KILL YOUR DARLINGS, just released on Blu-ray and DVD, charts the startling but largely unknown story of a 1940s murder that had a huge effect on the life of then-budding Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, along with Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and other later-to-be-famous figures. Daniel Radcliffe stars as Ginsberg, with Dane DeHaan as Lucien Carr, Michael C. Hall as David Kammerer, Jack Huston as Kerouac and Ben Foster as Burroughs.
Austin Bunn and John Krokidas wrote the film together, with Krokidas as its director (his first time helming a feature film). The two colleagues, former roommates at Yale, give a Q&A session before a small group of reporters about their movie.
On The division of responsibility in writing KILL YOUR DARLINGS …
AUSTIN BUNN: Probably like a lot of people in this room, I discovered the Beats in college. I used to go to the campus bookstore and just track down the poetry collection, find Allen’s books and read them like there was some secret, like there was some transmission from the future version of myself. I was a closeted young creative writer fromNew Jersey, so Allen Ginsberg’s work meant the world to me. And so I had this really strong connection with Allen and the Beat biographies and the Beat history. I’d read a lot of the back catalogue and I had come to John with the idea. So in terms of the division of responsibility, I would say really, I would write the first draft and – the thing about John is, he’ll want to raise the emotional decibel level in every scene. John wanted the most riveting, most vital and least hagiographic version of this story. We didn’t want to take the Beats’ greatness as a given. So John demanded that we write a really emotional roller-coaster. So emailing back and forth constantly. We were living in different cities at the time. I was at theUniversity ofIowa’s writers’ workshop as a graduate student, and John was inNew York finishing film school.
JOHN KROKIDAS:Austin wanted to do this as a play first. He was a playwright and a short story writer of some renown. And I of course started seeing the movie version of that in my head, and I had just gotten out of NYU film school, and I started convincing him that the play would be really flat and inadequate [laughs], but as a movie, this would be amazing.
BUNN: The Jedi mind trick.
KROKIDAS: I’m the structure guy, and coming from NYU’s film program, I’m very traditionalist in terms of Sidney Lumet’s “finders find,” andAustin is really wonderful with character and dialogue. If anything, he’s on a religious crusade against expository dialogue and I would write these three-paragraph monologues for each character like in that scene where Jennifer Jason Leigh [as Allen’s mother] finally turns to Allen to give him advice. I had a two-page monologue version andAustin crossed it all out and wrote the line that’s in the movie – “The most important thing your father ever did was fail me,” which said everything.
On the film’s period …
KROKIDAS: The movie is set in 1944. And even in the writing process, I looked it up and saw that DOUBLE INDEMNITY won the Best Picture [Oscar] that year, and it was the year of LAURA and GILDA and all these great American film noirs. So I said, “Why don’t we incorporate this, even in just the background of the movie, and start with the jail scene and flash back to more innocent times and then build again to see whether or not these characters can escape or not escape their fate?” I thought what this piece was really about was young people finding their voice. So what about going from conformity – the row houses of New Jersey, the pillars of Columbia [University] – to nonconformity? And of course, where film noir went in the hands of the French was the New Wave. So I thought, “Okay, let’s start off with these controlled, expressionist-lit shots, and then as the boys go down the rabbit hole together, let’s take the camera off the tripod. Let’s get some jazzier free-form style in this.” I had learned that Ang Lee, for THE ICE STORM, did a fifty-page book on the 1970s – colors, fonts, important historical events, you name it. So I did that with the 1940s, and then gave it toAustin to read. Now, the great thing is that I’ve learned on this is, you can do all the academic treatises you want, but then you hire great people. [Cinematographer Reed Morano] saw the goalposts of what I wanted and then she showed me Jean-Pierre Melville’s films. She showed me films that meant a lot to her, and then let what I wanted filter through her own imagination. We [shot] this movie in twenty-four days. Each scene was done in two hours or less. And the fact that she has the instincts to be able to light like that is amazing.
On researching the characters and incidents …
KROKIDAS: We did so much research for this. I think part of it is our academic background. There’s so much in the biographies; there are so many biographies of them out there. But then also, we would find different accounts online, for example, from David Kammerer’s friends, who said that that relationship between him and Lucien was never portrayed accurately and that Lucien actually kept coming back to David, and David was asking him to end the relationship. We physically went to all of the locations in which this movie took place, and that just helped inform our writing process as well, to be able to visualize the physical spaces.
