Long before Howl or On the Road or Naked Lunch, a group of young literarily minded men became friends in New York City in the 1940s. Kill Your Darlings, the first feature by writer/director John Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn, charts these friendships and the ways in which the men influenced each other in the years before they became known as the Beats. The film, which stars Daniel Radcliffe as a young Allen Ginsberg, tells the story of Ginsberg’s circle, including William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). Kill Your Darlings illuminates the relationship between Ginsberg and Carr, who influences Ginsberg to begin writing poetry but is probably best known for murdering another member of the circle, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). Kammerer was said to have made unwanted sexual advances toward Carr, and at the time Carr’s actions were described as an “honor slaying,” a characterization the film throws into question.
Kill Your Darlings, described by The Guardian as “an intellectual moral maze, a story perfectly of its time and yet one that still resonates today,” premiered at Sundance in January and opens nationwide on October 16. The Poetry Foundation recently spoke to Krokidas and Bunn by telephone, and an edited, condensed version of that conversation follows.
You two did a lot of research for this film. I thought we could start by talking about the process and what you found in the archives.
John Krokidas: We attacked the research side from all angles. I went out to Stanford University to the Allen Ginsberg archives. What was interesting to me was an account by one of David Kammerer’s friends, who said Kammerer had been maligned by history and that his relationship with Lucien Carr was much more reciprocal than history had portrayed—that in fact several times David Kammerer asked Lucien Carr to stop the relationship and to leave him alone.
Austin Bunn: We went into this knowing something about the murder because it had been in the newspapers. The Lucien Carr murder of David Kammerer was front-page news in the New York Times in 1944, but the story there doesn’t examine any of the psychological aspects. Kammerer is just treated as a homosexual predator, and that’s exactly how Lucien got off.
JK: What struck me in our research was finding from several sources that David Kammerer gave Yeats to Lucien [Carr]. He gave Lucien all the books that Lucien in turn passed on to Allen and Jack [Kerouac] and Bill [Burroughs] as the ethos of the “New Vision,” the founding principles of what would later become the Beat movement.
So he was almost like the muse of the muse.
JK: There you go. To me, that felt unexplored.
Speaking of the New Vision, and Yeats, there’s so much poetry in the film. And it seemed like attribution was, in many ways, up for grabs. We see Lucien Carr and David Kammerer saying each other’s lines, which of course calls into question the source of the line.
AB: In terms of the poetry, we worked hard to create what I think of as seedlings of the writing they’ll do. For example, “first thought, best thought.” That’s very much a Kerouac credo and a Beat credo, and in the film, it comes from Lucien Carr. What we’re trying to do is show that there’s this source, the original well, Lucien Carr—this character who inspired them all to experiment and challenge and transform their writing, so we see the cut-ups happening on the wall at David’s apartment. [We also see] this kind of stoner play-act that Bill, Allen, and Lucien do, which is the seedling of what Bill will go on and do in his own novels. And the true uninhibited, uncensored self Lucien calls out of Allen is what Allen’s poetry will become. We were aiming to create the origin story not just of these characters but of their work.
JK: Also, in the scene in David’s apartment when he begins his speech and then Allen says to Lucien, “Didn’t you just say that before [what David just said]?” and Lucien says, “Yeah, but I said it first”—that was deliberate, to bring into question who’s the pupil and who’s the teacher in that relationship. And for Allen to think, “All those things you just told me where you seduced me in your dorm room 10 minutes ago … they come from this guy?” Since the dramatic question of the film was what happened between Carr and Kammerer, we wanted to put some doubt into the audience’s mind early on.
So much of the movie is about influence. We see the anxiety of influence in Carr’s relationship with Kammerer, and also all these writers influencing each other. I noticed, and tell me if I’m right, what I thought were some of your influences: the New Queer Cinema, say Todd Haynes or Gregg Araki; the 1990s New Queer Cinema’s interest in film noir; and noir itself.
JK: Well, we did have Christine Vachon [of Killer Films, producer of much New Queer Cinema] produce this movie. We are definitely fans of New Queer Cinema. We were just lucky this woman whose films we’d idolized ended up being attracted to this material.
