For Beat Generation aficionados, the 1944 murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr has always sparked a morbid fascination. Kammerer was an old friend of William S. Burroughs, and Carr was a charismatic, transgressive figure who inspired many in this group of young literary iconoclasts. Amongst those who fell under Carr’s spell was Allen Ginsberg, and it is Ginsberg who becomes the hero and conscience of ‘Kill Your Darlings‘, John Krokidas‘s darkly alluring film about this formative event in the story of the Beats.
In a master stroke of casting, Ginsberg is played by Daniel Radcliffe, who embodies this young poet in the throes of a sentimental education. Ginsberg arrives at Columbia University and soon witnesses Carr (Dane DeHaan) reciting Henry Miller while perched atop a classroom desk. From there the two plunge into New York’s wild jazz clubs and wilder parties at the apartment of the elder sophisticate Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). Historic meetings with Burroughs (a dryly magnificent Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (an irresistibly cocky Jack Huston) are realized with propulsive energy, while the relationship between Carr and Kammerer becomes increasingly precarious and uncertain.
Anticipating the New York and Los Angeles release of ‘Kill Your Darlings‘ on Wednesday, October 16 we sat down with the films director John Krokidas and discussed its origins, the appeal of the beat poets, creating a positive cast dynamic and much more.
Why did you want to make this film?
We were obsessed with these guys like most were in high school and college. My best friend and college roommate was becoming a respected short story writer and playwright. He came to me claiming to have the best idea for a play and told me about the murder of David Kammerer; the murder that inspired the beats at a very young age. As he told me the story of these young people who were actually starting the revolution, as opposed to just talking about it, I started seeing the movie come alive in my head. I, of course, used my powers of manipulation and stated it would make a horrible play but an amazing movie that we needed to write together.
Who were some of your own personal favorites of the beat generation?
Allen Ginsberg meant the most to me at a very early age because I was a closeted teenager. I remember reading his work for the first time and feeling like I was reading a dirty novel, scared of being caught. Being so brave as an artist and calling for all of us to drop our masks and be the true people within, I always remember wishing I could be that brave.
It is those artists you fall in love with at that age who stick with you throughout life, forming your own personal philosophy and artistic foundation. Having said that I have always admired Burroughs for his audaciousness and for “living it”. He was punk rock to the very end.
I was most touched my Kerouc’s need for authenticity and personal connection; his wanting to discover the soul of the country, not just writing about it, but by meeting people and living the way other people did.
What was the most difficult part about writing this script?
I wanted to portray them as exactly who they were between 1943-1945 when the movie takes place. These were insecure, awkward 17-21 year olds trying to figure out who they were. At this point Ginsberg was the dutiful son of a struggling working class poet and an emotionally ill mother but knew he wanted to do something important with his life. He was like all of us and did not know what he wanted to be yet, although he wrote in his adolescent journals how he thought me may be a genius. He had a confidence and a cockiness to him knowing that he wanted to do something great.
Burroughs had gotten kicked out of the army and just got back from Vienna, living in the Weimer area between the wars, and saw this bohemian culture he wanted to recreate so he followed David Kammerer to New York, but he still did not know how he was going to express himself.
Jack Kerouac had just finished writing his first book but was still on a football scholarship to Columbia, hating being a jock. He wanted to run away and join the Merchant Marines. After doing all the biographical research, what became important to Austin (Co-Writer) and I was to focus on the people as they were from birth to 1945.
The ensemble cast is strong and works well together, but what struck me were the secondary players; David Cross as Allen Ginsberg’s father for example. How difficult was it to get this cast together?
I got my dream cast but it took a lot of work. This is my first film and I never thought I would get a cast like this but I aimed high. I made lists of the actors I thought would be appropriate for the roles and, more importantly the actors who’s work I admire. My goal in first creating the main ensemble was by looking at the film ‘The Social Network‘, seeing how they picked the best, most talented young actors. I wanted to do that.
