Many in the psychedelic field divide mainstream interest in consciousness expanding compounds into before and after the bestseller status of Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind”. The book makes a powerful case for the medical potential of psilocybin and other psychoactive substances, and helped to reverse a stigma that had shadowed the field for decades.
But as popular as Pollan’s book has been, its adaptation to the screen, led by director and executive producer Lucy Walker, promises to bring its message to a far larger audience. Walker is an Emmy-winning British documentary director who also has two Academy Award nominations to her credit. As she discusses in this interview, psychedelics are far more than a passing interest for her. She shares how a chance encounter with Michael Pollan led to their collaboration on the Netflix series, the decisions they made to expand the series beyond what was covered in the book, and the challenges of making a documentary about illegal activity for a global platform like Netflix.
What brought you to this topic? Were you familiar with psychedelics already, or was this more exploratory for you?
I have been a lifelong psychonaut. At 15 I read Aldous Huxley’s “Doors of Perception”, and towards the end of high school I started to experiment with LSD and psilocybin. Then MDMA was happening in the UK. It was always clear to me that these molecules are therapeutic. I never had an indication, never suffered from anything in the DSM. But I could feel the way that my being was revitalized and refreshed, and lifted out of ruts I had been in. MDMA was just fascinating to me. How could a pill take you to this particular place that’s so precise and so beautiful and so positive?
So you brought your own expertise to the topic.
I also spent a month when I was in film school with an ayahuascero in Ecuador, back in the nineties before anyone did, working on my friend from Ecuador’s thesis film. In the jungle, very deep in the jungle, before there was such a thing as an ayahuasca retreat that I’d ever heard of.
There certainly weren’t many of them, nothing like Iquitos today.
So when there’s a piece about MDMA for PTSD in the Economist in 2009, I said, of course that’s exactly right! I was so excited to be following all this. Then Michael Pollan wrote “The Trip Treatment,” which came out in 2015 in the New Yorker. I called up his agent and said, I want to adapt it for the screen. But his agent said, you can’t because he’s going to write a whole book, the rights aren’t available. So I just thought, I don’t need Michael, and I started to develop my own eight-part series, very similar to the Netflix series, but with the additional molecules DMT, ketamine, ayahuasca and iboga.
You were going to produce a psychedelics series on your own?
Yes, but then at the beginning of 2017 I met Michael in a medicine circle. As you do. A small 10 person circle. And when I met him, we hit it off. I said, oh, I’m doing this series. And he said, oh, I’m doing this book. Then a month later was MAPS’ big Psychedelic Science conference in Oakland and we became conference buddies. There were a bunch of people with video cameras there and I thought, you know, there’s going to be a whole pile of people trying to make films about this. The zeitgeist was clear, the wave was breaking. I kept saying to Michael, your book’s going to be huge. It was very clear to me, if not to him.
A lot of us didn’t see psychedelics going mainstream before How To Change Your Mind became a bestseller.
Michael was so lovely, we got along, and I thought, you know what? I’m not going to compete with whoever’s going to adapt Michael’s book, because people are going to really go follow him and I don’t want to be competing. So I said, Michael, look, I want to direct yours when you decide to adapt it, or I’m going to sit this one out. Because what the space needs is one clear, bigger thing, rather than a bunch of them. Us documentary makers feel that there’s a problem right now, because people are clustering and actually stealing each other’s projects and resources.
The task was very much to adapt Michael’s book for the screen with him as narrator. And as Michael knows, I would ask, where is Maria Sabina in the book? Where are the women? You focus on a few people, they’re great people, but there’s others who we are not looking at. He’s on a learning journey and I think he’s very responsible about the fact that he found himself unexpectedly the poster child of the Psychedelic Renaissance, when he really is a journalist and, you know, a nervous nelly at that. Suddenly he’s Mr. Psychonaut for the whole planet. I think he’s risen to that challenge beautifully, of being the public psychedelic guide.
He’s certainly not the person one would have expected in that role.
It was a journey to figure out what to include in the series. When it came to the choice of episodes, I felt like MDMA would be great because it’s on track to be legalized soon. It’s shown such promise in trials and it’s a different story than LSD and psilocybin. Michael was actually going to take MDMA on camera as part of a trial, but COVID unfortunately closed that trial down. LSD and psilocybin were a given because they’re really what the book’s about. MDMA isn’t mentioned in the book. DMT is mentioned in the book, but Michael had a bad experience with it and wasn’t keen to do that again.
So that’s why there wasn’t an episode devoted to DMT?
The opportunity was to choose four molecules that would create the most impactful series. So we were still looking for a fourth. At one point I tried to get Michael interested in iboga, actually. Because I’m completely fascinated. But I could not interest him in iboga, even though I think that one day he’ll wake up and be fascinated by it. Meantime, this project was taking so long, I literally thought it was never going to happen. I knew Michael was never going to touch iboga, so I started a separate feature about iboga that’s now almost finished. I had to set it aside when “How to Change Your Mind” finally got greenlit. I was halfway through. I can’t wait to share that because that’s just an amazing independent feature film that’s nearly done.
I look forward to seeing it. For the series, Netflix said you had to limit it to four episodes?
Yes, definitely. It was always going to be a four part thing. It’s Michael’s style to carve it up by molecule. Like tulip, apple, potato and cannabis in “The Botany of Desire”. His previous series, “Cooked”, was earth, air, water and fire. So it’s very much quadripartite. So we were still looking for a fourth episode, and I had an idea to look at mescaline, because I thought it was an interesting way of bringing in an indigenous medicine. And Michael and I felt like ayahuasca had become a bit of a Brooklyn punchline. People thought they understood psychedelics because they watched a sitcom about an ayahuasca person throwing up.