The noir influences for me actually came from trying to put in some period authenticity. I looked at films that played in 1944: Double Indemnity won Best Picture. I realized that 1944, when everything took place, was a high point for American film noir. I said, “Austin, we’re dealing with a crime story here; why not start with this heightened point of tension, flash back to an innocent time, and build to see whether or not they can escape this predestined fate we turn out for them?” Doing that was partly academic, but also knowing we didn’t have much money to replicate the 1940s, we thought to do it within the structure of the film itself.
During the war, when this movie takes place, music was going through this huge transformation. Swing was the popular music of the day, but bebop and an explosion of rhythms were happening in Harlem. Allen and Jack and Bill would sneak away to Harlem to listen to jazz. They were trying to do with rhythms and words and language what musicians were doing with notes and phrases. And in painting, we were going from a very Modernist time to Jackson Pollock’s splatter paintings. In every single one of the arts, things were going from a more structured place to a rebellious, destructured place. We wanted to mirror that arc within the filmmaking itself. Allen ultimately finds his voice by the end of the movie, and his shots are much more handheld, free, and jazzy, whereas Lucien’s are not.
AB: But his shirt is untucked. The idea is that even though he’s kind of composed at the end, he’s starting to become the man we’ve come to know.
There’s a terrific scene with Ginsberg, Carr, Burroughs, and Kerouac in a jazz club, where time slows down.
JK: We had written different kinds of surreal visual landscapes for that scene only to find we could afford none of them. The slow-motion was a practical decision, discovered on set.
To me, that’s where film is like poetry. Formal constraints provide the opportunity to do something you wouldn’t have thought to do if you had more freedom. And the result, the cinematography, is beautiful.
JK: This film took so long to put together, and we constantly had to cut the budget. We had scenes with Jack Kerouac on the football field at Columbia University with hundreds of extras, showing off Jack’s prowess as a football player … and, as the budget got cut, that turned into a moment of tossing the football in Jack Kerouac’s living room.
It reminds you that words are free.
JK: And then the line producer shows up and shows you the cost behind each one.
Were any poems particularly central to the development of the project?
AB: Hmmm…. I love talking about this. In high school, my best friend Mac, the Lucien Carr in my life, gave me a copy of Ginsberg’s journals from the 1940s and 1950s. Ginsberg, as many poets are, was a terrific diarist. The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice [Ginsberg’s published early journals] is really rich and fascinating; you’re watching his mind at work. I can remember reading Allen Ginsberg’s poetry, like a shameful secret I was sharing with this great writer, about what it was like to be gay and what it was like to want to be an artist so badly. That poetry got me through my freshman year.
But back to Ginsberg: In the dead center of this film is a first-draft poem by Allen. It’s his first yawp in the universe. And that was a challenge. What was that poem going to be? We knew we needed to see him clear his throat and prove he had the talent Lucien had been looking for. Because that was fact; this Lucien Carr character convinced Ginsberg he had it in him.
The first thing we did was to take a real poem, you could say the first finished poem of Ginsberg’s, called “Hymn to the Virgin.” We had that in the script, and when it came time for the actors to read it and for us to really get behind that dramatically, we realized it’s just really dense. And it’s Ginsberg trying to ape the lyric poets of the 19th century, almost trying to impress his dad. Literary accuracy or having the right footnote is a very different thing from cinematic and dramatic power.
JK: And then the task we had before us, and I think Austin did a fantastic job on this, was in keeping true to the style of an adolescent Ginsberg poem.
AB: You think about Ginsberg, who he became, why we admire him, and it’s these confessional aesthetics, it’s the American vernacular imported into poetry. It’s raw, and it’s direct. I found myself—and I have to say I really did think to myself, Art gods, forgive me for doing this—putting poetic language into Allen Ginsberg’s mouth. Like, my hero. I am writing an Allen Ginsberg poem. Now, to be totally fair, the language you’re hearing in the film is from the early poems of Allen Ginsberg in Martyrdom and Artifice. We combed over those poems and looked for language and perspective and aesthetics for the language that ends up in the poem in the film. You’re looking at a pastiche. But we hope, and I believe, that it’s more dramatically effective and clear. And emotional.
You say “pastiche,” but I’m also struck by the relationship between that sort of culling or collaborating or gathering like magpies, and film editing—between Burroughs’s cut-ups and montage. What the Beats were doing at the time was so cinematic, even though they’re not necessarily the most cinematic movement ever.
