Long before he wrote “Howl,” helped found the Beat movement and became one of the most venerated poets – and gay activists – of the twentieth century, Allen Ginsberg entered Columbia Collegein 1944. There he met Lucien Carr, who introduced Ginsberg to William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Carr’s old mentor David Kammerer. The relationship between Carr and Kammerer became so fraught that it ended in tragedy, which in turn presented an enormous moral conundrum for Ginsberg.
This true – but until now largely unknown – story has been brought to the screen in KILL YOUR DARLINGS, directed by John Krokidas, who co-wrote the screenplay with Austin Bunn. The film stars Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) as Ginsberg, Dane DeHaan (Harry Osborn in the upcoming THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2) as Carr and Michael C. Hall (DEXTER) as Kammerer.
The three actors recently got together to answer questions about KILL YOUR DARLINGS at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, and there’s a distinct sense of camaraderie between them.
Asked if there was anything particularly surprising learned about the real people they portrayed, DeHaan says, “I didn’t really know that Lucian Carr existed and I didn’t know that this story actually happened, so it was all kind of a surprise. He has this kind of charisma and this quality to him that is different from the work that I’ve done in the past, but still a really complicated individual, so he just seemed like a really hard person to wrap my mind around, and that’s what attracted me to him.”
“In reading Allen’s diaries when he was a teenager,” Radcliffe replies, “combined with the character that I saw in the script, he was just somebody that I found very likable. He seemed by all accounts when people talk about him to have been very kind and warm and very good company. But also I think the diaries reveal him, as does the film, to be this really interesting mix of somebody who has immense confidence in their intellect and a very rich inner life, but that doesn’t marry up with what he presented to the world at that time, because he was still quite reserved and shy as a young man. The difference between that inner confidence and that outer shyness was very interesting to me, and it was definitely an interesting character, regardless of what else he went on to do in terms of being a poet.”
Hall says, “I was aware of this story in my period of fascination with the Beats and was excited that it was being told, especially being told as well as it was in John and Austin’s script. I was excited more specifically about the opportunity to humanize and sympathize with this guy who’s sort of a footnote in a lot of accounts of the formative years of the Beat Generation, and was if anything characterized as a bit of a two-dimensional villain/stalker, so I liked that the movie seems to aspire to round him out. There’s relatively little [information available on Kammerer], but there was enough in THE BOOK OF MARTYRDOM AND ARTIFICE: THE ALLEN GINSBERG JOURNALS, there are some real-time accounts of his first meeting with David Kammerer that was really helpful. There was enough that I could make informed choices and fill in the blanks that were there. There was some research, but it was an imaginative exercise, too.”
This is the first time that DeHaan and Hall have played real people. Radcliffe has played on real person before – Rudyard Kipling’s son in MY BOY JACK – not counting, of course, Harry Potter. “There is such a weight of feeling behind that character that it sort of takes on a reality of its own,” Radcliffe notes with a laugh.
Do the actors feel there are any special responsibilities in playing a real person, albeit Ginsberg, Carr and Kammerer are now all deceased?
“It’s fun to have some real things to hold onto,” Hall replies. “It makes it to some degree a different exercise, to play a real person. I certainly think, whether it’s purely fictional or based on a real person, that judgment must be withheld or nonexistent in the first place. In the case of David Kammerer, I certainly didn’t think of him as a stalker, I thought of him as someone who was in love with in the wrong person and couldn’t let it go.”
“I definitely think you do have a certain responsibility,” Radcliffe opines, “but also, as Michael said, it’s fun. There’s a lot more material to hang onto. ‘He actually did that, this happened and that’s how he responded to that.’ It gave a real insight into somebody’s character, so you’re not starting from scratch. And out of the three characters we play, Allen is probably the easiest to find empathy with, or compassion. I found him very sympathetic, but there are still moments where he’s so easily manipulated by Lucien, there is a part of you that wants to shake him, but it’s fun to just give yourself over to that. It’s enjoyable. And also, I think John took the pressure off us a lot in this film by telling us not to research our characters past the point that we find them in the movie, so there wasn’t a sense that in any way we were having to live up to the icons that they became. It was just that we were playing them as the people they were at this point in their lives.
“Lucien’s a tricky one,” DeHaan contributes, “because I think Lucien worked so hard to make sure this story was never told and to make sure nobody ever found out this story, at least while he was living. So my responsibility is to honor this person by trying to figure out truthfully who they were at this point in their life, not necessarily how Lucien would want himself to be portrayed in the film. What’s great about playing a real person, like they’ve already said, is there’s real stuff out there. A lot of the work is kind already done for you.”
Is there any difference in playing people in the Forties, as opposed to contemporary characters?
“Absolutely,” DeHaan says. “It’s not a terribly conscious effort, but they certainly spoke differently and I think that the script does a good job of capturing the characters’ individual voices, but also emulating the way people talk and just having an awareness of what’s going on around you, the politics of the time and that kind of thing. These were people who, if they expressed how they truly felt about some things, it would be criminalized and they would go to jail. So that obviously has a deep impact on how you act with those around you, and just having that awareness I think affects what you do.”
“When Dane and I kiss in the park,” Radcliffe elaborates, “you have to have an awareness that not only is this a big moment because [Ginsberg] does want to kiss [Carr] for the first time, he does have to check around to see if anyone is there. So I think it does inform voices and stuff like that, but yes, it also causes you to focus on thematic [elements].”
