Ginsberg. Kerouac. Burroughs. And Lucien Carr. The last name may be less familiar, but the real-life character was the linchpin who first brought together these three icons of American literary and cultural revolution in a galvanizing drama of murder and obsession.
“People have been fascinated with these guys for the past 50 or 60 years,” says KILL YOUR DARLINGS director and co-writer John Krokidas, “But we wanted to approach this not as a biopic about these three legendary writers, but rather as a story of who they were as adolescents—awkward, still trying to figure out who they really were. In 1944, when Allen Ginsberg was 17 turning 18, when Burroughs was 29 going on 30, they still hadn‘t written a word. For us, what was fascinating was not so much the great men that they would become, but the insecure adolescents and young adults who were trying to figure out that greatness inside.”
In 1944, Allen Ginsberg was a nervous, straitlaced freshman at Columbia University. Jack Kerouac was a washed-up college running back who had lasted all of eight days in the U.S. Navy. William S. Burroughs was a medical school dropout, former door-to-door insect exterminator and budding drug addict, hanging on the fringes of the New York bohemian scene after following Lucien Carr and David Kammerer, friends from his native St. Louis, to Manhattan. But within months of their coming together to declare and pursue their ‘New Vision’ for art and literature, Kammerer was dead, stabbed in the heart by his former protégé and lover, Carr.
Shot from a script by director Krokidas and Austin Bunn, KILL YOUR DARLINGS features a compelling young ensemble that includes Daniel Radcliffe (the Harry Potter series) as the young Allen Ginsberg, Jack Huston (Boardwalk Empire) as Jack Kerouac, Ben Foster (The Messenger) as William S. Burroughs, Dane DeHaan (In Treatment) as Lucien Carr and Michael C. Hall (Dexter) as David Kammerer. Rounded out by a supporting cast that includes Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Margot at the Wedding), Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer) and David Cross (Arrested Development), KILL YOUR DARLINGS delivers a picture of the nascent Beat Generation that we‘ve never seen before, and tells the true story of the emotional crucible that shaped its voice and vision.
- The Origin Story
As co-writer Austin Bunn notes of his friendship with director and fellow writer John Krokidas, “John and I were college roommates. We met freshman year at Yale University, and funnily enough a lot of our first-year experiences ended up in this film—which after all is basically a story about college.” Krokidas went on to the NYU Film Program and a filmmaking career, while Bunn established himself as a fiction and non-fiction writer after grad school at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Their shared fascination with the Beats led to the KILL YOUR DARLINGS collaboration, Krokidas’ feature film directorial debut.
Though the volatile relationship between Kammerer and Lucien Carr represents the pivot point around which the story revolves, the pair realized early on that Allen Ginsberg was the center of the film.
”It’s really Ginsberg’s coming of age,” notes Krokidas. ”He showed up at Columbia, 17 years old, the dutiful son of his parents—a failed working class poet and an emotionally ill mother whom he took care of. He came to school thinking maybe he wanted to study labor law, until he met a young man named Lucien Carr who put an idea in his head that he should be a writer, and that they were going to start a cultural revolution called ’The New Vision‘ which was going to change society. So what really resonated for me, thematically, was this idea of being 18 or 19 years old, leaving the nest for the first time and trying to find your own voice, and feeling that you could do something important with your life, that you could change the world, and really make a difference. And then of course, the end of the story being—they actually did.”
After three or four years of on-and-off work on the script, Bunn and Krokidas found their ideal producer: Christine Vachon (Far From Heaven, Boys Don‘t Cry, Happiness) one of the definitive producers of American independent film over the past two decades. “We always knew that Christine would be a perfect match for the project,” observes Krokidas. “She's had so much great success over the last 15 years in taking pieces that are true-life stories that often have dark themes involving murders—Boys Don‘t Cry is maybe the best example—and with rich cultural backdrops, and then finding the human story within.”
