“I don’t think psychedelics are the answers to the world’s problems,” Sting shares in the trailer for the new Netflix documentary Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics. “But they could be a start.”
The film, out on May 11, dives into the history of psychedelics and celebrates their cultural impact while pondering hallucinogens’ powerful role in treating mental health. A star-studded cast of actors, comedians and musicians includes Ad-Rock, Anthony Bourdain, Bill Kruetzmann, Natasha Lyonne and Sarah Silverman recounting their own personal experiences with acid, mushrooms, peyote and ayahuasca. Nick Offerman narrates, playing a mad scientist, while many of the celebrity trips are reenacted in comedic scripted scenes with trippy animation scattered throughout.
Made over the course of a decade by Emmy winner Donick Cary, whose credits include Late Night with David Letterman, The Simpsons and Parks and Recreation, the idea for his debut documentary was conceived in his hometown of Nantucket Island following a conversation with Ben Stiller and Fisher Stevens at the 2009 Nantucket Film Festival. Slated to premiere at SXSW in March, Netflix Originals has brought it straight to streaming following the film festival’s coronavirus cancellation.
Ahead of the film’s release, I went behind the scenes with Cary via email to talk about how he got so many celebrities to open up, advocating for psychedelics and why he’s hopeful we’ll all be able to hug again soon.
Katie Shapiro: Why tackle the subject of tripping? And why now?
Donick Cary: A serendipitous encounter on Nantucket Island at the Nantucket Film Festival 11 years ago with Ben Stiller and Fisher Stevens. We were all sharing stories about hallucinogens…funny, crazy, scary, enlightening…and I thought “hey it’d be cool if a whole bunch of people told these kind of stories and then we could bring them to life with animation and re-enactments.” Seemed like a fun version of a movie — kind of like a long extended dinner party where everyone shares what their brain revealed to them when they took hallucinogens. Unlike Drunk History — which is drunk people trying to tell stories…we ended up with very sober people reflecting on what they learned —sharing the good and bad, the mistakes and revelations.
Shapiro: Any personal experience?
Cary: A few.
Shapiro: How did you cast the celebrities featured in the film?
Cary: We asked EVERYONE we could get a request to and then anyone who said yes — roughly 1 in 10! — we went and interviewed. We actually talked to TWICE as many people as are in the film and hope to do a part two. We had too many great stories to fit in one movie. We still have amazing stories and revelations from David Crosby and Patton Oswalt, Whitney Cummings and Ozzy Osbourne to Bootsy Collins, Devo and the Jackass guys. And X, Ed Ruscha and members of the Doors…and on and on. Even some of the interviews in the movie had to be cut down that would be fun to share more of — Jim James, Tom Lennon, Ben Garrant and Natasha Lyonne were just getting started in Part One!
Shapiro: What was the creative inspiration for the scripted scenes?
Cary: The “LSD Afterschool Special” was inspired by growing up in the ’80s and the general mainstream take on drugs at the time: “Just say no…and then let’s not talk about it ever again.” Meanwhile, people were clearly doing drugs and experimenting, so there was a real disconnect between getting real factual information and how everything was portrayed in Reagan’s America. You could go to a [Grateful] Dead show OR even a Dead Kennedy’s show and there was a psychedelic scene happening. SO lumping psychedelics into the drug war and just say no campaigns made it something you couldn’t have a rational conversation about. And this idea that we can just scare people into NEVER experimenting just wasn’t reality. I have kids…I want them to have content that explores the reality of this stuff and be informed to make responsible decisions. That’s a component of this movie I hope…a response to scare films. This film is REAL stories and REAL things to consider and watch out for. It’s not for everyone! You do you. ANYWAY, I thought it’d be fun to make fun of that dated pop culture portrayal from the ’80s and ’90s. Also the “brain on drugs” spots…I had to make one of those. It feels like a crime to be a comedy writer for so long and never do a take on the frying pan eggs spots — “this is your brain on drugs!”
