John Krokidas Hopes ‘Kill Your Darlings’ Inspires a New Generation of Beatniks
Based on the real-life murder scandal involving the cornerstone figures of the Beat Generation, director John Krokidas’ debut feature, Kill Your Darlings, takes a look at the early, formative years of the Beats, when the visionary rabblerousers first began bouncing their non-conformist, experimental ideas around the walls of Columbia University, ideas that would influence rebel youths for decades to come.
The dark drama stars Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter series) as Allen Ginsberg, Dane DeHaan (Chronicle) as Lucien Carr, Ben Foster (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) as William S. Burroughs, Michael C. Hall (Dexter) as David Kammerer, Jack Huston (Boardwalk Empire) as Jack Kerouac, and Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) as Edie Parker, Kerouac’s wife.
Krokidas sat with us to discuss his affection for the Beats, his close relationship with Radcliffe, why the film is like a superhero origin story, introducing the Beats to a new generation of youths, Ben Foster the mentor and much more.
Kill Your Darlings opens this Friday, November 1st, nationwide.
Talk about your personal connection with the Beat Generation.
I found Allen Ginsberg when I was a closeted teenager. I grew up in suburban Connecticut, which is hardly the most conservative place in the States. Somebody wrote anonymously to the high school paper my first week at school and said that they were gay. The reaction was, “Who’s the fucking faggot? We’re going to kill him.” This was 20 years ago, and we’ve thankfully come a long way. But at the same time, that attitude is still pervasive in several parts of this country. I was like, alright. I guess I have to put my own discovery of who I am on hold and kind of be silent until I can get away from this town and hopefully go to college somewhere.
I remember hearing somebody talk about Allen Ginsberg, dismissively. “Oh, he’s gay.” To me, it was like, “Alert! Alert! How do I find this guy!? How do I read his stuff!?” At a suburban shopping mall bookstore, I found a collection of his poetry. At the time, it felt like I was reading a dirty novel and my parents’ friends could walk by and potentially catch me. He was just so open and honest in the time period in which he was about his sexuality, but also about his passions and his politics. His whole ethos was about tearing off these masks we have to put on for the world every day and being your true, authentic self. I remember wishing I could be that brave. That was, what, 15, 16 years old? I find as I get older it’s the artists that you discovered in high school and college that stay with you for life and form the bedrock of your own artistic philosophy.
Ginsberg led me to Kerouac, and I read On the Road. I read a bunch of his stuff. What I loved about Kerouac was his humanism and–even in the midst of this counter-culture rebellion–he wasn’t going to find the soul of this country by just commenting on it or keeping an ironic distance and saying what he believed. He wanted to go out and get to know people, to break them down and find out what really mattered to them. Burroughs I’ve just always admired for being the rebellious icon that he is. I remember when I was a teenager, Kurt Cobain working with William Burroughs and him being in a Ministry video. All the way to the day he died, it was cigarette in one hand, rifle in the other. His punk rock spirit always appealed to me.
I read these guys in high school and college, and what’s cool is, my college roommate and best friend, Austin Bunn, came to me ten years later with this true story of murder that I’d never heard of before. It’s really their origin story. It’s the thing that stopped them from just being college students talking about doing something revolutionary, and actually putting pen to paper, going on to start the Beat movement.
The film feels like a superhero origin story.
It’s been called “Beat Poets: First Class”. That part wasn’t intentional, but we knew what was appealing to us, us being Austin and I. It’s the idea of not doing a traditional biopic and instead looking at the forces and this devastating story of murder and this love story that brought them there. What made these guys go beyond what we all do, which are these 3am conversations in college? We talk about our favorite artists, literature, and what everything means to us. They actually went out and lived their lives as their art and their art as their lives. They created this rebellion that came to San Francisco and helped to inspire the hippy movement in the ’60s and inspire the punks in the ’70s and Kurt Cobain in the ’90s. They did it in a way that felt fresh and from the perspective of a 17-year-old.
There are so many first times in this movie. It’s about leaving home for the first time. It’s about meeting your first cool group of friends for the first time. It’s about going to your first school party and feeling awkward in the corner. It’s about trying drugs for the first time and, of course, falling in love and having sex for the first time. We wanted to do everything not as a stayed biopic, but from the perspective of a 17-18-year-old when all this stuff means so much. From the very beginning, that’s the attitude we took.
