“Dying to Know: Ram Dass & Timothy Leary,” a film by Gay Dillingham and narrated by Robert Redford, celebrates the lifelong friendship and spiritual connection between these two diverse men. The film looks at eighty years of shared history, personal photographs, films, and previously unseen interviews between Ram Dass and Leary. The project began in Leary’s Los Angeles home in 1995 at the time he learned he was dying of cancer. The two friends met to talk of the process of moving on. Dillingham captures their history, struggles, successes, and failures as she develops the conversation around their contributions to the science of the mind and the heart.
HOW IT BEGAN
In 1995, on the day Leary publicly announced that he was dying, I wondered, “What can we do?” My husband-to-be, Andrew, came up with the idea of bringing Ram Dass and Leary together in conversation, which we would film. I had read Ram Dass’s “Be Here Now” and seen Leary on his college lecture tour in the eighties. I was not that impressed with Leary at that time as I saw him as more the showman than the man. Leary was a rebel, a visionary, and a trickster who paid the price for his convictions, spending almost four years in prison. Making this film was about trying to reconcile the complex and charismatic man I met on his deathbed with the caricature portrayed through the media.
BACKGROUND IN FILM
The first documentary I produced and directed was with Penelope Place in 1989 called The WIPP Trail, about our nations first and only underground nuclear repository for military waste. Robert Redford was generous enough to narrate the film, which aired on PBS. In the early nineties, I made an educational program for children called “My Body Belongs to Me” that helped protect them from sexual abuse. As well, my husband and I produced the first two PBS shows for Dr. Andrew Weil, which helped launch his career.
The greatest difficulty was finding the time and maintaining the necessary focus to finish the film. Another was that the film spans eighty years. It begins in 1931 with 16mm film footage and concludes with high-definition digital video. The post-production supervisor did a yeoman’s job in making this huge jigsaw puzzle measure up to the highest technical standards. The real task was talking about a subject most people would rather not discuss—death, with drugs being a close second.
ROBERT REDFORD AS NARRATOR
I went to Bylle Redford’s art opening of her unique multimedia work. At the opening, I had a brief discussion with Robert Redford—who knew Ram Dass and Leary—and asked him if he would be willing to take a look at the rough cut of the film. He watched the rough cut and called the next day telling me that he loved it. I spontaneously asked if he would narrate and he said he would be honored. He talked about the story and its structure, giving me refined feedback that took some digesting on my part. I am eternally grateful to this master storyteller for helping me make a better film.
DYING TO KNOW
I came across the phrase “dying to know” in my handwritten notes, and realized that would be the title of the film. Some are put off by the word “dying,” but I liked the multiple layers of meaning in the phrase. As far as I can tell, we all have to “die to know.”
WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT MYSELF
How Ram Dass and Leary lived their lives influenced me as an inspiration and as a cautionary tale. Leary was a thinker and scientist who, no matter how many psychedelic trips he took, thought that when you’re dead, you’re dead. This led him to consider cryonics—freezing the brain. However, he gave up the cryonics weeks before he died. This film is an archetypal conversation between the heart (Ram Dass) and the mind (Leary), which is often the conversation going on inside me, and I imagine, others.
THE MOMENT OF PASSING
Being a missionary to the end, Leary was championing a cause to change our cultural attitude toward dying—to think and act for one’s self. Don’t hand it over to the doctors and priests; take charge of it yourself, and make the process of dying a celebration of a life lived. I believe Leary took Marshall McLuhan’s advice to his grave, keeping his fears about death pretty private. But I sensed it was all there for him—fear and acceptance. Ram Dass contributes a unique lens to see Leary and reveal himself. The film is about today and looking over the next horizon as much as it is about the past, but come see for yourself.
At 7 pm on Thursday, November 20, The Upaya Zen Center presents “Dying to Know” at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 West San Fransisco Street. Tickets: 988-1234.This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead