“Kill Your Darlings” Q&A with John Krokidas and Austin Bunn
John: This movie was shot in 24 days. Each scene that you saw was, on average, shot in three hours or under. One scene was even shot in twelve minutes. Basically, we got shut down by Columbia five hours earlier than we thought and what you didn’t see was all the equipment being pulled out from behind.
John: But this production would have never gotten made if it weren’t for a bunch of family members, old friends and new friends, and I want to introduce some of them to you. First off, isn’t the cast amazing?
John: Laura Rosenthal, my casting director. Give it up for Laura. Jared Goldman, a friend of mine for over ten years who helped me produce this and was there from the very beginning before we had any money. David and Julia from ‘Killer Films’ (production company) are here tonight. Those are the people who do all the hard grunt work. I see Rose Ganguzza, the godmother of the film, who got us the money. My production designer, Stephen Carter, this was his first film with a budget over one million dollars. My costume designer, Christopher Peterson. Okay, what you don’t know is right before this, he picked out the thongs that did Magic Mike. Peg and Lori, hair and make up – they took a break from Woody Allen – I kid you not – to work on this. I don’t know how I suckered them in but they did a fantastic job. Stephen Lippross, he kept the whole thing together on budget. Brian Kates, one of my best friends since I was 22-years-old, who I met in film school. I helped him get his first job on The Woodsman with Kevin Bacon, and he got famous. It took me this long, but I convinced him somehow to come back and help me.
[Audience applauds after each person is introduced]
John: Okay, I know I have one person left, but I may have left someone out… I have a list because I didn’t want anyone to be the Chad Lowe. I think I got it all, except for one person. Come down here, anyone who wants to come down, but Austin come down here. My college roommate, my best friend from college. He spent nine years working on this with me. [Austin Bunn walks onto the stage]. So now we have time, if anybody has any questions for any of us, feel free to ask.
This is one of your first films, how did you get all these amazing actors? How did that casting process go?
John: Laura [Rosenthal, casting director]. Laura was a big help. Basically, when Christine Vachon and ‘Killer Films’ came on board four years ago, I made a list of all the young actors under 30 that I wanted to work with. And when I wrote down the name ‘Daniel Radcliffe’ I thought to myself… hmm…the role is somebody, a dutiful son, who’s only kind of shown one color of himself to the world, who has so much more inside of him. And by the end of the movie he’s a poet, he’s a rebel and he shows everyone that there is so much more to him. I had a feeling that Daniel could identify. And we sent him the script and he literally responded within a couple of weeks. And I was sitting across the table from him while he was doing Equus, and they say meeting your actor is like a first date and you know within five minutes. The hour meeting became six hours and we ended up sharing so many stories about ourselves and there was trust between the two of us. And just to give you the kind of idea of what a great person he is, at the end of it he offered to audition. Who does that?! Because he wanted to make sure that our chemistry was going to be strong enough to make it through a film of this short production period, and also that he had everything for the role I wanted him to be. So, there was one problem. His agent said that he had just two movies left to do before he could do another one – the Deathly Hallows 1 and Deathly Hallows 2 – so he wouldn’t be available for two years. So, I took my other first choice, Jessie Eisenberg, and we tried. And we built the cast around him but then the financing came together, the financing fell apart and then Jessie got The Social Network. And after that came out, he called me and very pointedly said, “John, I think I’ve just played the most iconic Ivy League college student I could ever play, and I think I need to play grown ups now.” So the film didn’t have a cast, it didn’t have financing, but I remembered two years had passed…and I had Daniel Radcliffe’s email. So I wrote him in the middle of the night and I was like, “I hope you don’t think I’m stalking you, but do you remember this movie? Do you remember meeting me? If you’re still interested I would love for you to come on board.” And the next day he wrote me and said, excuse the language, “abso-fucking-luteley.” And so once we had Dan, you would think that the movie could get made, but there’s people with calculators who will tell you whether or not these actors, what they’re worth, can get a movie made. And at that point they said to me, Daniel Radcliffe cannot open a movie without a wand in his hand. So I said, he’s playing Allen Ginsberg, there will be somebody’s wand in his hand by the end of the movie.
[Audience laughs and cheers]
John: But no, then with the help of Laura, I told her, lets do a Social Network cast. Let’s get all the young actors that we love and just create a really solid ensemble. My boyfriend, Daniel, of nine years, loved In Treatment and mentioned Dane DeHaan at the same time Laura mentioned Dane. Jack Houston, I love him from Boardwalk Empire, he’s so fantastic and so versatile. Ben Foster I’ve admired for years. And Michael C. Hall, come on. Six Feet Under is one of my favorite shows of all time. Laura helped me build the cast and once we had this whole cast of people to see what kind of film this is that’s when the money came – that’s when we realized we were going into pre-production.
