together a detailed storyboard of what was to happen where (flying out to California for a location reccie just wasn’t a budget option). Drawing up the story I think was the most fun that I’ve had with my photography since I’ve started and it was done over a number of frantic, caffeine fuelled, and sleepless days and nights. It was to be about an LSD trip out in the desert and this I seemed to know immediately, without any real thought, so it had obviously been lurking somewhere in the foggiest parts of my mind. That seven million Americans took LSD during the 1960s has always been an incredible sounding statistic for me; especially because it touched those sections of society not ordinarily counter cultural (Mad Men fans might recall Roger Sterling’s life changing experimentation in season 4). Check out this housewife on acid (though it’s actually the 50s). LSD could be a fantastic way not only of exploring the period for which I’ve set out my stall, but also to offer transformation / redemption for characters – difficult within the confines and limitations of still photography (character development without movement and dialogue is always an uphill task).
I’m currently reading my PhD in American Counterculture in the period 1964-74, so the idea was really inspired by my studies here. Much of the fictional narratives that came out of the end of the 1960s focused on the failures of the psychedelic-inspired hippie movement to achieve their utopian dreams (Easy Rider being a classic example). This story was to be a kind of re-imagining of the small battles they won for hearts and minds and an attempt to re-inspire interest in a movement that actually achieved so much despite its eventual collapse, and its negative portrayals in the mainstream media. It was to be black comedy, but turn those narratives on their heads as the countercultural forces actually win out. A group of conservative Southern folks embark on a psychedelic trip unexpectedly, and guided by hippy folks, all ends up happily ever after at sunrise in the desert. It’s really about cultural re-appropriation, and an attempt to reinspire interest in a period that’s so important for many of the liberal benefits we enjoy today. Their influence has been hugely underestimated, and I’ve always felt it’s wrong that they ended up as a societal caricature when they achieved so much; let’s not forget that civil rights for African Americans, second wave feminism, and the anti-war movement all came out of the sixties, not to mention so many amazing musical, filmic and literary works (though granted that the hippies role isn’t always central to the gains made here). But anyway, ‘The Trip’ was to be my answer to the inevitable disappointments that seem to infest all cultural recreation of the period in the immediate aftermath. It’s about time the hippies won out.
So there were to be three couples, none of whom were known to each other, and each one different in every possible way. Troy and Stacey were the classic Southern redneck types, part Bonnie and Clyde (he’s an ex-alligator hunter and she’s a pole dancer); Hank and Betty a middle-aged, lower-middle class and conservative couple (he’s a lawnmower salesman, she owns a beauty parlour); and then Arlo and Alice, the classic children of the 60s for whom the psychedelic experience was a weekly occurrence. The foil in the plot is ‘Acid’ James, an ageing, Grateful Dead-loving acid freak who I imagined spent some time with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, spiking people with LSD on their many travels. Acid James had come into some money and purchased a motel/diner, and was to while away his latter years making new psychedelic concoctions to test on unsuspecting guests. Only Arlo and Alice are aware of what’s about to happen and as long time friends of Acid James, are prepared to act as psychedelic guides for the other couples. After a period of intense chaos, the social and generational boundaries between all couples would melt and a period of love, harmony and unity would ensue somewhere out in the desert (was fortunate to find a great Joshua Tree amongst all the rattle snake infested bushes).
This is far as I’m getting for now, as I’ve run out of steam, but in part 2 I’ll talk a little bit about the logistics of pulling this all together in pre-production, which might be of interest to some of you photographers (and film makers) out there…