BUNN: And just to add to that, I would say, I think the people I know who have seen the film are really surprised at how much is actually totally accurate, like the day after the murder, Allen Ginsberg went to the West End bar – “You Always Hurt the One You Love” was playing on the jukebox and he wrote the poem that ends the film. He ends, “I am a poet.” That is a line from August 20, 1944. So we worked really hard to work it in. But like John was saying, we didn’t want to do the dutiful, stuffy, every box checked biopic that had been around for awhile. We wanted to do something that felt more in line with the spirit of the Beats, something more specific and honest and transgressive. And I hope we got there.
On the characters’ sexuality …
KROKIDAS: I think this is a movie of every character discovering what their sexuality is – gay, straight, bi, all over the place – but more importantly, whether or not they’re worthy of being loved. I don’t know if Lucien Carr was straight or gay. And to me, it’s irrelevant, because I’ve seen this relationship played out amongst gay people that I know so many times, where an older man who is gay and a younger man of questionable sexuality develop such a close bond. The stereotype, I think, is that the younger man had an absent father figure or finds the older man’s confidence and just the caring and nurturing qualities very attractive. What happens is those two get so intimate that ultimately, there’s nowhere else to take the relationship but sexual, and when that happens, the power position of that relationship twists, and the younger man suddenly realizes that he holds the power, because he’s the sexually desired one. And that’s where a lot of conflict ensues. You know, whatever you read about that relationship between Lucien and David, using contemporary terms, everyone knew they were co-dependent, everyone knew it was toxic and going to end badly; nobody knew it was going to end in murder.
BUNN: And let me just too say quickly, I think a lot of the biopics we see are kind of denatured of their sexual qualities, the edginess of the relationships in them, and so I think we were trying to do something that restored some of that ambiguity, lust, desire, confusion that is genuinely in the Beats’ history.
On directing the cast …
KROKIDAS: Here’s the embarrassing story. Austin and I actually met freshman year because we were both in acting in a production at Yale of THE LION IN WINTER. Neither of us were the greatest actors in the world, which is I think why we went into writing and directing.
BUNN: I think leggings look better on you than they do on me.
KROKIDAS: I trained as an actor as an undergraduate, and what you learn is that each actor has their own method. And so when I met with each actor that I cast, I would just simply ask them, “How do you like to work, and what don’t you like?” Michael C. Hall gave me one of the greatest lessons in directing. He said, “If what I’m doing is not making you happy, don’t tell me that, because that’ll make me self-conscious, it’ll make me think about what I’m doing. Just tell me to add whatever you want to what I do.” That’s just a great lesson for life.
And Radcliffe is such a hard worker. He gave me, while he was on Broadway, doing a musical [HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING], we would meet once a week, for two months, before preproduction and rehearsal began, to work on the accent, to work together. So I have, on my iPhone, him reading “Howl.” We looked at the earliest vocal recordings possible of Allen Ginsberg to make sure that we weren’t capturing the voice of who he’d become, but what his reading voice was like at that time. Dan was so generous in working on this. He wanted to approach this like it was his first film, which was very poignant to me. And I said, “Would you like to try learning a new method and approaching acting in a different style?” He said, “Absolutely.” So with Dan, he’s so bright and in his head and for the really great intellectuals, Meisner works really well in focusing your action on what you’re trying to do on the other characters in the scene.
Dane had trained extensively, and with Dane, what he does is create a bible for the character and does tons of research before production and then he burns it and starts really becoming the character on set. Ben Foster – it’s something I’ve never seen another actor do, which is once we’ve basically got the scene up on its feet, he goes and he does the blocking of the scene on the location several times. He calls it “the dance.” Because once he’s memorized the dance and knows the physicality of, “I’m picking up the fork here, I need to put it down there,” he doesn’t have to think about it any more, and that’s completely freeing to him.
So [directing actors is] like cooking this huge seven-course meal where you have to make everything done at exactly the right time, but every plate needs a little bit of love in a different way. I love working with actors. To me, the greatest thing was being able to get this dream cast and then just to work with them to find how they like to work and what got the best out of them.
