Now playing in New York and Los Angeles, Kill Your Darlings is the debut feature from director John Krokidas, who also provided the screenplay with his best friend and creative partner Austin Bunn. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston and Ben Foster, the film details the untold “origin story” of the Beats from the point of the view of a young Allen Ginsberg (Radcliffe). Beginning college at Columbia University in 1943, Ginsberg meets Lucien Carr (DeHaan), a charismatic young man who ultimately introduces the poet to Jack Kerouac (Huston) and William S. Burroughs (Foster), but who is also soon arrested for the murder of the group’s mutual acquaintance, David Kammerer (Hall) in a story that heralded the beginning of the Beat generation.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Krokidas to discuss the Beats, the 10-year road he traveled in bringing Kill Your Darlings to the big screen and the shared human experience of coming into one’s own as both an artist and an individual.
If you missed it last week, you can also check out ComingSoon.net’s video interviews with Radcliffe, DeHaan and Hall by clicking here.
CS: How did “Kill Your Darlings” begin for you? John Krokidas: My best friend and my college roommate, also, Austin Bunn, came to me with this story of a murder. A true story. I had never heard of it before. It stopped the Beats from just being college students talking about doing something important with their lives and going on to start, as we know, the greatest counterculture revolution in America. Austin had become a short story writer of some renown at that point and was becoming a playwright. He wanted to do this as a play. I had just gotten out of film school and I saw it as a movie come to life in the back of my head. I may have pulled my best Jedi mind trick and looked at him and said, “You know, as a play this would be really flat, but as a movie, this would be fantastic!” I convinced him. We had been friends for a decade at that point and we shared all creative endeavors with each other. I convinced him that we should collaborate on this and write the screenplay together and then I would direct it as a film.
CS: There’s something in this that’s lacking from some other film versions of the Beats and that’s a little bit of the unreal. That really comes through with the use of contemporary music in parts of “Kill Your Darlings.” Krokidas: What we didn’t want to do was the traditional biopic. This story is about the birth of young artists. It’s about being 18 or 19 and wanting to change the world and do something different and authentic with your life. What was important to me was wanting to tell that from the perspective of an 18- or 19-year-old. This movie is about firsts. First love. Going to your first cool party. Trying drugs for the first time. Having sex for the first time. When your 18 or 19, at least for me, all those things feel so big and like they’re the most important things in the world. We wanted that exuberance and that rebelliousness to translate onto screen. The use of contemporary music, though, was something that I didn’t plan initially. This movie is set in 1944 and, when I looked to see what films were popular that year, I saw that “Double Indemnity” was nominated for Best Picture. I thought, “My God. This is the high point of American film noir. Let’s structure this film like a noir film. Start with a heightened point of tension and then flash back, etcetera, etcetera.” I wanted to do a jazz score, similar to what Miles Davis did for Louis Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows.” That whole transition in 1944 was really, really cool and what these guys were riffing on was big band music, which was the Top 40 music of the time. Bebop was being born in Harlem in this small bars, like you see in the film. People were exploding rhythms and notes, so I was going to have this whole score, going from swing to bebop. My music supervisor listened to my academic treatise of what I wanted to do with the music and said, “John, one thing you’re gonna learn on your first film is that, ultimately, your child is going to start finding its own voice and becoming who it needs to be. Let it do that before you decide on the music.” So I put my jazz score on and I put my period tracks on from 1944. The movie felt like Woody Allen’s “Radio Days,” which is a great film, but it made it feel like a kind of dated artifact and a love letter to the ’40s. That wasn’t at all what I intended. I went back to, believe it or not, the playlist that I used to write the film and used Sigur Ros and used Jonsi. All this music that was kind of timeless-but-contemporary. It matched the visuals and it brought the film to life. I realized that Nico Muhly, the composer, had arranged for Sigur Ros and Grizzly Bear and all these songs I was using on the soundtrack. I sent the film to him and, thankfully, he loved it and came on as our composer. Now that I had broken the contemporary seal, when we got to that heist sequence, for example, the TV on the radio plays and I had heist movie music at first. The scene was so corny and dated. I could talk to you at length about how the Beats were involved with the Punks and Kurt Cobain and how William S. Burroughs was this link between indie music and the Beats. But the truth of the matter is, I just put in my iPhone, I played that track and it brought that scene to life and made it visceral. I went with my gut and picked the track that made the scene the way that I felt it.
CS: The cast you have for this is impressive all around, but the one role that just made me smile when I saw him on the screen was David Cross as Allen Ginsberg’s father. He, of course, played the younger Ginsberg in Todd Hayne’s “I’m Not There.” Krokidas: Isn’t he great. That was the meta casting choice, obviously. What was really cool is that the entire cast – this wasn’t just my first film. A lot of the people were doing something for the first time and trying out new things. David Cross wanted to try doing a straight, dramatic role for the first time. There’s also the fact that he looks exactly like Allen Ginsberg later on in his life and I think that brought some real validity to the Ginsberg household when we first started the movie. I was so proud of David and the fact that he went beyond his usual comfort zone and, in front of the camera, gave a beautiful, muted, dramatic performance. Although, as soon as the camera was off, he was cracking up the entire cast and crew nonstop.