- The Road to "Howl"
The team's first concern was putting together the ensemble cast, and particularly finding the actor to take on the central role of Allen Ginsberg. “We were putting together a list of all the great actors under the age of 30,” he recalls, “and I had one of those crazy midnight moments: What about Daniel Radcliffe? Because on just a thematic level, the character of Allen is someone who goes from being the dutiful son, the good boy, into revealing all of these feelings and thoughts that he's been keeping in for so long, and by the end of the story, finding a new voice for himself. Daniel probably has so much inside of him that he's not gotten the chance yet to show the world, and how great would it be if the arc of the character appealed to him and somehow felt to him like where he was at the moment?”
After growing up in public as the titular Harry Potter star, Radcliffe the actor was moving on from that persona with a broader range of theater and film work. His response to the character of Allen Ginsberg was immediate. “He's just desperate for someone to liberate him,” Radcliffe observes. “He's so ready for that at the beginning of this film, and he finds this incredibly charismatic guy, Lucien Carr. To be honest, that's the thing that attracted me to it most—it's a story about this first true love that ends very badly. I think we‘ve all kind of had some version of that relationship. Sure, people are going to talk about it as a gay love story, but it's basically just a love story. The gay aspect, to me, is sort of incidental—not that we shy away from it. They‘re simply two young men falling in love.”
Of course, turning a young man from West London who all but grew up on film sets into an insecure Jewish kid from Paterson, New Jersey posed its own challenges. Krokidas and Radcliffe undertook a rigorous regimen of training in the actor's spare moments away from his Broadway engagement in the popular revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Recalls Krokidas, “We spent six months rehearsing once a week because he was doing seven shows a week on Broadway. We’d have an hour every week to go through the script, to break down each scene, to find where he emotionally connected with the material, and then also do vocal and accent training.”
- Finding the best minds of their generation
The casting of Radcliffe gave the project an initial burst of energy that sustained it throughout the rest of pre-production. The next piece of that puzzle was to find an actor to play Lucien Carr, a vivid and riveting figure who, despite his youth, exuded self-destructive brilliance.
“I knew that was going to be a tough role to cast from the beginning,” says Krokidas, “because it's someone who has to be so charming that they could convince three people—Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg—that they had something important to say, and that they should rebel against their university, rebel against their parents and the world to create a cultural revolution.”
To find the right match for the part, Krokidas, Vachon and Radcliffe auditioned exhaustively. “We auditioned almost every young actor out there again,” Krokidas confirms. “But in 30 seconds of watching Dane DeHaan he became the character I’d imagined in my head. He was real, he was honest, he was seductive, and yet there was a fragility behind those eyes that let you know that there was more than just what he was playing on the surface.”
DeHaan leapt at the chance not only to play such a multi-faceted, chameleonic figure, but also one about whom, comparatively, far less is known. “I just think he's an incredibly complex, interesting person,” says the young actor. “So much of his life is ambiguous. All of the other guys have a lot of historical information out there on them… even videos and all that stuff. With Lucien, it's much harder to find, not that it doesn‘t exist.”
Even without his later-famous cohorts, Carr's backstory alone might have been a compelling film in its own right. As DeHaan notes, ”his father left him and his mother when he was 4 years old. When he was 11 and in the Boy Scouts, David Kammerer was his scout master. And they formed a relationship seemingly right away. The actual details are historically ambiguous, but what's important is that David really introduced Lucien to the idea of broadening your horizons and learning what it really means to live. But David is also the one that, eventually, when Lucien grew older, drove him to… I don‘t want to say insanity, but to having to get rid of this force that was in his life.”
Making DeHaan's job more challenging was the fact that in the aftermath of the murder—successfully (and dubiously) defended by Carr as an “honor slaying” to stave off Kammerer's homosexual advances—Lucien Carr worked systematically to have his name erased from theorigin story of the Beats. “He always made it a point to distance himself from all this stuff,” observes DeHaan, “to really take himself out of the history of it. The original edition of “Howl” is dedicated to Lucien Carr, but he had his name removed from all subsequent versions.” An even starker fate befell the manuscript of the early Burroughs/Kerouac collaboration And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a noir-stylized account of the murder whose publication Carr had suppressed during his lifetime; it was finally published in 2008. But the irony isn‘t lost on DeHaan: “The very thing that he had to purge from his life really took over, in its own way, once he was out of prison. To approach a character that was so complex and also so open to interpretation was really exciting.”
