Errol Morris Talks "Ultimate Mystery" of Timothy Leary Lover as CIA Sex Spy

Courtesy of Showtime Documentary Films

In Showtime's 'My Psychedelic Love Story,' Morris interviews one-time paramour Joanna Harcourt-Smith for a new take on the 1960s LSD guru turned FBI informant.

Need a good real-life mystery to solve? TV audiences love them.

And documentary maker Errol Morris famously investigated a murder with The Thin Blue Line, a government LSD conspiracy with Wormwood and Robert McNamara's role in history in Fog of War.

But, with My Psychedelic Love Story, which debuted on Showtime on Nov. 29, if you're looking for Morris to solve the mystery of whether Joanna Harcourt-Smith was a 1970s CIA sex spy in a LSD-laced romp with Timothy Leary to return him to a California prison cell, expect few clues from his first-person interview. 

"If people are interested in my proving she's a CIA plant, I suggest they read a book, rather than watch the movie," Morris tells The Hollywood Reporter.  Instead, Morris, the thinking man's detective, takes a deep dive into Harcourt-Smith, a Swiss-born, Paris-raised socialite and globe-trotting desperado with Leary.

Having spent decades trying to make sense of their LSD-laced love affair, Harcourt-Smith landed in front of Morris' multiple cameras for a first-person interview barely a year before her death in early November after a long fight with cancer.

The result has Morris questioning Harcourt-Smith after the anguish and confusion of her whirlwind romance with Leary as both went on the run from Richard Nixon and the CIA, and as he finds her at the crossroads of trauma and recovery.  

Joanna Harcourt-Smith sadly died in early November after battling cancer. Did you know she was ill when interviewing her for My Psychedelic Love Story?

I did. Joanna, I came to love. I really liked her. I knew she had a recurrence of cancer when we interviewed her close to a year ago, in December of last year. She was in relatively good health, the cancer was being managed. She was in remission and then there was a recurrence and she was really, in a matter of months, she was dead.

Did you sense during that interview that she was in a reflective mood, looking back over her life and those she'd known and needing to square her past with Timothy Leary?

In retrospect, I would say yes. She was in such a position. And I hoped that the cancer was in remission, and she'd be OK.  So, very quickly, we finished a cut of the film and sent it to her. She got it. She watched it again and again and again and again. We talked about it and she was delighted by the film. And I talked to her three days before she died and then that was the end.

Can you recall when you first met Joanna. I gather she approached you?

Joanna contacted me because she loved my work in general, and she particularly loved Wormwood, which is in part is a CIA/LSD story, and she loved the work of my son, Hamilton Morris, who's completing the third season of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia for Vice.

At the beginning of My Psychedelic Love Story, you hint at Joanna possibly being a CIA plant. But you quickly leave conspiracy theories behind to focus on Joanna and her story, rather than Leary. Explain that focus.

That's absolutely true. The final version of the film has another card at the very end, because we contacted the CIA and we asked them for any information they may have about Joanna. And, of course, we got the classic CIA answer: we can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any files pertaining to this subject.

So you allowed Joanna to in effect interview herself, to become more than a footnote for Timothy Leary, to move from the periphery of history to its center?  

The story in good measure is a story of someone investigating themselves, trying to figure out who they are, what role they played in history, the nature of their love affair. Often I look at my films, particularly the first person films which have one character, often with the Interrotron. The idea of examining somebody, not so much for the ultimate mystery of where they fit in history, but the mystery of themselves, who they are and how they see themselves. Many of my films, it may even be true of The Fog of War — the story of McNamara and someone so clearly embedded in history and who played such a significant part in history — but it's also an attempt to figure out who he is and why he did what he did and why he played the various roles that he play.

That may be your intent, but your films tease the audience with that ultimate mystery. In Wormwood, a government scientist crashes through a New York hotel window — did he jump or was he pushed? And yet that story is told through that man's son, Erik Olsen, as he tries to discover the truth of his father's death. In My Psychedelic Love Story, the hook is Leary's "perfect love" may be a CIA plant, even as the film focuses on Joanna and her worldview. 

It's absolutely true. It's a good way to describe it.

But as a documentary maker you have a responsibility to solve that ultimate mystery — even though it appears from Joanna's telling that the trauma of her upbringing, and not the CIA, brought her to Leary and their love affair?

That's a very good way of describing it. Look, whenever anyone, myself of anyone for that matter, makes a film, people have certain expectations. Whatever that might be, there's an expectation, particularly today in a documentary where you're trying to answer some real world mystery — wasn't she a CIA plant? Often I'm doing something really different. Whether it's the use of only one character, whether it's a stylistic innovation. I believe My Psychedelic Love Story is really innovative in terms of style, even it makes use of my Interretron in one character. The use of graphics and the use of archival materials, I think give it a unique character and look. If people are interested in my proving she's a CIA plant, I suggest they read a book, rather than watch the movie.