CS: One of the most fascinating aspects of this story to me is that, being a huge fan of the Beats myself, it’s still not a story I really knew at all. Krokidas: I didn’t know it either! Isn’t that crazy? We actually — we being me and Austin — we did so much extensive research into these people through biographies and accounts online and looking at Allen Ginsberg’s adolescent journals. That book, we tried to get our hands on and they wouldn’t let us. The mystery as to why all this stuff has been kept secret so long we finally learned after we had finished the movie. We talked to the Allen Ginsberg estate and Lucien Carr, basically, asked Jack and Bill not to publish the book until he died. He asked Allen Ginsberg not to publish the short story that he wrote, that you see in the movie, until after he passed away. Lucien Carr finally passed away in 2006 and the book was released in 2008. This has been a 10-year journey, so our script was first registered, I think, in 2006. What was cool was that, after doing all the research we did and trying to fill in the tissue of what happened that night — because the pieces are all there if you look for them — was discovering later on that we weren’t so far off the mark.
CS: As a fan of these people, there’s also a fanboy level to the casting in “Kill You Darlings.” It’s almost like watching “X-Men: First Class” and getting excited to see a young Magneto except here it’s getting exited to see William S. Burroughs introduced lying in a bathtub. I get the sense that you have a similar love of these people independently of the film. Krokidas: Of the Beats? Oh my God, incredibly so. I love them all for different reasons. I started with Allen Ginsberg because I was a closeted kid from the suburbs. I remember reading his poetry in a Waldebooks in a shopping mall and feeling like I was reading a dirty magazine and that my parents’ friends were going to catch me. It’s just that he was so brave about his sexuality and his heart and his passions and who he was. I just remember always wishing I could be that brave. Then, in reading Kerouac, I loved the humanist bent in him. He wanted all of us to just tear down the masks that we wear in our daily life and really just connect soulfully and really expose who we are as people. You don’t find that much in counterculture these days. I think that, somehow, irony has been injected into us and we all want to keep an ironic distance. His work was all about bringing people together. Burroughs is just the coolest person on the f–ing planet. To get to tell the inception story of these guys that I’ve admired for so long? It was, at first, incredibly daunting but, when Austin and I made the decision to stop reading all the biographies front to back and just focus on the awkward, insecure, passionate young men that they were at the time when this story takes place, it became incredibly liberating to tell the story that we wanted to tell.
CS: There’s a very interesting theme in the film about how nihilism and self destruction and creativity going hand in hand. Krokidas: The theme that we were really trying to get at is, when we looked, knowing that we had a murder story on our hands, the question was, “Whose story is this and whose story do we want to tell with this?” When we looked to see who had the greatest arc over the course of this story — this pivotal year from 1943 to 1994 — it was Allen Ginsberg. He starts off as a dutiful son, thinking, “I want to do something important with my life, but I don’t know what it is” and, by the end of the movie, announced himself as a poet and a rebel and gets himself kicked out of Columbia University. We knew we had an artist story but, when we were thinking, “What the theme that we’re trying to tell with this? What’s resonating with us?” we realized that it was his relationship with Lucien is a relationship that I’ve had in my own life. When I talk about it, the more universal it is, I find. When you leave home and go to college or wherever you go, you meet somebody who is incredibly charismatic. More charismatic than you. More worldly than you. More confident. Perhaps better looking. Who kind of sees possibilities in you that you never knew existed in yourself. Whether or not they’re introducing you to cool a band or new books or an artistic discipline or a new trade that you didn’t know that you would love, they take you under their wing and encourage you and foster you to grow, but only so high. The flip side of these mentor, transformational friendships is that they want you to grow, but never as high as them. They often tell writers in writing class that you need to metaphorically kill your parents in order to really discover your voice and to be who you are. I found in my own life with this figure that, ultimately, I needed to step out of this person’s shadow and really become myself. The irony is that you need to somehow surpass this mentor figure and cut them out of your life. Which I think is tying into what you’re talking about. The fancy way that Austin likes to talk about it is the emotional violence that comes with the birth of the self. Because I’m only half as articulate as him, the Oprah version that I say is that it’s about the relationship that we all have. That first love where you tried so hard to be the person that you think they would fall in love with. It’s not until the ashes at the end of the breakup of that relationship that you realize and find the strength to ultimately own up to your own self and to become yourself. That, of course, is when the real magic begins. Both in our creative lives and in our personal lives.
CS: If someone had never read anything by any of the Beats, where would you recommend they start? Krokidas: You don’t have to know anything about them to watch this movie, I don’t think.
CS: Oh, absolutely. I’m just curious to know, if someone sees this and wants to take that next step, where would you direct them? Krokidas: One of the greatest entry points is obviously “Howl” and where Allen Ginsberg is going to go to in the next decade after this movie takes place. “Naked Lunch” is pretty tough to start off on. You know what you I mean? I feel like we all got to page 62 when we first started and didn’t know what to do with it. It took me three reads to ultimately get through that one. I would start with “Howl,” but also, the people that fall in love with this movie, I would direct them to Allen Ginsberg’s journals during this time period. They’re fascinating. He kept an extensive collection of journal entries and diaries and it captures all those 3 a.m. conversations that he had with Lucien but that we all had in college. You remember. Where you stay up all night talking about art and ideas and passions and has all his early work in there. It also has the short story that he wrote about the murder. That book is called “The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice.” And, of course, “Howl.”