With the pivotal duo of Ginsberg and Carr in place, it remained for the team to fill in the other major players of the story—the hard-edged Kerouac, the visionary, elliptical Burroughs, and the morose, doomed David Kammerer. In Kerouac, Krokidas dealt himself a pair of Jacks, casting Jack Huston, the scion of one of the great families of American cinema, but the first to grow up outside the U.S.
“The script is filled with heavy hitters, Burroughs, and Ginsberg and obviously Kerouac” says Huston, the grandson of legendary director John Huston, son of Tony (the screenwriter of his father's final film, “The Dead,” adapted from the classic James Joyce story), and nephew to celebrated actors Anjelica and Danny Huston. “But I liked that it was Kerouac when he was younger. Although he had written a million words, he hadn't been published yet. So it was before the Kerouac that we know, the Kerouac who he would later become… the man, the legend. One could take a little bit of artistic license to make it one's own, without mimicking him completely.”
Radcliffe was particularly grateful to have Huston in the fold. “It was great to have another Brit on set,” he shares, thoroughly alert to the irony of having two towering American literary figures portrayed by native Londoners.
The project took another leap forward with the casting of Ben Foster as the darkly magnetic William S. Burroughs. Foster particularly relished the opportunity to showcase the importance of the writers’ fellowship on the development of one of his heroes. “Burroughs did not define himself as a writer until a year after the murder,” he explains, “when he started collaborating with Jack Kerouac. And what is so beautiful about this particular story, this angle that Austin and John took, is that these men became who they were through each other. Burroughs didn‘t find the courage to put pen to paper until he found union with his brothers.”
Michael C. Hall, as the obsessed David Kammerer, was no stranger to playing alienated outsiders, being a five-time Emmy nominee for his portrayal of conflicted serial killer Dexter Morgan in Showtime's acclaimed “Dexter.” Hall relished the chance to fill in the blanks of the character who is, in many ways, the most mysterious and troubled in the film. “When Lucien Carr was 11,” he notes, “David Kammerer was 25… a scout master and burgeoning academic. But that encounter started a life-long obsession with Lucien. I think that in David's mind, this meant a commitment to being his caretaker, his lover, his go-to guy. After all, Lucien's father died when he was 3, so it was a relationship dynamic that was ripe for this kind of development. And I think that initially, there was a real exchange of ideas, certainly an exchange of affection and enthusiasm, some sort of connection that neither found elsewhere.”
“But it turned sour,” Hall continues. “In people like Ginsberg, certainly, and Kerouac, David recognizes younger people who, for Lucien, maybe bring as much to the table intellectually. And like all these guys, he has this sense or conviction that he's the smartest guy in the room, or at least one of them. But he senses a threat there, and I think he realizes that these people can offer Lucien everything he has been providing, exclusively, up to this point.”
- Fearless Women
Though the principal roles among the cast are men, Krokidas‘ ensemble boasts a sterling collection of actresses in supporting roles, including Elizabeth Olsen as Kerouac’s girlfriend Edie Parker, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Allen's psychologically unstable mother Naomi Ginsberg, and Kyra Sedgwick as Marian Carr, Lucien Carr's aristocratic and fiercely protective mother.
Olsen found the social milieu of the film particularly fascinating. “It illuminates the whole relationship between society and politics, especially toward homosexuals,” she shares. “It's important to have reminders of where our country was at this point. The only reason Lucien Carr didn‘t have to spend his entire life in jail was because he claimed that David was a homosexual, and Lucien supposedly wasn‘t… And the fact that it was actually called an ‘honor slaying’! That seems kind of insane, even for the 1940s. And in New York City, which we usually think of as the most progressive city in the history of our country.”
