One of my favorite films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was writer/director John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings. The film focuses on the origins of the Beat movement and follows the friendships of Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) as they’re tested by the murder of David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), a man in his thirties who is desperately in love with Ginsberg’s friend Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). For more on the movie, read Matt’s review here.
Near the end of the Festival, I landed an exclusive interview with Krokidas. We talked about premiering at Sundance, how tough it was to land financing, the years he spent developing the project, waiting for Daniel Radcliffe, casting the rest of the actors, how much changed during production, deleted scenes, how much did he “Hollywoodize,” future projects, and a lot more. Hit the jump to either read or listen to our interview.
Click here if you’d like to listen to the audio from the interview, otherwise the transcript is below.
JOHN KROKIDAS: This has been an amazing week, it really has.
[Laughs] I can imagine.
KROKIDAS: I never thought I could have this much fun without sleeping. [Laughs]
When did you find out that the film got in?
KROKIDAS: To Sundance?
KROKIDAS: Right before Thanksgiving, which made the holidays a whole lot more fun. As you’ve probably heard, I had a short film here eleven years ago and this dream of coming full circle and bringing my premiere here. I though initially when I came here I had such a great time, met so many great filmmakers, I was a part of the whole circus and I’m like, “I’ll be back in two years!” And each year that passed I wondered if it was ever going to happen. So eleven years later to finally get that phone call to say, “You’re in, come back home,” just was so poignant to me. Honestly, it was one of the top three phone calls of my entire life thus far.
Was it always the plan for Sundance, or was there a chance for maybe Toronto, you know what I mean?
KROKIDAS: For personal reasons I wanted Sundance.
Ok, let’s talk about financing and getting the film off the ground. How tough was it getting the financing on this thing?
KROKIDAS: When you’re a first time director, you’re often considered what’s called a “deadly attachment” in the eyes of financiers, because they’re trusting you with a lot of money to bring something home, to get great performances, to not have a nervous breakdown in the process, and I wish I did things smaller. If this movie were four people in a room, this movie probably wouldn’t have taken nine years to make. But, you saw the movie, it’s a period piece, it’s a multi-character somewhat epic with musical sequences and over thirty locations and that’s a lot. Those financers they looked at that and they said, “I don’t know if you’re going to be able to pull that off.” We almost got this made several times. I brought Christine Vachon on, from Killer Films, about a little over four years ago and the movie almost made it to pre-production then, only to fall apart. And then it happened again. And then about two and a half years ago, Jesse Eisenberg, who was attached to the film at that time to star as Allen Ginsberg, Social Network came out and he called me up and he said, “You know John I think I just played the most iconic Ivy League college student I will ever play in my entire life. I think I need to play grownups now.” And I totally understood. It was at that time that a former sales agent said to me, “John, it’s over. This movie’s never going to happen. Put it away. Go take a couple years to write something else.”
But here’s the crazy thing, two years before that when I was meeting Jesse and other actors for the role, the other actor I wanted for the role was Daniel Radcliffe, and I sat down with him, we got to know each other, it was an instant love connection, we spent hours kind of sharing our most intimate secrets, and this will show you what kind of actor he is, he offered to audition for me. Who the fuck does that? I’m serious. He knew this was going to be intense and he wanted to make sure that the chemistry was real between the two of us and that the way that he would portray the role was the way that I saw it in my own head. I almost gave him the role in the room, but then I called his agents up and they were like, “John, just a reminder, he’s got two films he’s got to do before this one,” AKA Deathly Hallows 1 and 2, “and he’s not going to be available for two years.” So let’s jump forward in time again, Jesse Eisenberg’s no longer on the movie, the movie’s falling apart, I think to myself late at night, “Oh my god, I have Daniel Radcliffe’s email address,” [Laughs] and I’m like, do I dare just do this? And I’m like, fuck it, you know, it’s been so long, we’ve tried so long, let’s just see if this works. So I emailed him and I said, “Hey Dan, I hope you don’t think I’m a stalker, but remember meeting me and that role that you were interested in two years ago? If you’re still interested please let me know, I’d love to work with you, if not on this, perhaps on something else one day. Let me know what you think.” And he wrote me back the next morning, one word, “Abso-fucking-lutely.”
[Laughs] I’ve found speaking to a lot of actors and directors, even publicists, that often-
KROKIDAS: I like your nail polish, by the way.