How did your sexual orientation influence you in creating this film?
John: Obviously quite a bit.
John: I mean, the thing that kept me going all this time, for me, there has to be something that has to piss you off. And what really pissed me off was that in 1944, you could get away with murder by portraying your victim as a gay predator. And for me that was a fire that kept burning, that kept me going for all these years. And, you know, also this is a coming of age story. It’s a finding your voice story and in some ways it’s a coming out story. Austin…
Austin: I think like probably most people in this room, I discovered the Beat generation writers in college. Allen Ginsburg got me through my freshman year of college. I mean, just the spirit of honesty and the exorcism of shame, and that was like the expression that came through, that we bounced back and forth. He’s one of those writers that’s like a virgil to the next version of yourself. I think that’s what we were trying to capture in the film – I don’t think it counts as a coming out story – it’s sort of a coming into yourself story.
How did you learn about this specific story of the Beats?
Austin: Well, once you start reading the Beats, you end up reading a lot of the Beats, they’re like an intoxicant. And it’s funny – if you read the Kerouac back catalog and the bios, they all mention the murder of David Kammerer, but John always talks about how they entered that as a footnote. And they all have the same footnote as if they’d all been handed the story and no one had really dug into it. And what you see in the film, in the newspaper articles, this was front page new articles of the New York Times in 1944! So it’s not that obscure really, but Lucien Carr who just died, he didn’t want people to know too much and as we say in the end titles, he kept a lot of this from coming out while he was still alive.
John: And then when we talked about it, you know, the secret origin story of murder that brought all these writers together. You know, Austin wanted to write a play. He was a playwright and a journalist at the time and I was like, “No. You are not going to write this as a play, you are going to write this as a screenplay and I’m going to teach you how.” And that was kind of the beginning of the development for a while. Peter from the Ginsberg estate was here earlier and what’s really fascinating that he shared with us is Lucien and Allen kind of shared a co-dependent friendship for most of their lives. But Lucien kept every single one of them from telling the story or publishing anything about it and, you know, after we finished the script, Lucien passed away before we started writing it, but the Kerouac/Burroughs book came out and then Allen Ginsberg journals came out, and they’re the journals with the actual story that he wrote about the murder. And you start reading from all these accounts that they held back until Lucien passed away, that David Kammerer was a more sympathetic man than we thought and the relationship is more complex.
Everything from the hair and clothing to the sets is kept to period. Can you explain the choice to mix modern music with the old music of the 1940s?
John: This is not your father’s biopic. I didn’t want it to be a dusty biopic. It was about being young and rebellious and I thought to myself, “Hey, what would the Beats do?” And, you know [in a sarcastic tone] the intellectual thing is by crossing genres and by using contemporary music which conflicts against the period thing, you create an interesting tension. But the truth of the matter is, Brian [Kates, editor] was there, it was two in the morning, the period music was so cheesy – we’d tried everything. I said, “Let me put on a song I would actually listen to,” and it clicked. And the next day we were like, “Are we crazy?” And we watched it again and it brought excitement and it brought energy to it and it just brought a kind of feeling that we brought with the fast cutting… just trying to get that feeling of being 18 for the first time, and going to New York for the first time, and falling in love and having sex for the first time.
Can you speak about the art direction for the film, particularly the graphic transitions using the moving New York City Subway map?
John: Basically we had had a very distinct color palette from the movie that Stephen [Carter, production designer] and I worked on which, you know, when you don’t have much money, a restricted, limited color pallet really helps kind of give the film a style. And Steven and Alex [Chrysikos, art direction] found a map that was within that color palette and that was period. And then the kind of decision to do the map came with my friend Steven Winter, who kept this production historically accurate. Give him an applause. He said what about a unique transition? Kind of an Indiana Jones feel. What about a subway map?” And it worked!
There’s an emphasis placed on the film of breaking the rules in standard poetry writing form. Did you break any standard rules in the screenplay writing process?
John: Well I can tell you for a fact the Beats never broke into a college library.
Austin: That was us. We did that.
We started this film to be a noir, which is why it begins the way it does, like Sunset Boulevard, where you end kind of at the crescendo Pietà image, and then it just got funky. We just decided to go in other directions, like the montage sequences, that are really a creation of Brian and John together in the edit room. And those are the most ‘Beat’ parts of the story, where we just let the rhythm drive the story.
Can you speak more about the cinematography and getting that 1940s period feel for the movie?
