“Dying to Know” is an intimate portrait celebrating two very complex, controversial characters in an epic friendship that shaped a generation. In the early 1960s Harvard psychology professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert began probing the edges of consciousness through their experiments with psychedelics. Leary became the LSD guru, challenging convention, questioning authority and as a result spawned a global counter culture movement landing in prison after Nixon called him “the most dangerous man in America”. Alpert journeyed to the East becoming Ram Dass, a spiritual teacher for an entire generation who continues in his 80’s teaching service through compassion. With interviews spanning 50 years the film invites us into the future encouraging us to ponder questions about life, drugs & the biggest mystery of all: death.
In 1995 after years of estrangement Leary found out that he was dying of cancer. The first person he called was Ram Dass. In the 60s they had collaborated on a book entitled, ‘The Psychedelic Experience‘ which was based on The Tibetan Book of The Dead and explored the similarities of the psychedelic experience and the dying process. Each holding a remarkably different point of view about death they share their thoughts/perspectives and rekindle the love they have always felt for one another.
In this provocative film the viewer is a fly on the wall, observing an intimate conversation between Leary and Ram Dass just a few months before Leary’s death. It is a genuine exploration and an emotional respectful goodbye between two life long companions. We include subsequent interviews with Leary as he shares his dying process with us. Ram Dass who suffered a stroke himself not long after Tim’s passing shares his own perspective on death and dying. This story is much larger than a simple conversation between two old friends. It embraces the arcs of their entire lives helping us understand how two Harvard professors became counter – culture icons. We will explore their upbringing, early life and their fateful meeting at Harvard where together they ran fully sanctioned experiments into the nature and use of psilocybin and LSD before being fired in 1963. We follow them from Harvard to Millbrook where their experimentation continued and ultimately their friendship was tested and fractured. They both went their own way becoming legends in their own right. These chapters are highlighted using archival footage and stills. This tale of taboos: sex, drugs and death includes interviews in 2012 with Dr. Andrew Weil, Huston Smith, Roshi Joan Halifax, Ralph Metzner, Joanna Harcourt-Smith, Lama Tsultrim Allione, John Perry Barlow, Peggy Hitchcock and Zach Leary.
Robert Redford’s iconic voice as narrator gives a classic American feel and tone. Dillingham, the Producer/Director has contributed on & off 17 years of her life to this labor of love. She uncovers the wisdom these two men have as they continue to guide us on the next revolution – a right to access our own consciousnesses and our own death.
“Dying to Know” started on a whim in 1995 while dining with good friends, discussing the news of the day: “Timothy Leary announced he was dying.” My dinner companions were all baby boomers in their mid 40s, I just 30.
I’d seen Leary in the 80s on his college lecture circuit (in his cyber-tech manifestation) promoting LSD, Leary Software Design. I was not all that impressed at the time as I experienced Leary, the showman, not the man. I also remembered my brother who I adored getting in trouble for driving 2 hours to the City one school night in 1978 to see a guy named Timothy Leary. I would later realize why he took that risk. In college like many others, I had read “Be Here Now”, the so-called hippy bible written by Ram Dass formerly known as Richard Alpert, a Harvard Psychologist.
When I was 17 that same brother who had gone off to see Leary died accidentally at the tender age of 20. That loss became a major turning stone in my life and vision.
Back at our 1995 dinner my soon to be husband announced, “We should get Ram Dass to come down from San Francisco for a final good bye with Tim.” He would make the call to Ram Dass and I would direct. Within 48 hours I had prepped the questions so that Ram Dass could facilitate a lively dialog between the two men. I wanted the environment to be as open as possible; the “set & setting” had to support their decades-long relationship for an honest, lively final discussion & perhaps, final good-bye. This meant the crew and equipment once set up had to disappear. I realized this was risky given I was dealing with two known anarchists. Where would it lead? The cameras rolled and as Tim said at the end, “Thanks for bringing us together so we could make love in public.” A cosmic buddy film – a love story was underway. I was then fortunate to get a last solo interview with Tim shortly before he died. I managed another solo interview with Ram Dass in the very narrow window right after Tim died and before Ram Dass’s stroke in Feb 1997.
I loved the project but my own life became overwhelmed with the death of my father, the launching of an environmental technology business with my husband and 8 years heading up environmental management for the state of New Mexico. In that regard, I’ve now worked 25 years on some of our most intractable environmental problems from nuclear weapons and mass extinction to passing the most comprehensive climate change regulations in the country only to see them overturned. Why do we sit by paralyzed with all the information at our fingertips, yet are unable to act? Perhaps it has something to do with our blind spot, our cultural resistance to that looming mystery in the human landscape – our own mortality?
I touched in with Ram Dass over the years interviewing him, getting to know him, while trying to figure out how I was going to finish this film. I was becoming more keenly aware I had historical, rare footage and it would haunt me until I completed it. The more time went on the more I realized the story was mine to tell and was ever more relevant to my own life and, so it seemed, to the American psyche. Like many in my generation I had inherited caricatures of these two men. I needed to reconcile that media abstract with the man I met on his deathbed. In Leary the man I found an intelligent, searching, vulnerable, honest, complex human being. He was a natural risk taker breaking conventional boundaries for what he believed could bring about a higher level of consciousness. He was naïve and paid dearly. Over the years Ram Dass’s body become ravaged by his stroke, pain his constant companion yet he seems to live in a state of unconditional love and continues to be a guiding light to many people. How is this possible?
The film reaches deep with 80 years of footage asking age old questions. As we experience the arcs of their lives and relationship we see the complexity, intelligence & humanity beyond the caricatures. This part of history I believed was worth a deeper look while the taboos they continue to break down are more relavant to contemporay life than ever. I’ve tried to neither glorify nor demonize these men but see the remarkable human stories composed from their lives.
Robert Redford agreed to view the film in December 2012 then reached out immediately to let me know he “loved it”. I spontaneously asked him to narrate which he said he would be honored. His generosity has extended far beyond the narration to his truly masterful guidance in the editing room. I will be forever grateful to him.
I’ve seen this film touch people of all ages from those that have no idea who these men are to those that knew them well to those that don’t care about them. For me this filmmaking journey has led me further down the path to “think for myself” with “unconditional love” and my hope is that it can do that for you.