Thank you. Often what will happen is that someone thinks it’s a bad idea and won’t even connect the dots, or doesn’t want to approve something, but then you just email the actor or the director directly and they’re like, “Of course I want to do this.” So it’s just a matter of bridging the connection. Sometimes you have to do that.
KROKIDAS: In this case it worked. Do I suggest other people do it? It’s a case by case scenario. Some people obviously get so many requests and everybody wants a piece of them they like having the wall of representation to deal with it. In this case I’m very lucky that Dan and I did get along so well that he felt comfortable responding to me personally.
So once you had Dan, tell me what happens then?
KROKIDAS: What happens then is I get told by foreign sales agents that Daniel Radcliffe can’t open a movie without a wand in his hand. And I tell them, “He’s playing Alan Ginsberg, I promise you there will be a wand in his hand by the end of the movie.” But no, he couldn’t open a movie at that time, they told me. So what I decided to do rather than chase after another really big movie star with lots of value, I was like, you know what? I’m going to Social Network cast it. I want to get a group of young actor’s whose work I really admire together and I think by seeing Daniel Radcliffe plus all of these great young actors the financial upside of this movie will just start coming through by people seeing it’s a cool fucking movie. So my boyfriend loved In Treatment and pointed out Dane DeHaan to me. I love Boardwalk Empire, Jack Huston, incredible actor.
KROKIDAS: Ben Foster, somebody I’ve admired and wanted to work with for years. Michael C. Hall, Six Feet Under is my favorite show of all time, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, I told my boyfriend when we started dating nine years ago, he asked me what actress I’d like to work with most at some point in my career and the answer was Jennifer. So with the help of our casting director Laura Rosenthal we just put together this really cool, eclectic group of people and that, I think, just started speaking for itself to the financiers as a movie that they felt comfortable investing in.
Talk a little bit about landing these people without having the financing set up. Is it sort of like taking meeting with people, showing them the script, and saying, “Hey, I’m putting this together; do you want to do this”?
KROKIDAS: The first thing, obviously, is they liked the script. That’s what got them to sit down with me. And the second thing is, you know, I auditioned for them. I watched every piece of their work before I met with them and I looked to see what they already had done, and done really well, and also, more importantly, the things they hadn’t done yet. And then when I met with them and talked about why I wanted them for each role, not only did I just talk about the role and why I was so passionate about making this film, I specifically talked about them and what I loved about their work and what I felt really confident that they could do that they hadn’t gotten the chance to yet. Because for a director or an actor, any creative person, the chance to show new colors and show the world that you’re not just what they think you are is one of the most appealing things in the world. I would ask them personally, I might have had other things to say, but for me that’s what I felt I needed to do to show them that I knew who they were, and that they could trust me.
From the script that you presented them as you were going around meeting people, including Daniel, to what we saw on the screen, how much changed?
KROKIDAS: It didn’t change that much, but definitely once each actor came on board I worked with each actor to kind of tailor the role for them. I let them have creative input. I wanted them to come be attached to the project. And I said to all of them, “As long as it still works for me in terms of moving the story forward and I get what I need, let’s tailor the role for you, let’s play around.” So there were minor rewrites here and there with each actor and then of course there were the constant rewrites of, “Oh, we can’t afford a football field and Jack Kerouac throwing the ball across the field with a group eighty extras.” So the football went to his apartment with the rest of the cast. So there were constant re-writes just based on budget and practicality that went on over the course of putting this film together with these particular guys.
KROKIDAS: About 1 hour and 39 minutes.
What was your assembly cut?
KROKIDAS: It wasn’t that long actually. That’s the good thing about having no time to shoot. You don’t shoot that much, so it can’t be that long. I think the assembly was two hours long.
From what I finally saw on screen were there any deleted scenes, or is pretty much everything you shot is up there?
KROKIDAS: There are several deleted scenes. Scenes I’m really proud of, but scenes that were keeping the pace of the movie from moving forward or felt repetitive once we saw the whole movie assembled together. But there may indeed, one day, be a longer cut of the movie. But I would only do that if I went back and I looked at the scenes in the context of how the film was built now and thought that they continued to enrich the narrative and move the story forward.
So you sold and you’re with a studio now and eventually this is coming out, do you know when it’s coming out?
KROKIDAS: I have a meeting at 11:00 tonight and I’m going to find out.
That’s very funny. Studios love to be able to put deleted scenes on Blu-rays, “the extended cut” and sell it.
