People can often quote their favorite works by the artists they most adore, but rarely do they fully know their coming-of-age struggles, and the emotional hardships they had to overcome as they were finding their way in the world. First-time feature film writer-director John Krokidas relatably and emotionally poured his own experiences into the struggles he had to overcome to get his debut movie made into the story of the maturing of the founders of the Beat Generation. Krokidas’ debut film, ‘Kill Your Darlings,’ which opens in select theaters tomorrow, is a humanizing exploration into the at-times traumatizing experiences that inspired the esteemed poets.
‘Kill Your Darlings’ follows Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), a dutiful son determined to break free his hometown of Patterson, New Jersey. After being accepted into Columbia, his father, Louis (David Cross), a working-class poet, encourages him to leave his emotionally ill mother, Naomi (Jennifer sJason Leigh) and pursue his own creative dreams.
While at Columbia, the shy Allen is immediately drawn to Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), who embodies daringly modern ideas and attitudes. The unsophisticated Allen is immediately brought into Lucien’s group of friends, including William Burroughs (Ben Foster), the scion of a wealthy family, and David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), who also admires Lucien and resents Allen’s new connection with him. Lucien uses his charisma to pit David and Allen against each other, while never quite acknowledging his true feelings for either one.
While the two are busy competing for Lucien’s attention, he is once again drawn away to another emerging writer, the tough, cocky Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). Cohabiting with Edie (Elizabeth Olsen), the older, wilder scribe’s oversized persona surprisingly encourages Allen’s poetry. The founders of the beatnik generation do their best to subvert authority with reckless adventures, but their liberating rebellion leads to deadly consequences.
Krokidas generously took the time recently to sit down for an exclusive interview to talk about filming ‘Kill Your Darlings.’ Among other things, the writer-director discussed how the heart of the film’s story is about the birth of a young artist, and being a relatively new artist himself, how he was more interested in telling Ginsberg’s coming-of-ages story than a traditional biopic; how shooting the film independently allowed him not to second guess himself and his decisions, as the short shooting schedule made him stop thinking about what he could be doing better; and how he had hi dream cast for the film, particularly Radcliffe, because the actor fits into the movie’s theme about someone showing the world their true, mature voice.
ShockYa (SY): You co-wrote the script for ‘Kill Your Darlings’ with your former college roommate, Austin Bunn. Why did you decide to pen the screenplay together, and what was the overall experience like of writing as a duo?
John Krokidas (JK): When Austin came to me with the idea for this 10 years ago, he had become an established short story writer and playwright. He told me the idea about telling the story of how these authors came together. I had never heard the story before, and knew many people hadn’t heard it, either.
He wanted to write the story as a play, but I hard, of course, had seen the images of a movie popping up in my head. I had just gotten out of film school, so I said, “You’re not going to do this as a play. We’re going to make this as a movie, and we’re going to work together as friends for the first time.”
SY: Since ‘Kill Your Darlings’ focuses on Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr’s time at Columbia University and their time launching the Beatnik generation, what research did you do while you were preparing to write the script?
JK: I did an incredible amount of research, since it’s a true story about three incredible artists we admired so much. Not only did we pour through all the biographies and newspaper articles on them online, I also went to the Ginsberg archives at Stanford University.
We also broke into Jack Kerouac’s old apartment building, (laughs) and knocked on the door. We found out where it was. It was funny, because there were Columbia students living there, who had no idea they were living in Jack Kerouac’s apartment. But they let us in.
It was great, because we went to so many of the locations where this movie took place. Since Austin and I had the chance to be in those locations and feel their history, it really helped us inform and write the scenes. It helped us figure out visually and on the page what the scenes were going to be.
SY: Besides scribing the biography romance drama, you also directed it as well. Was it always your intention to both write and helm the film? Do you feel that penning the screenplay helped in your directorial duties?
JK: Having gone to film school, I had made two short films there. The big question wasn’t do I want to direct a feature, but what I wanted my first feature to be. The idea of not only collaborating with my best friend, but also that the story is so potent, appealed to me.
For me, the heart of the story is about the birth of a young artist. Being a relatively new artist myself, that was something I was so much more interested in telling, more so than a traditional biopic, for example, of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. To me, the emotional and cultural forces that caused these guys to all of a sudden stop talking about doing something important with their lives at 19, and then start doing it, was a story worth telling.
SY: As a first-time feature filmmaker yourself, did you understand the writers’ emotions and coming-of-age story at all?
