Errol Morris' latest doc My Psychedelic Love Story is a 'deeply mysterious' trip
Errol Morris is perhaps modern cinema's premier detective; his most acclaimed and well-known film, 1988's The Thin Blue Line, famously resulted in its subject's conviction for murder being overturned. Yet Morris couldn't quite get to the bottom of the mystery at the heart of his latest documentary — but then, neither could the woman at the heart of the mystery.
My Psychedelic Love Story, premiering Sunday on Showtime, is a strange tale centered around famed counterculture figure Timothy Leary and his paramour Joanna Harcourt-Smith. The two met in Europe in 1972 when Leary was on the run from the U.S. government, and embarked on a tumultuous, LSD-powered love affair that continued after they were arrested by American agents in Afghanistan. Leary was re-imprisoned for the next three and a half years, and was only released in 1976 after he and Harcourt-Smith agreed to become federal informants. Shortly thereafter, they broke up.
The counterculture accused Harcourt-Smith of manipulating Leary and operating as a "sex spy" on behalf of the CIA. Decades later, even she wasn't completely sure what happened and why, and Morris' film served as an outlet for her to sift through her memories and feelings about this defining period in her life.
"Our attempts to get additional information from the CIA proved not fruitful," the filmmaker tells EW. "And so there's a card at the end of the film that says that the CIA would neither confirm or deny the presence of any material relating to Joanna Harcourt-Smith and Timothy Leary. It remains a mystery. But what isn't mysterious, of course, is that both of them were pursued by the federal government in earnest."
There's more to the film than the mystery, however. Inspired by her 2013 memoir Tripping the Bardo With Timothy Leary: My Psychedelic Love Story, the documentary truly serves as a character study of and memorial to Harcourt-Smith, who died of breast cancer on Oct. 11 at age 74.
"I find her story endlessly interesting," says Morris. "It cuts a wide swath through a lot of contemporary history, whether it's the counterculture or rock and roll, or Timothy Leary, or drugs, or the CIA and the FBI. It's a rich mix material, and the list of names of people that she knew, and were friends of hers, is almost endless."
"She's also an extraordinarily romantic character," he continues. "She saw her life very much as an adventure that she was inventing as she went along. Joanna says fairly early on in the film, 'I always wanted to be with an outlaw.' And indeed she was."
Ahead of the documentary's TV debut, Morris spoke to EW about his approach to the project, capturing Harcourt-Smith on camera, and how the film became a parting gift to her.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You've often said that you're always interested in playing with documentary as an art form. How did that manifest for you with this project?
ERROL MORRIS: I would have to say circuitously, because we intended to make one kind of project and ended up making another. The idea was to create something a little bit like [Morris' 2017 Netflix miniseries] Wormwood, where there would be [scripted] drama integrated with an interview. That interview was shot in December of last year, and then guess what happened: COVID-19. And the whole idea that we were shooting drama was more or less out of the question. It meant that we would have to wait until, probably, next year to actually go into production. And so we were asked by Showtime, "Would you be willing just to do this as a one-off documentary film, and deliver it before the end of 2020?" And we said yes, of course. I much prefer just to keep working and keep producing, rather than to simply sit on my hands and wait.
How do you feel about the way it turned out, having diverged from your original plan?
I kind of love it. As it turns out, even though we only interviewed Joanna for two days, I was surprised that from that interview, there was so much remarkable material, and it was possible to make a film out of what we had done. And the film came alive as we started to work on it. You can't always predict these things. In fact, in my experience, the best films often come out unexpectedly. There's no way you really could have thoroughly planned for them.
But here, there was this amazing wealth of archival material. There was Joanna herself, who is, I believe, extraordinary on film. I often point out that this whole idea that there's no element of performance in documentary is just wrong. Of course there's an element of performance, and her performance is great. Yes, she is Joanna Harcourt-Smith. Yes, she's describing events from her life. But she's describing them in a way that is unendingly interesting and revealing. And it's in part, which I also like, a detective story where she is the detective, examining herself, trying to figure out what actually transpired. Why did this love affair come to such an abrupt and brutal end? Was she being used in some way by the federal government? What was her role? She's not even sure of that. What was her role in this entire story?
How does that affect your dynamic, when she's also trying to figure out the truth, and ordinarily you're the one trying to do that?
It changed it, of course, because she's an active participant in this whole story. I'm immensely sympathetic with this whole idea of really not knowing who you are. It's assumed that we are who we are and hence we should know who we are, but I'm not sure it works that way. We can be very much a mystery to ourselves, and many of the things that happen to us in the course of our lives can also be deeply mysterious. And throughout this film, she points this out very clearly. "Was I a CIA plant? Was I being used in a way that I didn't really understand?" The mystery of the failure of their love affair, that really came to a sudden and abrupt end. I find the story deeply mysterious and powerful.
Joanna's also really honest. You know, whatever honesty means in an interview. She tells us a lot of things that are not necessarily favorable to herself but really enrich the story and give it multiple dimensions.
How did you first connect with Joanna?
Well, she approached me. That happens more and more often, in my case. Maybe it's because I'm becoming better-known, but you tell me. She was a fan of my work; she loved Wormwood. After all, it's about the CIA and a possible conspiracy. She also loved my son's work. My son [Hamilton Morris] has done a series for Vice, Hamilton's Pharmacopoeia. And Joanna loved that series, and hoped that both of us could be involved. Hamilton has been very busy finishing the third season of Hamilton's Pharmacopoeia, but [My Psychedelic Love Story] probably wouldn't have happened without him also being in the mix.
And then what convinced you to ultimately take on the project?
I read the book, and I talked to Joanna, and I liked Joanna. This is an incredible story and an incredible character. I don't ever know in an interview situation what I'm going to hear. It's truly investigative; you don't know what to expect, what actually is going to be said or not said. And what can I say, it turned out to be a good bet, 'cause she was great. And over time, over the year working on this film, I'm reminded again and again and again as I work on it how amazing Joanna really is, or was. And it's a great tragedy. She saw the finished film before she died, and I believe she watched it almost constantly in the week before she died, and loved it. I think it gave her an enormous amount of comfort.
I find it ironic that I've now had this experience twice in my recent films. A film [2016's The B-Side] that I made about Elsa Dorfman, a photographer and friend who died shortly after the film was completed, and now Joanna. And in both cases the film I produced gave them enormous comfort at the end of their lives. So, for that I'm grateful.
Did Joanna know she had cancer while you were making the film?
She was in remission. She had cancer, but she believed that she had conquered it. And it did recur, and she got seriously ill very, very fast and died. But I'm very glad that she saw the film before she died. It was interesting, she was still giving advice about the editing. There was one passage that she had hoped could be removed, and I said, "Of course," we removed it, and then she wanted it back in again. And so we put it back in again. It's a section about her grandfather and grandmother and mother, where she talks about the depravity of rich people. It's a very interesting and very moving section. I didn't want to take it out, but on the other hand, if someone makes a dying request, you want to be respectful and you want to listen. I'm glad that she asked me to put it back in the film.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
My Psychedelic Love Story premieres Sunday, Nov. 29 at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.