Daniel Radcliffe was an idea who came to me late at night because, as you saw in the movie, Ginsberg goes from everyone thinking they know who he is to a rebel and poet. I did not know Daniel Radcliffe but I thought he could identify with the character. It turned out Daniel was a huge poetry and beat fan, so I ended up flying to New York to meet with him as he was doing ‘Equus‘. He offered to audition and he killed it!
After that we did old fashioned chemistry leads in order to find Dane DeHaan. My boyfriend was a fan of ‘In Treatment‘ and first recommend Dane to me. When Dane read with Daniel the sparks came and were felt throughout the room.
With Elizabeth Olson, I had just seen ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene‘ and was a huge fan.
Ben Foster had an affinity for William Burroughs. All these magical connections and working really hard to fight for who you think is right for the role, but mostly knowing you are casting as a group and not throwing in a bunch of movie stars who do not fit in the same universe with each other.
As the film is a period piece, how did you strategize recreating the aesthetic world of the time
First off we wanted to feel as authentic as possible, which is hard to do on a limited budget. Once everyone had the table of contents, as I saw the time period, I could let that filter through the imagination of the department heads who could push that vision through even further.
In 1944 ‘Double Indemnity‘ won the Best Picture Oscar and signified the high point of American film noir, so we thought lets start with a high point of tension and structure it as a noir film. I had heavily researched the evolution of noir and realized I did not want to do an academic recreation. As I thought about film noir, this highly composed medium, the French took it and made it a new wave. We mirrored that arc in the film. As the guys go dow the rabbit hold together, the camera comes of the tripod and becomes handheld, much more freestyle and jazzy; the editing pace becomes more exciting and vibrant.
The other important thing was we wanted to look and see where 40s counter culture intersected with contemporary counter culture. I did not want this to be a dusty bio pic. This is a movie about young people finding their voice. I wanted it to feel as exciting today an not just an old fashioned bio pic. I wanted it to have a touch of youth revolution.
How about the research of plot specifics? What comes to mind is the library key heist scene
This movie is heavily documented in research and I have the annotated script. We went to the actual locations where the events of the movie took place. The late night philosophical conversations on rebelling against Columbia and doing something authentic, creating a new voice in literature are all heavily documented in Ginsberg’s journals, but reading two college students 3am diary entries are some of the most pretentious things possible. That sequence was a way for us to figure out how to visually create and actualize their conversations, we just had them do it. That might be based on something the co-authors of this movie may have done in their own college days, but I am not allowed to talk about that any further (laughs).
As a first time director, what kind of pressures did you feel?
The cool thing about having Christine Vachon as your producer is she is a director’s producer. I actually had my producer tell me how I may never be able to make a film again so I should make bold choices. They asked me all sorts of questions to see if I was happy with the scene in discussion. Having that encouragement help open me up and I was not worried about meeting a certain person’s expectations, instead I was really fortunate in making the film as personal and unique as possible.
Shooting that fast (delivering every scene in under 2 hours), you just do not have time to second guess yourself. You really connect with your gut. Daniel and I made playlists and picked songs for every scene (stealing from Renee Zelwegger) and dance around in the green room. Once we were connected to emotions needed for the scene we would just go!
Any song is particular?
A lot of the songs ended up being on the soundtrack along with the likes of Sigur Ros and Yangtze. Also, it turned out that Nico Muhly was behind arranging most of the bands featured, so I hired him as the films composer.
So, now that the first feature is finished, what do you take away as a director moving forward
This is a good question! I am still living through my first time, but what I will definitely take forward is the time we got to spend with the actors, getting to form personal relationship with them and the rehearsal time we had in order to improvise scenes that were not in the script. We ended up stealing some of those improvs and using them.
Also, to do all of your homework ahead of time because invariably something will pop up and your film will become something different than what you once saw in your head. If you have done your homework you know the parameters of where your film needs to be so you can take those accidents and turn them into fortunate choices.
– Interview Conducted, Edited & Transcribed (on-site) by Steve Rickinson