Skip to main content

Errol Morris Takes a Trip in 'My Psychedelic Love Story'

By Ron Deutsch

Timothy Leary and Joanna Harcourt-Smith, protagonists in Errol Morris' 'My Psychedelic LOve Story.' Courtesy of Showtime Documentary Films

Errol Morris is one of the most prodigious documentary filmmakers of our time. His work has influenced generations of documentarians for over 40 years. And from his pet cemetery film Gates of Heaven (1978) to his portrait of right-wing provocateur Steve Bannon, American Dharma (2018), he has been adored and controversial, and has challenged the art of documentary filmmaking. But throughout all his films, Morris has displayed a fascination and passion in seeking to understand his fellow humans, attempting to reveal what makes us tick—for better or for worse, as he would say.

With My Psychedelic Love Story, Morris offers us a tale in these troubling times when love seems a socially distanced commodity. It's not just the sometimes madcap affair between his protagonist, Joanna Harcourt-Smith, and her paramour, 1960s cultural icon Timothy Leary. It's also a love story of sorts between Morris and Harcourt-Smith. Morris became enamored with his subject, though he would argue he does so with all his subjects. Harcourt-Smith passed away from cancer in October, and as Morris said at her memorial, “To know Joanna is to love her.” And even though we only spend 98 minutes with her in the film, in the way Morris presents her, audiences will be hard-pressed not to feel at least pleasure in becoming acquainted with her, if not to fall under her spell as well.

The film was originally supposed to be almost a follow-up, at least stylistically, to his 2017 docudrama series Wormword (2017), mixing dramatizations with Harcourt-Smith's recounting of her adventure of crisscrossing Europe and beyond with Leary, who had escaped from prison and fled across the Atlantic. They were pursued by the US government and were eventually captured in Afghanistan and imprisoned in the States. Following her sentence, Harcourt-Smith advocated for Leary’s release, and they both entered the Witness Protection Program. The film would have also re-explored Morris' interest in the CIA's MKULTRA mind-control project, which was the focus of Wormword, and which Leary, as the evangelist of LSD, had connections to. But when Harcourt-Smith's cancer began to ravage her quicker than anyone had thought, and the COVID-19 pandemic raged around the world, Morris was stuck with a decision to either work with the single interview he had already in the can, abandon the project, or delay it until a post-pandemic environment emerged. He opted for the former, and what we have is a return to a style of filmmaking that recalls First Person, his 2000 television series of single-person interviews. The film also gives us a sort of Alice in Wonderland view of the swinging ’60s and the jetsetters of that era. Keith Richards, Andy Warhol, Alan Ginsberg, Adnan Kashoggi and Diane Von Furstenberg all make appearances in Harcourt-Smith and Leary's adventure story. But the film also goes into Harcourt-Smith's early years as a Holocaust survivor and her troubled childhood.

The story begins with Harcourt-Smith cold-calling Morris after seeing Wormword and wanting him to tell her story of intrigue and help her answer questions as to whether she had been an unwitting government pawn in getting Leary recaptured.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DOCUMENTARY: Do you get a lot of cold calls from people who want you to tell their story?

ERROL MORRIS: It's not a regular thing, but it does happen. Part of it was that she was a fan of my movies, but also she was a fan of my son's television series, Hamilton's Pharmacopeia [on Vice TV]. She liked both, and at one time she had hoped—and I was perfectly willing—to have both of us involved. So I do also have my son to thank for this because, yes, she knew my work, but she was also attracted to his work. I had read and liked her memoir.

D: The first thought after watching the film is how she had this very full and amazing life. You've written about her as being fearless, but then added that the word “adventurer” seemed like “the wrong word to use” to describe her. I thought the term would serve her well. Did you know her time was limited when you began the project?

EM: I really liked Joanna. I didn't know her for that long, but it was pretty clear early on that she was an extraordinary person.

I can't say I was taken entirely by surprise, but her death did come so suddenly. I knew she was sick when I interviewed her last year. We all assumed that she was going to survive, but we were wrong. The disease progressed very suddenly and very quickly and then she was dead. I spoke to her just a couple of days before she died. It was incredibly sad, but she got to see the movie many, many times before she died. And she loved it. For what it's worth, that's a good thing.

D: Your initial plan was to make sort of a stylistic and thematic sequel to Wormwood, but with COVID and her passing, you opted to make this film just with the interview, archival footage and graphics. The result here is such a wonderful portrait that I wonder, If you had made the film you first envisioned, would it have been any more satisfying of a film?

EM: It's hard to know. Years ago, I pioneered a series called First Person, which was based on the Interrotron device I had developed. So many of these stories were based on just one interview. And with some money left over at the end of that, I decided I would interview Robert McNamara [The Fog of War, 2003], which again was just one interview with the same First Person model.

