In the summer of 2014, Denman Island filmmaker Colby Rex O’Neill and a crew of ‘pranksters’ spent the better part of three months crossing America by bus. Leading the journey was Zane Kesey, who was following the trail blazed 50 years earlier by his father Ken, the iconic ’60s counter-culturalist and author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Ken Kesey purchased a school bus in 1964 to carry his merry band of pranksters from La Honda, Calif. to New York, and back through Canada. They painted the bus in psychedelic colours and named it Further — a one-word philosophy serving as a destination and a state of mind.
At first, the idea was to promote Kesey’s new novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, at the World’s Fair in New York City, and then to make a movie about it.
“When they came home and tried to edit the film, the acid tests were built, and that’s how they really started making their mark on the culture,” O’Neill said. “The original tour itself was very low key.”
But it became a “seminal moment” of the times, inspiring a generation of artists including the Who (Magic Bus) and the Beatles (Magical Mystery Tour). Another spinoff was the Partridge Family bus.
“It really was one of the breaking points, and also becoming mainstream,” O’Neill said. “They were the ones in the right place at the right time.”
Following some of the original route, Zane Kesey’s 2014 tour was more about honouring, not replicating, his late father’s odyssey. Picking up a new batch of merry pranksters each week, the Further bus traveled over 15,000 miles through 30-plus states in 75 days, stopping at music festivals and other events.
O’Neill made a film about the journey — called Going Furthur — which debuts next month in San Francisco.
“I’ve basically been working on it full-time for two years exactly now. We ended up shooting 400 hours of footage for a 96-minute film…It was spectacular. We took 100,000 photos.”
Early in the tour, O’Neill met Hollywood filmmaker/producer Lindsay Kent, who had joined the tour as a prankster but wound up helping O’Neill make the film. The other member of the team is Matt Pidutti.
On top of the tour, O’Neill and Kent took six further trips to finish the project. They met with some of the original pranksters, and attended some transformational festivals, including the Burning Man Festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
In Chicago, they attended the final performance of the Grateful Dead — who had played at the infamous acid test parties at Ken Kesey’s place when the band was known as the Warlocks.
“A big part of our film is about how 10 of the pranksters influenced the counter-culture and brought it mainstream, and what happened as a result of that,” O’Neill said. “We’ve been kind of globetrotting and tying it together…It took three months just to watch the footage.”
The film includes interviews with original pranksters Linda Breen (aka Anonymous), Lee Quarnstrom, Ken Babbs (the Intrepid Traveler and inventor of the term ‘merry prankster’), George Walker (Hardly Visible) and Hugh Romney — better known as Wavy Gravy. The latter delivers a quote from Ken in one of the film’s closing statements: The best thing you can do is put your good where it will do the most.
O’Neill, who grew up on Denman, is a self-taught filmmaker who had been working in the music industry for a number of years. It was during a music festival on Texada Island that he experienced an ‘aha’ moment.
“It totally shifted my perspective on things. The response that we got from filming was so much more powerful than it had been in the bands. That was the beginning of me starting to intern with my friend, learn the ropes. From that I started filming more festivals, and slowly shifted into it….It’s been my full-time gig now for five years.”
O’Neill and his wife Michelle — who are high school sweethearts — have a son and daughter. Though it was difficult being away from his family, O’Neill was the same age as Ken Kesey (29) when the latter embarked on his tour.
“And our sons were the exact same age (3 1/2). So that helped motivate me, knowing that I was going through some of the same stuff he was going through.”
The world premiere of Going Furthur is June 4 at the San Francisco DocFest. Later in the month, it screens at a music festival at the site of the 1969 Woodstock Festival in New York, and then at the Maui Film Festival.