In 1990, Dr. Rick Strassman administered 400 doses of the highly psychedelic compound Dimethyltryptamin (DMT) to 60 volunteers at the University of New Mexico's School of Medicine in Albuqerque. During their brief 10-to-30-minute journeys, participants reported fantastical tales of having their consciousness rocketed out of their bodies across the universe, experiencing near-death encounters, contacting otherworldly beings, and accessing mystical dimensions that were both enlightening and heavenly, as well as hellish and haunting. Almost too much for a straight-laced scientist to handle, Strassman eventually published his work in the bestselling book, "DMT: The Spirit Molecule."
Two decades after the first DMTS trials, trans-media producer Mitch Schultz created a documentary film based on this unusual material (using the same name as the book), creating a counterculture sensation that is now available on Netflix, iTunes and Hulu. In celebration of the film's recent international release, I Skyped with Schultz at his home in Austin, Texas to discuss the "more real than real" spiritual experiences of DMT, the prevalence of this molecule in life across the planet, comedian Joe Rogan's starring role in the film, and why more than 180,000 Facebook fans are so fascinated by this Schedule 1 illegal substance.
What was it that made you want to create the documentary film, 'DMT: The Spirit Molecule"?
I had never heard of dimethyltryptamine prior to encountering it. This was a little over a decade ago, and a friend of mine was moving back to Brazil and we all got together and somebody brought it. Within that 10-minute experience my life changed, and coming back from that experience it was almost immediate that I knew that I was going to make a film about it. I didn't know it was going to be "DMT: The Spirit Molecule," but I knew I was going to make a film, and that nobody was talking about DMT. It is a little risky, it's something that is very unusual and it's probably one of the bigger reasons that people don't want to touch it. But I knew that this information had to get out, and not necessarily just for the psychedelic aspect, but just to start thinking of consciousness in a different way. Let's get out of this three-dimensional reality and start to consider other possibilities, other energies and even other worlds.
How was engaging with Dr. Rick Strassman on the project?
It was absolutely amazing. When I first contacted him, he said, "Oh yeah, I've had people contact me about doing a movie before." So he was a little hesitant. but we ended up talking about it for about a year on the phone and via e-mail and just try to hammer things out to figure out what it would be, what the scope was, and we had a great time. I finally met him in the beginning of January 2007, and we started shooting two weeks later. So it was a great process and Rick brought in a lot of the people that we interviewed and he was very instrumental in that. He was also a producer, which I thought would help tremendously as well. It didn't just bring the credibility of the man who did the work, but also his connections in the entire psychedelic and consciousness scene that really helped give the film that extra push. I really loved working with Rick and I hope to continue to do so.
I'm wondering if you could describe for the uninitiated what a classic DMT experience might be like. I remember in Strassman's book participants used to claim their wildly trippy journeys were "more real than real."
First off, I think you have to find what your interpretation of real is because I think there are a lot of different aspects of what is real. DMT can give you something inside you that can really open up the layers of your ego. And pulling back those layers of the ego, you start to get a sense of that perfect awareness of your being, and to me that is more real than real if you will. More real than this hallucination that we're living in on a daily basis.
Now the actual experiences, they can vary quite a bit, but there are a lot of commonalities amongst them. People have a sense of motion a lot of times, moving through a portal, having information coming by or through them very quickly. A lot of fractals and geometric patterns, entities that can be described from aliens to angels, and also just huge cathartic releases of emotions and things that have been buried for years. And for me, and my first experience -- I had grown up in a religious Christian family, and got away from that because it didn't make any sense to me, and I kind of lost my spiritual path -- and this put me right back on it, or at least caused me to start looking into other forms of spirituality to find an outlet for that. So a lot can happen in those experiences and it's as Terrence McKenna says, there's really no language to wrap around that. To me it's really about what you're pulling out of that experience and what you're putting back into place here in this world.
In your film, you talk quite a bit about how DMT is found across the planet in plants and in animals. Dr. Rick Strassman also hypothesizes that it may be found in the pineal gland. I'm curious about your thoughts on that.
I always like to mention this for Dr. Strassman, but it is just a hypothesis at this point -- we don't know that DMT is made in the pineal gland, however the precursors are there. And even if it isn't made in the pineal, I don't think it takes away anything because it is in our body, we know it's in our body and it's doing something in our body. It's not just some extraneous molecule floating around in there because it passes the blood brain barrier, so whether or not it's made right there in the brain or actually transferred into the brain, it still feels like it has some sort of a reality lever. If it's adjusted up, you see a very super psychedelic world, if it's drawn back you're in a more black and white world, if you will. But having it all over nature really was the key and the driving force for me when I was making the film. Potentially every living organism in the world has DMT in it. Potentially. Every organism has tryptophan, which is where it comes from. And if that's the case, this New Age idea of being fully connected holds true, that we really are connected by this one simple molecule. And it could be this common molecular language that we really could communicate or create with.
