If you are going to break the law, you’ll need a little help from your friends.
In the early 1960’s, a group of family, friends and surfers out of sleepy, coastal Orange County, California formed a church centered around psychedelics. The group was known as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, and their mission was to change the world.
Featuring interviews with founding members, including heads of the group Michael Randall and Carol Griggs who have never shared their story before, the film offers a rare insider look into the provocative group, following them through their radicalization from idealist students to outlaws.
Using photos and super 8 recreations, Orange Sunshine whisks viewers away on a drug smuggling tale like no other.
Angered by America’s war in Vietnam and determined to bring about positive social change, former members share their personal experiences of “turning on.” But in just a few short years, as demand grew, they would move very quickly from experimenting, to manufacturing LSD, trafficking, sale and distribution.
Part cat-and-mouse, part exploration of the groundwork that would eventually become The War on Drugs, the film speaks to former members, defense attorney Michael Kennedy, and key law enforcement pursuing the Brotherhood, as their operations grow to include other illicit drugs and they travel through Europe, Afghanistan and South America, growing up, falling in love, and constantly evading capture. We are taken through first-hand accounts of LSD advocate Timothy Leary’s infamous prison break, and the Federal takedown of the group as they risk their family, lives and freedom, in the name of enlightenment.
Together we look back with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, once the largest distributors of Hash and Psychedelics in the world, at this heady, tumultuous period in America’s history - what they gained, the price they paid, and what that means for the America of today.
"It is most certainly too early to name any single film as one of the best of the year, but Orange Sunshine certainly makes a strong case. It is not only a great documentary but a beautiful piece of storytelling."
"Kirkley packages this saga as a sort of sunny retro thriller, maintaining a brisk pace and lively aesthetic surface...that’s well turned in all tech and design departments."
"It’s where docs seem to be going but (Orange Sunshine) turned it up to 11."
"This purposeful, astounding, well edited and conceived film functions of many levels. It is an adventure story, a story of alternative lifestyles and anti-heroes, a story of friendships that never die and above all a love story and an honest desire for people to achieve an inner tranquility, light and wholeness. The film is a must see for its humanity, its hope and for the idealist in you. Treat yourself."
"Ultimately, Kirkley's near-decade worth of hardscrabble work on the project paid off in spades: Orange Sunshine reveals the heretofore underexplored role of smart, young people fighting a noble – albeit mind-altering – cause against an increasingly polarized and conservative national mindset."
For those that don’t know, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love was a small group of surfers and hippies from Southern California who formed their own church, and became the largest distributors of LSD and Hash in the world in the 60’s and 70’s. They made over 150 million doses of acid and were most well known for their own brand of LSD, “Orange Sunshine.”
I first heard about the Brotherhood of Eternal Love as a teenager growing up in Orange County. I was a freshman in high school and my friends and I would go up into tree houses in Laguna Canyon where the Brotherhood once resided. People would tell fantastic stories of a “hippie drug cult,” hidden psychedelics labs, and federal agents swarming the canyons of beach communities where people now brought their kids for vacations. As an adult I would have written off those stories as the conspiracy theories of stoned kids, were it not for a chance conversation with my father-in-law, Don Hoxter, where he mentioned that there were still people who called themselves “brotherhood” and that they had stories to tell. Many years into the film I would discover that mine and my family’s path had crossed with the Brotherhood’s for multiple generations.
So, fresh off post-production on my first film, Excavating Taylor Mead, I began research on the film in 2005. I had always been drawn to the history of Orange County where I was from, and especially Laguna Beach which had a kind of magical energy about it. Laguna Beach was an artist colony that attracted a counter culture, fringe element that was different than anything else in Southern California. Did the Brotherhood of Eternal Love have anything to do with this? The thing about urban legends is they almost always spring from something intriguing. At the time, Orange County had gone (very quickly) from a relatively undeveloped group of beach communities to a conservative stronghold and vacation oasis. People were calling it the OC on television and it was populated by an endless array of cotillion attending young rich. If my hometown had undergone such a transformation in only a decade, was it really so outlandish to imagine that it had once been a home to outlaws?
It was rough going at first. There wasn’t much information out there, and I had only a few introductions to persons peripherally involved with the group. When word got around that I was working on a documentary on the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, I began receiving threatening calls, telling me to leave it alone, which was both scary and invigorating. Around this time I met journalist and author, Nick Schou, who was writing pieces about the Brotherhood of Eternal Love for OC Weekly. We began a friendship and years of exchanging research and information. It felt exciting that someone else was trying to crack the code and shed some light on the subject as well.
Throughout this uncovering process, I discovered little interesting parallel moments where my life had intersected the Brotherhoods. In high school, I dated a girl for a year whose parents had been involved with the Brotherhood and lived in the house next door to their “church” in Mojeska Canyon where I frequented. They would tell me stories all the time - but I didn’t put it together until years later. When I was a toddler I was at the Brotherhood’s attorney’s son’s wedding where the Brotherhood was in attendance. My aunt was a criminal defense attorney at the time in Laguna Beach and was good friends with their attorney. My mom had hung out with Brotherhood members in high school. And my grandparents were artists and had a booth at the Sawdust Festival in Laguna in the early Seventies, a festival heavily connected to the Brotherhood. These are all small things but adding them up it feels like the Brotherhood story has been there waiting for me to pick up on it.
Over the course of nearly 5 years, my DP, the talented and tireless Rudiger Barth, and I conducted over 20 interviews with members of the Brotherhood and the key law enforcement figures who pursued them. But throughout all of this, I wasn’t able to get to the inner circle and head of the group, Mike Randall and Carol Griggs Randall. Now in their early 70’s, these two had never shared their story, and were fiercely protective of it.
