2013_Sundance_Film_Fe_Roll_t607It’s somewhat hard to believe that Kill Your Darlings is director John Krokidas’ debut feature film, in what is an accomplished, compelling piece of cinema, of a scandalous murder that drew the renowned poets of the beat generation together. A story we can’t quite believe we haven’t seen on the big screen before – a sentiment that Krokidas echoes himself.

We had the pleasure of sitting down to discuss the title with him – and in spite of his tonsillitis he was suffering from, he discusses the conspiracy theories surrounding this incredible tale and why he chose to tell it from Allen Ginsberg’s perspective as opposed to Lucien Carr’s. He also tells us about his intimate bond he formed with lead star Daniel Radcliffe, and how this cast dramatically changed, from once having Jesse Eisenberg in the main role.

Were you aware of these incredible set of events before getting involved in the project?

No, not at all. My best friend and college roommate told me the story about a decade ago. He was a playwriting student at the time and he shared it with me because he told me he wanted to write a play about it. So I, in my director/Machiavellian way, convinced him that we needed to write this together as a screenplay and make a movie out of it. Because we both idolised these guys, so to find out there was this incredibly sordid tale of murder that really was the crucible for them making the final decisions to stop philosophising about art and become artists themselves, was just a revelation.

Are you surprised nobody has brought this story to the big screen before?

I was, and at the time, this was a decade ago, we were trying to figure out what the movie was, and we spent a lot of time looking in biographies and researching information about it, and it was weird that you’d find like one paragraph in each of the biographies that mentioned the murder. They were very factual and they were written in a very similar way. I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it was a little Manchurian Candidate, they were all written in a very similar fashion. When you continue doing research you’d find accounts from other people, like David Kammerer’s friends, who would say their relationship has been completely misrepresented by history, and that there were other facts to Lucien and David’s relationship, like the fact David apparently tried several times to cut off the relationship, and Lucien kept coming back to him, which you didn’t read in any of the biographies.

Another story, though I don’t know if it’s true or not, but according to one source, Allen and David had sex with each other. I’d be curious to know if that actually happened. Anyway later on we had actually made the movie, I ended up meeting a couple of people who worked with Allen Ginsberg and who own the estate now, and they told me that Allen did write the short story about the murder and it was published in his adolescent journals and his early work. But Allen kept that from being published until after Lucien’s death. Jack (Kerouac) and Bill (Burroughs) obviously wrote a book about the murder as well, which was kept from publication until after Lucien’s death. Basically, Lucien Carr stayed in these guys lives throughout the rest of his life, so the reason why nobody had made a movie or why it hadn’t really been written about, was a pact with Lucien, where they promised that they would respect that he wanted this chapter of his life over and to not be spoken about, and they kept their word until he passed away.

You mentioned that you idolised these guys – it must have been such an enjoyable challenge to create dialogue and scenarios for these people?

It was, but very tough at the same time. At the beginning it was incredibly daunting, and there is so much biographical material on these guys that you can get lost in it. Also, at the beginning of the process we started to feel like we had to somehow represent them as legends, or somehow reflect who they’d later become. But it was incredibly freeing because we were like no, none of us are who we are after we are accomplished people in our 60s and 70s when we’re 21 years old. We’re still awkward, insecure, overconfident, passionate, and trying to figure out who we. So we limited our research to the facts of who these guys were at the time the movie took place. Doing that really gave us a better hold on how to write those characters. But Jack Huston was terrified at first, he wasn’t sure if he could play Kerouac, and I was like, you’re not playing Jack – you’re playing an Ivy League, college athlete who is unhappy with where he is, and wants to experience his life for the first time and has a voice inside of him, and was writing non-stop trying to figure out how to express himself. That made everything more tangible. The thing I’m really proud of, and I’m going to give Austin (Bunn) more credit than me, is that if you look in the way they talk and in the dialogue, there is a lot of 40s slang. I’m just impressed in Austin’s commitment to really try and mimic the way people spoke at that time. The danger of doing a movie about a bunch of Ivy League college students philosophising about art, is that they could potentially be the most pretentious people on the planet, so we had to figure out how to do that as unpretentiously as possible and just making them real life human beings.

You did a wonderful job in not romanticising these people simply because of who they are – but that must have been tough? To make this an honest portrayal, and not glamourise them.