I didn't go into this project thinking that was going to be the end result, but then COVID-19 hit and it became clear that it would be really impossible to do a hybrid film like Wormwood, and it would even be impossible to interview Joanna a second time. As it turned out, we did interview her without a camera again and got additional voiceover for the movie. But the surprising thing was that we were able to make a film with just this one interview that was done with her over two days last year. It came together and it's got me thinking about the whole First Person idea all over again.

D: One of the things you also got to explore here is the whole “swinging ’60s” backdrop. You've got rock stars, drug and arms dealers, and the super rich all popping in and out of the story, and of course, at the center of this story is the near-mythical Timothy Leary.

EM: I showed this to Tom Luddy [of the Pacific Film Archive] and he was so struck that it was telling a story about San Francisco in the '70s, which he was more than familiar with. I, too, was there during that time, but this tells a story I was not really familiar with. While it is partly a story about Timothy Leary, it's really a story about Joanna.

I often think of it as the “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” approach to history. It's not entering history through the central characters, which in this case is Timothy Leary or some of those people who were in his orbit, but a strange character who entered the scene, almost unexpectedly, and played this interesting role. It's actually the way I prefer to do things. It doesn't always work out that way, but I can't tell you how pleased I am that I could find a character, who under normal circumstances might be considered an ancillary or auxiliary character, who takes center stage.

Leary emerges as a very important character but not quite so important as Joanna herself. I think we learn a lot about Leary in the process as well as Joanna, and that’s more powerful and more interesting.

D: What was your takeaway about Leary after making this film, though?

EM: Well, he's a major cultural figure, whether you like Leary or you don't. I've heard so many stories from people who knew him, who liked him, who disliked him, who trusted him, distrusted him, and what I've achieved here is that Leary emerges as a very complicated character, as does Joanna.

We're at a turning point where suddenly Nancy Reagan's war on drugs seems increasingly absurd and destructive. Oregon just passed a law allowing possession of very small amounts of all kinds of psychotropic drugs. It's not quite decriminalization, but it is a step in the right direction. We should all remember that Leary received a 20-year sentence for what I believe was less than an ounce of marijuana. Just imagine how things have changed in the interim from the '60s to the present time.

D: Of course that's not really why they sentenced him for so long. Marijuana has always been used by governments as a means to suppress those deemed subversive or a threat to power. But then there's also the whole MKULTRA mind-control program connection with Leary and various conspiracy theories as to whether he was working for the government, either knowingly or unknowingly. Is that something you would have gone into if you had been able to do the film you initially had planned on?

EM: Well of course it would be. It would be the first place you would look, the involvement of the FBI and CIA in all this. But at the same time, I'm not excited about just endlessly pursuing the same subject again and again. As much as the story interests me—and Showtime has been really a terrific partner because they were always behind the project—I had a choice: I could either just stop everything and wait for six or seven months, or we could try to figure out a way to make a film and get it done by the end of the year. And we chose the latter. Remember, there's a limiting factor here that goes well beyond my abilities to do anything beyond this that Joanna is no longer alive and she was my protagonist.

My editor, Steven Hathaway, has been working around the clock just to get this thing done on time. I'm supported by this amazing cast of characters in my office: Steven, Paul Leonard-Morgan, my composer; Jeremy Landman, whose graphics and graphic design are really impressive.

But again, I feel very fortunate I was able to emerge with a film that I really like. I feel it captures something of the zeitgeist of that era, it captures something of Joanna, and it captures a sort of complexity of being trapped between all of these authorities pursuing them. From the Nixon Administration calling Leary “the most dangerous man in America,” to all of these drug agencies on his heels. Does it surprise me that Leary and Joanna would have tried to make an accommodation with the government? Not at all. Because there was that risk he could spend the rest of his life behind bars.

D: As to that, Joanna tells us in the film that Leary feared for his life in prison, that he was told the government was going to drug him to insanity. Is there any evidence of that?

EM: It's not clear to me whether it was a fear they had that this was something that could have transpired, or it was real. Let's just put it this way: was he under continual threat from the prison authorities? Yeah. He was in a very nasty prison, Vacaville. A prison I've visited many times back in the '70s. One of the things I was going to dramatize if I had done the more extended film was that he had a cell right next to Charles Manson. I had a whole scene of a discussion between the two of them. Now of course I couldn't do that in this version, and maybe it's just as well. Every director has a thousand movies he could have made, but this is the movie I did make.

D: You've said that you felt that there were some “untruths and evasions and confusions and elisions” in her recounting of her story. Can you go into that a bit more?