There’s a chapter about mescaline in his most recent book, “This Is Your Mind on Plants”.
Yes, exactly. We thought it might offer people a sense that there is more to this world than they guessed if we took a less expected route, as well as one that was suited to Michael’s personal interests. I also had the idea that he might be interested in writing about mescaline. This was back in 2019 and he wasn’t writing about it at that point yet. We had started preparing the show before he started writing his chapter on mescaline. We got the unofficial greenlight from Netflix in January of 2019, and then got the official word, off to the races, the day before lockdown in March, 2020.
That’s challenging timing. I expect that working with Netflix meant doing things differently than on an independently produced project.
So here’s an interesting decision we had to make: do we include underground work? Or do we stick to the legal use of psychedelic medicines, in research or indigenous settings where it is not prohibited by any laws? I was at the 2019 American Psychological Association conference with Roland Griffiths [Director of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins], talking to him about participating. He said, be really careful about mixing scientists with the underground, because there’s a real concern about backlash, and that the new research could get cut. A lot of the people in the field are concerned that this moment is not a given, and that it’s a great opportunity to solidify the value of these drugs in an incontrovertible and non-controversial way. He implored me to think about that, and of course I listened.
And from the legal perspective, it was challenging on a platform as big as Netflix to depict illegal activity. At one point we had people offering to prepare San Pedro, for example. But even to be present in order to film this activity amounts to what is seen, in legal terms, as a conspiracy to manufacture a Schedule 1 substance and could put the entire team in jail for decades. We had to be mindful of the legal situation in order to protect people. People are very enthusiastic about participating in your show. But you don’t want them to land in jail.
So you decided to not include any illegal underground activity.
Exactly. Everything you see in the show is not illegal.
I saw your post on Instagram yesterday about your sister Beth, who passed away last year after a long illness. You explained how it inspired you to include the moving stories of actual patients being treated with psychedelics for trauma and depression, so the audience could see it for themselves.
My sister passed away last summer at the age of 37, of cancer. She’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer for five years. She had two little kids. It was very tragic. So for five years my sister had terminal cancer and I knew about all these studies for psilocybin for existential distress, PTSD, trauma, depression, anxiety in cancer patients. And I would talk to her about this, not to persuade her to do anything, but just naturally because it was what I was interested in working on. And she was interested too, but she’s a lawyer and she’s law abiding. She’s still got the idea that psychedelics are terrifying, like so many people do, and they held no appeal. I knew that nothing I could say would change her mind. And we’re very close. We listen to each other very well. But what would open the mind of someone like that would be watching somebody go through an experience. Someone that they can relate to. You really believe it when you see it with your own eyes. That’s the power of film. I thought I could make a film that will be much more powerful than anything I could say, and it might help relieve suffering.
In your post you wrote that, “Beth never got to see the show but I dedicate it to her and I made it for everyone out there who, like her, might possibly one day benefit from being able to see it.” That’s a profound motivation.
From the start I wanted to include fresh patient stories. Because we could have gone back to the book, and listened to Michael talking about people. But some of those things were written previous to the 2015 article. He’d interviewed them ten years before the show would be out in 2022, and it felt like it was old news to have Michael talking about conversations he’d had and written about so long ago. So I thought: we’re not the book; we are the screen adaptation of the book. We’re the movies, we get to actually film patient stories, not just write about them. So I felt, let’s find some fresh ones. Then the pandemic happened. It was tough enough to be able to gain trust and access in order to film any trials with psychedelic medicines.
But then, with the pandemic, so many of the trials we had been lining up to film – such as the MDMA trial which we had been lining up for Michael to participate in, with us filming – were put on hold. University research buildings were closed, and putting extra people, like a camera crew, into a potentially dangerous situation was out of the question. So the pandemic doubled down on the challenge of making the show. But we doubled down on the work, and after talking to what felt like every researcher investigating psychedelics in the world, we found some incredible people and scenes we could film. For example, we found this amazing OCD researcher at Yale, Ben Kelmendi. His research into OCD and psilocybin blows my mind. We were also waiting for some stuff to happen at Hopkins and UCSF that never did. We were tracking every psychedelic researcher, just everybody. Then we found out about one psilocybin study happening in Rockville, Maryland, and one study happening in Basel with LSD, and I found out about Ben’s work at Yale.
I was begging for a long time to get the MAPS footage, because I also knew that they were filming every session. If we could get the session footage, we’d have video of the MAPS trial as well. I’m a filmmaker, I wanted to get the actual video of the sessions. Because I thought that would be really important in order for people to actually see for themselves what happens when people take psychedelics in safe, supported medical settings, in order for them to properly understand what happens.
You included very moving footage of the sessions, and of people’s personal journeys. It was a mix of older and new footage?
Yeah, it’s a bit of both. Some are old sessions from MAPS and some were new sessions that we filmed for ourselves. Like the Switzerland ones, and the cancer ones from the psilocybin study with the lovely elderly woman cancer patient. The surprising Catholic, conservative woman who’s never taken psychedelics before. I thought it was really fascinating and moving to see somebody benefit from that experience who is not the cliche of who would be interested in that situation in a non-medicalized context.
I really enjoy working with people who get a lot out of helping others by opening up, who understand that their vulnerability will help other people in their position. I mean, that’s why I like my job. I don’t feel like I’m extracting from people. I’m giving them an opportunity to connect with others and share their story, and be of benefit to others. And when they’re going through a difficult experience themselves, this can actually be a positive win-win for the people we’re filming.
Featured Image: Sandor Iron Rope, President of the Native American Church of South Dakota, speaking about peyote conservation on the mescaline episode of “How to Change Your Mind.” All images courtesy of Lucy Walker.