Kill Your Darlings follows Alan Ginsberg and the so-called ‘Beat Poets’ during their years at Columbia University in the early 1940’s. Bored and dissatisfied by the old views of the university, Alan is quickly taken in by fellow student Lucien Carr, who seems hell-bent on destroying the old and creating something new. Along with William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, the group explores new ideas that would go on to be one of the greatest American literature movements of the century. As the group explores love, lust, sex, and drugs, events unfold that would ultimately change their lives forever. We spoke recently with John Krokidas, co-writer and director of Kill Your Darlings.
What was it about this particular episode of Alan Ginsberg’s life that made you want to tell this story?
Well, I wrote this story with my college roommate Austin Bunn about 10 or 11 years ago now. Austin was studying playwriting and I was just finishing studying to be a director, and we often shared creative ideas with each other. Austin came to me and said ‘John have you heard about this story, about the murder of David Kammerer, that brought all the beat poets together and started the revolution?’ I had never heard this story before, but Austin and I were both obsessed with the Beats at the same time, so finding out that there was a kind of like secret story of history untold that brought together our favourite authors and started them on their way to creating maybe the greatest American literary movement of the 20th century, it was really fascinating to me. He’s telling me this, though, because he wanted to write a play about it, of course, I start seeing the movie version flicker on and off in the back of my head.
I completely convinced him, using my best Jedi mind trick, that a play would be really flat, and there’d be no proper way to tell this story on stage, but in cinema, it could really be brought to life. I convinced him/suckered him into collaborating with me in writing the screenplay, and telling him that I would direct it. But why this story? Besides my best friend coming to me 11 years ago and telling me this really great idea for a movie, I would say the thing at the heart of this for me – this movie took a long-ass time to get made, it came together and fell apart so many times over the last decade – but that there was always something that kept me up at night about it, that really pissed me off about it, and that made me want to tell it for so long, and that’s the fact that in the states in 1944, you could literally get away with murder by portraying your victim as a homosexual. I mean, that’s crazy!
It was called an Honour killing, and it still exists in several countries around the world, although obviously, there’s been an international lens on countries that are still so homophobic that they have this so ingrained in their criminal justice system, but just to think that in my own country, 60-70 years ago, that this was possible, and that this kind of ugly stain on American history, is what ironically started one of the most gay-positive art movements of the last 100-150 years. That to me was kind of fascinating and infuriating at the same time. Ginsberg is somebody who, I’ve realised as I’ve gotten older, all the musicians, all the artists that you fell in love within your high school and university, college years, those are the ones that stay with you for life, like when it’s a rainy day, and you have a task to do, you don’t always put on the new stuff you just heard about, you go to the same seminal 5 or 6 albums that changed your life when you were 19 – which is great for me cause it’s all back in vogue right now – but the same thing with artists, theirs are the books you buy when you’re 20 that stay with you forever.
Alan Ginsberg’s book I found when I was a closeted kid, in a suburban town in the states, I was 15-16 years old, I hadn’t come out to anyone, and somebody came out anonymously to the high school newspaper, and the reaction in my school was ‘who’s the f**king faggot we’re gonna kill him’ and I was so shocked, so terrified that I put a clamp down on my own personal self-discovery, and deciding that I would have to wait until I could leave this town and go to college before I can really figure out who the hell I am. Then I remember hearing somebody talk about Allan Ginsberg as a gay poet in a derogatory way like ‘that gay poet’ and of course to me, at the age of 15, I went gay poet? Where, who? Where can I find this guy? I drove all the way to the bookstore in the shopping mall, to the poetry section (when there were still bookstores – you couldn’t look all this stuff up on the interwebs, you had to do it in person) and I remember reading a collected volume of Alan Ginsberg’s works, and it felt like I was reading a dirty novel in the back of the book store, and I was going to get caught somehow, by somebody I knew, or one of my parent’s friends, but in it, his work was so open and so brave about his sexuality, about his thoughts on the country, and his thoughts on his people, and wanting us all to just take off our masks and be who we wanted to be, and I forged that special connection with him and kept reading his work at the age of 15-16, and hoping that one day I could be that brave myself, and be able to tell the story about how he became brave enough to find his own voice and start the beat movement. It was academically fascinating to me, and very personally fulfilling as well.
And what was the experience like finally bringing it all together on screen?
Oh my god we had the best time on set; we had no money, I had like 9 famous people, it was my
first film, but everyone was in such good spirits, you know, cared about this movie just as much as I did, but it was like going back to high school theatre camp, with everybody saying ‘Let’s just put on a show’ and running around the city in period costume, – I shot this faster than any of my student films, at university – Because of that, we shot the movie, and it was very fast for a feature film, which was 24 shooting days, where you’re shooting like 5 pages a day and you know, you have to shoot basically every scene in two hours, every angle, every side. I remember after shooting the movie, Radcliffe said he wished every movie could be shot in 24 days, and I was like ‘are you insane?’ we were like having to run away from the producers in order to get the coverage we needed, but it was so liberating to him and then all of us, when you don’t have that much money, or time, you just gotta trust your instinct, you don’t have time to get nervous about things, or over think things, or, you just you’re working together on a ridiculously insane deadline and you’re just giving it all you’ve got. And a movie about young passion, young creation, and screaming and trying to find your voice, that kind of speed and flurry of emotion and intensity just kinda fit, and it really just started to shape what the voice of the movie was.
We’re all still friends, I had dinner with Radcliffe and Dane last Friday, and then we played stupid card games until 2 in the morning. I call Ben Foster for emotional advice in my life – he’s like my therapist. Everyone in this movie we still keep in touch with, it was just kind of one of those really special experiences.