KROKIDAS: Oh sure. I would definitely include the deleted scenes, but just me personally I have to talk to some other people about this. They’re all great scenes, I think for me whenever I watch deleted scenes it’s always a good lesson to see why they were deleted and to understand what dramatic doubling is, for example, in a movie or pace-wise where they were issues and why that was taken out. Then we each get to play personal critic and say, “They should have put that one back in!” or “I totally get why it’s out.”
Film or digital?
KROKIDAS: Film; that was mandatory for me and for my cinematographer Reed Morano. Reed shoots on film most of the time while most people are turning to digital. It’s just the medium and the tactile- the use of color and skin tone, etc. that she responds to the most. And I always set out to shoot this on film because I wanted it to feel, partially, like a relic of the 1940’s using color palates from the 1940’s, but at the same time finding a way using camera style, using speed, using jump cuts, etc. to make it feel contemporary and in that contrast the voice of the movie would come through.
For this film did you do a lot of storyboards or did you like finding the shots on set?
KROKIDAS: I started to storyboard; I can’t draw for shit, but Reed, my cinematographer, looked at them and said, “No, John.” And I said, “Why not?” She said, “We can shot list, but one of the reasons you hired me-“ and this is absolutely true, is her intuition is just golden. She’s like a documentary filmmaker in that she’s three steps ahead and knows where the actors going. She dances with the camera in a way that I’ve never seen anybody dance before. Just based on intuition, blocking the scene, and the actual location together what we would do is we would do a rehearsal and then she and I would shot list and talk about the moments we cared about the most and how to capture them and move forward with that plan. That way it allowed her the creative freedom if something new came up, because each scene in this movie was shot in like two hours, to just be able to capture it. Actually we did try to storyboard, we storyboarded the murder, we storyboarded a couple sequences, but then again on day two we realized that there was no time to shoot as storyboarded. The scene where Allan Ginsberg and Lucien Carr are sitting on the steps of Columbia together and Allen’s convincing Lucien not to leave school, slight spoiler alert, twelve minutes we shot that scene in. We got told we had to leave Columbia four or five hours earlier than we had expected. [Laughs] So basically what you don’t see is the entire crew wrapping up behind us and we literally shot that scene, I believe, without cutting the camera. We may have cut it once, but without cutting the camera and just having the actors reset their own hair, reset the props and then without cutting going and doing coverage on the scene.
I was going to ask you about permits at Columbia.
KROKIDAS: Columbia was extremely helpful actually. Columbia came on board pretty early, which was really cool. That was one of the things I was worried about, but they read the script and it came down to they loved the script and they loved the idea of continuing how the beat legacy formed at Columbia University, which is absolutely true.
KROKIDAS: It is and it was a way to keep Columbia’s history alive in film and to an entirely new and young audience.
Obviously this is all based on what happened, but every film is Hollywood-ized, if you will, little liberties are taken here and there. How much were you beholden to what actually happened and how much were you able to be like, “I need the story to get from here to here and it’s missing this”?
KROKIDAS: You know, the film is mostly true, but I will tell you this, the beats never broke into the Columbia library and stole the dirty books from the shelves and put them in the vitrines, but that may have happened in my life. [Laughs]
When did you first learn about these guys, what they did, how they met and when was it that it first came to you that you really wanted to tell this story?
KROKIDAS: Yeah, I was a beat lover since, like a lot of us, sixteen, seventeen years old. I grew up in a suburban town and the idea of finding my own voice and starting a cultural rebellion was very romantic and attractive to me. To add to that when I was reading Allen Ginsberg for the first time I was still a closeted gay guy and to read someone who was so open with his sexuality and threw his guts, and his stomach, and his heart, and even his balls out there for the world to see. I remember reading that and feeling like I was reading a dirty novel in the college library. So I always kind of had a special connection with him. He kind of gave me strength when I needed it. So my college roommate, Austin Bunn, who’s one of my best friends, brought the story to me nine years ago because he had a similar connection with the beats. When he told me the story- at first he told me he wanted to write a tome poem [laughs] an ode to David Krammerer, and I was like, “Dude, don’t write the tome poem.” But he was a playwright at the time and he goes, “Well maybe I should write a play about it.” And I thought to myself, “Hell no” and I gave him the Jedi mind trick and was like, “No, you are going to write this as a screenplay and I’m going to teach you how.” And that’s kind of the origin of how we started playing around with this.
