First discovering the Beat writers in college, screenwriter Austin Bunn was instantly smitten by the countercultural voices of generations past. But no one spoke to him louder than iconic poet Allen Ginsberg, and Bunn soon found himself scouring the campus bookstore to find anything he could get his hands on by the legendary writer. “I read Allen Ginsberg’s poetry collections like they were some kind of secret transmission from the future version of myself,” says Bunn. “I was a closeted young creative writer from New Jersey, so his work meant the world to me.”
Bunn later learned about Ginsberg’s friend Lucien Carr, who murdered lover David Kammerer, then commandeered Ginsberg to help write an “honor slaying” defense, in which it was justified to kill homosexuals and others whose behavior shamed a community. For Bunn, this true tale of travesty begged to be told, and he approached fellow college student John Krokidas to do just that. More than a decade later, Kill Your Darlings hits screens, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan and Michael C. Hall.
Inclined to finish each other’s sentences, director Bunn and co-writer Krokidas, who first met as acting students, talked to Creative Screenwriting about their dynamic collaboration.
ANDREW BLOOMENTHAL: Let’s start out by discussing the division of labor. How did you decide who was going to be the director? And did you always plan to share writing credits?
AUTIN BUNN: There was never a question. John was…
JOHN KROKIDAS: …We were college roommates. We’ve known each other since we were 19 years old, when we were acting in The Lion in Winter together. But acting really wasn’t in our future, and Austin had the dream of being a screenwriter, where I began playing around with the camera. I would use our actor friends to make short films, and it was Austin who saw my very first film and said “You know what, John? It doesn’t suck! It’s better than I thought!” But that’s the kind of…
BUNN: …You need that…
KROKIDAS: …You need that when you’re just starting off and finding your own voice. So then I went off to film school and Austin started becoming a short story writer and a playwright and began getting some renown, and we would share ideas about what we were working on and he would come to premiers of my short films. Then one day he came to me with the idea of doing this story of murder that nobody knew about, which brought together three of our favorite writers, who started the greatest countercultural revolution of the twentieth century. Austin wanted to do this as a play, but as he’s telling me this story, I started seeing the movie version playing in the back of my head. So I told him that I didn’t think the play idea was very dynamic, but as a film, it would be amazing. So in a way I was convincing Austin to make his college dream of being a screenwriter come true by saying, “Let’s work on this as a film project.”
BLOOMENTHAL: And does having that acting background make you understand the actor’s experience all the more?
KROKIDAS: Absolutely. Having been on stage and in front of the camera, and knowing how vulnerable you are, and knowing that good acting is when your real emotions are the character’s emotions.
BUNN: And as a screenwriter, it helps enormously when you’re writing if you can think as an actor, as opposed to thinking so much about plot. Because you’re trying to tell a story through a character’s choices and decisions and that’s a big re-orientation.
BLOOMENTHAL: And does it help with the fluidity of the dialogue, knowing what it’s going to sound like, having delivered lines yourselves?
BUNN: Well I’m really tough on us, about exposition, and I didn’t want to a film that force-fed the audience anything. So if you are doing that, you’ve got to be really on top of the characters and where they are at any given moment, in order to help tell the story that way. Otherwise, you have to submit to the plot, where you’re just sending out bursts of back story.
BLOOMENTHAL: Nothing takes a viewer out of the narrative than something that’s there just for exposition…
BUNN: …for the audience. Totally.
BLOOMENTHAL: I have a technical question. The scene when your characters are walking through the jazz club and everyone’s suddenly frozen except for them, and they’re moving through the room, where everyone’s statue still. Did you watch video playback on set, to make sure none of the background people were screwing up the scene by moving in way that your director of photography might not have seen during the take? Did you do any checks and balances on set that day?
KROKIDAS: If only we had the time and the financing to do something like that. So I realized that literally the only way I could get anyone to stop moving was if I controlled them by saying: “Follllloooowwwww myyyyyyy vooooooice and FREEZE!” I was talking through that the entire take, so everyone could stop thinking about whether or not they were holding themselves in the right position and just listen to me. Because one thing with actors—and it’s actually also true with writers and directors, is that it’s about getting out of our own heads, and getting to that primal instinct of just being. And by manipulating my voooooooiiiiiiice, it gave them something to focus on.