Shapiro: What was your creative inspiration for the animated scenes?
Cary: I spent a few seasons on The Simpsons and wrote a couple of trippy episodes — “Doh’in in the Wind” and the Mr. Sparkle episode — and had SOOO much fun making psychedelic animation. Animation is a wonderful way to transport the viewer in a documentary to different eras and different head spaces. My studio, Sugarshack Animation, did the bulk of the animated reenactments in our offices in Bulgaria. I very much wanted each storyteller’s reenactment to have a different look and feel — be its own short film — so the challenge for Sugarshack was to come up with not just one animation style but 20! Each were inspired by the tone and style of the interviewee and the setting of their story.
Shapiro: How did you tackle production over the course of so many years?
Cary: Oh boy. Well as I said…11 years! This was never a full-time job for anybody involved, so it took its time falling into place. So many great people contributed over the years — mostly people with one name — like DPs [cinematographers] Stash and Skyler. But also people with two names like line producers Jim Ziegler and Jeremy Reitz. The first piece of the puzzle was that we had to get celebrities — so we were kind of at the mercy of their schedules. We’d get a random email from our bookers (Central Talent Booking) that “Sting can do next February 14th at 10 a.m. in NYC…Carrie Fisher is available in two weeks at her house…Ozzy Osbourne is available RIGHT NOW if you can get there.” Haha! SO that piece of it was pretty random and took a while. We had a lot of wonderful help and support at the beginning from Ben Stiller’s company Red Hour (Stuart Cornfeld and team) and Fisher Steven’s company who has produced everything from The Cove to The Tiger King — they both really helped me chart the course to get this made. Ultimately, my producing partner Mike Rosenstein (Sunset Rose Pictures) and my own company Sugarshack 2000 ended up financing and producing this for Netflix — thanks Zana and team! But as far as timeline…ugh…I was adding up all the TV shows I did over the same time period…two seasons of New Girl, two seasons of Parks and Recreation, three seasons of A.P. Bio, Silicon Valley…etc. I was thinking “Wow, what a long, strange…” and then I thought “I can’t quote the Grateful Dead in this…it’s too obvious!”
Shapiro: You were slated to have your world premiere at SXSW. How’d you take the cancellation news?
Cary: We cried and hugged. And then stopped hugging because…you know… pandemic. We were so excited to premiere at SX…it felt like the exact mix of music, comedy and conversation that this movie is. We were going to have a big screening and party…a happening, a crazy scene…Yo La Tengo (who did the incredible soundtrack with music supervisor Kim Huffman Cary) playing live! Reggie Watts and more were going to join in for convo and comedy with DJ sets and mind-blowing, crazy fun. SO anyway. First tears. BUT we get it…pandemic and all. Basically we just pivoted to getting excited about sharing it with the world on Netflix. We hope it not only brings some laughs to a world that can use them, but also adds something to the bigger conversation about mental health and interconnectedness. There are so many good conversations that need to be had!
Shapiro: Any plans for future film festivities once stay-at-home restrictions lift?
Cary: We’d love to take this coast-to-coast and beyond…bring along some live comedy, music and experts in the field to do panel conversations, answer questions…dance? Hug again?
Shapiro: What is your hope for the film to contribute to the current conversation surrounding the legalization of psychedelics?
Cary: I would say personally I am not an advocate for hallucinogens for everyone…I am an advocate for rational conversation and rational use for those who are interested and might benefit (with supervision and support, ideally from a licensed source). It’s an incredibly powerful tool and should be explored as a medicine in the treatments of things where we don’t have all the answers: depression, addiction, end of life anxiety or trauma. The human race is up against a lot right now and we can use all the help we can get. Why not be open to solutions wherever they might come from? You can buy alcohol everywhere and it destroys so many lives. And in most places currently, you can barely have a rational conversation about even the pros and cons of psychedelics. Let’s talk! Why not!?
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Non-traditional capitalization and informal punctuation are Cary’s.
Download the coloring book page version of the official film poster here.