You come here obviously to sell the movie, you want the world to see what you’ve done, talk a little bit about when you found out that this is actually going to sell. Because many projects come here and nowadays you can go on VOD, there’s a lot more avenue for distribution. When did you first realize that this is going to sell and it’s going to be really picked up?
KROKIDAS: I found out five minutes before the world did.
KROKIDAS: I did. When you’ve been around as long as I have and you’ve seen things come together and fall apart, I don’t take anything for granted and I don’t believe that something happens now until it actually happens. So I actually asked not to be part of all the excitement and the conversations and the “Are they going to? Are they not?” I said, “Let me know when it looks like something is going to happen and let me know who the people are.” And when they called me and said Sony Classics, I said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” Honestly, I thought about different places and, you know, they work with such auteurs and they work with such established filmmakers generally. I thought that this was- I don’t know, maybe I’m not giving myself enough credit, let’s just say to be in the company of the films they represent…I just feel like it’s the right home for this. They get it and they want to share it with the world and I couldn’t be happier that it’s these guys helping me.
When the film was being shot we were even running the paparazzi photos, there was a lot of interest, were you surprised by the level of interest with the people photographing it and the pictures getting online?
KROKIDAS: I don’t know we had Daniel Radcliffe on the streets of New York with no trailers; we were literally sitting on stoops, eating our lunch. I was surprised, actually, that there wasn’t as many as there were. Once they got the initial photos things really chilled out and people in New York were just like- they would walk by and be like, “Radcliffe, what’s up?” We shot a scene with Ben Foster and Michael C. Hall in the middle of Riverside Park, people were walking by, and they notice that Dexter was standing there and they gave a little nod, but nobody bothered us.
KROKIDAS: I don’t know if that’s just the way that New Yorkers are.
They’re not. They were being very respectful.
KROKIDAS: People really were respectful during the process. OK, one really funny story, day two we’re shooting a scene with Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan; an exterior, outside of them stumbling out of the bar just as the school bus pulls up. Just as a hundred children see Daniel Radcliffe in front of a camera across the street and they started to scream and howl and the ADs couldn’t stop them, the locations people went over there to try and quiet them down so we could get the shot, no one could do it, and Daniel Radcliffe turns to me and he goes, “John, let me take care of this” and he walked over there and went, “Hey everybody were making a movie, it’s imagination time, so everybody be very quiet.” And they did; two seconds later, absolute silence, and they watched the scene take place.
That’s the magic of Harry Potter though, the kids just saw Harry and…you know.
KROKIDAS: Although we should also say the magic of Daniel Radcliffe.
Sure, but I imagine they were losing their minds. In the time it took for you to get this project to the screen I imagine you’ve been developing other things, or trying to develop other things, or writing other things, or are interested in other things. Are you the type of person who has five things deep that you can now go out and talk about?
KROKIDAS: I promise I will tell you more information when I can, but yes, I may have something that’s in the coffers, I may have something new that I’m working on with Austin, and there may be a couple things out there that I’m eyeing right now. I’d love to make a second film, I’d love to make a third, and I’d love to have a long career doing this. I know sometimes it takes a long time to get these things done and one lesson that I’ve learned from this is, find a couple because you never know when one’s going to hit, and make sure, most importantly, that your hearts in each one of them.
I’ve been watching this industry now hardcore for seven years doing the site and there’s a reason why directors like Spielberg or Del Toro attach themselves to so many different things because even the biggest people-
KROKIDAS: It’s like the fucking Dark Crystal man, the light has to hit the crystal at the right percentage, time, at the angle at the moment that you put the stone in the ruby holder I mean, it’s amazing and a miracle that any film gets made, you have so many moving parts. So that totally makes sense to me.
The good news is that you delivered a fantastic feature, and you have great performances. That’s something else, and I’m putting myself in this interview, but you’re direction is really fucking good, and your performances are phenomenal.
KROKIDAS: Thank you.
So I think that this no matter what is going to- you can show this to a bunch of people and be like, “Please, may I have some money? I can do this.” Something along those lines.
KROKIDAS: [Laughs] I will say it’s nice having broken my first time filmmaker job and popped my first time filmmaker cherry, I’m no longer a “deadly attachment” I’m very happy about that.
I’m going to leave you with that and say congratulations, man, I really do wish you nothing but the best.