By Brian Whisenant
Every once in a while a film strikes a special chord…seeming to speak directly to me on a very personal, deep level. Perhaps those films sneak into the Oscar conversation (“Black Swan,” “Secrets and Lies”), make some top 10 lists…(“Mullholland Dr,” “Where the Wild Things Are”) or simply become my personal favorites (“Psycho Beach Party,” “Shag,” even “A Walk to Remember”).
As I have gone farther in my career as a filmmaker and film lover, I have become more interested in understanding why I am attracted to certain films…what makes me want to watch a movie over and over…learn all I can about the characters, the actor’s choices, everything it took to get that dream of a project on screen. Of all the themes I most connect with, the coming of age story has always been at the forefront.
The earliest instance I can remember of coming of age obsession was probably “Dead Poets Society.” (There is an argument for the Star Wars trilogy as well, but I think that might be something else altogether.) I first watched DPS in my AP English class, senior year of high school. We were on our second day of viewing it when we abruptly had to stop…end of day… and we hadn’t quite make it to the end. Worst of all, it was Friday. I couldn’t wait until Monday to see what happened to Neil and Todd and the whole society, so I drove down to the rental store, picked up the VHS tape and popped it into my VCR. Rewatching it from the beginning and not surrounded by my classmates I felt the ability to really feel the emotions of drama, joy and laughter watching what I considered kindred spirits on screen. Especially Neil…who against his parents’ wishes was attempting to pursue life as an actor. And then Neil ended his life, sending me into a serious depression. Could this happen to me? My parents weren’t exactly thrilled with my path to becoming an actor. Of course, looking back, I was not Neil…although it took a bit of time to accept that. I had enough of Ethan Hawke’s Todd in me to persevere.
Post small town Mississippi high school I was introduced to more coming of age stories…especially the coming out/coming of age ones. “Edge of Seventeen,” “Beautiful Thing,” even “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I would also finally read “Catcher in the Rye” and “A Separate Peace” The subjects that really hit me the strongest often involved the blurred lines between friendship and romance. Especially when one character who is, at least on the surface” completely secure takes a budding flower of insecurity under his wing only to have the roles reverse in the end. (Back to DPS), throw in an educational setting as the catalyst (or inhibitor) and my interest skyrockets.
Somehow, through all of this self discovery, I managed to miss the Beats. I happened to catch “Howl” on demand a few years ago and was completely unimpressed by both Allen Ginsberg’s poem and the film itself. (Perhaps I just wasn’t ready for it.) It wasn’t until last year when I became minimally obsessed with the film”On the Road,” that I began to explore the real life characters of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, etc. As per usual, when I become entranced with a film I get quite google happy, where I stumbled upon the fact that John Krokidas, a filmmaker I didn’t yet know, was making a film about the beat poets centered around a murder when Allen Ginsberg first entered Columbia University. And Ginsberg was being played by Daniel Radcliffe. Dan coming of age via portraying Ginsberg. I couldn’t wait.
There is a moment early on in the film when Allen Ginsburg, pre-published, pre-fame poet, having just entered Columbia University becomes completely enraptured by Lucien Carr, another student at odds with rhyme, meter and the norm on the stairs of their Columbia University dormitory.
Earlier, Ginsberg has observed Carr in the library on a new student tour, putting on a show for the room by quoting cock laden/banned poetry. And now, while the rest of the students are attending a social, Lu verbally seduces Allen for the first time, dangling the idea of a new vision for life and poetry in front of him. During the seduction Allen receives a call from his Mother, back at home in New Jersey, mentally disturbed and begging for Allen to return. The old life versus the possible.
Should Allen plunge into this new vision with Lucien, or does he stay on the strict path to ordinary success, forgoing the mundane and ride Carr’s anti social wave all the way down to Christopher St, the land of the fairies (as his new Arian jock of a roommate has described it.)…where Lucien will introduce Allen to the likes of William S. Burroughs and David Kammerer, an older professor turned janitor that Lucien has known for quite some time (and the murder victim we see being held by Lucien…dying at the very beginning of the film)?
That moment on the stairs of the dormitory when Allen decides to follow the Pied Piper is the same moment I became hooked as well. Allen’s heart must have been racing…because mine was.
The idea for “Kill Your Darlings” came about after screenwriter Austin Bunn introduced college friend and director John Krokidas to the story of when Lucien Carr murdered David Kammerer and tried to cover it up with the help of Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. After this failed, he used the Honor Slaying defense to escape murder charges. “The fact that in 1944 you could literally get away with murder by portraying your victim as a homosexual is still mindblowing and pisses me off to no avail,” John told me. I was shocked that I had never heard of this before. When talking to Austin and John about the writings of the beat poets Austin explained that although “…the murder appears as a footnote in many of these biographies….that’s the mystery we never could explain.” John elaborated that “Lucien asked that Allen not publish his adolescent journals…which is the end of our movie until after he passed away, that Jack and Bill not publish the first thing they ever wrote together…a book about the murder until he passed away….All of their creative versions of it were kept under wraps until 2008.”
