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March 5, 2010 8:05 AM
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SXSW '10 | Director Etienne Sauret Uncovers the Godfather of Psychedelics in "Dirty Pictures"

A scene from Etienne Sauret's "Dirty Pictures." Photo courtesy of SXSW.

Festival darling and documentary filmmaker Etienne Sauret came to discover the subject of his latest documentary through complete happenstance. While filming one of the rogue chemists who discovered the effects of ecstasy, Dr. Alexander 'Sasha' Shulgin, at a press conference, Sauret became fascinated with Shulgin, the man.

"Dirty Pictures" is a documentary about Dr. Alexander 'Sasha' Shulgin. Shulgin's alchemy has earned him the title 'The Godfather of Psychedelics,' and a reputation as one of the great chemists of the 20th century. Working from a lab in his home, and using himself and his wife Ann as test subjects, Shulgin's discoveries have brought him into conflict with the law but made him a worldwide underground hero. The two books Sasha and Ann co-authored, 'Pihkal' and 'Tihkal', have built a foundation for cutting-edge neuroscience and medical research. "Dirty Pictures" examines the impact of Dr. Shulgin's lifelong quest to unlock the complexities of the human mind. [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]

Editor’s Note: This is one interview in a series profiling directors whose films are screening in the Narrative Competition, Documentary Competition and Emerging Visions sections at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival.

"Dirty Pictures"
Documentary Competition
Director: Etienne Sauret
Producer: Sebastian Saville, Etienne Sauret
Editor: Rachel Warden
Cinematography: Etienne Sauret
88 minutes

Director Etienne Sauret on what inspired him to become a documentary filmmaker...

When I was a kid I saw a film about Atlantis, and at the end, Atlantis disappears into the Atlantic. It blew my mind that the filmmakers had time-traveled to film Atlantis being destroyed. I am not sure who blew the cover on the deception but once I understood, I was hooked. I was always very intrigued by how things work. While I began working in film focused on fiction, I eventually realized that I was far more interested in people and real life events. I can enjoy really good fiction film, but the experience is never as profound as watching a great documentary.

Sauret on what he directed prior to "Dirty Pictures"...

My first documentary was "The Lazy Man's Zen," about bikers, and then I directed the feature “Too Pure,” (1995) which debuted at Cannes and was an Official Selection at the Hamptons Festival. I was there to film the events at Ground Zero on September 11th and 12th, which became my documentary "WTC: The First 24 Hours" (2002). It was an Official Selection at the Sundance film Festival, and was broadcast around the world. I then spent two years making a feature documentary following firefighters affected by the attacks entitled “Collateral Damages” (2003), which won the Special Jury Award at AFI/SilverDocs. Recently, I was Director of Photography for Eugene Jarecki's “Why We Fight,” winner of the 2005 Sundance Grand Jury Prize, I also DP'd HBO's David Holbrooke's 2007 documentary “Hard as Nails” and numerous episodes of Sundance's channel "Iconoclasts".

Sauret on what lead him to make "Dirty Pictures"...

In 2005 a friend who runs a drug prevention center in the UK wanted to bring Sasha to London to speak at a conference. When Sasha couldn’t attend, we went to California and made a short film for the conference. While filming, I found Sasha and his wife Ann to be truly unusual and endearing. Later, when I was editing the footage, my office interns kept stopping by and asking “who IS this guy?” I never thought Sasha, a wild man with white hair, big white eyebrows and a child-like smile would be so appealing to people in their 20's, and I thought that if Sasha could stop them in their tracks and hold their attention, making a longer film about both Ann and Sasha was worth pursuing. I soon began to realize that there was a lot more to the story that I initially imagined. Sasha’s been an underground hero for decades, sporadically doing interviews and speaking in engagements, but people generally often saw him as “Doctor X(cstasy)” and asked the same questions, which he often answered the same way. I didn’t know as much about him as some of those interviewer / fans, and this allowed me to ask questions he didn’t expect, and not ask the questions he expected. This brought out something new and fresh, even though he’s been publicly speaking about his work for years. I also deliberately avoided any in-depth research on the drug ecstacy. I was more curious about Ann and Sasha as human beings whose chosen path happened to be Psychedelics. We spent a lot of time together making the film over five years, and became very close. So at some point it was not as much filming him as a subject, as it was being together, engaging one another in conversations, traveling together. As for our rapport, the trust evolved with time, and I think that you should give the courtesy of time to somebody you film, to get acquainted, to earn their trust. You wouldn’t just jump in and start asking questions to a friend, so why would you do that to a film subject? Also, you also have to really care for that person, because if you don’t they will sense it.

Sauret on the difficult task of editing his film...

We decided that we didn’t want any voice over or narration, and that made it very tricky. Rachel my editor, was phenomenal and truly understood the scope of the film. Sasha wasn’t difficult, but making a film that makes sense to people about this larger than life figure who invented ecstasy, and who is a very complex and brilliant man, whom we followed in many places from the desert of Nevada to Egypt and around the U.S., took a lot of work. I can honestly say that I'd be hesitant to do another film about an individual. It is so much more complex than when dealing with a subject matter.

Director Etienne Sauret. Photo courtesy of SXSW.

Why Sauret feels SXSW is the ideal festival to debut his picture...

SXSW prides itself on its “Tomorrow Happens Here” attitude, as does its audience. That’s the perfect place for a film like this to debut, because Dr. Shulgin was very much a frontier person who went out and did the psychedelics research that nobody else was daring to do. He decided to forgo convention, walk away from a lucrative corporate job and go out on his own to fulfill his destiny, and I think that the audience will very much be able to appreciate his Man Against the Machine attitude.

Sauret on films that inspired him...

If you look at recent films, I was blown away by Toback’s "Tyson." I also feel that “Waco: The Rules of Engagement," "Brother's Keeper" and “Terrors Advocate” are some of the best docs ever made. But perhaps, the one that made the most profound impact on me in the last few years is "Lake of Fire," Tony Kaye's documentary. I think it is a masterpiece, absolutely flawless. The perfect documentary. I was in awe. This film definitely impacted me in a profound way and inspired me.

...and on future projects...

We've been in for a couple of years now on a new film tentatively entitled "Behind," a documentary exploring the changing perceptions of female beauty in America. We're also prepping for a new documentary tentatively entitled "Human Beehive."

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