“I would agree with all that.” Hall says. “Especially with the job that our wardrobe people did, and the script is so well-rendered that a lot of [adapting for the period] could be unconscious, like Dane said. You just give over to living in a world that is contextualized in a totally different way. Everybody has different things that are useful, whether I was listening to music or putting on the clothes or what have you.”
“Actually,” Radcliffe offers, “the thing I did find very helpful was the music of the period. Even if it wasn’t exactly period-appropriate, there’s some stuff there that just sounds very evocative of a time period that I found. I listened to a lot of Jo Stafford, who I’d never come across before, but I found her online, her songs ‘No Other Love’ and ‘Belong to Me.’”
Although he’s done Broadway, making a movie in the U.S.offered a whole new set of experiences, Radcliffe adds. “Since finishing POTTER, there’s been a huge journey for me, just in terms of, I’d never worked with different crews before and with different groups of actors before, because WOMAN IN BLACK was filmed in England. If you’ve done a HARRY POTTER film, you’re never going to work again in England without knowing somebody on the crew – there were so many people. So coming [to the U.S.] to do KILL YOUR DARLINGS was a huge thing for me, because it meant that I just had to not work with anybody I knew; I needed to find out who you are again on a film set, so it was like starting fresh in a way, but that was really exciting. Working with John Krokidas, our director – he did introduce me to techniques and ways of working that I’d never really tried before, and it was very exciting.”
Asked if they have any theories on the staying power of the Beat writers and why adolescents and college students so often embrace them, Hall responds, “I think we’re still feeling the ripple effects of the cultural phenomenon and revolution that they perhaps started. And yeah, I think a fascination with their work probably does coincide with a period when you’re coming into awareness of the ways in which whatever conventions there are might constrain you, and it speaks to that awareness and appetite to transcend them and break those boundaries and routines.”
What do the actors consider to be the standout scenes in KILL YOUR DARLINGS?
“One scene that really stands out for me,” Radcliffe says, “is where Lucien tells a lie – I come back and find Lucien [is going] off with Jack. I’d done that scene a lot because it was my audition scene, and Dane had done it a million times as well, and you worry about a scene that’s that intense and emotional. On the day, we started the scene, John asked the crew to leave the room for our first rehearsal and he took me to one corner of the room and gave me this goal of, whatever happens, don’t let Lu leave. And then he took Dane to the other corner of the room and said something to him – I don’t know what,” Radcliffe laughs..” And then John said to us, ‘Okay, now just improvise the scene.’ I wasn’t used to working that way – that was initially intimidating, but it soon wasn’t, and then within two minutes, I was crying. It was very real. It was an amazing exercise, and I’d never really had that experience, that very intense, real, emotional experience during acting. So that was brilliant. Thanks.”
As for what director Krokidas said to DeHaan, the actor claims, “I don’t remember.”
“Do you remember any of that day?” Radcliffe asks his costar.
“No,” DeHaan maintains. He says he can’t pick a single most difficult scene. “That’s always such a tricky question for me. When you’re making a movie in twenty-four days, every day presents a whole lot of challenges, and every scene is challenging in its own right, and there’s a lot of really tough stuff that we had to do in this film. I think John brought up yesterday that the scene with me and Dan on the stairs, where he’s trying to convince me to stay on the library stairs at Columbia, we shot in twelve minutes, which I think is a good example of the challenge of this entire film.”
Asked about his most challenging scene, Hall answers with a laugh, “That water in the Hudson River was pretty cold. I’m surprised Dane didn’t mention it. But I don’t know. I would agree with Dane – it’s really hard to single anything out. But I think just tolerating being in a place of such unfulfilled passion is just a challenging place to live and tolerate.”
Were any of the actors inspired to write poetry of their own by the Beats when they were younger? “I definitely have some journal entries,” Hall acknowledges, “that are characterized by ultimately just run-on sentences. I was probably trying to emulate some of what had inspired me.”
Radcliffe says with a laugh, “I definitely wrote my fair share of real bad poetry when I was about seventeen or eighteen. I think in terms of the Beats, there’s something about the way they did what they did, as somebody who grew up outside the States, the thing I compared them to, the thing I used as my point of connection to them, is the punk movement in the Seventies, between ’75 and ’79. That had the same kind of excited nihilism to it, just about tearing everything up and starting again, and there’s something really thrilling about that. And my English teacher used to say something that I think definitely applies to the Beats, there are two types of poets – there are people who write poetically about their lives, and there are people who live poetically and write about it, and that I think sums up that kind of – there’s a wild abandon that goes on, even if you don’t get every reference or every allusion, because there are a lot of their poetry is incredibly dense, you get swept up in the rhythm and the excitement of it.”
DeHaan says, “Also guilty of teenage poems of trying to achieve naked self-expression. I think [the Beats’] effect on today’s society is kind of amazing. It’s not just that their books are still celebrated and read, but also, they were the original hipsters. Where I live in Williamsburg,Brooklyn, I can’t walk down the street without seeing these ten people dressed exactly like Jack Kerouac. So obviously, their books had this huge impact. But also, what they stood for and how they dressed and all that stuff still resonates today, maybe even the most now since then in terms of what they stood for and the impact it’s had culturally.”
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Article: Interview with KILL YOUR DARLING stars Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan and Michael C. Hall