AB: These guys loved movies! I mean, Lucien Carr and Kerouac went out on the day of the murder. After he killed David, they went to the movies.
What did they see?
AB: They went to see this movie that hasn’t really endured. The Four Horsemen?
JK: It was The Four Feathers. I think they remade it with Wes Bentley.
AB: My dream was that people who love these writers can come to our movie and not only feel like we did right by them, by their aesthetic, by their biographies, but that we capture the spirit of their beginnings. That’s really hard to do, that’s what the lightning in the bottle is. The moment when Burroughs has the idea for cut-ups, the moment when Allen is discovering his own credo. Trying to adapt the New Vision into a cinematic form is the hardest thing we could possibly have done. That’s all real. And that stuff is totally 19-year-old bullshit. Trying to find the honest heart of it and bring it to life onscreen so people admire and get the feelings they wanted, that was … that’s some heavy lifting.
JK: These 19-year-olds, these students who quoted Rimbaud at each other and had these huge philosophical discussions until three in the morning, can be, especially in the movies, the most pretentious people on the planet. My goal was to figure out a way to show them in the most unpretentious way possible. To make us remember and relate to those times without having to relive all those conversations. Have you gone back and looked at your adolescent journals recently?
You captured these great poignant moments of adolescent, particularly queer adolescent, longing and desire. One scene was so Brideshead to me, where Lucien turns to Ginsberg and says, “If you’re going to stay, don’t hog the blankets.”
JK: It wasn’t a conscious nod to Brideshead, but what Austin and I did was cull a lot of our own personal, emotional experiences of being gay and yet not fully having recognized that, and remembering that first person we desired so much.
That’s such a particular teenage moment.
JK: If you’re saying, “Don’t hog the blankets,” is it an invitation or is it not?
Talk about a close reading of a text. Now, what about the acting? What kind of direction did you give the actors, in terms of performing poetry and doing research?
JK: Well, Dan [Radcliffe] is a big poetry fan. He prefers the Romantics but does have a certain affection for the Beats. Dan and I started working on his American accent, his young Ginsbergian accent, a couple of months before we started shooting.
The danger with all of these actors, in playing these well-known writers, is you don’t want to play them as already confident in their own legend and established in their persona. Because that’s not who any of us are at seventeen. We’re still so inchoate, we’re still trying on different outfits and looks and phrases and voices, trying to figure out who we’re going to become.
There’s so much biographical information out there. But there came this liberating moment; I said to all of the actors, I don’t want you researching anything past 1945. Know what you know, read the books once, and then forget the rest. Jack Huston [who plays Kerouac] had a moment, like we all did, of insecurity, like, “Oh my god, I’m playing Jack fucking Kerouac.” I said, “No, you’re not. You’re playing a guy named Jack who got to Columbia on a football scholarship, who can’t stand being shuttled in with the jock crowd, who wants to run away and join the merchant marines and write.”
Each actor had his own research methods. Ben [Foster] disappeared to Australia and then resurfaced on day one as William Burroughs, on set. Ben loves to heavily research on his own. He talked to members of the Burroughs estate, really extensively researched and practiced the voice continually. Dan and I met once a week, while he was doing How to Succeed on Broadway. And he said something really poignant to me, which was that he decided he wanted to approach this like it was his first film as well.
AB: One way in which we were lucky is that there were no real recordings of the guys at this time in their lives. They were just kids. So there wasn’t something the actors could imitate. They were mysteries.
Austin, you mentioned revising the script now that the film’s finished. What’s that process like?
AB: We’re producing a version of the script that reflects what’s actually on the screen, because as you can imagine, a lot of scenes have been cut; dialogue got improvised on the set that’s totally genius and is now in the film. So you’re trying to create this document that traps the final product.
JK: We made discoveries in the editing room, like the montages of Allen trying to write, and going back and searching through his memory and watching his memories re-play out.
Where you run the film in reverse to return to an earlier scene, so we can see it in a new way—
JK: That was an editing room device. We tried to dramatize Allen smoking at a typewriter, and realized that’s the most boring, overplayed image of a frustrated writer.
AB: If you think about it, how many movies are there where writers have that sequence—
The typewriter scene … ugh!
AB: —where you’re watching them smoke and type—
Well, I do think you have reinvigorated the sitting-at-the-typewriter scene.
JK: Allen Ginsberg masturbating in a reindeer sweater will do that.