John: Reed [Morano, cinematographer] is amazing. She’s not here, she should be. Basically I heard that Ang Lee for The Ice Storm used to gather a book of like fifty pages in which you defined the era in terms of color, in terms of architecture, in terms of clothing, in terms of style, you name it. So I was like, I have to make my book. And so I did make a fifty page book with the help of Steven Winter and my friend Jackie and picked all the colors for the movie, the initial ideas, and pick the kind of cinematography we wanted. We wanted to go from more locked down conformist point of view from the beginning of the movie, but then when Lucien showed up you might notice, the camera all the sudden became jazzy and handheld. And then when Allen’s journey, we he got kind of stuck again in whether or not to lie for Lucien, everything became much more locked down again until he finally wrote the deposition, and then the movie becomes handheld once more. So I made this book to share with all my production heads, so they could see what’s in my head. And then you get to set, and you realize, you have 24 days, that shot-list of 14 shots you came up with has to be two. But the amazing thing about it was by that point we all trusted each other so much that we could throw the book over our shoulders and just kind of feel the energy of what was going on with us. And what the actors brought, what the department heads brought, had so much kind of energy and vitality that wasn’t in our initial conception as being a more kind of stated film noir, that at some point you just kind of go with it. And then the movie just kind of starts writing its own voice, and like a child you just have to start letting it be who it wants to be. But Reed did all of that, I mean there were times when we had no shot coverage. And we had a little signal… they would tell you, “you only have one shot before we’re closing you down!” So we’d give each other a wink and that meant shoot the wide, and then without cutting I would go “RESET!” And Daniel Radcliffe would run back into the first position and Dane would run back and they’d fix each other’s hair and put back the props. She’d go in for the close up, and we’d get coverage for the scene that way. And what I was most impressed by, she’s so intuitive; like a documentary camera person knowing and following the actors, she knew what moment to get. While creating this amazing kind of beautiful palette and light at the same time.
What was the relationship like between you and the actors, and how was it like for them to step into these iconic roles?
John: We spent time getting to know each other before we started and building a real level of trust with everyone and I think everyone knew they were getting into a crazy production and there wasn’t going to be any time on set to really make choices. And so getting to know everyone and really building that trust really helped. And then I stole a method from Coppola; we did a week of rehearsal in which we did improv scenes that weren’t in the script, so people wouldn’t get attached to line readings and wouldn’t feel un-fresh when they got to set. But we still formed connections. Like with Jack [Kerouac] and Edie [Parker], the scene where we first meet them for example. The actors started building relationships with each other. So when we got to set, everyone had a good idea of who the character was. And the other thing we did, obviously there was a lot of homework that everyone had to do with this movie. But not to be under the shadow of these big legends – and we kind of did this too to some degree in the writing. In the biographies, I only let them read up to where the characters were at this point of the movie. I didn’t want them playing the big heroes at the end, you know, later on in their lives. I wanted them to play awkward insecure characters. Like Jack Houston came up to me and was like “I’m fucking terrified to play Kerouac.” And I’m like, “You’re just playing a guy named Jack, he’s a jock, he doesn’t fit in, he’s got the soul of a poet. Go.” And that I kind of think freed everybody and kind of took away any need to portray somebody bigger than life.
Can you speak about the decisions made on how to handle the drug sequences and the writing process, which are done in a very unique way?
John: That came out of a lot of rewriting in the edit room with my editor Brian. That first montage where Allen starts to create and that backward kind of motion, we were trying to figure out something that everybody’s been trying to figure out for decades, which is how to visualize the writing process and not just have the stereotype: the smoking, the sitting at the typewriter. And so we started playing with the idea of going back into memories in the movie. Cause the way Austin wrote the poem in the movie, which is really brilliant, is he took those words and pieces from Allen’s experience over the course of the film to build a poem. And so by going back actually visually to those moments, it made it much more active.
What is the future of the film in terms of wider release?
John: We were very fortunate that last week at Sundance, Sony Classics picked us up to distribute the film.
John: And I was just in their office coming up with a game plan today. I can’t tell you exactly when, but sometime in the fall. And if you know anything about fall movies, you know what their agenda is. And that’s very, very cool.
Could you keep going with sequels?
John: There could be five sequels to this movie! What with the drama these guys had in their lives. I don’t think we’re gonna be the ones to write it and direct it though. After spending nine years with these guys, you kind of want to make some new friends. But yeah, the next chapter is them all getting together in New York and hanging out with junkies and you know, starting that phase of their life. And getting arrested, new crimes, new murders, new everything in their lives.
Do you see any changes you want to bring to the film for the fall release?
John: Every time I see it. You never stop wanting to change it. Let’s just say there are a lot of scenes that are on the cutting room floor. There’s much more to this movie than what you saw. They [Sony] are very cool. They’re like, you know what? You’re the artist. We’re not gonna get in the way. It’s pretty amazing. And so I’m going to show them some of the moments that I missed and see whether or not they’re really needed or not.
The Q&A is wrapped up by the theater, John and Austin thank the audience, invite them all out for a drink at the bar around the corner, and are met with a standing ovation.