Going back to the black and white world you described, it reminded me of those Joe Rogan scenes in your movie, because they are all shot in black and white in a very stylish and interesting 1950s look. How did Rogan end up as narrator for the film?
When I first contacted Dr. Strassman, we spoke about several people who had contacted him because of the book and Joe Rogan was one of those people. As soon as Rick said that to me, it just hit: I wanted a celebrity to ground this material or somebody out there who could really help push it. Joe was an outspoken person about his experiences in psychedelics and so he fit the call perfectly. When I contacted him the first time, he was absolutely thrilled and said, "I'll do whatever it takes." He gave us his time because he believed in the project. He's a wonderful guy and hilarious and we had a great time shooting it.
"DMT: The Spirit Molecule" now has more than 180,000 Facebook likes. Do you think these are people just seeing the film or are they experimenting with this Schedule 1 DEA controlled substance?
I think it's a little bit of both. I think it was initially just the people who were out experimenting and the psychonauts that found out about us. Once it started to build and the film finally was released, I think there was a new bubble of people that would not have been introduced to this information if it wasn't for a documentary like this. And so now, more and more people who have not tried DMT, are looking at the film and being open to the ideas. Now, whether or not they're all taking it is probably a different story; however, I do feel that the use and the exploration is picking up. And I'm seeing a lot more of that with ayahuasca -- and it's happening around the world.
In the movie you included a lot of the beautiful states of consciousness that people find on DMT, but do you discuss warnings of the darker things people may encounter?
We touch on it a couple times but didn't spend much time on it. A lot of the things that I kept hearing over and over again from the volunteers were just how beautiful the experiences were. Even the frightening experiences for them were in some way beautiful and even more so after they returned and were able to take some sort of lesson from that. It is something to talk about and have people be aware of. For one, I don't suggest that anyone go out and do psychedelics or drugs but it is happening and it's something that people should be paying attention to. These are not substances that should be taken lightly or without respect and also it's important to have the right setting and have people with you if you do chose to explore.
You mentioned ayahuasca. I go on tour a lot for my book and one of the most common questions I get, and I bet you get this too, is: "Ayahuasca or DMT?" Which do you prefer?
I've got great relationships with all of my medicines. I would say personally though, the greater benefits come out of ayahuasca. I think a lot of that is because of the long standing tradition that's there, and the practice around it. Having that setting, having that intention, it's not easy work. It's not like you're going to take a couple puffs off a pipe. You're planning it weeks, potentially months, out before you go sit, and there's an integration process afterward. It's not just the experience. So for me personally, I feel like I get a lot more out of the ayahuasca experience because it's a little more navigable, plus having all these other elements built in to where you have to pay attention and really ask yourself some difficult questions. Ayahuasca is a natural medicine and having that natural element to it draws a lot of people in, especially as we're going through this ecological mess that we seem to find ourselves in. People want to reconnect their spirit with nature, and I think that has something to do with it as well.
Do you feel like creating a movie about DMT puts you on the radar for being watched by government officials?
You know what? I don't. I feel like there's some little agency in the back of our twisted government that has there eyes on something, especially when they start to see a rise in psychedelic use and yes, my name is out there associated with this. But I'm not doing anything illegal. That's first and foremost. I go out and talk about these things but that's the extent of it. I do try to live my life openly, and I don't think that hiding this stuff anymore will do us any good. Seeing it now being used for spiritual practices, which our government has allowed in certain cases with the research that has gone on. I think if anything, this can only be a good thing as we proceed on a respectful course. The main thing for me is that I try to live the right way and treat people as I'd like to be treated and I'm not involved in any illegal activities so I don't think I have anything to worry about. As far as I know, we still live in a free country and have freedom of speech so I will continue to go out there and talk about these things and my experiences and what it's doing to the world out there.
So what's next?
The production company [Spectral Alchemy] has been working on one project called "Ground of Being." It's about sustainability and a particular sustainable park and non-profit over in Melbourne, Australia. I'm also working on editing Charles Shaw's film "Exile Nation" about Mexican American immigrants that are being dropped off in Tijuana with no resources, as well as "The Oral History of Tibet." I could go on. How much time do you have? We do have a lot happening, and I'm really excited personally and artistically. DMT is going to be a part of my life and will inform all of my projects but I'm ready to start telling some new stories now. I feel like I've been building for that for a while and my head-space has been very much in the psychedelic world for that last decade, but I have some new things that I'm really excited to get out there into the world and hopefully pick up where DMT left off.