“Kill Your Darlings” is the previously untold story of murder that brought together a young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster) at Columbia University in 1944, providing the spark that would lead to their Beat Revolution. Directed by John Krokidas from a screenplay co-penned with Austin Bunn, the film chronicles the true story of friendship and murder that led to the birth of an entire generation. Opening October 16
, the film also stars John C. Hall as David Kammerer and Dane DeHaan as Lucian Carr.
At the film’s recent press day, Krokidas and Bunn talked about their writing collaboration, how they divvied up creativity responsibilities between structure, character and dialogue, the unique directing approach used with the actors, how 1940’s film noir influenced the look and tone of a film about young people finding their voice and going from conformity to non-conformity, how D.P. Reed Morano’s work and the film’s different musical styles contributed to that vibe, why the inherent contradictions in Ginsberg were exciting to them dramatically, and how they avoided making a traditional biopic because they wanted to restore some of the ambiguity, lust, desire and confusion that is genuinely in the Beat’s history.
JOHN KROKIDAS: Start with the inception.
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 track down the poetry collection. I’d find Allen’s books and read them like they were some secret – like some transmission from the future version of myself. I was a closeted young creative writer from New Jersey so Allen Ginsberg’s work meant the world to me. I had this really strong connection with Allen and the Beat biographies and the Beat history. I had read a lot of the back catalogue and I had come to John with the idea. In terms of the division of responsibility, I would say I would write the first draft and then John would come in. The thing about John is, as you’ll soon learn, he wanted to raise the emotional decibel level on every scene. John wanted the most riveting, the most vital, and least, how to put it, hagiographic version of this story. We didn’t want to take the Beats greatness as a given. John demanded that we write a really emotional roller coaster. So then, we just went back and forth. John talks about it as The Postal Service – like the band – version of producing a script. We were emailing back and forth constantly. We were living in different cities at the time. I was at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop as a graduate student, and John was in New York finishing film school.
KROKIDAS: Austin wanted to do this as a play first. He was a playwright and a short story writer of some renown. We’re college roommates and we shared ideas with each other as college roommates and good friends do. But I, of course, started seeing the movie version of the idea form in the back of my head. I had just gotten out of NYU Film School and started convincing him that the play version would be really flat and undramatic, but as a movie…
BUNN: The Jedi mind trick.
KROKIDAS: This would be amazing. But I would say I’m the structure guy. Coming from NYU’s Film Program, I’m a traditionalist in terms of Sidney Lumet’s find your spine. And Austin is really wonderful with character and dialogue. If anything, he’s on a religious crusade against expository dialogue. I would write these three paragraph monologues for each character expressing their emotion, like that scene where Jennifer Jason Leigh finally turns to Allen to give him advice. I had the two-page monologue version, and Austin 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.
KROKIDAS: Thank you so much. I’m so proud of what Reed brought to this film. I started off originally…the movie is set in 1944 and it’s a murder story. Even in the writing process, I looked up and saw that “Double Indemnity” won Best Picture 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 in the fabric of the movie and start with the jail scene in a place of heightened tension, 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 started looking at noir stylings first, but I thought, “An academic recreation of film noir? Who needs to see that?” And again, going back to spine and theme, 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 – to non-conformity? And, of course, where film noir went in the hands of the French was the New Wave. I thought, “Let’s start off with these controlled, composed, expressionistic lit shots, and then, as the boys are going down the rabbit hole together, let’s take the camera off the tripod. Let’s get some jazzier, free form style.” So I made this book of the 1940’s. I had learned that Ang Lee, when he made “The Ice Storm,” did a 50-page book on the 1970’s with colors, fonts, important historical events, you name it. So I did that with the 1940’s and then gave it to Reed. Now the great thing that I’ve learned on this – this is my first film – is you can do all the academic treatises you want, but then you hire great people. She 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 did this movie in twenty-four days and each scene was done in two hours or less. What I’m amazed by, specifically on her work, is the fact that she has the instincts to be a documentary camera person, but yet is able to light like that at the same time. Lastly, we wanted to make sure this film felt relevant and contemporary today and not just like a dated period piece. Even from the writing phase, we never wanted this to be a traditional biopic.
BUNN: …The greatest hits version of their life.
KROKIDAS: It was looking at Ryan McGinley photographs – contemporary counter culture, young images of today – and then finding what connected them to the 1940’s. What was resonant in counter culture then and today at the same time.
KROKIDAS: Here’s the embarrassing story. Austin and I met freshman year because we were both acting in a production at Yale of “The Lion in Winter.” Neither of us were the greatest actors in the world which is why we went into writing and directing.
BUNN: I think leggings looked better on you than they did on me. That’s what I would say about that.
