With a rather steady drip of films on the matter, it seems that this film going generation is returning to an infatuation with the immortal Beats; the lost souls, funnelling confusion, frustration into furious, passionate and sexually charged prose. Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg have had their passes in the cinema through attempted adaptations of Howl and On the Road. But not the lesser known Lucien Carr, a would-be beat if not for his incarceration for murder.
Before the beats were icons they were boys, and not necessarily the type to be so easily triumphed. Filmmaker John Krokidas, in his first feature film Kill Your Darlings, has taken one of the darkest, and overlooked chapters of the admired revolution, presenting less than ideal moments of literary trophies. I spoke with him about humbling your idols, working with Daniel Radcliffe, and wondering aloud about Glen Danzig’s past.
Dork Shelf: How did you come across the Lucien Carr story, and decide to pursue it as your first feature film?
John Krokidas: I love that as the day goes on, you start off with these long-winded romanticized versions of your story, and you just become more realist as the day goes on. So for all you Dork Shelf readers, I basically stole it from my best friend, who wanted to do it as a play. I convinced him we should do it as a movie. We wrote it together. When your friend comes and tells you something they want to do, and it resonates with you, it’s not a bad idea to manipulate them into collaborating with you. And hey, you know what? We got the movie made, we’re very proud of it. And here’s the best part: we’re still best friends.
DS: I hope he didn’t consider himself a bigger fan of the beat generation than you did.
John Krokidas: NO! The nice thing is we both had our different kinds of interests, connections with these guys. Both of us are gay, and both of us were closeted at various points in our lives, this was pre-internet. Allan Ginsberg was one of the few, man. He was one of the few out there, acting like it was fashionable before it was safe to even voice about your sexuality. I remember going into a suburban book store, and in the same way you hear, like, these artists might be gay, David Bowie might be bisexual, I should check out his CDs, Allan Ginsberg was gay and he was explicit in his poetry. I felt like I was going into the dirty part of the magazine shop reading his work. He was so open and passionate. His sexuality was as much a part of him as his heart, his love, his political beliefs. I feel like you and Kerouac, it’s those lessons you make in your adolescence with certain cultural legends. The people you start to make connections with in youth and college, now being 39-years old [Ed: 40 since October 1st, Happy birthday, John!], these are the ones that stay with you for life. Imagine now, go ten years later, from high school obsession with… Who was your high school obsession?
DS: Oh… Well..
JK: Come on.
DS: Glen Danzig.
JK: Okay! So imagine you find out the secret story of a murder that caused Danzig to write his first album.
DS: Oh, I’d kill for that.
JK: There you go! So to find out there’s this X-Men: First Class genesis story. In all honesty, to find out there’s a deep, dark, emotional story which ended up being a primary creative force behind this person becoming an artist, you’ll want to know more about it.
DS: Not to mention how complex an artist’s rookie stage is. He hasn’t become comfortable yet with his sexuality or even his craft, along with everyone who surrounds him. That’s a really interesting aspect of your film, in a time among so many other films about the beat generation, is that you didn’t idolize these people.
JK: There’s nothing more pretentious to me than 19-year olds talking about a philosophical, artistic revolution, until 3 in the morning. Some of us, including myself, may have been guilty for that. I wanted to be as unpretentious about it as possible, and about these guys. They weren’t legends yet. They were insecure, awkward people. I remember Jack Huston turning to me, and we all had a moment like this, and he said, “Holy shit, I’m playing Jack fucking Kerouac.” And I said, “No you’re not. You’re playing a football jock named Jack, who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the team, who wants to run away and join the merchant marines and have an actual life experience and become a writer.” At a certain point, there’s just so much biographical information, so much we might mimic, let’s not do that. Let’s just focus on their life, only up to the point of the end of this story, 1944-1945, and then all of a sudden you’re not playing Jack Kerouac, you’re playing Jack the guy who got into Columbia on a football scholarship.”
DS: Even the juvenile mischief they get into is so off-kilter from what we usually understand from these guys. Covert shenanigans just to slip dirty pictures into a library.
JK: You know, the best for me is when people just ask, “How would you describe your movie?” The three primary influences are 1940s film noire, French new wave but I won’t lie and say we didn’t add a dash of 80s teen nerd comedy, AKA Real Genius, to the mix. Because this movie is about being 18 and 19 and wanting to change the world, and the dumb hijinks you get up to at that time.
DS: Your ambitions are the still the same as when you were 12, you just want to know everything and have influence over everything.
JK: Yeah! And to not have that playfulness would be a movie that I just would not want to see. I’m not a very, as you can probably tell, reverent person. And I feel their irreverence is part of what made the spirit and why we’re so attracted to them.
DS: Another part that stood out for me was when Burroughs, who’s usually a Cheshire Cat in these stories, is barked at by his dad, and he winces. I couldn’t think of another time any film had shown that before.
JK: Thank you for bringing up that moment, because that was an important moment for us to write. As soon as you put somebody playing William Burroughs, it brings in all these, quote unquote, cool connections that we have with him. The guy was a heroin addict until he died in his, what, 90s? He had a gun in his hand. He lived the rock n roll ethos until his very death. But at this time, his father was an extremely wealthy man who created the Burroughs adding machine. He was a rich kid who was lost. Kicked out of the military, went to Vienna, maybe was going to become an artist but wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life and came to New York because David Kammerer was his friend, and he followed him there. He was a lost, rich kid whose daddy still pulled the purse strings, and who ended up bailing him out prison when this murder happened, and forcing him to move back to St. Louis. It wasn’t until Bill moved out of St. Louis, pulled away after this movie ends, did he really start writing about the murder with Jack, and really have the confidence to be a writer himself. He was playing bad guy, inhaling bug poison and exterminator, but he was still a confused affluent kid.
DS: What was it like to work with Daniel Radcliffe in such a transitive stage in his career?
JK: Amazing. We’ve been working together for four and a half years now, this movie struggled so long to get up on its feet. So to find somebody who cared so much about the project and as intelligent and hard working as he is, and to have him stick by your side and work for so long to create something together, and to finally have it get made and make it to Toronto? Just let me be honest, it’s fucking cool. He’s become a close and intimate friend. When you’ve gone through this together, both of you are taking a big risk on this with each other. I’m taking the risk that audiences are only going to see him in one certain light for the rest of his life, he’s taking the risk that I’m a first timer whose never he can make a good film.
DS: And he does manage to create that new persona, though you are risking it by putting him in round glasses again.
JK: You know, the glasses were the greatest challenge. It was a big question I had at the top of the film, but I decided historical accuracy was, in this case, more important than the Harry Potter concern. We tested three different pairs of glasses, and we actually picked the ones that did not resemble Harry Potter’s the least, and while resembling Allan Ginsberg’s the most.