Drugs have yet to save the world, but that didn’t stop Nick Sand and Tim Scully from once believing they might. The former a New York-bred prophet of psychedelics who preached their ability to radically improve humanity, and the latter a Bay Area chemist driven to create global “oneness” through mind-altering substances, they were an odd-couple pair who, in the late ’60s, became notorious for manufacturing and distributing enormous amounts of LSD—including “Orange Sunshine,” the hard-hitting tabs that became so synonymous with the counterculture they were even spoofed on Saturday Night Live. Theirs is a story about the marriage of idealism and criminality, and it’s recounted in amusing and thrilling detail by The Sunshine Makers, Cosmo Feilding-Mellen’s astute documentary (which premiered as part of this year’s DOC NYC festival) about the drugged-out duo.
On the surface, Mellon’s film resembles other drug-running docs about the period (like Billy Corben’s 2006 Cocaine Cowboys) in that it takes considerable pleasure chronicling the police-evading tactics of its criminals, all while aesthetically reflecting the spirit of the era. The Sunshine Makers is awash in split-screens, transitional wipes, CG effects (for its hallucinatory sequences), and a mixture of ’60s and ’70s movie and TV clips—as well as archival film footage and photos—to evoke a heady time of momentous societal transformation. Mellon’s many directorial flourishes convey a compelling sense of time and place, as well as the larger boundary-pushing, anti-status-quo spirit that, in the mid-’60s, was just beginning to truly flourish. It was in that environment that Sand and Scully emerged, the two drawn together by initial LSD trips that—though occurring on opposite coasts—inspired in them a kindred belief in the drug’s ability to effect paradigm-shifting cultural change.
Introduced, in new material, doing yoga in the nude, Sands pronounces himself a “madman psychedelic commando,” and his life story ably backs up such an outlandish description. At one time a resident of Timothy Leary’s Millbrook, New York, estate, where he bedded numerous women (including longtime girlfriend Jill Henry) while looking to distribute as much acid as possible to the population, Sands presents himself as an iconoclastic rebel driven not by profit but by a righteous desire to enhance civilization’s consciousness. That’s a characterization disputed by at least one federal agent interviewed during The Sunshine Makers, though no matter his own materialistic gains, Sands comes across as a true believer regarding LSD’s therapeutic benefits, and by 1968, he’d found in Scully a partner who might help him achieve his ends.
A scrawny nerd who claims to have eaten plain white pasta with butter and cheese for dinner every night for 30 years (until that diet spawned predictable medical problems), and whose neat-freakishness suggests to his longtime girlfriend that he has Asperger’s-like symptoms, Scully was the scientific guru behind LSD’s entrée into the mainstream.
Schooled on how to make the drug by Owsley Stanley—who’d later become famous for helping the Grateful Dead pioneer their “Wall of Sound”—Scully was a crazed visionary who wanted to dose the world, and thus set about trying to create the 750 million tabs necessary for such a venture. When acid became illegal in California, he shifted his operation to Denver, Colorado, and set up a new lab with Sands and their mutual benefactor, the less-than-wholly-trustworthy Billy Hitchcock. For distribution, they turned to the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, aka the “hippie mafia,” a collection of former stickup men led by Mike Randall who had turned over a new leaf courtesy of LSD.
By that time, the feds were on to Sands and Scully, and interviews with two of the agents hot on the duo’s trail provide a well-rounded perspective on this crusade—one in which the criminals were legitimately driven by faith in their own supposedly noble cause, and the cops were compelled to shut them down before they could wreak too much nationwide damage.
At the center of the film is the contentious dynamic between Sands’s conviction that the powers-that-be wanted to stifle LSD in order to amass money and power, and his law-enforcement pursuers’ legitimate fear that the drug’s negative influence was spreading—a fact reinforced to Scully himself when he witnessed, by the late ’60s, how San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district had morphed from being a happy-go-lucky hotbed of counterculture energy to a slum populated by “lost soul” junkies.
Mellen’s depiction of erudite chemists making huge batches of drugs, as well as smuggling supplies across state and international borders, naturally invites comparisons to Breaking Bad. Yet what sets The Sunshine Makers apart from its fiction and non-fiction peers is its snapshot of clashing cultural notions of right and wrong. For Sands and Scully—two men who, after jail time, traveled down divergent paths—drugs served as a means to a transcendent end, and their bedrock certainty about their mission’s virtuousness makes them a unique type of idealistic criminal.
Especially in later passages, there’s a sense that the director is too close to—and enamored with—Sands to truly investigate whether he made LSD just for humanity’s good or, also, to line his pockets. However, his film accurately captures the idea that both of these acid heads were sincerely interested in upending long-held social and political structures in order to foster a more harmonious future, however foolish their tactics turned out to be.
Far from judgmental, The Sunshine Makers paints a nuanced portrait of behavior at once principled, naïve, and dangerous, culminating with a successful flight from justice that’s almost staggering in its length. An ode to the counterculture’s well-intentioned ethos and the dubious conduct it spawned, Mellen’s film is the rare documentary to function as time capsule, philosophical inquiry, and rollicking thriller all at once—as well as a cautionary tale about the crazy lengths people will go to experience a heavenly high.