At this point, I had a rough cut, and as a film it felt like a great drug smuggling tale, but I knew that it could be so much more with Mike and Carol. I had mutual friends and other Brotherhood members speaking to them on my behalf. I kept pleading my case. We met a number of times, spoke off the record; I had met their family and they, mine. But they were still unwilling to go on camera. With the Brotherhood, Mike and Carol had been part of something that had very much gotten out of their control, in what it was and how it was presented. The few times the Brotherhood story was written about in the media, they felt there had been a great deal of misinformation, usually culled from court documents and peripheral members. Almost all the key members had suffered loss of some sort while involved with the group: death of loved ones, prison and they didn't want to lose agency over their own history. I think a huge part of their agreeing to be in the film was just listening and helping them to feel heard.
As any documentary filmmaker will tell you, a huge part of the process of making a documentary is letting the story unfold and coalesce as you work. In 2013, after years of pleading and reassurance, Mike and Carol finally told their story. With them came other founding members of the Brotherhood: Rick and Ron Bevan, Travis Ashbrook, Wendy Bevan, attorney Michael Kennedy, and on the other side of the law, Neil Purcell. What surprised me most with hearing from the founding members of the group was how little they considered it just a tale of drug smuggling, which was my previous impression of the story. For them, this was a story about revolutionaries, self-discovery, and social change. With this small group, I watched as the film metamorphosized into something intimate and new.
What I had discovered in talking with the Brotherhood members was that this was more than a drug smuggling tale, it was just as much a story about friendship and love. These were families that were traveling to Afghanistan and smuggling hash at a time when most people in the US hadn’t even heard of Afghanistan. They were setting up labs and manufacturing millions of doses of LSD while living under alias’ and forging school documents so their kids could attend elementary school. These people went to great lengths to do what they did because they truly believed in the cause of turning on the world. They ended up making over 100 million doses of LSD which is the most anyone has ever made before…Or since.
The most challenging part of making this film aside from getting Mike and Carol on board was the lack of archival material. Naturally, drug smugglers shy away from having their picture taken. So we had all of these incredibly adventurous stories like smuggling drugs in surfboards and film canisters, but we had a lack of supporting archival materials. I decided pretty early on I wanted to shoot on Super 8 film and recreate the look of old home movies. I love the colors and texture and grain - it’s an aesthetic that can’t be replicated digitally. In addition, there are a few moments that didn’t fit into the realm of home movies in the film that I wanted to share with the audience. For these we shot with the Alexa mini. With some of these moments I loved the idea of adding a touch of magical realism to the story. Of showing externally what some of these characters were feeling internally. There’s one moment in particular when John Griggs has just held up a movie producer at gunpoint. He’s taken a strong dose of acid and he’s running home and he’s having this very Maslow peak experience. I loved the idea of sharing that visually with the audience by having Johnny running down the middle of the street at night and slowly his feet start to lift up off the ground.
Every member of the group who we interviewed reported having some type of oceanic incident with drugs that changed the course of his or her life. So there was definitely a desire there to give visual weight to that, and the VR component really grew organically from there. I wanted to give the audience something that spoke to the groups origins; something really immersive and playful without being “trippy” in an overly stylized or caricatured way. VR as a medium and our team at Master of Shapes really couldn't have been more perfect. We shot the experience in live action stereo 3D and then built everything in a game engine so that we could incorporate spatial sound and reactive imagery. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen in VR and we can’t wait to share it.
Paring the film down in scope to the key founding members of the group really speaks to the power of personal narrative. Documentary film is just beginning to scratch the surface of various 60’s movements’ historical impact on American culture. Hippies in general, and The Brotherhood specifically has had very little of its story told from within. In the film there is this point of no return where the group decides they are in the illegal drug trade and not going back, and I think the audience can see that it is very much a rebellion and an act of self-definition. As a storyteller it felt very important to allow these characters the space to define their group. Regardless of how you feel about drug use, I think the characters radiate optimism and faith in society’s ability to grow. And I think the audience really feels how necessary that optimism is, when looking back on a life lived.
ORANGE SUNSHINE ultimately tells a story of how we discover and define what is important; of social change in its infancy; of the choices people make, losses suffered and love forged. I hope the film conveys that American history is vibrant, varied and not always that long ago.
All films take a village to make, and this one is no exception. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have so many talented people work on this film and take this journey with me. It could not have been made without our amazing producers, cast, crew and the open storytellers who make the film what it is.
- William Kirkley
Best friend and right hand man to Brotherhood founder John Griggs and the head of the Orange Sunshine operation. Nearly every hit of their trademark LSD passed through Michael's hands.
Wife of the group’s founder, John Griggs. She had intimate knowledge about the formation of both their group and church. “The women did their share. Women made everything legitimate. You wanted a woman in the car with you, not a couple of shady looking guys.”
Brothers who smuggled more Afghani hash than probably anyone else at the time, while in their teens and early 20’s
Owned a surf shop in Laguna, and was smuggling marijuana from Mexico while in high school. “If you knew us we were holy men, spiritual warriors. If you didn’t know us we were a bunch of drug dealers. We were both."
Travelled from a commune in Michigan to get Brotherhood hash and developed a life-long friendship with Carol. Later Wendy and Ron married.
The attorney whose client list reads like a who’s who of the 60’s political movement: Tim Leary, the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, the Chicago 7, and the Brotherhood.
Former Laguna Beach Chief of Police, who made it his mission to put the Brotherhood behind bars.