Kill Your Darlings Interview with John Krokidas

Directed by John Krokidas, Kill Your Darlings is the previously untold story of how murder brought together a young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) at Columbia University in 1944, providing the spark that would eventually lead to their Beat Revolution.

The film premiered to rave reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and ahead of its release, Flicks and the City spoke to the director John Krokidas about researching his first feature, getting the most out of his actors, and how close Kill Your Darlings came to not getting made.

How did your experience making short films feed into Kill Your Darlings?

I studied acting at Yale as an undergraduate and I was a horrible actor. But the cool thing about it was that it taught me how to speak to actors, how vulnerable you feel on stage or in front of a camera, and what the emotional needs of an actor are from the director.

When I went to film school I’d never touched a camera before, so for me that was just about learning the cinematic language. Also they forced you to edit your own films, which was actually a really great exercise. The irony is that I made my 2 short films at school at a much more leisurely pace than my first feature film, which we probably had to shoot at twice the pace.

I remember on the very first day I was terrified. You have a company that is overseeing the film, and if you don’t deliver the shots and the scenes you need to on the first day, contractually you can still get fired. I spent 9 years putting Kill Your Darlings together, and it was my first day shooting, but because of film school and having shot those short films, it was like getting back on a bicycle. So, after 2 hours of doing it I was like, “Oh my God, that’s right! I’ve trained in this, I know what I’m doing.” The confidence started to come naturally and I don’t think that would have happened if I hadn’t made short films before.

There are so many resources on the Beat Generation; how much research did you do?

There’s so much material out there on these guys it’s overwhelming. First off, I found that in this and other projects you can keep yourself in the research phase forever without ever getting to the creative phase. That’s a big danger as a writer-director.

More importantly, what I focused on in research was who these guys were as adolescents and who they were at the time period this movie happened, not who they would become later. I feared I’d become insecure and try to replicate the legends these guys became, rather than the awkward, full of passion 19-year-olds they were at the time this movie was set. There was the danger of being too self-referential and winking. Everybody knows Allen [Ginsberg] as bearded in his 50s and 60s; and having Jack Kerouac say, at some point, “See you guys later, I’m going ‘on the road’”, me and my best friend Austin Bunn [co-writer of Kill Your Darlings] didn’t want that.

We really wanted to portray the feeling that there was this kid named Allen who met a guy named Lucien who was friends with these guys named Jack and Bill; and together, like a lot of us when we were 18 or 19 years old, they didn’t want to be who their parents were, didn’t want to follow the rules that were being set out for them, and wanted to rebel and find their own voices and start the revolution. Of course the cool thing is that after this movie ends, they actually did it.

I remember speaking with Jack Huston and he was like, “Man, I don’t know if I can play Jack Kerouac.” There is an intimidation factor when you’re playing someone who is famous and legendary, and I said, “Jack, you’re playing a college football player who doesn’t want to be a jock, who wants to write, who is frustrated with his lack of experience, who wants to go out and experience more of his life, to have something to write about and needs to express himself.” Once we all set that boundary, it became a lot more freeing for us just to portray these guys as college students rather than falling under this immense amount of biographical research out there.

There’s a very interesting conversation in the film between Ginsberg and his professor who says “There can be no creation without imitation.” Can you talk a little about the genesis of that line?

My teacher at film school actually said that. I don’t know about other people’s experience in academia, but both in my undergraduate experience and at film school, there was a certain amount of breaking you down and wanting to erase any preconceived notions of who you are or what your influences are before you come to school, and wanting you to start with the syllabus and a way of doing something. You have to learn the rules before you break them.

For me that was incredibly frustrating at school. At the time, NYU was very much about neo-realism and going to certain unrepresented communities and shooting almost documentary style, finding plot through character detail; and that’s very much not my own personal style. It was very frustrating for me to kind of copy the films and the style they wanted me to, and it wasn’t until I rebelled and did my own thing in my second year and made my first short, and went out into the world, that I found my own voice. So, for me, finding my own voice was very much about rebelling against the rules they were trying to teach me; and that line is almost a word-for-word line from my first directing professor.

As you mentioned earlier, you’ve been trying to make this film for a while, and a number of times you were really close to getting it made. When you consider the cast you have now, do you see those years as a blessing in disguise?

To anybody who’s trying to be a filmmaker right now, I think the most important thing you have to do is find why you need to tell this story, what are the things that keep you up at night, because that’s the thing that’s going to keep you going when your movie gets together and then falls apart. I think for me it was the fact that in 1944 you could literally get away with murder by portraying your victim as a homosexual.

On a more personal note, obviously I’ve got a great cast. They did such a great job and I’m so proud of our collaborations together, and this was the right cast and I worked with great department heads. But that’s not to say that the road wasn’t frustrating. To be honest, the most terrifying aspect of the entire film process to me was the months right before pre-production. We’d gotten so close to filming this movie before only to have my dreams dashed that the most terrifying part was thinking that at any moment the plug could be pulled, and that I’d spent 9 years fighting non-stop to try and get this movie made and knowing that in one day everything could fall apart.   

I didn’t fully believe it was happening until we were on set and there was a camera in front of me, and we actually had something on film. Then, all the anxieties disappeared. If this incarnation didn’t come together, I would have given up. It had almost come together and fallen apart twice. This was number three, and if this version didn’t happen I probably would have given up.

I read that you said the best thing about being a first-time filmmaker is you have no idea what you’re doing. So, what did you discover about your filmmaking process with Kill Your Darlings?

Before we started producing, I remember the line producer just shaking his head saying, “I don’t know how the fuck we are going to do this one!” [Laughs] It was good I didn’t know what we were up against; I just knew we had to get it done. Every scene in this movie was shot pretty much under 2 or 3 hours. I realised pretty quickly on set that as soon as you say “Action!” and the camera is rolling, all the voices, all the people, all the busy work had to be quiet. As soon as I said “Cut!”, we’d start losing time because hair and makeup flies in and props need to be readjusted.

If I didn’t say “Cut”, nobody could speak, so, what I started doing with the actors – and they ended up loving this – is takes within takes, meaning that in shots I knew I could cut, I’d start having the actors do several different choices. “That was great, now seduce him.” “That was great, now terrify him.” We got different performance variations in every single take, and really let the actor work unconsciously, giving different colours to their performance that might not have been there, and might not have been the way that they would have prepared it.

Inevitably, you show up to set with your dream list of 12 shots only to realise that you just have time for three. But within those three if you don’t cut and have several performance variations, you have a lot more to play with in the editing room, and you can really construct performances and moments that are unexpected and entirely real.

Even if it seems weird on set, if it’s a love scene and you tell them to terrify the other person, sometimes just doing it the opposite way just shakes everybody up. People call me Mr-Talks-A-Lot-During-Takes, but I realise now that’s something I want to incorporate in my next films. Jennifer Jason Leigh [Naomi Ginsberg in the film] said she’d never done anything like that before and she just thought it was so incredibly freeing and loved it.

Kill Your Darlings is released in UK cinemas on 6 December 2013.