BUNN: And you’re writing for Creative Screenwriting, so this is something screenwriters will appreciate: On the page, we had lots of different versions of that scene at various different budget levels and scales of imagination. There were explosions and crazy things and CGI…
KROKIDAS: …We had them jumping off of the Empire State Building…
BUNN: …And people exploding into crows and walking on top of each other. And then we realized: okay, we can’t do any of that with the budget we have. But more importantly, we were looking for the idea that society itself had reached its still point, and these guys were going to stroll through this frozen museum and shatter the stillness. That was right on point and it also cost zero dollars. So you have to be creative and resilient as a screenwriter, which solves a thousand problems in production.
BLOOMENTHAL:So now I’d like to indulge my curiosity. I cringed when I saw that palm slitting/blood brother scene.
KROKIDAS: I still cringe watching it.
BLOOMENTHAL: Were you in the sound mix when they put in the slashing sound effect? Did you test out different sounds?
KROKIDAS: I was the test bunny. Basically, they would do it and then bring me in, and if I screamed at the top of my lungs, we knew it was working.
BLOOMENTHAL: And in the scene where they’re plastering Lucien’s dorm room wall with a collage of pages from torn up books, how did you describe that literally? And how did you instruct the production designers to create this aesthetic?
BUNN: To answer the first part of the question, John and I really wanted to… we didn’t want to make the greatest hits version of this world we were writing about. But we did want to create seedlings of things that would pay off later on. And for those who know these writers, you’re going to see the beginning of things that will pay off decades down the line. The phrase “First thought; best thought” is one of those Beat credos that Kerouac and Ginsberg used for the rest of their lives. And [William S.] Burroughs had this “cut-up” method, where he composed books using sections of sentences, and he’d knit an entire novel out of that. And so when we had the concept for the scene, we thought “Let’s just make this something they’re doing out of stoner craziness,” which, by the way, had an autobiographical aspect. Maybe shouldn’t talk about that in an interview.
BLOOMENTHAL: Don’t sweat it. We’re in Los Angeles. It’s legal.
BUNN: (Laughs) That’s true…. But nevertheless, that was the payoff of that dorm room scene, when you’re seeing Burroughs’s method, day one, beginning right then.
KROKIDAS: It’s also dramatizing action and seeing what they were doing thematically, which was ripping apart the classics and doing something new with them. We’ve all have had those pretentious conversations about art and philosophy until three in the morning, but, you know, who wants to watch a movie about that? Ivy League college students can be the most pretentious people on the planet, and we wanted to show this moment in the most non-pretentious and fun way as possible.
BUNN: But in terms of the production, they spent hours cutting the papers up…
KROKIDAS: …This was a small movie with a small crew, and they did that in about six hours. We ended up taking over a convent in Hell’s Kitchen that week. Religious institutions in New York City have the best period moldings. Who knew? And we kind of made this mini-studio at this convent, and while we were filming another scene upstairs, the production designers were downstairs, cutting up all the words, and my whole thing was just “don’t make it look too ‘movie’. Make it look real, like these guys actually did it in an afternoon, so don’t give me the epic, over-designed version of this”.
BLOOMENTHAL: So you earlier mentioned the noir influence, and speaking to that, I was struck by the library scene where they’re creeping around in the dark—and also the scene when David comes to Jack’s apartment and puts the cat in the oven. These scenes had such a good clarity but they were beautifully darkened, and we could see everything without cheating with artificial light that wouldn’t be there. Sometimes in movies, you’re in a cave and suddenly everything’s perfectly lit when it should be total darkness.
KROKIDAS: Let me put it this way: if Austin is on a crusade against…
KROKIDAS:…Exposition in dialogue, [cinematographer] Reed Morano is on a crusade against unmotivated light.
