“Kill Your Darlings” is the first feature by NYU Film School graduate John Krokidas, who directed the script, which he co-wrote with Austin Bunn, about the origin of the Beat movement—represented by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs—during their time on the campus of Columbia University in the 1940s. And as it turned out, the movement was spurred by a tragedy—a murder committed by one of their number, Lucien Carr.
During a recent Dallas interview, Krokidas discussed how the screenplay developed. “I’ve been a big fan of the Beats, like most people, since adolescence.” he said. “And my college roommate Austin is also a huge fan. I think both of us found Allen Ginsberg at a time when we were still closeted and figuring out who we were as people. I just remember my first month of being at high school—somebody came out anonymously to the school newspaper. The reaction was scary, and it was very apparent that I was going to have to put my own self-development on hold until I could leave high school and perhaps go to college. And then somebody mentioning Allen Ginsberg as being a gay poet in a derogatory way, of course to me that meant ‘Where is this guy and how do I find him?’ And just being in admiration of how brave he was, and not just about his sexuality but his heart, his passion, his politics…being your true authentic self. That’s a cultural revolution I always identified with.
“So when my best friend Austin tells me this story ten years ago about this murder that was the thing that really caused these three guys to stop just being college students dreaming about doing something with their lives, and go off and really start writing and starting a revolution, I had never heard the story before, and I was curious as to why it hadn’t been told. So it started off with the event, and we branched off in terms of what story we’re trying to tell. And when we looked at all these characters…the person with the largest amount of growth was really Allen Ginsberg. At the beginning of the movie…he’s the good boy, the dutiful son. And by the end he’s the one who actually puts pen to paper and starts the revolution by writing about the murder…. So the ‘birth of the artist’ story—that was what was interesting to us…as young artists ourselves.”
The film is not only a debut for Krokidas, but another step away from the image of Harry Potter for Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Ginsberg alongside Dane DeHaan’s Carr, Ben Foster’s Burroughs and Jack Huston’s Kerouac. And Krokidas enthusiastically talked about working with them and the rest of the cast, which includes David Cross as Ginsberg’s father, Jennifer Jason Leigh as his mother, Kyra Sedgwick as Carr’s mother, Elizabeth Olsen as Kerouac’s girlfriend and John Cullum as a Columbia professor.
“I studied acting at Yale, and American Studies,” he noted. “I was a horrible actor myself—I realized this after getting cast as ‘knave number five’ one too many times. But in directing this movie, my first film, all that acting training came into practice. I was able to talk to all the actors and ask ‘What method have you trained under, and how do you like to work?’ And ‘What have your good experiences with directors been, and your bad experiences with directors been?’ They were shocked to hear me asking those questions, because no one had ever asked them before. I realize now…that the best advice I can give to young directors is to take acting classes. Once you’ve learned how vulnerable you feel on stage or in front of a camera and how the best acting is when the actor’s emotions are the character’s emotions, if you can create an environment where they feel that comfortable to really express themselves and open up and communicate with them in the language in which they’ve trained, that means so much to them. Because in away directing is kind of like cooking a seven-course meal, because all of them have trained a different way, and you’ve got to treat each one a little differently, but you have to serve them all at the table at the same time.
“I got my dream cast for this movie. I feel like I won the lottery and then took a dollar from that winnings and won the lottery again. Daniel Radcliffe was an idea that I had when I was running down the list of my favorite actors under the age of twenty-five. I knew that the actor would have to be smart enough and empathetic enough that we’d believe he could become Allen Ginsberg, the one that we know and admire later on in life. And when I looked down at the name of Daniel Radcliffe, I said to myself, ‘The arc of Allen in this movie is someone who goes from the dutiful son, who’d only showed one side of himself to the world, to being an artist, a poet and a rebel by the end of the film—who’d shown everyone that there’s so much more inside than they thought they knew.’ I didn’t know Daniel Radcliffe at this point, but I wondered if Daniel Radcliffe the person could relate to this. And so we sent his agent the script, and the next thing I knew, I was flying to New York to meet him while he was doing ‘Equus.’