I feel like that’s the danger of biopics in general, and something we wanted to steer away from, to gloss over and just show the greatest hits, and lives that you admire and appreciate, and then try to find a common theme to intersect them. I think what fascinated me on a personal level, was wanting to see my heroes at a time when they weren’t fully formed. I wanted to see the insecurities, their relationships with their parents, their early girlfriends or boyfriends. All of the stuff that helps forge the themes and the work that would later become the great works that we know. But look, I’m a first time filmmaker, part of this was me trying to mimic my own personal journey of trying to find out what my own voice was. You don’t want to put these guys on a pedestal, because then you’re not serving the story and you’re not really creating something that the audience can emotionally participate in.

Considering this was your debut feature, you attracted quite the cast…

It’s funny that people ask me sometimes why I got so many movie stars for my first film, or how I did it, and part of the answer, just honestly, is necessity. It’s so hard to get movies made, especially when you’re a first time director, something I learnt is that in financiers eyes, you’re considered a deadly attachment, and that you need to get actors of a certain name value that will make the film an attractive financial package to the investor. But more specifically, what was really cool is that once we had cemented Daniel Radcliffe as the lead, I admired the casting of The Social Network and how they were able to find all the great young actors who were just emerging of a certain generation, and I made that goal. Honestly, I ended up just casting a lot of people whose work I have admired over the years. My boyfriend brought Dane DeHaan to my attention, but we did chemistry reads with Dan and Dane came in and blew us away. Jack was somebody I admired so much from watching Boardwalk Empire, and I learnt that behind that mask that he has on the show, he has a ridiculously handsome, gorgeous, Errol Flynn like look, who throws himself in characters who are so unlike himself.

Ben Foster I admired for the longest time, I’ll be honest I was terrified at first of working with him because he’s one of the few angry, young men actors out there and I had heard so many legends of him being method and living amongst the homeless for a couple of weeks. Turns out that Ben has the biggest heart out of anyone I know and has become my therapist [laughs]. He would literally check in with me during the shoot and ask me how I was doing. I would give him the ‘everything is going well’ thing, and he’d be like, ‘no seriously John, what’s keeping you up at night?’ He just created this level of trust with me where I could completely open up to him, which is a beautiful thing to have with your actors because let’s face it, as a director you’re asking them to show you their most intimate, emotional details. Michael C. Hall, again, someone from Six Feet Under. He was the only person I met for that role. I met him five years ago when I was first trying to put the movie together. So to find that he was still interested once we finally got the financial backing was amazing. Oh and Elizabeth Olsen… I was blown away after Martha Marcy May Marlene. That was just luck. It turned out that one of our producers had a son who produced that movie, and Lizzy wanted to do a period film as her next film. I really took the time to handpick each of those characters, to find actors who I admire greatly and who I felt could bring an honest emotional core to them as young adults.

Ben-Foster-Daniel-Radcliffe-and-Dane-DeHaan-in-Kill-Your-DarlingsSpeaking about the therapy sessions with Ben Foster… When Daniel Radcliffe auditioned, is it true that the two of you just shared secrets?

Oh my God, he knows everything about me. He knows things about me that my parents don’t even know. We got so close. We spent probably a year with each other before the movie got made while we were raising the money. Specifically, about two months before we started shooting, we would meet once a week while he was doing Broadway, to start working on his American accent. I studied acting as an undergraduate at college. I was a horrible actor, however, it gave me a kind of lexicon in a way of speaking to actors, which I brought up with Dan. One of the questions I like to ask actors is how they like to work, how they were trained – and he had never taken an acting class before. He had been acting on instinct his entire life, just growing up in front of a movie camera. One of the things he said that was really moving to me, was that he wanted to treat it like it was his first film too. He found my approach incredibly freeing and loved it, and in return I started admitting to him that I’d never directed a movie before… what the fuck am I supposed to say to everybody?! Dan has obviously worked with so many directors, so he shared with me his favourite stories of what he thought made a great director and gave me pieces of advice that will hopefully be used for the rest of my career. One of the most important things he told me, is that there will be moments where everything is going wrong, and everyone will be panicking. But even as a director, if you make the wrong decision, don’t let the chaos affect you, be above it. Another simple thing he taught me was to get to know the names of everybody on set. It’s something that is so simple, but yet people don’t often do it. You’re really creating a family, you know, and just getting to know everybody’s name is something I learnt from him.

