John Krokidas on the set of Kill Your Darlings with Daniel Radcliffe
Allen Ginsberg as an awkward Columbia student from working class Paterson, NJ is far removed from the bearded and beaded, poet-rebel-maverick of the popular imagination. Yet, Ginsberg's formative years, minus most of the hair and some of the shock, are what take the spotlight in John Krokidas' Kill Your Darlings. Daniel Radcliffe plays Ginsberg opposite Dane DeHaan in a jazz-infused trip through the birth of the Beats, where the road to fame is punctured by murder.
Ginsberg is the central figure in a story revolving around himself, Lucien Carr, Jack Keroouc and William S. Burroughs in the waning years of World War II. Ginsberg's mother Naomi (Jennifer Jason Leigh) suffers from paranoid delusions, while his father, a poet and schoolteacher, is unsympathetic. Her care is left on Ginsberg's shoulders, though he enrolls at his dream school, Columbia, where he meets the dashing Lucien (Dane DeHaan) who impresses the young Ginsberg after he jumps onto a desk in the library and launches into erotic prose via Henry Miller. Ginsberg, meanwhile, becomes increasingly disillusioned with the official poetry espoused by his Columbia professor. Lucien introduces him to the jazz clubs of Greenwhich Village and literary salon of his “friend” David (Michael C. Hall). Also in the mix is a nitrous oxide inhaling William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and, later, Kerouac (Jack Huston).
But Lucien's complicated relationship with David is a tinderbox in the making. David is obsessed with Lucien and increasingly jealous of his relationship with Ginsberg, who is, meanwhile, at pains to produce writing for Lucien's nascent “alternative” literary movement dubbed New Vision. The mix explodes one fateful night as Lucien confronts a desperate David.
FilmLinc Daily spoke with director John Krokidas about the making of Kill Your Darlings ahead of the film's release this week. Krokidas shares how he talked down his cast, some of whom were nervous about taking on such “cultural titans” as the Beats. Nearly a decade in the making, the film almost never made it to the big screen, but one midnight email to star Daniel Radcliffe gave the project a fresh start after coming to a screeching halt.
Kill Your Darlings opens at Film Society of Lincoln Center on Wednesday.
FilmLinc Daily: You have such a stellar cast, which makes it all the more impressive considering this is your first feature film. How did all of that come together?
John Krokidas: [Producer] Christine Vachon came onto the project five-and-a-half years ago and the cool thing about that was that Austin [Bunn], who co-wrote the script with me, had also co-written her second book and it was one of those things where we were feeling insecure about the script. So we thought, should we just send her this script?
FD: So it was sort of like you just sent the script without a heads-up?
JK: Yes! It was us literally making a bold move, not knowing if the script would end up in a pile or not. One of the most exciting moments in my professional life was having Christine Vachon flying out to Los Angeles, where I was living at the time, and meeting with me and convincing me to [also] produce the movie. But anyway, she came on five-and-a-half years ago and once she did, we started getting a lot of great actor response to the script. And then it came to being about who I wanted in the cast. I wrote down a list of people who I really admired and wanted to work with and Daniel Radcliffe was an idea that sounded so special to me, even though I had never met him in person.
The arc of the character is going from a dutiful person everyone thinks they know and only showing one aspect of himself to, by the end of the movie, showing the world there's so much more to him than they ever knew. [Ginsberg was] a self-proclaimed poet, artist and a rebel. I thought at the time how cool it would be if Daniel Radcliffe could relate to this character and I wondered whether he'd want to do this movie. Then Daniel's agent read [the script] and liked it and then Daniel read it and liked it.
So then I flew to New York to meet with him there while he was doing Equus [on Broadway]. Sitting down with actors is like a first date. I knew as a first-time filmmaker I'd have to get someone who would trust me implicitly and whom I could get along with as a person as well as an artist, because we were going to have to shoot this movie in such a short amount of time and I'd have to build that relationship with the actor before we even began shooting.
Michael C. Hall and Daniel Radcliffe in a scene from Kill Your Darlings
FD: So how did the meeting go?
JK: Daniel is so smart and funny and such a compassionate person. We both have similar operating systems in the way we take our personal tragedies and use them as humorous anecdotes for the rest of the world to enjoy. We ended up gossiping and shared all these intimate secrets about ourselves with each other just on the “first date.” We've all had these “first dates” that end up being so magical. And then he offered to audition for me. He said he wanted to make sure that I thought he was the right actor for the role. It was not just surreal, but also a testament of his character in all the right ways. The truth of the matter is you're auditioning for each other, too, and it gave us both a chance to see what it would be like to work together and whether our relationship was going to be fruitful. We ended up doing this audition in some Midtown corporate board room and did these improvs with each other.