In landing his pair of veteran actresses to play the key maternal roles, Krokidas well knows how lucky he got. “Kyra Sedgwick is truly fearless. And we needed someone who doesn‘t hold back to play Lucien Carr's mother—after all, where did his personality come from? Marian Carr is a woman who went so far to protect her own son that she burned his admission papers to a mental hospital from a decade earlier. And Kyra can play that ferocity behind this Midwestern aristocratic façade.”
Of his Naomi Ginsberg, Krokidas observes, “Obviously, Jennifer Jason Leigh has shown that she can portray characters who are emotionally ill in a very honest and beautiful fashion. She’s so brave about revealing her own vulnerability.”
- noir goes nouvelle
With the cast assembled, the script locked and the financing in place, the KILL YOUR DARLINGS team was left with the formidable task of shooting a New York period piece on a limited budget and schedule. To start the process, Krokidas lifted a technique from an Oscar-winning colleague.
“I stole this from Ang Lee,” shares Krokidas. “In his commentary on The Ice Storm, he mentions that when putting together that film, a period piece, he created a book—photographs from the era, contemporary styles for men and women, architecture, you name it. Basically, the book was history, a huge record of that time period so when you hire your cinematographer, your production designer, your costume designer, everyone can get inside your head and see how you took that era and interpreted it to fit the themes of the story.”
Assembling the book not only provided the team with common set of references and primary source material, but also had the added bonus of cueing a unique approach to shooting style. “When I started creating this book I began looking at the culture of the times. It 's 1944. Double Indemnity won Best Picture; Gilda came out that year. It was a high point in American film noir, and I said to myself ‘Wow, we‘ve got a movie set in 1944, it's based on a murder, what if we tried to create this as a film noir?’”
But the style inquiry didn‘t end there. “I realized that the French took hold of film noir and it became the inspiration for Breathless, for Shoot the Piano Player, for a lot of the early films of the French New Wave, where the camera went off the tripod, and people started breaking rules. It was a much more asymmetrical, jazzy, free-form approach to filmmaking, and that echoed the movement of the characters, going from a much more staged, trapped, symmetrical place in their lives to—as they found their collective voice—something much more jazzy and free-form. So the one-line version that I communicated to my department heads was, let's start at film noir and slowly progress to the free feeling of the French New Wave.”
Director of Photography Reed Morano (Frozen River, Little Birds) got on board immediately. “What I liked was that the movie was going to be very visually challenging,” she recalls. “John already had a very specific vision of how he wanted the film to look and it was actually an excellent, cool idea of combining the style of filmmaking from two different eras that were converging at the time that this story actually happened. Once Allen Ginsberg meets Lucien Carr, his whole world opens up, his true self can come out and he can be who he really is, that's where the film takes a visual turn to New Wave cinema, hand-held cameras, free-roaming, and more romantic, naturalistic lighting.”
Following visual orthodoxies of the noir style represented a new wrinkle for Morano. “All the other movies that I‘ve done have been very naturalistic, very much based in realism. The difference in this movie,” she continues, “was that it really challenged me creatively to be open to the idea of film noir, which more or less requires lighting that doesn‘t actually have to make sense. Some of it is motivated, but a lot of times you just have to put the light where it looks dramatic and cool and exciting. So we did a lot of that; even in the New Wave section, we still kept a little bit of that there. It basically made me get out of my comfort zone of wanting all the lighting to always be motivated. It pushed me to go a little crazy and do wild things that I never did before.”
“One of the reasons I hired Reed,” observes Krokidas, “is that not only had she worked on so many successful, low-budget independent films, but she has a natural instinct, a rhythm, a dance inside of her where she can anticipate where the actors are going to move, and what, emotionally, the next thing we needed to see was. Somebody says a provocative line? She knew exactly when and how to pan over to the reaction of the character who heard it. And I knew that she and I were going to have to be able to dance really fast alongside with the actors in order to capture every scene in this movie on our budget and time schedule.”
