By Danny Peary
On Tuesday October 1, at the Waldorf Towers in New York City, writer-director John Krokidas gave me three reasons why he was beaming. It was his 40th birthday. His debut feature Kill Your Darlings had its New York premiere at the Paris Theatre the previous night. And he was looking forward to his film opening the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) this Thursday, October 10, at 7 p.m. at Guild Hall.
Interestingly, Krokidas came together with Austin Bunn, his roommate at Yale, to write about the rocky romance between two other Ivy League intellectuals — Columbia freshmen Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) and Lucien Carr (Dane DeHann) in 1944. The relationship between poet and muse dissolved when Carr stabbed jealous, older hanger-on David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) — a murder that profoundly affected Ginsberg and their pals, burgeoning writers Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster), and hastened the birth of the Beat movement. Krokidas eagerly talked to me about his smart, exceptionally acted, multilayered period piece.
Danny Peary: When did you first learn about the Beats?
John Krokidas: I found them in high school. I was a closeted teenager and read Allen Ginsberg, and he was so open decades before anyone else about being gay as well as his loves, passions, and politics. I wished I could be that brave. Jack Kerouac I loved for his humanist bent and that he wanted to go off and meet people to find the soul of this country. And I loved William Burroughs just for being a radical person who shook everyone off their pedestals. I realize now that it’s the artists you fall in love with when you are young that form the cornerstones of your own cultural identity.
DP: Although you and Austin Bunn were fans of the Beats at Yale, you didn’t write Kill Your Darlings until you were much older than the characters in your script. Were memories of your college experience instrumental in writing about these future writers?
JK: Yes. We remembered the fun and the pretention of staying up until three in the morning debating philosophical ideas, and trying to create our own belief system. I dreamed, like the characters, of starting a countercultural revolution. When you’re 18, it’s romantic to do something different from what your parents and school are teaching you — and have an impact on the world. This is what the movie is about to me.
DP: The most dramatic incident in the movie is Lucien Carr killing David Kammerer, but Allen Ginsberg is the main character of your film.
JK: An event doesn’t make a movie. We looked at all the future Beats at that point in their lives and realized Allen Ginsberg had the most growth and largest arc to his story. He went from being the dutiful son to being the person who writes the story about the murder and gets in trouble at Columbia, and from being a caretaker for his emotionally-ill mother and then emotionally-troubled Lucien to taking care of himself.
DP: Wouldn’t it have been much harder to make Lucien your protagonist because he’s elusive and mysterious, a muse among the writers?
JK: We actually tried. But I couldn’t get myself into the mind of a complex individual who commits a murder. I could, however, get into the mind of a repressed young gay person who yearns to do something important with his life, and falls in love with someone who is charming but never loves him back the way he wants him to. It’s on the ashes of such relationships where you finally get the strength to become yourself.
DP: In regard to your title, are you drawing a correlation between breaking societies’ rules and breaking writing rules as the Beats did?
JK: I think that’s a good read. Austin and I believe emotional violence comes with the birth of a self. When young, you will meet somebody who’s more charismatic and worldly and will see your potential and help you grow — but not as high as themselves. You must remove these people from your life to fully become yourself.
DP: It’s interesting that like you and Austin and your young characters, your actors — Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Jack Huston, Ben Foster, Elizabeth Olson, and even Michael C. Hall — are all on the cusp of breaking through to bigger things in movies.
JK: That’s an incredibly poignant thing that we became aware of during production. These actors willingly took risks for a first-time director. There was something magical at work, and we hoped we were all invoking the spirit of the Beats by trying to express ourselves as we never had before.
DP: Casting Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg was an inspired choice.
JK: He offered to audition for me to make sure that I thought he had the emotional qualities for the role. Dan, who is a poet himself, brought all of the intelligence and sensitivity that I needed to portray the young man who would become a great poet. I watched him bring Allen Ginsberg to life.
DP: Can we ever know the circumstances of the murder? One would think David stalked Lucien until he stabbed him, but Lucien had David write his school papers.
JK: I don’t think we’ll ever really know what happened that night. However, we can surmise that their relationship was co-dependent and toxic. Some say Lucien needed David just as much as David needed him. I think there’s a germ of truth to that.
DP: Are you excited that you’ll be going to Opening Night at the Hampton’s International Film Festival with Dane DeHaan [who portrays Lucien] to present Kill Your Darlings?
JK: What’s happening has been very emotional for me because I’ve been working on this film for 10 years. I’ve never been to the festival. In fact I’ve only been to the Hamptons once, when I was 17, and I spent only a day there. But to be invited to present my movie there was on my wish list and is an extension of the dream that’s coming true at this time. So I can’t wait.
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