Nicholson, Jack – The Tragedy of The Trip
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
From Jack Nicholson the Biography by John Parker
Roger Corman said to Jack Nicholson, 'I want you to write me a screenplay called The Trip, about this psychedelic craze and LSD ...put someone on an acid trip. No film has yet been made about LSD. It will be the first. Will you do it?'
Jack said he would, and twenty-three years later, in May 1990, Roger Corman named it among the best pictures he had made, and by then the total exceeded 200.
Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were to co-star and Nicholson wrote a part in it for himself, but Corman refused to cast him and Bruce Dern played the role instead. Dern said Jack was 'very pissed off about not being allowed to play the role'.
On reflection, Nicholson remembers that, apart from the task of writing a film about a new subject on which there was very little in the way of written research material, it also came at a time when he was going through his divorce.
“Most of the trauma I was going through at the time is written into that film,” he admitted reflectively. But there was also much more. Because of the subject matter, Nicholson could draw on his own experiences with LSD. It was familiar ground too for Fonda and Hopper - who were already good friends. They came to Corman's office to establish what would become a lifelong, though intermittent, friendship between them and Nicholson.
- Fonda was able to say that he had first tried LSD a couple of years earlier, and had also been a spasmodic user of marijuana – in between more prolific bouts of drinking vodka or Scotch – since 1962 when he was turned on by Jim Mitchum at the Canton Towers Hotel, in London. He was introduced to LSD in September 1965, when he was twenty-five. A friend administered the drug and supervised the trip 'because he knew my head was really fucked up'. Fonda claimed that this first experience began the halt of a downhill slide into alcoholism, and acquisitive, habitual spending on fast cars, Cessna airplanes and fine suits. It also provided him with the insight to revoke his staunch conservative opinions and adopt a liberalistic, casual, 'don't-give-a-fuck approach to life'. These changes and realizations he put down to his experiences with LSD, though he conceded that it might not work for others in the same way. He was able to pass on to Nicholson authoritative recollections of seeing huge worms crawl out of biscuits, eating a plum that was alive, seeing his wife sitting beside herself and all that kind of hallucinatory experience.
- Hopper – crazy, mixed up, Dean-possessed Dennis - had already carried out a pretty full testing programme on several substances and it was often a gamble to assess his behavioural pattern: lovable, sexual, violent or zonked out.
- Nicholson had taken LSD, but he had first done so, he said, as a guest - i.e. adventurous actor seeking experiences to file away for the future. He went to a qualified medical practitioner for his first experience in 1963 and, according to his account, became one of the first people in the country to take the drug. He spent four hours with the therapist who administered it to him and supervised his acid trip, and he remained under a structured hallucinatory influence for a further five hours at home. He was blindfolded for part of the time, which had the effect of making him 'look inside of himself', and he admitted that he was not ready for the experience and some of the discoveries he made.
At one point, he was screaming at the top of his voice; he also relived his own birth, met his fears of homosexuality and had the most terrifying fright 'that my prick was going to be cut off'. He said it was all highly graphic visually especially the part when he was inside his mother's womb. When he got out, he had the feeling he wasn't wanted and that as an infant he was a problem to his family - a feeling which he expressed publicly long before he became aware that his sister was really his mother.
As he began writing his film, the manuscript turned out to be partly autobiographical. The central character, Fonda's part, is a writer of television commercials who cannot stand the pressure or the effect it is having on his wife Sally (played by Susan Strasberg) and their marriage. He begins to experiment with LSD in an attempt to obtain more understanding of his problems.
In the beginning, it is serene and peaceful with lots of idyllic scenes and brilliant colours, but it ends with him being confronted by the nightmare of attending his own funeral. These elements were inspired by his own experiences during the break-up with Sandra after she had suffered a bad LSD experience in her search for enlightenment.
Fonda thought the play was brilliant. He took it home with him that night and sat reading the words. Susan, his wife suddenly noticed he was crying.
''What's the matter baby?' she asked.
'This script... it's so beautiful, you have no idea. Listen to this...' Fonda read aloud a page of words to her and, though his wife had never joined him in his LSD excursions and marijuana made her sick, she understood from her husband's descriptions of expanded-mind experiences and images the intensity of his feelings.
He said, 'I don't believe it. I don't believe that I am really going to have the chance to be in this movie. This is going to be the greatest film ever made in America.'…………………..
Corman, who was both producer and director of The Trip, was unsure about Nicholson's script. He wanted certain scenes spelled out; he could not understand some of the subtleties. Fonda, Hopper and Nicholson all knew what they meant and they knew that many of the youngsters in the audience would know what they meant. Corman remained unconvinced, especially in the way that the multi-coloured fantasy scenes were to be portrayed.
Fonda exploded. 'Now it's going to be just a predictable film with a beginning, a middle and an end. The ending's a cop-out.' Corman wouldn't budge. That's the way he wanted it and his own bosses at American International Pictures made further changes because of the difficulties they anticipated in getting the film distributed to the cinemas.
Nicholson’s script has never actually been viewed. Bruce Dern has said that “The original script was just sensational, he injected into it some really way-out visual ideas that no one had ever tried before"