- city lights
Of course, all the energy in the world couldn‘t turn the clock back to 1944, and the difficulties of shooting a period piece in New York became apparent early on. “During pre-production,” Krokidas notes, “you start confronting the realities of what you can see when you‘re doing a period film in New York City. Oh, there's a handicap access… oh, there's a stop sign… oh, there's a contemporary building right in the middle of that beautiful field that you found with ‘40s architecture around it.” The scenic necessities of the production ultimately had a profound influence on every aspect of the shoot, even down to the film's aspect ratio. “When Reed and I were first talking about what aspect ratio to use,” Krokidas goes on, “we realized shooting it 235:1, super wide-screen, would allow us, vertically, to frame out a lot of the high skyscrapers in Manhattan and focus on a much more narrower plane; it was much easier to find period details in, for example, horizontal or wide-access blocks, in which all of the buildings, the brownstones, were period accurate. But of course, if you tilted the camera just a little bit higher, you would see the contemporary New York skyline.”
Production designer Stephen Carter likewise had his work cut out for him. The tight schedule and working method meant that hard choices needed to be made virtually every shooting day. ”You don‘t have the money to create these huge, beautiful sets. You don‘t have the money to recreate 1944. You‘ve got to go search hard for it within the city, to find places that evoke the time period and the color scheme.”
To that end, the scouting team came up with some undiscovered gems. For the long centerpiece scene in which the characters sneak into the Columbia University library to “liberate” a selection of banned books (an episode drawn heavily from Bunn's and Krokidas‘ own college days), the team had hoped to shoot in the library itself. “Some things that we had hoped to shoot inside a number of the University buildings,” details Carter, “were just too problematic, logistically. So, for example, the library sequence we ended up shooting at the New York Academy of Medicine, which was actually fantastic. I think that was probably my favorite location discovery of the movie, because that was really like stepping back in time. It was a fun place to be, especially the stacks. It's rare to have a library allow you to film in such a collection of rare books. They were very gracious to let us do that.”
The production design staff likewise found economical ways of managing interiors to create a period feel. “We did a lot with printing,” notes Carter. “We printed a huge variety and volume of wallpapers, for example. Sarah McMillan, our set decorator, and Alexios Chrysikos, our art director, worked together very well, resourcing and researching period wallpapers. She would actually acquire old pieces of real, original, stock stuff, and he would boot-scan them, designing our own prints of them that could be added and taken out of locations within minutes.”
But ultimately, the most essential resource the film had at its disposal wasn‘t its operating budget, or even the savvy of its crew, but the boundless passion that every member of the ensemble brought, on both sides of the camera. As Krokidas describes the balance, “You pick two or three exterior locations that are going to sell that theme, to visually enhance the story, and focus on spending your money on those two or three places. And then you‘ve really got to inspire people to get them to kick ass, to work their butts off.” Cast and crew expressed kudos to debut director Krokidas for accomplishing just that.
- Transformed, transforming
Ultimately, KILL YOUR DARLINGS isn‘t a film about the death of David Kammerer, or the birth of the Beat movement, but a personal and generational coming of age that's simultaneously highly specific and inherently universal. “For me,” reveals Krokidas, “at the heart of this movie is the inspiration of knowing that you can do something important with your life, but also the drama and the conflict of what you have to go through in order to become yourself. The fancy way of saying this is, it's about the emotional violence that comes with the birth of a self. For me, the murder is just a literal interpretation of that violence, of that death that needs to happen in order for one to be reborn.”
Certainly, the epochal reverberations of the incident are well charted, as Michael C. Hall observes: “It sent Kerouac across the ocean, and Burroughs to Chicago and then south of the border. Ginsberg, I guess, is the only one who stayed put but he certainly absorbed or sublimated it and moved forward with a creative explosion. It's a seminal event; it's wild that most people haven‘t heard that much about it.”
“I think every generation discovers the Beats anew,” muses Austin Bunn. “Funnily enough, when I was in college, I would go to the campus bookstore and read Allen Ginsberg poetry, just sitting there on the floor of the bookstore, transformed by the words I was reading. And now I‘m the guy who's telling them, “Hey, go find these transmissions, they‘re out there for you.’”