BLOOMENTHAL: Speaking of the library scene, when they replaced the classics from the library display case with Lady Chatterley’s Lover and vintage porno, Austin, as the screenwriter, did you describe precisely what you envisioned?
BUNN: Yeah we did write it into the script, but when it came to production, we had to find interesting graphics, because you could put Lady Chatterley’s Lover there, or Ulysses, but for most audiences, that’s just like seeing a block of text which won’t necessarily have the same resonance as seeing images from the Kama Sutra, for example.
KROKIDAS: We had dialogue with people at Columbia University about what books were restricted at that time period, and then it was just about researching the titles to make sure they were actually restricted in large parts of the United States.
BLOOMENTHAL:I remember the shot of the restricted shelf, where it itemized a list of forbidden topics like “nymphomania”.
BUNN: And “Orgies”.
BLOOMENTHAL: So tell me about “honor slayings” where someone could get away with murder if their victim was a homosexual.
KROKIDAS: So in film school, Spike Lee taught one of my classes and he asked us to write a sentence why we wanted to make films. And I wrote “To entertain people, but hopefully to make the world I live in a better place.” So that’s something that’s hugely important to me and one of the reasons I wanted to do this film.
BUNN: And when you make a period movie, you have to ask: “Why make this now?” It’s been 67 years. And the thing that we kept going back to was the notion that one of our most admired writers was at the center of this crime that seemed to betray the very things we love about him. So that dilemma was the climax, and to me, that was the story I felt like contemporary audiences would relate to–whether or not they know who Allen, Jack and Bill were.
BLOOMENTHAL: In the film there was a professor who clung to all these rigid poetic ideals, which Ginsberg constantly challenged. Do you think there’s a place for tradition within fine arts expression?
KROKIDAS: That character was modeled after one of Allen Ginsberg’s professors and also influenced by one of my directing professors, who deliberately forced me to play by his rules. And you know what? I made horrible films when I played by his rules! But it wasn’t until I broke them and had something to fight against, that I ultimately found my voice and found the kind of films that I wanted to make. But I think you need to know the tradition to do that.
BLOOMENTHAL: You have to have something to deviate from.
KROKIDAS: Yeah, but sometimes it’s all about finding your voice in whatever is authentic to you. And sometimes that falls in with tradition. Not everyone needs to rebel against authority. I just want people’s voices to be authentic, and that’s what I love about the Beats. It was all about pushing people to take off their masks and just be who they really are. And for Austin and I, the writing process was about finding our voice together, because I’m stylistically very much of a structuralist, about making sure each scene somehow pushes themes forward with the characters and actions, and I always want to give more, where Austin is more about letting things slowly reveal. And it was in that contrast that we found our voice together. For example, in the film, Lucien Carr was like, “I need to leave school, and I’m no good at this, and nobody understands me,” I would write these huge three-page outpourings of adolescent angst, and then Austin reduced all that to: “I’m only good at beginnings.” So I’m the one with the heart that just bleeds all over the room, and Austin can distill that into something short and smart.
BLOOMENTHAL: One of the final scenes is in the Ginsberg’s Paterson New Jersey house, when Daniel Radcliffe and his father, played by David Cross, unknowingly take synchronized drags off of their cigarettes, when they’re smoking in the kitchen. Was this moment an on-set whim or was it written in the script? How was it directed?
BUNN: A version of this was in the script, because we wanted to suggest a “like father, like son” moment. But I think in the first draft, Allen was writing a poem on the back of a dollar bill, and his father was too, and the father suddenly had the perception, “Oh, he’s writing too.” But then that evolved because it was just yet another scene of writing and…
KROKIDAS: …You know how it evolved? Because we couldn’t get the close-up of the dad writing on the back of the bill. We didn’t have time to shoot it so I said “Oh shit, we’re not going to be able to get the symmetry in scene 72”. And so I looked at the composition of the frame and I said, “You guys, on the count of three, smoke together.” And that became the moment.
BLOOMENTHAL: Was it expected to have a humorous note to it as well?
KROKIDAS: I wanted it to be poignant and fun and full circle after that whole adventure that we just went through in the movie.