The Sundance Film Festival kicks off today, and for director John Krokidas, it was 12 years in the making. After his first successful Sundance encounter in 2002 landed his short, Shame No More, on HBO, the director has returned to the snowy peaks of Park City with his first feature, the hotly anticipated Beat period pic, Kill Your Darlings. Shot on location at Columbia University, the film follows the fateful teenage friendships of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Lucien Carr, and William S. Burroughs, centering on the relationship between Ginsberg and Carr, and the influential yet rarely-discussed effects of Carr’s 1944 murder of David Kammerer on the legendary clique.
Now wrap your head around the the film’s stars: a curly-haired Daniel Radcliffe as Ginsberg, Chronicle’s Dane DeHaan as Carr, Boardwalk Empire‘s Jack Huston as Kerouac, Rampart‘s Ben Foster as William S. Burroughs, and BULLETT cover girl, Elizabeth Olsen as Kerouac’s first wife, Edie Parker. We caught up with Krokidas in the midst of months of darkroom editing a few weeks ago, where he discussed the decade-long tumult that went into making the film, his cast of “fucking amazing” stars, and coming down with a case of that pesky Sundance fever.
What was the film’s inception point?
My college roommate, Austin Bunn, is a playwright and journalist, and in talking to some of his journalist friends, came across the story of Lucien Carr and this murder that inspired Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs at a young age, to start writing. He came to me, and as he was explaining this story, he wanted to write it as a play. And I started seeing the potential in it, and used my best Jedi mind trick to say, no, you are going to write this as a screenplay and I’m going to teach you how.
How did you decide on the story’s angle?
The question in figuring out what the story was. And when we looked through all of the characters, the characters at that time between the three Beat authors and Lucien Carr, the one that had the greatest arc was Allen Ginsberg, because he started off as a young 17 year old, a dutiful son, going to college thinking, “Maybe, I’ll be a labor lawyer. Maybe I’ll do something to save the world, to help working class people.” Then he met this beautiful, tempestuous, slightly emotionally overboard young man in Lucien Carr who said, “No. I see the soul of an artist in you and you are going to be a writer.” And over the course of the story, he found his own voice and began to be an artist.
How important was authenticity for you?
First off, I did something perhaps a little daring or drastic. I did not research the entire lives of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. In doing so, I thought I would be afraid that I would be living up to the legend of who these men were, and what I really wanted to do was focus on who they were as awkward insecure adolescents, like we all are, or all were, and who they were at that time before the discovered their famous personas.You know, when you’re 19, you try on all different outfits and hair color’s before you find out who you really are. In terms of the authenticity of the actual murder, everything in this story is based on facts that comes from public knowledge and several sources.
Tell me about casting for the movie.
Daniel Radcliffe was an idea I had in the middle of the night. The role of Allen Ginsberg—who’s an emotional caretaker for his schizophrenic mother and never got the chance to fully express everything he has on the inside, to becoming a rebel and showing the world that he has more colors than anyone ever previously knew—I had a feeling Daniel Radcliffe would respond to this role. He knew this was my first movie, and he wanted to approach this movie as if it were his first movie, too. He didn’t want to rely on the skills and the tricks that he learned playing Harry Potter. He wanted to learn a new language of acting, a new method.
What was the most challenging part in making this film?
The challenge was twofold. I graduated from film school in 2001. I started the first draft of this film in 2004. This movie took 8 years to fully come together, and it came together and fell apart twice before it actually happened. The emotionally harrowing experience of trying to hold on and make your dream come true, while you watch it fall apart, almost happen, and fall apart several times, is an emotional experience I hope I never have to go through again. I know it comes with the territory of this industry, but this one was particularly long. Having said that, the struggle it took to make this movie was worth getting to put together this cast and getting to shoot the movie in this way.
What was the shoot like?
It was one of those magical things where I had this master plan of how I thought this movie was going to be. I wrote an 80-page booklet about the 40s, the color pallette of the 40s, the architecture, about style, design, how we were going to shoot the movie, what it was going to sound like, and then you’re faced with the reality of having to shoot this movie in a finite amount of days, about half the amount of days that it would normally take, and you gotta take that book, and you’ve gotta throw it over your shoulder and you’ve gotta look at the pieces you’ve got and go with it.
You studied acting while you were at Yale, right?
I was horrible though [laughs].
Was that when you decided to become a filmmaker instead?
I had no idea I wanted to be a filmmaker. I never picked up a camera before my senior year of college. Basically, I went to Yale to become an actor. After getting cast as Knave #2 in about 18 productions, it made me think, “What am I doing with my life? Perhaps this is not my future.” At that point in my life, I wasn’t ready to show my inner emotions, which a good actor needs to do. I was a performer, and having studied acting, having been friends with so many actors, and let’s face it, having dated a few, working with them was just so intuitive with me. So I started taking a film class, and it was one of those things when you start something new—a new hobby, a new class—that it’s so intuitive to you and you realize you already know it.
How are you feeling going into Sundance?
Terrified and exhilarated at the same time. I went there with my short film 12 years ago. When you go to Sundance with a film, you get what I call Sundance fever. The thing you want to do most of all when you leave is come back. It’s a place where people care about film. I vowed when I left Sundance with my short film that I was going to put my first feature together and be back there in two years. It’s been 12.
Would you have gone anywhere else to premiere it?
I made it clear early on that, if possible, I wanted to premiere the film at Sundance, to be able to have that full circle moment in my life and to be able to actualize this dream I’ve been holding on to for 10 years. Some people go home and think in their shower of their Oscar speeches, but I’ve literally been visualizing this Sundance question and answer session for my premiere for ten years now.