BUNN: Can I just add really quickly, John had an intuitively good idea, which was to keep the actors from reading past this point in the biographies. So none of the actors came in burdened by the mythology of who these guys would become. They were just [playing] nineteen-year-old kids. It released the actors from having to play the later decisions in their lives, the kinds of writers they would become. They just got to be young people. And that was great.
KROKIDAS: I had a talk with Jack Huston once – “Oh, my God, I’m directing you as Jack Kerouac – no. You are Jack, who is a college student on a football scholarship who hates the other jocks, who just wrote a book that he thinks might be completely trite and just wants to get out of college and have some real-life experience, join the war, so he can have real material to write his next book. That’s who you are.” And that just liberated all of us.
On how the future Beat poets’ writing is depicted in the film …
BUNN: If you know any of the history, this new vision was real for them and they’ve written volumes about it – none of which make any sense [laughs] that we could really make heads or tales of.
KROKIDAS: Do you all remember your journals when you were twenty years old and those conversations you had at three in the morning with other college students? We got to read their version of it, and there’s a reason that we hide all of our journals and don’t let them see the light of day.
BUNN: It was challenging. But with the “uninhibited, uncensored expression of the self,” that’s actually a creditable quote directly from the Ginsberg New Vision Manifesto. So in some ways we knew we had to distill some of that material from the Ginsberg journals to help make the argument for how valuable this manifesto was, and the irony, honestly, of what transpires in the plot, which is the very thing that Allen is called to do is create this censored version of this work. But in terms of the poetry itself, really challenging, because we all know there are movies about poets and writers when recitations happen and they’re really bland and they can be corny, and they’re the time you tune out of the movie and you’re waiting for the poetry to end.
Specifically, I think of Allen’s first poem, which happens on the boat. We were really challenged to find a poem that would speak to audiences but was genuinely an Allen Ginsberg poem, written in his voice, and his early work is quite rough, and honestly burdened by trying to impress his dad and impress his professors. And so what we had to do was really channel Allen and when John had the concept of, this isn’t a poem that he’s just reading to impress people, it’s a poem he’s reading to Lucien Carr. And the audience knows that, you know that, and the audience finds out on that boat at that moment. And that really allowed me permission to kind of rethink what the poem is going to do and how we make it, and so we came upon the method of Allen’s very own method, which was kind of magpie stealing from the American vernacular, going out and finding common speech and repurposing it, creating this kind of Whitmanesque inclusion. So we’re kind of hopefully paying off not just a poem that’s emotionally powerful, but also something of the method that Ginsberg would use for the rest of his life.
On what the filmmakers hope audiences get out of KILL YOUR DARLINGS …
BUNN: That the pivot point was this murder – I mean, the idea that [the world came to know] Ginsberg for his openness and his honesty, but to think that at one point in his life he was called upon to defend his best friend in an “honor” slaying of a known homosexual, the very thing that Ginsberg went on in his life to defy and radically create change about the idea of being in the closet, the shame around that issue. So that contradiction was really exciting for us thematically.
KROKIDAS:This movie took, from the time that we started talking about this until the time that we were given the chance to be with you all today, over ten years to make. AndAustin’s right. What I really think about, and the thing that kept me going, and kept me wanting to tell the story, I’d say that there needs to be something that pisses me off at night. The fact that in 1944 you could literally get away with murder [if the victim was gay], that pissed me off to no end. This isn’t a political movie, and it’s one scene, and it’s obviously how Lucien Carr got away with murder, but for me, that was the thing that kept me up all night, that said, “I have to tell this story.”
What I want the audience to leave with is that feeling when we were eighteen and nineteen years old, just like these guys were, when everything seemed possible and you knew that you had something important to say with your life, that you wanted to do something different – not just what your parents taught you, not just what school taught you, but you wanted to leave your mark on the world. The fact that after the movie, these guys actually did it and created the greatest counterculture movement of the twentieth century is amazing. Plenty of people come up to me after seeing the movie and said, “This movie made me want to be a better writer,” or “This movie made me want to go back and start my music again.” That to me means everything. That’s ultimately, deep in my heart, why I wanted to make this movie.
Related: Blu-Ray and DVD Review of KILL YOUR DARLINGS
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Related: Interview with the screenwriters of KILL YOUR DARLINGS