“You have these things called ‘actor dates.’ They’re really like first dates. You know in five minutes whether there’s chemistry there. This was my first movie, and I was going to have to work with movie stars, and I was kind of terrified. I knew that there had to be chemistry there and that I’d have to know that actor trusted me. Dan and I spent like five hours that first time together, sharing secrets about each other, and I realized that if we were at that place where we were sharing secrets on our first date, we could build that level of trust.
“And he offered to audition for me. This is just a testament to his character. He wanted to make sure that I thought that he had the right colors to play the role that I’d been watching, imagining in my head for so long. And so we did a couple of improvs. We did two scenes, and I saw that character I’d been writing come to life right in front of me.
“We did a lot of rehearsal—I fought for that, because this movie was shot in twenty-four days, which meant we only had a couple of hours for each scene. Some of the scenes we shot in twelve minutes. And because there wasn’t going to be a lot of time on set, I wanted to get to know each actor personally as much as I could beforehand, and then to start rehearsing with them. With Dan—and this is again a testament to how hardworking he is—we met once a week for two months while he was on Broadway, doing ‘How to Succeed,’ and we started just doing accent work together, vocal work, but then he said something really poignant, which is that he wanted to approach this movie like it was his first movie too, and learn a new method of acting. And he’s so bright and so intellectual, we used mostly Meisner, which is about focusing your intention on the other actors…and it gets you out of your head and makes you more present—that in combination with some physical work and vocal work. And it really gave him a new system to approach breaking down a script and creating a character.
“Then we had one week of rehearsal, and I stole the method—I’m sorry, bad artists steal, good artists borrow—I borrowed a method from Francis Ford Coppola to improv scenes that aren’t in the script, because if you do scenes from the script everyone starts getting terrified. ‘Oh, no, what if we create the magic here and can never replicate it?’ So with Jack Huston [who plays and Elizabeth Olsen, we did their first date. And it just provided a chance for everyone to start feeling out their characters and building really organic connections with each other. And some of the improvs were so good I ended up stealing them—borrowing them—and putting them into the actual movie.”
He compared the process to war movies in which the actors go through boot camp together before shooting: “We obviously weren’t in a bunker. But we were in New York City, the land of the Beats. And we got to spend a lot of time with each other. And we threw a kick-off party in the spirit of the Beats. I don’t know what happened, because I had to leave early! But we really formed a great community before we went and started filming.”
The shoot included scenes filmed on the actual campus of Columbia University, which has only rarely given such permission to filmmakers. “Columbia really loved the script, and they knew we didn’t have too much money,” Krokidas explained. “They gave us the permission to shoot in so many of the actual locations in which the events of the movie took place….We got to film in the classrooms where they attended class. It just brought so much authenticity to the film.”
Krokidas emphasized, however, that “Kill Your Darlings” isn’t a hermetic work designed for those already fans. “You don’t even need to know the Beats to like this movie,” he said. “This could just be a movie about a kid named Al and a kid named Jack and a kid named Bill and the adventures that they had in college, and then the murder that they experienced and grew from. We wanted…to replicate what it feels like to be seventeen and eighteen and to want to do something to change the world…and then to go through this first kind of loss and sense of heartbreak and tragedy.
“I made this movie not just for Beat lovers, but specifically for a young audience, to let them know that it’s their turn, that like these guys they’re dreaming of doing something to change the world…and they can do it.”
Even before the release of “Kill Your Darlings,” Krokidas found himself selected by Variety as a director to watch. “I had literally just finished the film…and to find out that I’d won that—after a decade trying to get my first movie made—to see that was the first demarcation that, ‘Oh my God, the dream is really coming true,’” he remembered. “It made my mother proud, that’s for sure.”
And he added that when he read the list of other recipients, he thought, “Oh, boy, no pressure for the second one now.”