TORONTO — Legend has it that Lowell’s own Jack Kerouac coined the term “Beat Generation,” the ferociously literary members of which — Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Kerouac among them — called New York City home.
These poets and novelists became as legendary as the movement itself — larger than life, brimming with creativity, sparking controversy, responsible for helping to bring about a cultural revolution. Plenty has been written about them, especially about the work they were doing in their collective heyday. Everyone has at least heard of Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch.” But little has been noted about who they were and what they did before they were the Beats.
“Kill Your Darlings,” the first feature film directed and co-written (with Austin Bunn) by Springfield native John Krokidas, remedies that oversight. It’s partially the story of the meeting of those minds when they were attending Columbia University in the early 1940s; it’s also the revelation of a long-covered-up murder mystery whose players included Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, another student, named Lucien Carr, the catalyst who brought the three young men together, and an older man, David Kammerer, who was infatuated with Carr. But the film focuses on the relationship between the innocent Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) and the manipulative Carr (Dane DeHaan).
Krokidas, whose stepfather is screenwriter Jeremy Leven, and Radcliffe (those Harry Potter films) recently spoke about the film at the Toronto International Film Festival. DeHaan (“Chronicle,” the TV show “In Treatment”) was interviewed by phone from New York.
Radcliffe was attracted to the script because he’d never heard of the events it described.
“That was one of the things that fascinated me,” he said. “I thought, ‘How could it be about these guys, three of the most famous literary figures of the last century, and nobody knows the story?’ It’s because it was suppressed.”
The project began when Krokidas’s friend Bunn considered writing a play about the murder. When they decided, about 10 years ago, to co-write a screenplay instead, they began an extensive period of research, reading every biography they could find about their subjects.
“We thought we had to start creating and writing characters that would become the legends,” said Krokidas. “The danger is that you’re just doing mimicry of who they would become later in life rather than just representing the awkward 17-year-olds, 19-year-olds, 24-year-olds they are in this movie. So I said, ‘No, we are going to research their childhood, their adolescence, and this year-and-a-half in which the movie takes place, because this is not a movie where we are portraying Allen Ginsberg. He is an awkward Jewish kid from a working-class family in New Jersey who gets into Columbia University, goes to New York, and meets this guy named Lucien Carr who says, “I see the potential of a great writer in you.” That’s the story we’re writing, and those are the characters we’re writing about.’ ”
Financing came and went, as did some of Krokidas’s actor choices. But Radcliffe, who had been trying to move on from his Harry Potter image by working on Broadway in “Equus” and later “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” was on his radar quite early.
“I had the idea to cast Daniel as Allen because I was thinking, ‘Allen in the movie is somebody who goes from a dutiful son who’s only shown the world one side of himself, to being a rebel, being a poet, and showing the world that he has so much more inside of him than they ever knew.’ And I thought, ‘Maybe Daniel Radcliffe, the person, might be able to identify with this.’ ”
Radcliffe was offered the role and took it. But he had to bow out due to his two remaining Potter commitments. The part then went to Jesse Eisenberg, who changed his mind after playing an iconic college student in “The Social Network,” and the role reverted to a freed-up Radcliffe. Then Krokidas turned to casting Lucien Carr.
“My boyfriend was a huge fan of ‘In Treatment,’ and said from the very beginning, ‘Oh, you’re gonna cast Dane DeHaan in this role’,” said Krokidas. “But I had to discover things for myself. I picked the top young actors I really admired, including Dane, and we did old-fashioned Hollywood chemistry reads. I had them work together, and Dane was seducing Dan, intimidating him, charming him. There were sparks in the room.”
So Radcliffe was set to play Ginsberg, whom he would eventually portray as a wide-eyed, quietly excited young man, amazed at the new world opening up around him at Columbia, and DeHaan tackled the role of Carr — who went on to a career as a news editor at United Press — as a gleefully charismatic fellow who pumped himself up with self-assurance. But neither actor knew much about the person he was playing.
“I knew nothing about Ginsberg’s life,” said Radcliffe. “I only knew about his poetry and sort of what he and Burroughs and Kerouac and [Neal] Cassady stood for in the pantheon of American literature. I didn’t understand the poetry. I still don’t understand all of the poetry.”
DeHaan hadn’t even heard of Carr.
“He was a completely new piece of this puzzle for me,” DeHaan said.
But both Radcliffe and DeHaan believed that because they were portraying real people, they wanted to be faithful to them.
“I think my job was easier than Dane’s because I had a huge amount of information about Allen,” said Radcliffe. “And Allen, though he did go pretty bloody mad as he got older, he was a very likable guy, a compassionate and curious person, someone who was quite fun to be around. It helps to like the person you’re playing, yet you don’t have to. The other responsibility you have in playing a real person is not to eulogize them unnecessarily. I want to play the real person. I don’t want to play the idealized version of the real person. Allen was, for all his good points, easily manipulated and kind of emotionally needy. He’s kind of an insecure, neurotic guy, and he’s easily led and corrupted. It’s questionable behavior. None of it’s bad, there’s nothing he does that you can really judge, but he’s not a perfect human being.”
DeHaan readily admitted that it was more difficult pinning down Carr because there’s not much information about him.
“With Lucien it was complicated because he spent most of his life, after this story, almost running away from the story,” he said. “I think that Lucien, the actual person, would have had very specific ways he’d want this story to be told, if he even wanted it to be told. So I think my allegiance to the actual person is just to do my best to honor who he was, and try to truly, accurately portray who this person was at this point in their life.”
“The first time I met Dane was at his audition,” said Radcliffe. “He came in and he was the first person we saw that day. We did the scene once, and when I acted with him it was like I was pinned against the wall. He’s a force, he’s fantastic.”
“I didn’t know what to expect going into the room,” remembered DeHaan. “But I had the scenes prepared, and everything seemed to be going pretty well. Then John turned to me and said, ‘So, what are you doing next January or February?’ And I said, ‘Well, you tell me, man.’ [laughs] I think he appreciated the audacity of that comment. He sometimes likes to say that’s why I got the part, although I’d like to think I got the part because I also gave a good audition.”
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.