KROKIDAS: But I trained as an actor as an undergraduate. What you learn is each actor has their own method and their way of [approaching it.] It’s whatever it takes for them to get the emotions to the surface. So when I met with each actor that I cast, I would simply ask them, “Have you trained? How do you like to work? And what don’t you like?” Michael C. Hall gave me one of the greatest lessons in directing, which is, he said, “If what I’m doing is not making you happy, don’t tell me that because that will make me self-conscious and will make me think about what I’m doing. Just tell me to add whatever you want to what I’m doing.” That’s just a great lesson for life. Dan (Radcliffe) and I, when we were working together, would spend time together before production. He was so generous and hard working on this. He wanted to approach this as if it was his first film, which was very poignant to me. And I said, “Would you like to try learning a new method and approach acting in a different style?” And he said, “Absolutely!” So with Dan, he’s so bright and in his head. For the intellectuals, (Sanford) Meisner works really well and focusing your action on what your trying to do on the other characters in the scene. Dane (DeHaan) had trained extensively. What he does is creates a bible for the character and does tons of research before production and then he burns it. He starts becoming the character on set. Ben Foster has something I’ve never seen another actor do, which is once we’ve basically got the scene up on its feet, he goes and does the blocking of the scene by himself in the locations several times. He calls it, “the dance.” Because once he’s memorized the dance and knows the physicality, he doesn’t have to think about it anymore and that’s completely freeing to him. It’s like cooking this huge seven course meal where you have to get everything done at exactly the right time, but every plate needs a little bit of love in a different way. Obviously, I love working with actors. To me, the greatest thing was being able to get this dream cast and then work with them to find how they like to work and what got the best out of them.
BUNN: Can I just add quickly that John, you had a really intuitive 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 19-year-old kids. I think that was really smart, and it released the actors from having to play later decisions in their lives and the kinds of writers they would become. They just got to be young people. I think that was a great relief for them.
KROKIDAS: And for us, too, as writers. We were like, “Oh my God! We’re tackling The Beats! How are we going to do this?”
BUNN: “Our gods forgive us!”
KROKIDAS: But then I had a talk with Jack Huston once, and he and I shared the same feeling, “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 you think may be completely trite and you just want to get out of college and have some real life experience, join the war so you can have real material to write your next book. That’s who you are.” And that just liberated all of us.
KROKIDAS: We did so much research for this. We felt we had to, and I think part of it is our academic background because there’s so much in the biographies. There are so many biographies, rather, of them out there. But then also, we would find different accounts of them out there online, for example, from David Kammerer’s friends. So that relationship between him and Lucien was never portrayed accurately. Lucien actually kept coming back to David, and David was asking him to end the relationship. We may have broken into Jack Kerouac’s college apartment together. We did the New York trick of pressing all the buzzers and then somebody let us in. What’s interesting is Columbia students were living there. They had no idea that they were in Jack Kerouac’s apartment. So we physically went to all of the locations in which this movie took place and that just helped inform our writing process as well as getting to be able to visualize the actual spaces. Add to that, I went to Stanford University, to the Allen Ginsberg archives. It wasn’t about the lack of material out there. If anything, it was about making sure we just focused on who they were up until the point in which the movie takes place.
BUNN: Just to add to that, I would say the people who I know that have seen the film have been really surprised how much is totally accurate. Like the day after the murder, Allen Ginsberg went to the West End bar and “You Always Hurt the One You Love” was playing on the jukebox, and he wrote the poem that ends the film. It ends, “I am a poet.” That’s a line from August 20, 1944. We worked hard to weave it in, but like John was saying before, we didn’t want to do the dutiful, stuffy, every-box-checked biopic that has been around for a while. We wanted to do something that felt more in line with the spirit of The Beats that was more specific and honest and transgressive. And I hope we got there.
KROKIDAS: What I want the audience to leave with is that feeling when we were 18 and 19 years old, just like these guys were in the movie, when everything seemed possible, and you knew that you had something important to say with your life, that you wanted to do something different and unique, 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 20
century is amazing. I’ve had plenty of people come up to me after seeing the movie and say, “This movie made me want to be a better writer” or “This movie made me want to go back and start playing music again.” That, to me, means everything. That’s ultimately, deep in my heart, why I wanted to make this movie.
BUNN: And to think that that changed. The pivot point was this murder. I mean, the idea that I loved Allen Ginsberg for his openness and his honesty, and to think 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 and the shame around that issue. So, that contradiction was really exciting to us dramatically.
KROKIDAS: This movie took, from the time that we started talking about this until the time that we are getting the chance to be with you all today, over ten years to make. And Austin is right. I would say there needs to be something that pisses me off at night. When I really think about it, the thing that kept me going and kept me wanting to tell this story is the fact that in 1944 you could literally get away with murder by portraying your victim as a homosexual. That pissed me off to no end. This isn’t a political movie, and it’s one scene, and it’s obviously what informed how Lucien Carr got away with the murder. But for me, that was the thing that kept me up all night and made me say, “No, I have to tell this story.”