Did anyone have any ‘diva’ moments, anyone threw any tantrums on set?
Tantrums? On this set? Thankfully, there were no Diva moments allowed. Here’s one of the many reasons, #27 out of the 420 reasons I love Daniel Radcliffe, is that he is one of the most professional and kind people I have ever met, He gets to know the names of everyone on the set, no matter if you’re the director or the production assistant. He says hello to everyone and he treats everyone like a human being, and he refuses to let the filmmaking process ever be about him, ego or personality. And let me tell you something, when you’re the #1 or the star on the call sheet and you act in that manner, it trickles down, and it creates a kind of environment on set where you know that kind of behaviour is not allowed.
You said you had a bunch of famous people on set, a group who are really well known for other things: Harry Potter, Dexter, etc. did you ever have a time when you were worried that their existing character would follow them in this film? Especially with Daniel Radcliffe: playing another lead character with glasses that it might be seen as ‘Oh another harry potter thing’?
Well, the only time I ever had that concern was the choosing of the glasses and making sure the glasses weren’t the same. Otherwise, absolutely not. And you know why? He auditioned for me, and I saw the work and I saw how amazing he was, and if anything it was knowing that I was holding on to this exciting thing and the world didn’t know what was coming for him.
You cast Daniel quite early on right, and then he wasn’t available and you had to come back to him.
So, it must be like 5 years now, Christine Vachon, the legendary film producer who did everything from Kids, to I shot Andy Warhol, Far from Heaven, Boys don’t cry, you name it, all the cool movies coming out of NY in the 90’s the 00’s and now, she came onto the movie like 5 years ago, and we started putting together a cast list back then. I remember coming up with a list of all the young actors who we believed were smart enough and empathetic enough to play a young Alan Ginsberg. When I wrote down the name, Daniel Radcliffe, I thought to myself, hmm that one’s interesting, because the arch of the character Alan Ginsberg in the movie goes from someone who’s kind of been a dutiful son his whole life and only shown the world one side of him, to really finding his voice over the course of the film and by the end of it, having all this anger and passion and love, and showing people, and being a self-proclaimed poet and a rebel, and showing the world that there’s so much more to him than they previously thought, and I was like ‘huh, I wonder if the person Daniel Radcliffe – who I did not know at that time – could identify with this role. So I just sent the script to his agent, and it’s one of those great things where the agent loved it and gave it to Dan, and Dan loved it, next thing I knew I’m having an actor date with him, after seeing him in Equus. This was how long ago it was – Equus in New York City. And the two of us just started hanging out. And he offered to audition for me, and he offered to audition for me. I said ‘of course, are you kidding me?’ What actor offers to audition? What movie star? He wanted to make sure that he fit, that he had all the emotional qualities that I saw when I was writing this movie. It was also a good way, it was my first film, my first movie star. We had to make sure that that working relationship would be good, that that trust would be there. That we could really open ourselves up in front of each other to get the best work that we could out of each other. Obviously, it was a great time. I’ll give you the whole story, it takes another 3 minutes, though.
I’ve got the time if you have the time….
So Daniel Radcliffe auditions for me, and I tell Christine ‘I think I wanna cast Dan’ and she called his agent and his agent said Dan would love nothing more, but I need to remind you that he’s not available for 2 more years, he’s got two more HP films to do, and we had a potential investor who did not want to wait two years, and so I went with my other first choice for the movie which was the actor Jesse Eisenberg, So I built a whole cast around Jessie with actors that I really loved: Ben Whishaw as Lucian, Chris Evans as Kerouac, Lukas Haas as Burroughs, and we put that version of the movie together. But that financier that we had, ended up being a fraud, as many independent financiers, I’ve discovered in life, often happen to be, and disappeared. There went the money for our film. We found another potential investor and they decided ultimately to pick another project over this one, and there went that money. Then the Social Network came out, and all of a sudden Jessie became this huge Internationally known household name, and we had new investors calling us, but then Jessie called me, and told me that after SN he felt like he had just played the most iconic ivy league student in his life and that it was time for him to play grown-ups now. Which was fair, but now I had no movie and no movie star. The whole movie looked like it was done. And I looked at the calendar and realised it has been two years since I talked to Daniel. I did what they always tell you never to do, he had written me an email, right after our first meeting, telling me what a great time he had, I had an email address.
So I wrote him at 2 in the morning, this long, ex-girlfriend-pleading email, begging him if he still remembered me or the project, wanting to do it, and I hoped that he didn’t think I was stalking him (Oh my god I just used the word stalking!) So I wrote this monster mammoth email and pressed send. And then went Oh my god, what have I done? The next morning I wake up and look at my inbox and there’s an email from Daniel Radcliffe. The answer to the question would you still like to be part of this movie, there’s a one-word response: Absof**kinglutely. So with that email, I began to build the movie and the cast around Dan. So he’s been by my side helping me get this movie made, specifically, really by my side the last 3.
It’s certainly an excellent film, I was in tears in some parts, rolling on the floor in others.
Thank you, it’s my first child, so that means a lot.
Now all your darlings are dead, I’d like to know what’s next for you?
I’m working with Fox Searchlight, bringing an adaptation of one of my favourite stories, called standard loneliness package, by an author Charles Yu, and that’s being written right now. I wrote a script for Fox, A contemporary retelling of an old Terrance Stamp movie called the Collector. I’m always looking with Dan to see if there’s a way we can work together again.
Kill Your Darlings is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray across the UK and from Amazon and Apple Store
Australian photographic artist living in a small city in Germany. I travel a lot around Europe and blog about my travels, as well as photograph the cities and people I meet.