John Krokidas discusses passion projects and perseverance
Set in the 1940’s during the early days of the literary revolution, KILL YOUR DARLINGS is a true crime thriller based on the previously untold story of a murder that implicated the men who went on to become the great poets of the Beat Generation; Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs.Based on actual events and nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, KILL YOUR DARLINGS tells how these young men first meet at Columbia University in 1944.
A story of friendship, obsession, jealousy and genius, their self-proclaimed brilliance is stained by the brutal murder of David Kammerer, which both consecrated and fractured their early fellowship.
The Fan Carpet‘s Georgina Mae caught up with director John Krokidas ahead of the release of Kill Your Darlings…
Welcome to London, how’s your time here?
Oh my god, I’m so excited to be here, this is like the kick off of our international tour and the fact that this little thing that I’ve been wanting to make for nine years actually got made; to be seen, and not just by my friends and family, but around the world, it’s exhilarating.
Give us bit of background of Allen Ginsberg and Kill Your Darlings for those who don’t know…
The inception of this is basically my best friend and college roommate, his name is Austin Bunn who wrote the screenplay with me, came to me about a decade ago, and told me about this story of murder, that no body really knew about, that really hadn’t been fictionalised or a story hadn’t been written about it before and he wanted to write it as a play – he was a playwriting student at the time.
But I perhaps saw the cinematic potential, and in my manipulative, directorial way, convinced him that no, this would make a great film and we are going to write it together.
So it was something we did sort of like a labour of love, we would pass drafts back and forth between our day jobs, and finally we got to the point about five years ago when we thought it was ready, and a piece of career advice that has always been given to me when you’re starting out a film career is that so much of it depends on the community that you’ve built and the friends and family that you’ve made along your professional path.
Austin had co-written the producer Christine Vachon’s second book, so we sent her the script and it was one of those crazy, beautiful moments where I’d been struggling for so long and Christine Vachon, this legendary producer that vie admired for so long is flying herself out to LA to come meet me, to convoke me to produce the movie.
We started going out to cast then, and one thing that I’ve learnt about Hollywood is that it’s a lot like high school dating; no body wants you until somebody else wants you, so here we are with an unfinanced movie with a first time director; which I’ve learnt that the secret code word for is ‘deadly attachments’ in the eyes of financiers; this is true, because they don’t know whether or not you have the chops to deliver the goods, whether or not you’ll know how to cover a scene, whether or not you’ll get good performances, whether or not you’ll have a nervous breakdown during filming, and so in order to get your movie made you have to get actors who are famous or very well known internationally in your film, in order for an investment to make sense.
So at first it was a lot of knocking on doors to try to get actor interest, and then I was very lucky when one agent, one talent agent really saw the potential behind this movie, and I came in and I auditioned for him, and I broke down the movie, told him my cinematic influences, what I thought about the themes of the movie and the characters, and I obviously impressed him enough to have his clients come in and meet with me, and then since Hollywood is like high school, as soon as other people found out that I was meeting certain actors that were well known, other actors stated becoming interested, and soon we went from being the desperate boy , knocking on everyones door trying to get a phone call back, to me sitting down with all these young actors that I admired.
It was at that point where I was writing a list of who I wanted to meet that I wrote down Daniel Radcliffe, and when I wrote that down, I thought to myself ‘huh, the character Allen in this movie is someone at the top of the movie who begins as a dutiful son, as somebody who always has to put on a brave, happy face, and is only really giving the world one view of themselves, and by the end of the movie he’s a self proclaimed artist and a rebel and has gotten kicked out of school and is going on to live life on his own terms. And I wondered if the person Daniel Radcliffe might be able to identify with this.’
This really was one of those crazy cases of sending the script to his agent, and hearing that his agent really loved the script, and then getting the phone call that Daniel Radcliffe wanted to have coffee with me in New York, this was while he was doing Equus, and I learnt (not to take everything back to dating), it’s like a first date, you know in the fist five minutes if you have chemistry and just a common way of looking at the world and Dan is so smart and so funny and doesn’t take anything too seriously and real just has a really optimistic way of looking at the world.
We felt like we were on the same operating system and within like twenty minutes we were sharing intimate secrets about ourselves, and one thing I’ve learned is that there needs to be a big level of trust between an actor and a director cause you’re asking them to display all their emotions on screen and they’re trusting you to know that you’re going to get a good performance out of them, and it was implicit by the end of that coffee that there was a big level of trust between the two of us.
And then he offered to audition for me, and this just goes to show what kind of Dan is; he wanted to make sure that I was confident that he was going to be able to nail this role.
And so in a corporate boardroom in Midtown, New York, the two of us just reading the scene together and doing some improv games and I saw all these emotional colours that he hadn’t gotten to show the word yet, it’s really just the one role that he had been playing his whole life.
