Providing further evidence, not that any was needed, that truth is stranger — and oftentimes a lot more fun — than fiction, Cosmo Feilding–Mellen’s documentary shines a spotlight on the two men who were probably the most responsible for sparking the ‘60s-era LSD craze. Described as a “real-life Breaking Bad for the psychedelic set,” The Sunshine Makers is an entertaining look at the days in which the phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out” were words to live by. The film recently received its world premiere at the DOC NYC festival.
That the director is the son of notable drug policy reformer Amanda Feilding no doubt accounts for the benevolent tone of this film about Nick Sand and Tim Scully, two very disparate types who banded together in a quixotic quest to save the world via psychedelic drugs. To that end they created “Orange Sunshine,” a brand of LSD so popular and well-known that it’s namechecked in a hilarious Saturday Night Live sketch — a snippet of which appears in the documentary — featuring Dan Aykroyd as President Jimmy Carter guiding a drug user through a bad trip.
This drug-dealing duo was an odd couple indeed. Sand, born in Brooklyn, was an extroverted hippie whose love of women and all things pleasurable is made abundantly clear. Apparently allergic to clothing, the now septuagenarian Sand is seen exercising and meditating in the nude, which seems to be blissful for him though it’s not a pretty sight for the viewer.
Scully was a shy science prodigy from Berkeley, California who immersed himself in the freewheeling Haight-Ashbury scene and used his technical prowess to create the purest form of the psychedelic drug yet invented.
The two men were eventually introduced and started an underground laboratory with the financial backing of a rich young heir named Billy Hitchcock, who was also a patron of Timothy Leary. Scully wanted to give their product away — a utopian plan that Sand promptly dismissed.
“We were LSD evangelists,” one of the pair’s cohorts says. “I think we did a better job than Jesus.”
Distributing their product through the Brotherhood of the Eternal Love, also known as “The Hippie Mafia,” Sand and Scully found receptive customers throughout the world. Their immodest goal was to produce 750 million doses, enough to keep the earth’s population happily stoned.
In time, they inevitably attracted the attention of the authorities. The two men were arrested, with Hitchcock cutting a deal and testifying against them. They had the bad luck to have their case tried before a judge whose nickname was “Hangin‘ Sam,” who declared in court that he wished he had access to the death penalty.
Sentenced to 20 and 15 years in prison respectively, Scully and Sand amazingly found themselves cellmates at Washington’s McNeil Island Penitentiary. Sand’s girlfriend smuggled drugs to him, and at one point he dosed the food supply, rendering the entire prison population high.
Scully, clearly as adept at the law as he was with science, managed to discover a legal loophole that got them freed on bail. They lost their subsequent appeal, but while Scully went back to prison and served three years, Sand fled to Canada where he lived as a fugitive for two decades before getting busted again. He served six years and is now living in Ecuador, while Scully found a new career in, yes, Silicon Valley.
It’s an astonishing tale, even if it’s roughly told here using a mixture of archival footage, cheesy re-creations, and contemporary interviews with not just the two central figures, but also several of their significant others, past and present; various partners in crime; and two former federal agents who pursued them.
But if the level of filmmaking doesn’t quite rise to the fascinating subject matter, it hardly matters. Now that this story has been brought to cinematic light, it seems only a matter of time before the inevitable Hollywood dramatization. The only thing to be decided is the casting.
Production: Passion Pictures
Director: Cosmo Feilding-Mellen
Screenwriters: Cosmo Feilding-Mellen, Connie Littlefield
Producers: George Chignell, Nicole Stott, Connie Littlefield
Executive producers: John Battsek, Andrew Ruhemann, Omar Fayed
Director of photography: Will Pugh
Editor: Nick Packer
Composer: The Heliocentrics
Not rated, 101 min.