Saturation 70: the Gram Parsons UFO film that never flew

Years before Star Wars, a maverick director led a crew into the desert to film a psychedelic science fiction epic – starring the country singer and the five-year-old son of Rolling Stone Brian Jones. The film was lost and the story went into rock legend, but now unseen photographs will go on show to tell the bizarre story

The last thing you’d think of when you hear the name Gram Parsons — the heartbreakingly sensitive singer-songwriter who died aged 26 in 1973 — is science fiction. But between late 1969 and early 1970, towards the close of his two-album career as leader of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons was making his acting debut in a mind-boggling fantasy project that predated Star Wars by almost a decade.

Called Saturation 70, the film was the brainchild of an American writer-director named Tony Foutz, the son of a Walt Disney company executive and a friend to both Parsons and the Rolling Stones. The film was shot (but never completed) at a 1969 UFO convention at Giant Rock, near Joshua Tree in the Mojave desert, and in Los Angeles. It tapped into the spectrum of esoteric interests and outlandish ideas — aliens, psychedelics, time travel— of the late 60s counterculture. “The whole experience of making the film was like a technological tribal throw-down, with an energy buzz off the Richter scale,” Foutz says now. “It took on a life of its own.”

Long held to be a rumour by Parsons fans, proof of the film’s existence will appear in an exhibition at London’s Horse Hospital in the form of previously unseen production photos, pages from the original script and the first ever public screening of the only existing footage of the film; a five-minute showreel put together for the producers, which takes the form of a nascent music video for the Flying Burrito Brothers version of the Rolling Stones’ song Wild Horses.

Don’t expect to see Parsons in the footage, though. He played one of four alien beings (called the Kosmic Kiddies) who wear decontamination suits and gas masks to protect them from pollution poisoning the earth’s environment.

The true star of the film was five-year-old Julian Jones, the son of Rolling Stone Brian Jones. Now in his 40s and living on a farm in Ireland, Jones – whose mother Linda Lawrence, married folk singer Donovan Leitch late in 1970 – has only fleeting childhood memories of his participation.

He says: “I remember meeting Tony out in Giant Rock and him asking me to be in the film and I then said to my mom, “He asked me to be in the film, can I?” They were in a black Winnebago at the flying saucer convention. I was running around and the film was made through a child’s eyes. I was that child.”

Saturation 70
Julian Jones and Ida Random stand with the National Guard off Skid Row, in downtown Los Angeles, in a production still from Saturation 70. Photograph: Collection of Tony Foutz

As conceived by Foutz, Saturation 70 was a futurist update of The Wizard of Oz about a Victorian star child (Jones) who falls through a wormhole and finds himself in a dystopian vision of contemporary Los Angeles. The Kosmic Kiddies, themselves on a mission to rid the Earth of contaminants, are tasked with helping him find his way back home.

Two other members of the Kosmic Kiddies stuck in those suits were Michelle Phillips — the archetypal Californian girl who had been a member of the Mamas and the Papas — and Stash Klossowski de Rola. Also known as Prince Stash, he was the son of painter Balthus and also a Stones confidant, unfortunate enough to be busted twice with two different members of the band (Jones and Keith Richards).

Saturation 70 also featured Nudie Cohn, the flamboyant Russian émigré costumier who designed lavish diamante-studded suits for country music stars, and for Parsons and for his pal Keith Richards. The film’s computer-generated special effects, radical and untested for that time, were to be devised by visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull, who had just completed work on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Trumbull now recalls Saturation 70 as “an amalgam of weird 1970s, late-60s experimental film production. I don’t think any of us knew what we were doing.”

They were all driven along by the relentless creative energy and enthusiasm of Foutz, who is remembered fondly by all involved. He had cut his teeth in the film industry working as an assistant director in Italy to such luminaries as Orson Welles, Gillo Pontecorvo and Marco Ferreri, but found himself in a hip, young social set that included de Rola, the avant-garde artist Mario Schifano and Anita Pallenberg.

In 1968, through his friendship with Richards, Foutz wrote a film vehicle for the Rolling Stones. Closer to Mad Max than the Beatles’ Help!, the film was to feature the group as a band of unemployed mercenaries wandering through Moroccan desert, in a plot that involved UFOs and Mayan-style human ritual sacrifice. That project, entitled Maxagasm (and also unrealised) was co-written with playwright and actor Sam Shepard. Unseen production drawings from it will also be on show at the Horse Hospital.

Saturation 70
Kosmic: (left to right) Gram Parsons, Michelle Phillips and Tony Foutz cheer participants at the UFO convention in Giant Rock. Photograph: Collection of Tony Foutz

While in production for Maxagasm in Los Angeles, Foutz was living in a suite at the Chateau Marmont hotel with Gram Parsons. Tipped off to the UFO convention in the desert, he gathered together his friends to shoot documentary footage there, intending to use it to test out his and Trumbull’s ideas for their special-effects sequences. From that trip came the seeds of Saturation 70. Filming guerrilla-style, without permits, they managed to realise several ambitious set-pieces, including a surreal shootout between a Vietcong soldier and an American GI in the aisles of Gelson’s supermarket in Century City (Phil Spector, a noted gun fan, visited the set to watch from the sidelines) and a parade of Ford Edsel cars roaring through the City of Industry in a flying-V formation.

Parsons was sufficiently excited about his involvement with the film to convince his fellow Burrito Brothers to don the decontamination suits on the cover of their second album, Burrito Deluxe (itself named after a working title for Foutz’s script, Rutabaga Deluxe). By the time the album came out, funding for the film had fallen through. With production haled, Trumbull started working on special effects for another dystopian sci-fi film, The Andromeda Strain. All of the footage from Saturation 70, bar the showreel, was subsequently lost.

Foutz believes Parsons saw the film as a challenge, “in a naive, broaden the creative horizon sort of way.” He also planned to write the film’s music with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds.

Although Saturation 70 itself will never be seen, the story of its making, spontaneous and freewheeling, is as instructive as it is inspirational. “It was a wild ride,” says Foutz, “that goes right to the core of the anything-goes creative zeitgeist of those times.”

• Saturation 70 opens at the Horse Hospital, London WC1, on 6 September


Chris Campion

The GuardianTramp

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