John Krokidas' debut film on the early lives of the Beat poets, Kill Your Darlings, features Daniel Radcliffe with wild frizzy hair and having gay sex as Allen Ginsberg, while Michael C. Hall is far less likeable than we have ever known him as stalker and murder victim David Kammerer.
Daniel is my cohort in this entire thing, my muse, the person who gave me the courage to keep on going and direct even though it was tough
The biggest revelation, though, is the story of Lucien Carr (up-and-coming Dane DeHaan), who had greatly influenced Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston from Boardwalk Empire) and William S. Burroughs (an astounding Ben Foster) when they were students at Columbia University. In fact, the famous future Beat writers wouldn't have met hadn't Carr introduced them. We know little of this because after he spent two years in prison for the 1944 manslaughter of Kammerer (his early mentor who was 14 years his senior), Carr, the early love of Ginsberg's life, disappeared from sight.
“The relationship between Lucien Carr and David Kammerer is in all the biographies,” notes Krokidas, “but it's only one paragraph and it's very vague. From what I know, Lucien stayed in this weird kind of co-dependent relationship with Allen all the way till the end. Even though they all wrote about it, Ginsberg kept them from telling the story publically. He finally published his journals in which he wrote about the murder after Lucien passed away in 2005. [Ginsberg himself died in 2007.] A murder that reunites three of your heroes and nobody's told the story before—I thought that was exciting.”
Interestingly, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, the novel Burroughs and Kerouac wrote based on the murder in 1945—at age 30 and 21 respectively—was first published on November 1, 2008.
Kill Your Darlings was likewise a long time coming. Krokidas commends Radcliffe for his strong collaboration on the project, which the actor initially committed to in 2008 while performing in Equus on Broadway. When the film was delayed, the Harry Potter star had to fulfil his commitment on Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2, so other actors were cast in the film. However, by the time Krokidas and producer Christine Vachon finally had the green light—after the financing stalled—Radcliffe was again available and jumped at the chance to play Ginsberg.
“Daniel is my cohort in this entire thing, my muse, the person who gave me the courage to keep on going and direct even though it was tough,” Krokidas says.
Currently in the process of navigating his transition out of child stardom, Radcliffe, who is appearing in Michael Grandage's West End production of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan, also has completed other indie adventures: Alejandre Aja's Horns (the horns apparently relate to paranormal abilities that assist him in tracking down his girlfriend's murderer); and the romantic comedy, The F Word. Both premiere in Toronto.
A voracious reader of poetry and fiction, Radcliffe had initially been attracted to the Kill Your Darlings screenplay, written by Krokidas and his friend, Austin Bunn. “It was fantastic and ultimately that's all you can base your choice on,” Radcliffe says. “When I met with John, I was impressed by his incredible energy without which this film would never have been made.”
“A lot of our movies take a while to find their right moments, but this one was extraordinary,” Vachon admits. “Still, if we'd made it when we originally wanted to make it, Daniel would have been too young so it was fortuitous.”
A champion of daring stories featuring gay themes and women in trouble, Vachon first made her mark with Todd Haynes' Poison. Through her company Killer Films, she has produced seminal independent movies including Kimberley Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, Todd Solondz's Happiness, John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Haynes' other movies including I'm Not There, where Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger played different versions of Bob Dylan. One of her latest projects is Haynes' Carol, featuring Blanchett and Rooney Mara in a lesbian relationship in the 1950s.
Still, no matter how big the stars, it's never easy producing independent movies and it's getting harder, Vachon says. “You know, we made six films in 2012, but for us now what's different is there's a tremendous downward pressure on the budgets while the ambitions are as big as they've ever been. So we're being told now to make the movie as big and as amazing as you could five years ago, but with a quarter of the resources.”
A Manhattan native, Vachon has a natural affinity for the Beats. “There's something about their writing that feels continually fresh,” she says. “I feel like every generation discovers them again in a really personal way. People discover them and feel like they're the first ones who ever have.”
The film's cast felt like they were on a voyage of discovery, too. “Not a lot is really known of Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg before they were these giants of literature,” explains Huston, the grandson of John Huston, whom he says instilled in him a love of literature. “It was kind of nice because we were able to take a few liberties to make them our own, as you don't get any video of these guys. You just know they were at college running around and having a good time finding their own voices.”
“What's incredibly interesting about the story is I don't even think these guys really knew who they were at this time, which is kind of what the movie's about,” notes DeHaan.
For Krokidas, the film is most poignant as a story of self-discovery for Ginsberg, a gay man like himself.
“Allen starts off in the film as a dutiful son, as somebody who spends his life taking care of others and only showing one part of himself. By the end, he has all those emotions he has been repressing at the beginning, all those voices and colours that his family didn't know about, that no one could expect. By the end, he is a poet and a rebel. I had a feeling Dan might be able to relate to this—and within five minutes of our first meeting I pretty much knew the role was his.”
As for the nudity and gay sex, the heterosexual Radcliffe says the film “was shot so rapidly there was no time for prudishness or for worry”.
Are his Harry Potter fans going to be shocked?
“If they coped with Equus, they're going to cope with this,” he chortles. Harry Potter, it seems, has well and truly grown up.
Watch 'Kill Your Darlings'
Sunday 18 October, 12:45am on SBS VICELAND
Genre: Biography, Drama, Romance
Director: John Krokidas
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Ben Foster, Jack Huston, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Elizabeth Olsen