And I was told by my agent that you never offer the role to an actor in the room, so I didn’t, even though I wanted to, and then we talked to his agent, and it turned out that he still had two movies that he had to do before he was available to do another one, aka The Deathly Hallows one and two, and so he wasn’t going to be available for two whole years, so my other top choice for the role was an actor by the name of Jesse Eisenberg, so we had a potential investor onboard and Jesse did so well in his audition we decided to move forward with Jesse, well that financing came together and fell apart, and then it was a big struggle to try to find financing for the movie until The Social Network came out, and once The Social Network came out and Jesse became a household name all of a sudden we had investors knocking at our door again and then I got a call from Jesse and it was a very honest call in which Jesse told me he thought he had just played the most iconic, ivy league college student he would ever play in his life and he wanted to play grown ups now, and even though I was obviously disappointed I understood and so now my movie had no lead, no financing, and I was back to square one.
And then I looked at the calendar and realised that I had been trying t get this movie made for two years, I wrote Dan a very personal five page email asking him if he would still be interested in working with me.
And the next morning I woke up to an email from him saying ‘Absolutely!’
And then we began the journey of then casting the movie around Dan, and really what I wanted to do was sort of social network cast it, and just find my favourite up and coming actors.
My boyfriend actually watched the show In Treatment on HBO where Dane DeHaan played one of the patients, and said to me from the beginning ‘oh you’re going to cast Dane DeHaan’ and I didn’t watch the show and I was like ‘that’s very presumptuous of you honey, I’m going to do proper chemistry tests, and meet all the young actors that I want to’ and we did a bunch of chemistry tests with Dan and Dane walked in, and blew us both away, and Dan and I looked at each other and then I remembered that rule; don’t offer the role to the actor in the room, and so I said to Dane at the end of the meeting, as you do when you feel it’s gone positively ‘so what’s your life like the next couple of months?’ and he leaned back against the wall, gave me this cocky smile and was like ‘I don’t know, you tell me’ which of course was so good for the role and the cherry on top of the sundae.
Oh my gosh, it seems like such a roller coaster ride, did you have times where you thought ‘this movie is not going to get made’?
Oh my god several, when Jesse dropped out, the time the financing dropped out when we were getting close to pre production.
But you were so in love with the story and pushed forward?
Well two things; one I knew that having gone through this experience before, and having tried to get another movie made, you don’t get the level of access we were getting to actors unless the material is strong enough and there’s something there and on a personal level there has to be something in me that really pisses me off and keeps me up at night; an emotional connection to the material.
At the heart of this for me was the fact that in 1944 you could literally get away with murder, by portraying your victim as a homosexual, and while that seemst like it was a black mark on American history, look at what’s happening in Russia, so it is culturally relevant to today.
If the financing did not come together, this fund would go around, and there were moments, the most terrifying moment for me personally was the month before we started shooting, cause I had seen this movie fall a part when we had gotten that close before, and I said to myself ‘if this doesn’t happen this time around, I don’t think I can put myself through it again’. And I had had the life conversations with my boyfriend of ‘maybe this is not meant to be’.
As a first time director, what is the most important thing for you to do in the morning on set?
Oh my god, this is so cheesy you’re going to laugh. I went outside, put on my headphones and put on Don’t Stop Believing by Journey!
At volume eleven, I was outside of a prison, in Queens, psyching myself up as much as I could.
Literally the prison guard was starring at me as I was doing my own little Karaoke performance.
Can you tell me about the scripting process?
This script was a longer process than a lot of other stuff I had written, because it was a constant back and forth with my best friend that we would do, we lived in different cities at the time.
He was teaching at the time, I was doing rewrites on other scripts and teaching also and it was one of those things, it was our pet project that neither one of us thought would ever get made necessarily, it was just a story that we wanted to tell.
I signed with a manager abbot five years ago who asked me ‘do you have something hiding in a desk draw somewhere?’ and I called Austin and was like ‘are we confident enough? Are we ready to show this?’ and he’s like ‘why not, after all this time.’
When people watch this movie, what do you want them to come away with?
Well I made the film to obviously appeal to the fans of the Beat generation, also something that was important to me is that I wanted to make the movie accessible to young people, because at the core of this movie is the feeling we all have when we are eighteen or nineteen years old when you want to fight against the rules your parents has set out for you, that academia and school and all the rules that are put out for you in your life and you want to start the revolution and you want to find something unique and important in your own life.
If this movie inspires people not to just look back and research the Beats but pick up the finger paints at home, or write a poem, or make their own film then I feel that it is a job well done.
KILL YOUR DARLINGS IS OUT NOW COURTESY OF THE WORKS