With that mystery solved I needed to understand the pull Lucien had over both David and Allen. In almost all the accounts that I had read, it seemed as if David was the gay stalker and Lucien the victim, who may or may not have occasionally had sex with David. In doing research for the film John and Austin found an account from one of David’s friends who explained “that (David and Lu’s) relationship had been inaccurately portrayed by history… He (David) asked Lucien several times to end the relationship. And to stop coming and seeing him…You have two sides of this story. And anybody from outside could see that this was an incredibly codependent and toxic relationship. And both of them needed something from the other person.”
Although the film does center around Lu murdering David, the real love story belongs to Allen and Lu. As the film progresses we understand that Allen is picking up exactly where David is being dropped off…sexless lover or just a pawn to write papers…we aren’t exactly sure. But we know from that moment on the stairs that Allen wants Lucien and Lu needs Allen…the depths of which we may never completely understand. When I interviewed Dane DeHaan (who plays Lucien), he explained that “Lucien has a charm and charisma which he is very aware of. He can make people fall deeply under his spell but also never gives them everything they want and consequently leaves them wanting more. He definitely uses this charm and charisma to control people and get what he wants out of them.”
When asking Daniel the same question he explained:
“I think Lucien was…he was somebody who was really very skilled at manipulating people…but I also do think Lucien is somebody who is not comfortable with feeling vulnerable. And so that’s why in that scene he says I’m only good at beginnings meaning that as soon as somebody does get to know him he just…is very good at pushing away and withholding that relationship. And I think the reason that he has the power he does over Allen, is because he is…Allen had this very rich inner life and a great confidence in his own intellect but no real outer confidence and socially was kind of reserved and shy and Lucien was just this bold ebullient kind of…no social situation was too big for him. And I think yeah…as a young man, you fall in love with the aspects of somebody else that you don’t have yourself and in some way you want to have…that’s why Allen is so besotted by him.
He does represent everything Allen has wanted which is kind of anarchy and shaking up the system and shaking up his life. Lucien holds all those possibilities And in the end, obviously, it, as with so many of those types of relationships, doesn’t end happily. And I think the reason for that is that Lucien wants to create Allen if you will and wants to give him this life and then Allen gets to a point where actually he is smarter than Lucien and Lucien knows it and he is going to do something and it scares the shit out of Lucien.”
Although Lu and Allen never completely express their feelings, whatever they may be, to each other there is a scene later on in the film that both Dane and Daniel brought up to me. It is shortly before the murder…and Lu is attempting to run away, yet again, from Columbia, David…and this time Allen as well. I asked Dane about how he, John and Daniel approached this scene. He said: “I remember the scene between me and Dan in my dorm room when I’m trying to end our relationship, we didn’t know how exactly it should be played, so we did it a bunch if different ways. Ultimately they used the most vulnerable and emotional of the takes, and I think it was the right choice. It allows you to see the love and pain behind what is going on.”
Thanks to Dane, Daniel, John and Austin I was able to not only learn more about this wonderful, intriguing and sexy story, but also understand a little more about myself in the process. And I would be lying if I didn’t say I became quite besotted with this whole group of filmmakers in a similar manner to how Allen must have been, along the way to this knowledge.
My first interview at the Four Seasons was with Dane. I was so entranced by my casual conversation with him that I left my bag with my computer in it in his hotel room. Worst off I didn’t even notice for a couple of hours…not until I realized our entire interview did not record. Hoping I could at least email him some follow up questions I went about the day interviewing John, Austin and Dan being quite sure to record properly.
After all of my interviews I told the PR folks that I had lost my conversation with Dane. He had mentioned to them that our discussion was one of his favorites of the day, so they invited me to go to the premiere that night. That way I could reinterview him at the after party. Of course I attended, watching the film for the third time. But after it was over I realized I had no idea where the party was located and I didn’t see anyone around that I recognized to ask…until I saw Austin. Once I felt the time was right I approached him, and he took me over the the party. As we arrived, and a bit late, the cast was already heading their separate ways from the public. I briefly spotted Dane at the back of the bar, made eye contact, but couldn’t catch him in time before he disappeared toward the exit, apparently heading to the roof. You know…the after, after party. I was told that I could follow him up there if I wanted…because he was looking very forward to revisiting our conversation. And for a brief moment I considered it.
But for some reason in that moment..(and after a couple of glasses of liquid courage) I decided not to follow the pied piper. Although clearly Dane is not Lucien, the whole experience of the film, the day of interviews, and all the coming of age films like “Kill Your Darlings” that had come before washed over me. I felt a bit like Allen on the stairs of Columbia. I had had a new magical coming of age day in Los Angeles with “Kill Your Darlings” as my catalyst. And it was time to part ways. At least for now.