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Exclusive: How This Robert Redford-Narrated Doc Went From Self-Distribution to Finding a Home

"Dying to Know" has blazed an improbable trail from self-distribution to landing a theatrical distribution deal.

"Dying to Know"

Timothy Leary in “Dying to Know”


Most movies produced independently hit theaters after they find a distributor, unless they’re self-released. But “Dying to Know,” a documentary narrated by Robert Redford,” is going to have it both ways. Abramorama has acquired the U.S. theatrical rights to the film after its initial grassroots screenings.

The doc focuses on former Harvard psychology professors Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary. A historical biopic that director-producer Gay Dillingham first began working on in 1995, the film chronicles the lives of the longtime friends and icons of the U.S. counterculture movement, both of whom were dismissed from Harvard in 1963 for researching and experimenting with psychedelic drugs including LSD.

After being fired, Alpert traveled to India to become a renowned spiritual teacher, changing his name to Ram Dass and writing the hugely popular book “Be Here Now” about spirituality, yoga and meditation. Leary became an LSD advocate who was famously called “the most dangerous man in America” by President Richard Nixon and served four years in prison for marijuana possession in the 1970s. He once stated that he learned more about about psychology and the human brain in four hours after eating psilocybin mushrooms than he did in 15 years of working as a psychologist.

In 1995, Leary announced he had terminal cancer and invited Dass to his home in Los Angeles for a final reunion. Dillingham filmed the meeting, which served as the original inspiration for the documentary. During a separate interview with Dillingham, Leary said his experiments with psychedelics allowed him to live “one of the most interesting lives of anyone in the twentieth century.” He died in 1996 after more than three decades of advocating for the use of psychedelics under supervised settings.

Described by Dillingham as an “inspiring movie about death,” “Dying to Know” is as much about the deep relationship between two cultural luminaries as it is about the U.S. government’s overblown war on drugs, a topic Dillingham said is still very much a part of the current zeitgeist. “I made this film to have deeper conversations about tricky, taboo issues like death and drugs,” she said. “I feel like the theater can be a modern campfire.”

Ram Dass and Timothy Leary

Ram Dass and Timothy Leary

CNS Communications

The movie has blazed its own improbable trail from self-distribution to landing a theatrical deal with an established distributor. During the past 18 months, Dillingham and her co-producer Michael Donnelly have self-distributed the doc in more than a dozen U.S. cities, from San Francisco to Woodstock, New York, with many sold-out showings. Gillingham said the film has generated more than $150,000 in ticket sales, adding that she and her team have been able to keep a “good chunk” of that figure.

“Gay wanted to be directly involved with releasing it, and she and her team have done a terrific job going market by market, providing a transcendent experience,” Abramorama president Richard Abramowitz told IndieWire in an email. “I saw ‘Dying to Know’ at the Illuminate Film Festival in 2015 and immediately recognized how powerfully it resonated with audiences.”

Though you won’t find any previous credits on Dillingham’s IMDb page, “Dying to Know” is not her first project. Prior to producing a number of TV programs for holistic health guru Dr. Andrew Weil in the 1990s, she directed a 60-minute documentary called “The WIPP Trail,” about the world’s only underground nuclear waste repository. Also narrated by Redford, the doc aired on PBS. Dillingham also directed a children’s educational program on sexual abuse called “My Body Belongs to Me” that won the American Film Festival award for Guidance and Values Education.

The filmmaker has spent the bulk of her career as an environmental entrepreneur, having co-founded two environmental technology companies and worked for eight years on New Mexico’s Environmental Improvement Board under former Governor Bill Richardson.

When “Dying to Know” opens on August 12 at New York’s Landmark Sunshine Cinema, it will have been more than two years since its festival premiere at the 2014 Maui Film Festival. “We’re kind of taking our time,” Dillingham said. “The good news is, I don’t think this film really has an expiration date.”

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