KROKIDAS: Remember my 50-page book because I’m such a nerd? I originally wrote in my academic treatise that I wanted a bebop jazz score similar to Miles Davis’ score for Louis Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows,” because the transition from swing to bebop at this time was exactly what these guys wanted to do with words, go from rhythms 1-2-3 to exploding them into something beautiful. My music supervisor, Randall Poster, said to me, “John, put down your academic treatise. Put down your paper. Go make your movie. Your child is going to start becoming the person that he or she wants to be.” So I went and I made my movie, and then I put jazz music on the film and it didn’t work at all. And then I went and did only period-accurate music and it felt like Woody Allen’s “Radio Days,” which is a great movie, but it’s not the young, rebellious movie about being 19 and wanting to change the world that we wanted to make. So, I actually went back to the playlists that Austin and I used while writing this movie and I used Sigur Ros. I used the lead singer’s solo album, Jonsi’s album, stuff that was timeless but contemporary, and it brought the movie to life. And then, I realized that Nico Muhly, the composer, had arranged all of those albums and worked with Grizzly Bear and Bjork and other people that we were using as temp track. So we got the movie to Nico, and thankfully, he loved it. So now that I knew I had contemporary music in a period film, then we get to that high sequence, I had Heist period music on it. It was so corny. The sequence didn’t work. It didn’t have any stakes to it. And I can academically tell you, well yeah, the Beats led to the Hippies which led to the Punks, and the Punks led to Kurt Cobain in the 90s working with Burroughs and their history with independent alternative music. But the truth is, while I can intellectualize it, you go with what’s visceral and what feels honest and true to you. And when I put that track on, I just stuck my phone into the computer and played that track. It brought the scene to life and gave it the kind of energy and rebelliousness of the spirit of the movie that we had been wanting to write and had been working on so long. So that evolved, too. I think, for me, the biggest lesson for making my first film is do all your homework, do all your research, know what you’re doing, but then don’t be afraid to get out of the way if your movie starts telling you what it should be doing.
KROKIDAS: Thank you.
BUNN: What a great question. If you know any of the Beat history, this New Vision was real for them and they’ve written volumes about it, none of which makes any sense to us. We couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
KROKIDAS: Do you all remember your journals when you were 20 years old or those conversations you had at 3:00 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. With the uninhibited, uncensored expression of the self, that’s actually a credible quote directly from the Ginsberg New Vision Manifesto. 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 history. But in terms of the poetry itself, it was really challenging, because as we all know, there are movies about poets and writers when recitations happen, and they’re really flat and they can be corny. And they’re the time when you tune out of the movie and go, “Okay. I’m waiting for the poetry to end.” Specifically, I think of Allen’s first poem that 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 channel Allen. 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. The audience knows that. You know that. And Lucien finds it out on that boat at that moment. And that really allowed me, gave me permission, to rethink what the poem was going to do and how we’d 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 and going out and finding common speech and repurposing it, creating this kind of Whitman-esque inclusion. So you hear in the poem things that you’ve already heard in the film just like Ginsberg did himself. Things like “Allen in Wonderland” are reworked in the poem. “Unbloomed stalwart” is the very thing that David said to him in the party. So we’re 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.
KROKIDAS: Radcliffe is such a hard worker. While he was on Broadway doing a musical, we would meet once a week for two months, before even pre-production and rehearsal began, to work on the accent and to work together. And so, I have him on my iPhone reading “Howl.” We didn’t look at the later recordings. We looked at the earliest vocal recordings possible of Allen Ginsberg to make sure that we were capturing the voice of who he’d become, but [also] his voice at that time and what his reading voice was like. And then, to be honest, it was just telling the actor, “You’re not performing a poem. You are letting Lucien know that he is loved with this poem and that you love him and that you can see inside him. And it’s playing the emotion underneath the poem which was the direction.
KROKIDAS: I think this is a movie of every character discovering what their sexuality is – gay, straight, bi, all over the place – and more importantly, whether or not they’re worthy of being loved. I personally don’t know if Lucien Carr was straight or gay. And, to me, it’s irrelevant, because I’ve seen this relationship play 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 care and nurturing qualities of him very attractive. What happens though is those two get so intimate that ultimately there’s nowhere else to take the relationship but sexual, and when that happens, then the power position in 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. 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 say quickly, too, I think a lot of the biopics we see are denatured of their sexual qualities and the edginess of the relationships in them. I think we were trying to do something that restored some of that ambiguity, lust, desire and confusion that is genuinely in the Beat’s history. So it wasn’t like that. We were not making that up.