Interview: “Kill Your Darlings” Director John Krokidas On Daniel Radcliffe And Gay Icons

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Kill Your Darlings made a splash at Sundance for first-time director John Krokidas, and not just because it starred Daniel Radcliffe as a budding collegiate writer named Allen Ginsberg. It presented a stylish, yet un-romanticized vision of Columbia University in the ’40s, a handful of recognizable stars as young literary icons (including Jack Huston as Jack Kerouac and Ben Foster as William S. Burroughs), and a largely unknown story of the murder that brought the Beat Generation together. It’s also a distinctly gay narrative during an awards season that has left us largely bereft of LGBT characters, with the exception of Dallas Buyers Club and Blue is the Warmest Color. Kill Your Darlings is historical in scope but modern in its depiction of intellectual gay men and their gorgeous muse Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan in a breakout role).

We caught up with Krokidas to discuss the film, how he and cowriter/BFF Austin Bunn worked so efficiently, and Daniel Radcliffe’s inspiring attitude.

TheBacklot: We’re deep into awards season and Kill Your Darlings has received fabulous attention from the Venice Film Festival, the BFI London Film Festival, and Sundance earlier this year. What’s the been the greatest encouragement you’ve gotten from this “season”?

John Krokidas: I think the greatest encouragement I’ve gotten was from people who’ve worked with Allen Ginsberg and people who’ve worked with the Beats. They absolutely loved the movie and they told me that Allen himself would’ve loved it. That was the greatest compliment of all.

TB: Was it harrowing meeting Ginsberg’s close friends?

JK: I initially was terrified to contact the Allen Ginsberg estate or any of the Beat estates while writing the movie because I thought I’d suddenly try to write up to the legends of who they later became in life. I wondered if perhaps my depictions were inadequate. In a way I distanced myself. It wasn’t until right about the time we finished cutting the movie, the Allen Ginsberg estate approached me and invited me to come to a reading. I started building a relationship there, and it turned out they’d read the script and loved it. Someone who had worked with Allen Ginsberg and who still works with the estate came with us to Sundance, came with us to the premiere, and then partied with us afterwards. At that point we started building a close relationship with each other. Hearing now from people were really close with him or people who worked with the Beats, hearing those kinds of compliments — it’s humbling and makes me proud that the work that Austin and I did researching the project and creating the characters was close to the truth and served one of my idols justice.

TB: I’ve read that you felt connected to Ginsberg because of your own sheltered, suburban upbringing. Are there other gay popular figures you’ve related to in this way? 

JK: You mean — who are my gay idols?

TB: Yes, yes.

JK: Well, the first concert I ever dragged my parents to as a kid was Culture Club when I was five. I think we all should’ve known I was gay then. They wanted me to go to Peter, Paul and Mary, and I wanted Culture Club. I remember going on a date with a girl to a George Michael concert. She was in love with me and I was in love with what I was seeing onstage. Hearing from my older sister that David Bowie was bisexual at the age of 13 made me go start looking back at his discography. I found in my grandmother’s library a biography about James Dean and Rock Hudson and their illicit Hollywood affairs in the ’50s. She also shared Liberace records with me. I remember reading Oscar Wilde in high school. My junior year English teacher Mr. Cohen taught me Oscar Wilde, Truman Capote and James Baldwin. Looking back, I realize how subversive he was to teach these authors at a public high school. He never openly talked about their sexuality at the time, but gay authors formed the core of his syllabus. I found E.M. Forster on my own after reading about the film adaptation of Maurice. You start collecting a gay family. I read a book by Paul Monette called Becoming A Man. It was a really poignant tale of coming out, and the really cool thing is he also went to Yale. I read that the summer before I went to Yale to live with Austin Bunn actually, and we discovered we were in [Monette’s] sophomore year dorm room. I feel like I’m leaving out hundreds of others. The men of International Male’s undergear catalog made an unforgettable impression on me growing up. That damn catalog seemed to find every gay child’s mailing address, and if heredity is not the sole cause of being gay, an extended exposure to the International Male catalog was definitely a closer. Oh, the early ’90s. Does Paula Abdul count? Do Madonna and Sandra Bernhard count?

TB: You mean on Letterman in the jean shorts? Of course.

JK: Yes! Add Madonna to the list.

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TB: You wrote the script for Kill Your Darlings with Bunn, who is your best friend. From the interviews I’ve seen, it seems like you have a very productive relationship. What’s that collaboration like?

JK: When you’re working with someone you’ve lived with from the ages of 18 to 21, you know each other’s deep secrets and senses of humor so much that, whether it’s coming up with a new joke to make each other laugh or pulling out one of our favorites from our sophomore year of college, it’s like we’ve had 20 years to build a shorthand with each another. I think we complement each other both with what we’re good at creatively and personality-wise too. He came from a journalism background so he can write ten pages a night. He can just pour it out while I agonize over a paragraph for a week and a half. I’m really good at structure and figuring out story and blocking out scenes. His real strength is with character and dialogue and his journey to make each character sound unique and different but like a regular person. Also, we’ve been best friends for 20 years, and like with good gay best friends, we have different types. We’ve never fought over the same boy. That’s always a very important factor with gay best friends.

TB: I read that you’re directing a couple episodes of a show called The Black Box starring Kelly Reilly as a famed neuroscientist who is struggling with serious mental health issues. That reminded me of Kill Your Darlings’ brilliant characters and their dark secrets. Are you developing an expertise here?