JK: Austin and I knew we had this story of murder, and what happened ended up on the front page of the New York Times. The question was, what story do we tell in the film? The one that I had emotionally connected to the most, and I knew I could tell and bring to life, was being a young artist, and wanting to do something different from what your parents told you and what you learned in school It’s about finding your own voice.
Obviously, since that’s the place I’ve been int he past 10 years, the story meant a lot to me. The movie’s very personal.
SY: While Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr and the other writers featured in the film are known for their literary works, ‘Kill Your Darlings’ showcases them as insecure adolescents and young adults who were trying to figure out their greatness before they became writers. Why did you decide to focus on their coming-of-age story, instead of their later years as successful writers?
JK: I had seen so many traditional biopics that take the greatest hits of a person’s life, and try to find a theme throughout, to say something about the person. But what I really wanted to tell was, what makes an artist an artist? What happened in their youth that made them decide to rebel against society, and to do something different with their life and find their voice? That’s the story that meant something to me.
To do it from the perspective of someone who’s 18, 19-years-old, it didn’t feel like a stuffy movie that we’ve seen so many times before. I wanted it to be young and rebellious and fresh. The joke is that we like to call this the real ‘Dead Poet’s Society.’
SY: ‘Kill Your Darlings’ is the feature film you’ve worked on, after writing and directing such shorts as ‘Shame No More’ and ‘Slo-Mo.’ What was the process of making the transition from the short films to a feature like, and do you feel that your shorts influenced the way you shot ‘Kill Your Darlings?’
JK: Well, the insane thing is, this movie was shot in 24 days. Each scene was done in a couple hours or less. I actually had more times on my short films in school than I did on this feature! (laughs)
But having to work that fast, and knowing that sometimes you’re not going to get what you want because of the resources that you have, and then being able to use what you have in front of you, in order to make the movie come true, that was a skill we used everyday on this movie. When you have such little time, and you’re looking at the resources in front of you and the actors and locations you have, you’re reconfiguring the scene with the tools you actually have.
There was one night at Columbia University, because of a production mishap, we were actually shut down for several hours before we thought we were going to be. But because I had gone to film school, and being able to think on the fly, I was able to work it out.
It was the scene where Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan are sitting on the Columbia University steps, and Daniel is telling Dane not to leave school. We shot that scene in 12 minutes. What you don’t see, and this is very much like film school, the crew is wrapping up the equipment behind us, and keeping the people who are trying to shut us down at bay. I ran into a corner with the cinematographer (Reed Morano) and the two actors, and we shot the scene in one take without stopping.
SY: Speaking of shooting at Columbia University, what was the process of creating the look of the film with your production designer, Stephen H. Carter, to capture the mid-1940s feel of New York City?
JK: Getting the chance to film at Columbia University and in New York City was everything, since this is such a New York story, and a part of New York history. Believe it or not, what’s great about shooting in New York is that people left us alone. We didn’t have trailers or fancy entourages on this movie; t was a bunch of us sitting on stoops and running around New York City, making a movie.
New Yorkers were so supportive. You feel the strength of the film community here, that looks out for each other. Also, the built-in production value you get when you’re shooting a New York story in New York. I would shoot in New York in a heartbeat.
One of the great things that our location manager discovered is when you don’t have much money to shoot in New York City, the best places to shoot are in religious institutions. They have all the great period moldings that you need. So we ended up taking over a convent in Hell’s Kitchen, for example, and we made it our mini-studio for a week-and-a-half.
SY: Since you shot the film independently on such a short schedule, how did that influence your create process on the set?
JK: The best thing about shooting the film that fast is that Daniel said he loved filming it in 24 days, because it was the most freeing thing for him. None of us had the time to over think or second guess ourselves. When all you know is that you only have time for one take, and you have to get it right, you stop thinking about what you could be doing differently and better. You just have to go with your heart and gut, and trust yourself that you’ll get what you can on the film.
SY: ‘Kill Your Darlings’ features a diverse cast, including Daniel, Dane and Michael C. Hall. What was the casting process like for the main actors?
JK: This is my dream cast; I’m still in shock I got these actors to do this. Daniel is someone I thought of for the role years ago, because the movie is really about someone showing the world their voice, and there’s more to them than the world previously knew that they had. I had a feeling that Daniel would be able to relate to this.