I don't typically start seeing actors when I write, but I started seeing him come to life. I started thinking, “Dan would be amazing in this role.” The problem was that [at the time] he had two more [Harry Potter] movies to do, as his agent reminded me and Christine—and they definitely had to be made of course [laughs]—and he would not technically be available for two years. We had a potential investor at the time who definitely didn't want to wait for two years.
But the other person who auditioned for me in Los Angeles and really knocked it out of the park was Jesse Eisenberg. He's such a wonderful actor. The character was such a different person in his hands, but he made it so real and honest that I thought I could build this character around him. So I built the cast around Jesse. But then that financing that we had suddenly fell apart—so many of these independent financiers do, as I've learned over the past ten years. Raising money for this was so hard until The Social Network came out and then Jesse became a household name and investors wanted in on the project.
But then Jesse called me and very honestly told me that he thought he had just played the most iconic ivy league kid he'd ever play in his life and he wanted to play grown ups now. So, Jesse was off the project, I didn't have financing, and I didn't have a lead actor. I remembered that Daniel had given me his email address. I did what you're never supposed to do as a director. I looked at the calendar and saw that two years had already passed, so I decided to write him an email. I said, “I don't know if you remember me, I hope you don't think I'm a stalker…” and just asked him if he was still interested in doing the movie. He wrote me back the next day and said “abso-fucking-lutely.”
We then did chemistry reads and Dan and Dane blew it out of the park.
FD: This period and subculture has taken on such a legendary status—it must have been daunting to tell a story about the Beats.
JK: Only in the beginning. It was daunting in the beginning when my co-writer Austin [Bunn] and I felt we had to live up to the legends they had later become. But we realized after reading biographies and doing extensive research that, hold on a second, the whole point why we want to make this movie is to not put them on a pedestal, but to show awkward 17, 18, 19 year olds—like all of us—who went to college and want to do something original and authentic and different from our parents. They wanted to do something with their lives. We didn't want this to be a biopic. We wanted it to be a birth-of-an-artist story. So we wanted them to be as awkward and insecure as they actually were…
I said this to the actors, and I was very diligent with them, because I could see some of them getting caught up and nervous about playing these legends. I said, you know, you're not playing Allen Ginsberg with a beard. You do not have beads around your neck. You have not found Eastern Religion. You're a closeted gay teenager from working class Patterson, NJ who's got an emotionally ill mom and you're the only one taking care of her. And you just got into your dream college in New York City. It's a mecca of jazz and culture, but you have to still take care of your crazy mom. You up and moved and you just met the most beautiful boy in your life. These are universal things we can all relate to. I think this kept us from being scared of having to live up to the legends and really relate to looking at who they were at this time in their lives.
The really cool thing is that Ginsberg kept extensive diaries, which Austin and I later found. You know those pretentious conversations we had in college at 3am? Well, he wrote them all down. He transcribed their nights together and every drug he tried almost like a scientist. You could see the evolution of who he was becoming.
John Krokidas, Dane DeHaan, and Daniel Radcliffe on set
FD: So were there moments that you wanted to keep faithful to those diaries? Or did you use creative latitude in order to encapsulate that period and what they were experiencing?
JK: One thing that was really cool was that we “broke” into Jack Kerouac's college apartment. We kept ringing the buzzer until someone let us in and then we knocked on the door and there were Columbia students living there and they had no idea they were in Jack Kerouac's apartment. So we went to the physical places where they were and we had the facts of what happened from journals, documents, verbal accounts, etc. But then what you have to do is create the emotional tissue in between the facts, which was important to us. We had to understand that ourselves so I could describe that to the actors.
The only scene in the movie that is fictionalized—but true to the nature of the conversations Allen and Lucien had railing against Columbia University, the Western classics, and authority and the books that they were not allowed to read—is that the Beats never broke into Columbia's library and stole books. However, the co-writers of the movie may have done something similar at Yale University. But that is an example of taking the dialectic going on between the characters at the time and making it into an action piece for film. Let's face it, listening to two 19 year olds going on and pontificating about art until 3am is going to sound like the most pretentious people you've ever seen in your whole life. But the point of this movie is to make these characters as unpretentious as possible. I wanted to make this time as universally relatable as possible.