JK: [Laughs.] No. That show I took on primarily because the pilot script was so f*cking good — freaking good. Because it dealt with a main character who is struggling with being bipolar, and that’s something that runs in my family. It’s a genetic trait that got passed down through my father’s side, and I’m kind of one of the lucky ones in that in didn’t touch me. It’s touched one of my siblings and several of my cousins. One of the central relationships in that story is between the main character, who is a doctor, and her brother, who knows how fortunate he is that he wasn’t touched by it. When I got to that scene in the script, it literally made me cry. I felt like I could honor that character and do I good job on that show. So I went out actively chasing that show trying to be a part of it.

TB: Kill Your Darlings was a mainly male cast. Is it different to get inside a female character’s head? Is it different to work with mainly actresses?

JK: Well, working Elizabeth Olsen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Kyra Sedgwick [on Kill Your Darlings] was pretty great training for working with actresses. Getting inside the head of a female character with Kelly wasn’t difficult because I came on during episode three or four. She already had a really strong idea of the character and had been living “in” her for at least a month. So if anything with her, it was about charting where that character was going. That’s such a different experience than film in which you create the character from scratch during the rehearsal process.

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TB: I must ask about how you present Dane DeHaan’s character Lucien Carr, the main muse of the Beats, in Kill Your Darlings. For me, it was like looking at Jude Law in The Talented Mr. Ripley. The camera really gave us an ingenue-type, golden-tinged, beautiful male to look at. How did you decide on presenting him to us?

JK: That point of view was so important to me. For us as gay men, there’s always that boy we fell in love with when we first got to school and went away from home. He was better-looking than us or more charismatic or charming than us, and we kind of fell under their spell at first. Before you really know what love is, you know how deep that attraction is. Their confidence, charm, and beauty — you want to constantly be under their gaze. You want them to look at you and feel the light and warmth of that beauty and charm being pointed at you. It was that relationship that I really wanted to capture in the film. How better to capture someone as handsome and charismatic as Dane DeHaan? The whole movie was through the point of view of a hyperactive, super-intelligent, and homosexually repressed 18-year-old. That went into the editing style of the film, how we shot it. What was important in how we shot it was that we got those P.O.V.s and that look at Lucien Carr, capturing the same way that a young Allen Ginsberg must’ve felt when he met his first muse and the Beats’ first muse. I have no problem gazing at beautiful male actors with the camera.

TB: I read that Daniel Radcliffe insisted on treating Kill Your Darlings as if it were his first movie. Did he make good on that promise? Was it helpful?

JK: Oh my God, and more so. The best thing about being a first-time director and getting a movie star like Daniel Radcliffe and hearing him say, “I want to approach this like it’s my first movie too” is that he wanted to cast aside all the ways in which he had approached character in his earlier films about a certain character who’s name I can’t remember right now. He played him quite often. He really found a new way to approach the material. I was looking for a way to shape my first performances and production. We spent a good two months before we even started shooting finding a good technique for breaking down scripts in a new way and how to build a character in a new way. Meisner helped. Finding objectives about how you want to make the other characters feel frees you from thinking about yourself as a performer. It channels your emotions towards the people you’re playing with. For me what was amazing was that he walked me through the potential pitfalls of production and the qualities actors love to have in a director. Having that education together before we even started was what gave me the confidence to do this movie in 24 days and to be as passionate and confident as I was. Being #1 on the call sheet, I find people subconsciously take cues from who you are as a person about how to act on set and how they approach the material. He was so fearless and on time, prepared, and ready to do anything that either the script or I asked him to do. He was also so much fun to be with. One of the reasons we had such a good time with each other and made it through a tough 24 days was that he approached this movie as if it were his first with genuine childlike wonder and passion. That just translated down to the rest of the cast and even the crew. The director and the lead really set the tone on a movie, I’m learning. I don’t think it would’ve been such a great experience without him.

TB: Did anyone have an acting moment in the film that surprised you most?

JK: There was a moment that Ben Foster gave, not that I’m surprised by anything he gives, but when his father came to bail him out and to bring him back home, you see this big rebel suddenly reduced to a child in front of his father. As soon as his father walks out of the room, Ben all of the sudden pulled out this intricate dance of packing up his things efficiently at hyperspeed, then slammed down his suitcase with such a fury. For a character who’s kept inside his emotions for the entire film to come out in just that moment before the mask fell? That was just amazing and unexpected and unscripted. Also, he lit his finger on fire for real. We ran out of money and we didn’t have the money to do a real special effect for the surreal scene, and I asked him, “Ben, can you think of anything surreal that we can shoot for two dollars?” He said, “I can dip my finger in sambuca and light it on fire. But you only get one take.” And that was the take we used.

TB: Wow. Finally, if you were forced to make another movie tomorrow about another real-life figure, who would you pick? 

JK: Gun to my head? The answer right now… I would love to do the Robert Mapplethorpe/Patti Smith movie. The birth of that countercultural movement in the ’70s and ’80s, the rise of CBGB — I think the reason I keep chasing these movies about counterculture is I constantly lived in a time where it was a decade right after exciting things happened. I never got the chance to experience them myself. I always heard about the glory days. I came up in adolescence in the era where I was told at the age of 13 to, you know, where a condom for the rest of my life. I always feel like I got to New York and people were like, “The fun times are over.” I like the chance to get to live through those fun, rebellious times through making movies.

TB: I’m shocked you haven’t gotten to meet Patti yet considering you made a movie about her pals.

JK: I haven’t yet. But if she’s reading this, I would love to.