Today’s generation of teens, for the most part, don’t know who these guys are at all. The name Kerouac might ring a bell, but beyond that, they’re generally uninitiated to everything “Beat”.
Also, these are their parents’ idols, and who wants to fall in love with what their parents used to rebel against their parents? The way I hopefully designed the movie is that you don’t have to know. The story can live on its own and be about a guy named Jack, a guy named Bill, and a kid named Allen.
That’s why I think the film works so well. It operates on its own terms. If you bring your own knowledge of these writers to the film, you’ll take away something extra and something special, but the knowledge isn’t crucial to the experience.
There was one person who suggested that we had to print at the beginning titles introducing that, “these guys are the most famous…”
Yes! I said that that is completely against the ethos of why we wanted to do this movie. We want people who have never heard of the Beats to be able to see this movie, understand them as the 19-year-olds that they were, be able to relate to them, and see them go on to do something great with their lives. At the end of the day, underneath it all, this movie is about this really dark, emotional event that caused the three of them to put everything into perspective and discover their own voices. I want this movie to encourage the next generation to go out there and start their own rebellion. The question I have is, we go from the Beats, to the hippies, to the punks, to the grunge era, to…what do we have now? Maybe you can help me answer the question.
The one answer I came up with right before you walked in is Pussy Riot. We’ve got it going on in the Soviet Union. If this movie inspires someone to pick up a guitar, or somebody to put pen to paper, or somebody to go out and speak their voice in something that’s unique and authentic to them, then I’ll feel like “mission accomplished” for this movie.
I remember, a few years ago, seeing a younger Ben Foster in movies like Alpha Dog and 3:10 To Yuma and being very, very impressed and intrigued by him. His performances were so interesting, so unique, and he struck me as a really talented, savvy character actor. He was so young, and there was something special about him (still is). I get the same feeling when I watch Dane DeHaan.
Interesting! It’s funny you say that. Burroughs was the elder of this group. At the time of this movie, Allen is 17-18, Lucien is 18-19, and Bill is about 29. They always kind of looked up to him as their mentor figure, their weird, perverted sage-slash-Yoda, if you will. It was like that with Dan and Dane with Ben on set. They both admired and looked up to him and, in a way, Ben had that function on set with the rest of the cast. Ben saved my ass so many times. I learned a lot from Ben Foster.
There’s a shot where they all run out of the library after a heist at Columbia University. We were shut down several hours before we were supposed to stop filming, and we still had five scenes left to go. While security was pulling our equipment away, Ben said, “John, we’re all in costume. The steps are right there. Should we go for it?” It was straight out of film school. The producers kept the guards busy as we ran in the other direction and stole the shot before anybody could shoot us down! (laughs) That was Ben’s idea.
What was it like working with Daniel?
Dan goes beyond being my movie star at this point–he’s like my partner in crime. He’s my collaborator and, in many ways, my instructor. He’s been by this movie’s side for over four-and-a-half years. I’ve never met anybody as hard-working and gracious as him. While he was on Broadway doing How to Succeed, he would give me one day a week for two months before we started filming. He said something really poignant to me. He wanted to approach this movie like it was his first movie as well.
I had studied acting as an undergraduate, but I was a horrible actor myself. But having trained in all these different methods, we worked together to create a new method for him, in which to break down a character, work vocally, work physically. Things that he hadn’t done before in Harry Potter. While we were devising this method for him, we grew so close that I felt that I could trust him. I said, “Dan. I’m about to direct my first movie in four weeks. What the hell am I getting myself into?” He in return shared with me all these tips on directing, because he’s worked with how many great directors? He taught me just as many skills–if not more–than film school. This collaboration continues even now. I’m meeting the press for the first time. I’m going to film festivals with my film for the first time. He shares with me his experiences and gives me instructions. At this point, we’re such good friends and collaborators, the process continues as we help support each other during each aspect of releasing the film. It’s one of those relationships where you feel that you’re going to be collaborators for life.
