Since the 1960s Lysergic acid diethylamide better known as LSD has been a ubiquitous part of our culture, weaving its way into our everyday lives through movies, music & art. Most people would attribute the early acid movement to trailblazer Timothy Leary, however back then two unknown mavericks, Nick Sand and Tim Scully were charting their own psychedelic path to change the world forever. Two men who upheld an almost utopian like fantasy that inevitably brought on their own demise. Cosmo Feilding Mellen is a London based director who came across this story and set out to document the almost fiction like lives of these men.
The story The Sunshine Makers is a tale almost too unbelievable to be true. Here Cosmo talks with us about how he first met Nick and the inside story.
I actually met Nick Sand when I was about sixteen and he came to dinner at my family home in Oxford. I was studying for my chemistry GCSE and he offered to help me with my revision. I thought he was just a really cool dude. I kind of knew he’d been to prison but I didn’t know his whole story. I just knew he’d been involved in psychedelics. My mum is in that world as well. She runs the Beckley foundation which is a charity think tank that does work on drug policy and scientific research on psychedelics. So growing up I met those types of people and Nick was one who particularly stood out. He was one of these cool guys that you meet when you’re a teenager who doesn’t seem like an adult at all. He treated me like an equal and a friend. I ended up camping with him at Burning Man one year so I got to know him better then.
So you have an insiders view of this culture?
I’ve grown up in a world where LSD isn’t something that’s automatically seen as a danger but seen as something that can have great benefits as well. So I definitely went in willing to acknowledge the positives as well as the negatives. What I like about the film is that Tim Scully and Nick Sand, the two main protagonists in the film, have very different views. They both start off with the theory that having this incredible mystical experience can not only alter their own lives but also potentially save the whole planet. But Tim eventually changes his mind about that. I didn’t want it to be a preachy film about the wonders of LSD. I wanted it to be a film where you can just enjoy the story. It’s an amazing story and yeah it touches upon those questions of whether LSD can save the world and how much potential psychedelics can have for individuals and society, but I didn’t want the film to be a massive advert for LSD.
Ultimately it’s a predictable story, you quickly realise how foolish these people were in what they were trying to achieve. Surely their plan was always doomed? How did they think they could possibly get away with such a plan?
I think the film is as much about youthful enthusiasm as it is about LSD. That’s why we show so much of them today in their lives now, to create that contrast between the reality and youthful naivety, when you think that anything is possible. They thought it was simple, that they could change the world in five years. Obviously, the world is a much more complicated place and now they realise that.
But at the same time, I wouldn’t say that they failed entirely in what they were trying to achieve because so many parts of our contemporary society represent hard-fought victories for that generation of rebels. Being able to have sex before marriage, being able to take drugs, do yoga, be vegetarian. All of those things stem from the psychedelic revolution but they’ve been subsumed into mainstream culture. Psychedelics themselves have remained outside the establishment and are still not acceptable, but you see it’s not so much about the drug itself but about the experience and insights that the drug can induce in people. All of that eastern philosophy and everything that’s come from that period has actually had infinite amounts of influence on the world we live in today.
I’m a bit confused as to where these guys fit into the LSD time line. The Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann accidentally discovered then synthesised the drug in 1938, then people such as Timothy Leary and Ram Dass picked up on it and became early advocates of its use. I’d never heard of the subjects of your film, Tim Scully and Nick Sand. So where do they come into it?
Yeah they’re practically completely unknown because these guys were working under the radar. They came onto the psychedelic scene slightly later than Leary. He started taking psychedelics in the very early sixties. Tim and Nick got into LSD when it was still essentially legal. And in a way the fact that they were making acid on a large scale and selling it underground on the black market contributed to it becoming known as a threat to the conservative fabric of society and therefore made illegal. So they’re themselves relatively unknown but their story ties in with Timothy Leary and the experiments at Millbrook and the Grateful Dead and the Merry Pranksters. They were the people making the stuff and so they couldn’t be seen. They didn’t want any attention because they’d be arrested.
Obviously, there’s a lot going on in the film, but do you worry that this documentary could be consumed as a playful but shallow story? Or almost as a glamorisation of psychedelics for a younger generation who are maybe thinking it’s a cool movie and not taking away the real story here?
I’ve had to spend quite a lot of time around people preaching about the benefits of psychedelics and I find that quite boring. My aim with this film was to tell a fun story so that people can enjoy it, but ideally, there are also lessons that you can take from it. But yeah, it’s not a lecture. There a different types of documentaries, there are documentaries that are explicitly putting forward an argument about their subject and then there are documentaries that are telling a story. This is a story and it’s meant to be enjoyed whether or not you’re pro or anti LSD. I guess that’s the beauty of it. It’s a drug dealer flick but it’s about more than just money and power. It’s about spirituality and idealism as well.
There was one line in The Sunshine Makers that I felt summed up the entire film perfectly and that’s “Idealism fading into the face of reality.” Are Nick and Tim still on good terms, even though they kind of fell out it seems?
That makes me very happy because I want everyone to be able to take something unique away from the film. I’ve tried to let people draw their own conclusions. But that’s definitely a part of what the film is about, idealism and what happens when the pressure is applied to that ideal. Tim and Nick deal with it in entirely different ways.
Tim changes his mind during the course of the film and realises that it was naive and overly ambitious and not thought through, whereas Nick still believes it today and is unrepentant about everything that he did. In spite of these fundamental divides, they’ve remained friends and that’s the amazing thing. Their friendship has lasted everything that they’ve been through, which is rather heart-warming really. It’s a buddy movie too. I think friendship is an equally powerful idea than anything else really. It’s inspiring.
I agree. There’s a lot of surprising elements to the movie but perhaps the most surprising part was when the two of them started a psychedelics group in jail.
Yeah that’s very funny isn’t it. That’s my favourite bit of the film because just when they hit rock bottom, when things should be really really bad, Nick kind if reaches his high point. He tries to awaken the world and he doesn’t manage that, but then he’s confined to this miniature world of prison, and he manages to awaken that world.
Do you think it’s important to have a legitimate discussion in society about these drugs or that is impossible now?
One of the characters in the documentary actually said to me when we were chatting that in a way the greatest flaw of LSD was that although it creating this spiritual reawakening of the western world, it was also the best party drug that anyone had ever encountered. When you throw it to the high winds and let anyone take it, it’s going to be used in many ways. And I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to have fun and enjoy it.
But it became tarred by a particular brush and became something that was about hedonistic pleasure-seekers caught in a downwards spiral. The more serious spiritual intellectual side of that movement was snuffed out by the more populist Dionysian aspect. It’s interesting now if you look at a drug like ayahuasca. It’s becoming very fashionable but it won’t become the next big party drug because it’s not fun. It’s still seen as a very spiritual thing. So maybe the modern psychedelic movement is on firmer ground.
The Sunshine Makers is out now.