I read that Chris Evans, Jesse Eisenberg and Ben Whishaw were originally cast as the lead roles. How and when did that dramatic change of casting occur?

That is absolutely true. When I first started meeting actors for this movie, I was making a list of all the young actors that I admired, and Jesse was definitely on the list and so was Daniel Radcliffe. We sent the script to Dan’s agent and they thankfully loved the script and the next thing I know I was having coffee with him. Dan offered to audition for me and this is one of the things I love about that boy, he wanted to make sure that I felt confident that he had the performance in him, that I was going to be happy with it. The two of us spent an afternoon reading through some scenes together and doing some improv games. He’s been playing one role his entire life, but that’s obviously not all that he’s capable of, and just in doing some simple improv with him, there was so many emotions to him that he hadn’t shown the world before. I have been told by my producer before to never offer an actor a role in the room, always wait – which is a very good thing, because in this case we called his agent and it turned out he still had two movies left to do before he was available. So, my other top choice for the role for Jesse, who auditioned and killed it. So we decided to move forwards with Jesse and when you’re building a cast, a casting director once told me that it’s like creating a rainbow. You want to make sure that once you get your lead, that you cast different colours in every role to create an ensemble. So we really cast Chris and Ben around Jesse. We tried to move forward and we had financing at that time. Then that fell apart, and it was tough to get the finance for the movie.

Then The Social Network came out and Jesse became a huge international star and investors started calling us and we had the momentum again and we thought we were going to get this movie made. But then Jesse called me and said that he felt in The Social Network he played the most iconic Ivy League college student that he’ll ever play in his life, and he needed to play grown ups now. That made sense. So now I had no money, no leading man, but I looked at the calendar and it had been two years of trying to get this movie made. So I thought to myself, oh my God, I wonder if Daniel Radcliffe is now available and even remembers me? So I did something which you’re not supposed to do, which was write a desperate email to an actor [laughs] at one in the morning, begging him to be in the film. Crazily enough, the next day I got an email back from him personally, saying abso-fucking-lutely. So because Dan is of a certain age, and a different age to Jesse, I now had to rebuild that rainbow around him. So yeah it’s crazy to think what that movie could have been, and it obviously would have been a much different film. I’m just lucky that both of those casts are excellent ensembles and that I had that kind of actor interest in working with me, I still can’t believe it.

So finally, why did you chose to tell this story from Ginsberg’s perspective?

We actually started off writing it from Lucien’s perspective, in a kind of Talented Mr Ripley, immoral protagonist thing, but there wasn’t much information about Lucien Carr out there, and there wasn’t much of an arc to his character, we couldn’t find our own personal connection, so when I looked at all the characters to see who had the greatest arc over the course of the story, it was Allen. He starts as the dutiful son, taking care of his emotionally ill mother, then by the end of the movie he becomes a rebel dropping out of Columbia, announcing himself as a poet. That relationship with Lucien is one I emotionally connected with and the more I talk about it, the more I think it’s a pretty universal relationship. After you leave home and you go to college or to work, whatever it may be, you meet somebody who is more worldly than you, perhaps better looking, more popular, who sees potential in you that you didn’t even know you had yourself, and starts introducing you to things, whether it’s cool bands, or art, or a profession you never thought you might be interested in, knocking down the walls of possibility of who you thought you were going to be, and starts building confidence in you that you can be somebody else.

The irony though, when I really thought about this relationship, is that on the flip side, these mentor figures, these first loves, they want you to grow, but never to grow as high as themselves. So the big irony is that in order for you to fully become yourself, you have to cut that person out of your life. You have to surpass them. It’s like they tell writing students often, that you have to kill your parents. You know, if you see Buddha in the middle of the road, kill him, kill the king – it’s a popular theme in literature. The fancy way that I talk about it, is the emotional violence that comes with the birth of a self, but on a more pop-psychology level, it’s that first love that you have where you spend all of your emotional energy trying to figure out who they want you to be, that you think you can convince them to fall in love with you if you act a certain way, if you try to be somebody you’re not. But ultimately to become yourself, you have to move on from that relationship and it’s finding yourself and gaining the confidence to be yourself that allows you to discover who you are. So because that was a relationship that I could understand myself, I realised that was the story that this movie needed to be.

Kill Your Darlings is released on December 6th and you can read our review here.