John Krokidas loves The Smiths, and though not an note of Mos was used to make his period drama Kill Your Darlings, the scent of that band is all over the film. From Dane DeHaan’s object of male desire to Daniel Radcliffe’s magic seeking college freshman, everyone in Kill Your Darlings is pretty, retro and photographed like an album cover—all suggestive images cropped for discretion. Krokidas says this association is “totally subconscious” but then romantically confesses “I remember the 8th grade girl who gave me a cassette of Louder than Bombs. She was so much cooler than me. It was the first music to touch that deep place within me and make me feel like I could be accepted. I kept that cassette in my backpack to identify me.”
Eventually the men represented in this biopic—Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston)—would form The Beats, but first they’d plot to defame the literary cannon, discover themselves through debauchery and form “The New Vision.” The group name was a destructive riff on William Butler Yeats book “A Vision,” a system of poetry he devised with his wife that associates cycles of death and rebirth with the cycle of the moon. The New Vision linked Yeats’ cycle with the cannon and made it their business to break both—but first, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs would have to take up writing.
Krokidas says, “I was taught in writing class that you have to metaphorically kill your parents to find your voice. My co-screenwriter and best friend Austin Bunn says this is about the emotional violence that comes with the birth of a self.” The film, however, features a more literal killing, an “honor killing,” that eventually kept Krokidas attached to the project for a decade, through years of rewrites and losses of financing. “The fact we [the US] had a law stating it was legal to kill a man so long as you could prove him a homosexual predator was what made this story one I had to tell. People need to know.” Perhaps the key to the Smiths connection lies here; like so many of their album covers, Krokidas feature debut carries with it a poignant unspokenness about the period when being gay was illegal, an attractive but troubled secret club. When Lucien Carr (played by Dane DeHaan) killed ex-lover David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), his defense defined Kammerer as a lovesick gay man, a relentless stalker and a physical threat. “It was the crucible. That murder caused Jack and Bill to co-write a novel. That’s the first thing Bill ever wrote. This is when he was working as an exterminator, inhaling bug spray to see what would happen to him.”
Krokidas turns to music to “get out of my head and tap into something more primal and emotional.” Period detail was affectionately attended to by Production Designer Stephen Carter and Costumer Christopher Peterson, but the soundtrack is a constant stream of 80s inflected indie rock that keeps the aggression seething and the tone defiant. “I worked from a place of theme and spine and told every department the film goes from conformity to nonconformity—really emphasizing this birth of an artist.” Krokidas approached his music supervisor with a period wish list that began with swing and ended with “something like Miles Davis score in Elevator to the Gallows” but when he tested his period soundtrack “it reminded me of Woody Allen’s Radio Days, which is a good film but a love letter to an era and my goal was to make it contemporary, not just accurate to the period but young and alive.”
Explaining the title he says, “You remember college? Finding somebody more charismatic, confident and perhaps more attractive than you, who takes you under their wing and shows you that you have more possibility than you thought? They encourage you to grow but never as high as them. Ironically you have to tear them down to grow.” Krokidas explains this as if he’s the secondary character in his own life. He reverses this notion by saying, “The Oprah way I say it is ‘C’mon, we all fell for that tortured beautiful person in college.’”
Sure. And thank God it doesn’t always end with murder.
Krokidas credited producer Christine Vachon with adding legitimacy to the project and reminding him to take risks. “She’d come on stage and say, “you’re doing a great job covering the scene. Be bold. This is your first film and you might never make another. Don’t forget to put you in it. And that freed me for the hunt.”
With an affectionate loyalty to the history, he reached for anachronisms to find “a visceral uniqueness.” Krokidas looked at noirs and considered organizing the story with a downward spiral but realized his touchstone couldn’t be cinematically popular; they had to focus on the counterculture, particularly its results. “Once the characters go down the rabbit hole the camera work gets freer, goes handheld and ultimately evokes the French New Wave.”
Krokidas looked for a way to bridge the 1940s counterculture with more current movements. “I wanted to tell the birth story of The Beats but needed to register with young people who are having the same feelings they did, and I did—people looking for a way to live authentic, unique lives and be different from their parents. We went through Ryan McGinley’s photographs and pictures of Kerouac’s flannels and tried to flush out the passions and connect it to today. Those men went on to create the greatest counter culture revolution in history.”
As a feature debut it’s surprisingly flush with names, all of whom Krokidas seemed to cast out of mutual enthusiasm. David Cross has his first dramatic role here as Allen Ginsberg’s father and despite the absurdist extra-text Cross can’t help exuding, he leaves you feeling like you’re watching a rebel whose dirty days are done. Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ginsberg’s mentally ill mother is deeply memorable, and the film’s “new wave” spirit provokes the concern she lost her mind from eating too much “sushi and not pay(ing) for it.” As a film about a burgeoning generation, the cycles of death and rebirth echo in layers.
“Kevin Bacon doesn’t seem to mind the 6-degrees game anymore,” Krokidas jokes. After hurricane Sandy he spent an afternoon in the apartment of Kyra Sedgewick (who plays Lucien Carr’s mother) and her husband Kevin Bacon. “We played parlor games. They have a great tea selection.” Indeed the crest of every wave is destined to become part of the sea.
I ask Krokidas about The Confession, a ’70s revolutionary film in which Yves Montand is an imprisoned member of the political elite. He asks a colleague if it isn’t their generation’s turn to be overthrown so that the revolution can gain new life. Krokidas says, “that’s so sad—well, sad, but also sweet.”