We met and got along, and then he offered to audition for me. Who does that? In the audition, he was so good. There were so many colors that he brought to the audition that I hadn’t seen in his previous films before. So I knew I wanted to cast him.
Once we had Dan in place, we did an old-fashioned Hollywood chemistry read with several young actors, to figure out who our Lucien Carr should be. Dane just walked into the room and blew us away. As a rule, you’re told as a director to never offer an actor an offer in the room. Dan and I were sitting there, saying “Oh my God, he’s the one, what do we do?”
So I asked the question all directors are supposed to ask when you’re interested in an actor, which is “What is your life like the next couple of months?” Dane just leaned back against the wall and gave me a cocky smile and said, “I don’t know, you tell me.” That just cinched the deal, as the character is one of the most charismatic and cocky young men in the world.
Then after we cast Dane, we got Michael C. Hall. We wrote the role of David for him, so to have him in the film is an honor. Ben Foster is also one of my favorite actors of all time, and I heard that he had an infinity for William Burroughs. With Elizabeth Olsen, I had just seen her in ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene,’ and I was just lucky she wanted to do a period piece.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is an actress I’ve worshiped for decades. My boyfriend reminded me that when I was asked 10 years what actress I wanted to work with the most, and I said Jennifer. It was amazing to get this kind of response from these actors. I was very lucky.
SY: Were you able to have a rehearsal period with the actors before you began shooting?
JK: I was, and I insisted upon that. I come from an acting background, as I studied acting in school. But I was a horrible actor myself, and realized this when I was cast as the mute in ‘The Fantasticks.’ Everyone else was walking around and singing, and I was stuck in the background, having to mime walls for two-and-a-half hours. So I thought, maybe this isn’t my future. (laughs) Maybe the universe was trying to tell me something.
But because of that, I knew I wanted time with the actors, since we would be shooting so fast. Then they could get a feel for their characters, and build their relationships with each other. So we built in a week where we not only read the script together, but I stole the method from Francis Ford Coppola where I had them improv scenes that aren’t in the script. Like with Jack Huston and Elizabeth, since they play a couple, I had them improv their first date.
That way, the actors could organically start to feel out their characters and build relationships with each other. Some of those improvs were so good, we ended up using them in the film.
SY: Do you feel that having acting background influences the way you work with actors now?
JK: One hundred percent, because you know how emotionally vulnerable you are in front of a camera or on stage. I respect actors so much, because the best acting is when the actor’s emotions are the character’s emotions. They’re showing you all their heart and soul, so I just want to provide the most comfortable atmosphere for my actors. I want them to know that I trust them 150 percent. I find that’s how I’m encouraged to be the best artist I can be, and I want to share that encouragement with them.
SY: You mentioned earlier using Francis Ford Coppola’s method of using improv during rehearsals. Is he one of the filmmakers you admire, and are there any other directors you have influenced your movies?
JK: Absolutely. I’m Italian and Greek, and the Italian-American trinity of the 1970s-(Martin) Scorsese, Coppola and (Brian) and (Brian) De Palma-were always big favorites of mine.
But also, for this movie in particular, one movie I used as a reference point was Peter Jackson’s ‘Heavenly Creatures.’ It’s Kate Winslet’s first movie. It’s also a true story of murder, and that feeling of adolescent love when you’re 17-years-old, and love means everything in the world to you, and you create a special bond. That’s something I wanted to bring to this film.
SY: Would you be interested in shooting bigger budget films in the future, like they did later in their careers?
JK: The size of the budget isn’t relevant to me. This movie took 10 years to make, so you have to be so passionate about what you’re doing. Making movies is so hard. The most important thing to me, again, is working with actors I appreciate and admire, and telling a story that I can spend a couple years working on, and giving it everything that I have into it.
SY: Would you be interested in working with the cast again on another project?
JK: I would work with any of them again in a heartbeat. Under the conditions we were working in, the amounts of trust they had in me as a first-time director, and the performances they gave me, were so astounding. I fell incredibly blessed, and I would work with them again in a second.
SY: Would you be interested in doing another period film in the future?
JK: I was also an American Studies major in college, so American history has always been something that’s been important to me. So yeah, if the right period piece came along, and I had the chance to say something about the era and the story, that always fascinates me.
SY: Do you have any upcoming writing and/or directing projects lined up that you can discuss?
JK: I can’t discuss any of them right now, but hopefully I can talk about them soon. There are a couple of things that I’m chasing after right now, and I’m trying to make happen.
Written by: Karen Benardello