EM: That's true of everybody. I remarked recently that part of memory is wishful thinking. We're not reality recorders. We don't just simply record everything that happens around us. Humans are confabulators, liars, self-deceived, but many of them believe there is such a thing as truth, and are truth seekers. That in no way invalidates this enterprise. Of course, when you have one person talking they're going to give you a skewed version of the universe, their universe. But that's not a bad thing.

If you want to tell a story about the world, about truth and falsity, then interview a lot of people. But if you want to tell a story about “a person” and how they see the world, just interview one and only one person. It becomes an exploration of character and perception. There's no voice that comes in My Psychedelic Love Story that tells you this is true, this is false, this is an accurate representation, or this is not so accurate. You are at sea in Joanna's world, and sometimes we try to give additional historical context to put a frame on it. But yes, like The Fog of War is an exploration on how Robert McNamara sees the world, this is an exploration of how Joanna Harcourt-Smith sees the world.

Joanna Harcourt-Smith, from Erroll Morris' 'My Psychedelic Love Story.' Courtesy of Showtime Documentary Films

D: I listened to Joanna's podcast you did with her back in April. You said that what drew you to her story was this strange quality that you didn't understand her completely, that she was a mystery to you, but also she was a mystery to herself, which is something you're drawn to.

EM: Indeed I am. One thing that’s really clear is that Joanna used the making of this film as an opportunity for self-discovery, as an opportunity to learn more about herself, about who she is and the central mysteries of her own life. I'm drawn to mysteries, your standard mystery or whodunit. But there's another kind of mystery that is just as important, maybe even more important. “Who am I? And who are they?” The mystery of personality.

Like almost everyone in America, I, for better or for worse, am fascinated by the personality of Donald Trump. And this goes beyond the question of whether you voted for him, you like him, you detest him. There's many mysteries for me, of course—how 70 million people voted for him. But there’s the mystery of how he sees the world. I wrote an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe, which ran the Friday before the election. I tried to remind people that Trump may not be lying. The real, true mystery for me is, yes, he's speaking untruths, but does he even know it? Does he himself really believe that his election crowd, his inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama's? The Washington Post has chronicled  I don't know how many tens of thousands of untruths and lies of his, but to me, the central question is a question of his personality. He seems not to be connected to reality at all. Does he think he won the election? Does he think his inauguration crowd was larger? Evidently, he does. I would respectfully submit that that's a form of psychosis or insanity, but it is the central question.

Clearly, Joanna was in love. I think that's clear to me. She was enamored with Leary, like many women, and she says it so beautifully in the film: “I always wanted to be with an outlaw.” And she got an ultimate bad boy who was on the lam....and on the lam in a major way! He had escaped prison; he was being hunted by the full apparatus of the US federal government.

D: I felt that Leary comes off as a very romantic figure in her story.

EM: It's an immensely romantic story. Is this a perspective on Leary? In part it is, but it's certainly a perspective on Joanna and her desire to create a personal romance for herself. I love this story. It's a very powerful woman's story. This is a woman character who is really deeply romantic, deeply committed to her man. It may not be Romeo and Juliet or Troilus and Cressida, but it's a pretty amazing romance for our era.

D: Was there anything you learned about yourself in making this film?

EM: I'm always learning about myself. Life is, in part, an exploration of who we are and how we see the world. And I'm deeply grateful to all these characters.

It puzzles me still that I had so much trouble over my Steve Bannon film. It was like every other film I've ever done, whether it's a film about Joanna or Elsa Dorfman or Robert McNamara. They're an attempt to find out something about the person, to explore their character, or lack thereof. I'm not the kind of person who does adversarial journalism. I've come probably closer to an adversarial relationship with my protagonist with Steve Bannon, but I see my role as sort of elucidating a picture of a person. I believe this is a very powerful picture of Joanna. And I'm glad that it is a portrait that she really liked.

Most recently I made a film about my friend Elsa Dofrman [The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography, 2016], who also died not so long after the movie was finished. She also loved the movie. It's strange because it's happened to me a number of times. To me, it's a good thing that I gave these people something that they loved near the very end of their lives. I gave them comfort and some comfort to the people who survived them. I just hope people won't think that if they're interviewed by me that it could be their cause of death [chuckles]; it could be limiting in my ability to make more films.

I'm glad about this film for so many reasons, not least among them is that I could show an almost-finished film to Joanna before she died. It meant a lot for her to see it, for us to talk about it together. If I could give my protagonists pleasure before they died and feel they had been captured and memorialized on film, then what more could you ever ask for?

My Psychedelic Love Story premieres November 29 on Showtime.

Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor with Documentary. He has written for many publications including National GeographicWiredSan Francisco Weekly and The Austin American-Statesman