You’ve assembled an amazing cast for this thing. Two of your supporting players are Elizabeth Olsen and Michael C. Hall, for crying out loud. How did you pull it off?
A lot of hard work. At that time, Daniel Radcliffe could not secure financing for a film. I was told by a foreign sales agent–this was pre-The Woman in Black–that Daniel Radcliffe couldn’t open a movie without a wand in his hand. I said back to them, “He’s playing Allen Ginsberg and there will be a wand in his hand by the end of this movie. None of the actors in this age group can really pull in the kind of financing we needed to get this movie made, which is, ironically, not much.
A cast I really admired was David Fincher’s The Social Network. He pulled together the best of the up-and-coming actors and really built an ensemble of the next generation. I worked really hard with my casting director, Laura Rosenthal, to figure out who those actors were for this generation. Dane DeHaan was actually suggested by my boyfriend of ten years. He loved the show In Treatment on HBO. He said, “You’re going to cast Dane DeHaan!” I did old-fashioned chemistry reads, like they used to do in Hollywood, between Daniel Radcliffe and the young actors I really liked. Dane came in first, and pity the actors who came after him. He blew us away. Done.
Right after Martha Marcy May Marlene came out, the next thing she wanted to do was a period piece. I loved Jack Huston from Boardwalk Empire. Underneath that mask is a ridiculously handsome matinee idol, but he doesn’t want to coast on that. He just wants to disappear into roles. I was excited that he wanted to do it. I had heard Ben Foster was a Burroughs fan. We actually wrote [Michael C. Hall’s role for him]. I don’t usually do that…
Why did you do it for him?
My co-writer Austin…that’s who he saw in his head. He’d been planting that seed in my head since the very first draft. Also, the role of David Kammerer wasn’t going to be easy. It’s somebody who’s so obsessed with this young boy, Lucien, that he’s not the most sympathetic character in the world. But, he needed to be human. Michael has this uncanny ability to…I mean, look at Dexter. Even Six Feet Under. [He can] take a character who can be seen as potentially unsympathetic and bring life and humanity to them. My boyfriend, on our second date, asked me what actress I wanted to work with when I was dreaming of being a director. I said Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Congratulations, my friend!
Thank you, man! Getting this cast was like winning the lottery and then using a dollar of that lottery to win another lottery.
Let’s talk about the aesthetics of the film. The images in the opening moments are incredible. Really haunting.
The opening image was always in the script. What is it? “Bad artists steal, good artists borrow.” The title sequence was borrowed from when noir films went to Japan in the ’60s. There were a bunch of films that used similar fonts and shocking, in-your-face title sequences with freeze-frames.
We always knew we wanted it to play backwards, because there’s the theme of life being a circle going round and round until somebody breaks it. Allen is constantly going back in his memories in order to find the truth. What I learned as a director is, you need to let things naturally evolve. The movie’s set in 1944. I looked to see what was nominated for best picture that year. Double Indemnity. It was the year of all these great American film noirs. I said to Austin, “Let’s do the script as a film noir,” which is why we start in the jail cell, flash back to more innocent times, etc. I started studying the aesthetics of noir, and I thought to myself, how boring to do an academic recreation of a genre that already exists. I believe in going to a central directorial spine that kind of anchors you. The film, to me, was about going from conformity to non-conformity.
As I was researching film noir, I looked to see what happened when color hit it. I was like, duh, the French got their hands on it and transformed it into the New Wave. There you go! Let’s start with controlled, composed compositions with expressionistic noir lighting, then, as these guys get together, let’s let the camera come off the tripod and start becoming more jazzy and free and handheld. You see that in the editing style as well. Listening to the DVD commentary for The Ice Storm, I heard that Ang Lee put together a 40-50 page book on the 1970’s for his production team to create his look, including color palettes, fonts, historical moments, television shows, songs, you name it. I did that for the 1940’s. Here’s the thing: I come in with my big book about the ’40s and I give this huge audio-visual presentation to Reed Morano, my DP, Stephen Carter, my production designer, and Christopher Peterson, my costume designer. There comes a point where you realize, you can dictate every decision that they make or, now that they know the rules, you can encourage them to play. Have them find their own personal connections to the material.