John Krokidas was a closeted high school freshman when the first gay man in his suburban Connecticut community came out anonymously to the local newspaper.
It was the late 1980s and the reaction was loud and absolutely terrifying. Enough to scare the young boy into silence. Until he discovered poet Allen Ginsberg and the Beat generation—the focus of Mr. Krokidas’s directorial feature debut, “Kill Your Darlings,” which was the Opening Night film at the 21st annual Hamptons International Film Festival on Thursday, October 10, at Guild Hall in East Hampton and released theatrically on Wednesday, October 16.
“Somebody mentioned Allen Ginsberg as ‘that gay writer’ in a derogatory way,” Mr. Krokidas recalled of his childhood during a talkback at Guild Hall after his directorial debut screened. “Which of course, to me, was like, ‘Where can I find him?’”
At Waldenbooks in the mall, Mr. Krokidas discovered the founding voice of the Beats, a literary movement in the 1940s that rejected social standards and materialism and strove to explicitly portray the human condition with honesty, courage and a raw edge. Ginsberg, along with writers Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, were trailblazers. They experimented with drugs, sexuality and style. They were brave.
But, at one point in time—before they were the famous Beats—they were a bunch of scared, rebellious teenagers at Columbia University, striving to make an impact.
And Mr. Krokidas could relate.
“There’s one way of doing Allen Ginsberg with the beads around his neck and the beard and the man we know from the photographs,” Mr. Krokidas said. “It’s another to portray a closeted kid from Paterson, New Jersey, who has an emotionally ill mother. Who just got into his dream school and has a chance to go be a writer and is too scared to tell his father he wants to be a writer because his father is already a struggling poet.”
He took a breath and continued, “Now, that’s a character I understand.”
But there was a catch: one of the Beats was guilty of stabbing and drowning David Kammerer, an older writer hopelessly infatuated with Carr and who introduced his young lover to Burroughs. And that was the hook, Mr. Krokidas said.
“Kill Your Darlings” is the true tale of Ginsberg, Carr, Kerouac and Burroughs—acted by Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Danny Huston and Ben Foster, respectively—and the murder that united them all. A crime that many people don’t know even happened.
“This was front page news in the New York Times, this murder in 1944,” Mr. Krokidas said to the packed audience at Guild Hall. “Had you guys ever heard of this before?”
“No,” the vast majority murmured.
Neither had Mr. Krokidas when his college roommate, Austin Bun, came to him with the story 10 years ago. Mr. Bun thought it would make a great tone poem or play, but the burgeoning director knew it had to be a film.
“The fact that it had never been told amazed me,” Mr. Krokidas said of the story. “We never wanted to treat this like a traditional biopic. We felt like that’s been done before. We did want to make it universal and just capture that spirit of all of us when we were 18, 19 years old. And we wanted to do something unique and to make our mark on the world.”
The pair started by reading countless biographies and oral histories on the Beats. They even visited the Ginsberg archives at Stanford University and Kerouac’s apartment at Columbia, much to the surprise of the oblivious college students who were living there at the time.
“Austin and I are extremely proud of how accurate to real life the script and the movie ended up being,” Mr. Krokidas said. “There may be one scene,” he paused as the audience laughed, “that the Beats did not do.”
The director trailed off, alluding to a library break-in where the Beats swap out showcased, classic texts for erotic art books and restricted works.
“However, the co-writers of this movie may have participated in a similar incident,” he continued, with a mischievous grin. “But I’m not allowed to talk about it.”
For both themselves and the actors, Mr. Krokidas and Mr. Bun put a moratorium on research beginning with the year 1945—the year after the murder of Kammerer, portrayed in the movie by Michael C. Hall. Mr. Krokidas did not want to hint at what the Beats would later become—or live up to that legend. He wanted to understand the awkward, and confused, students they were at this time.
Much of the film’s buzz has revolved around the gay sex scene between Radcliffe and DeHaan.
“Lucien Carr was a new person to me,” Mr. DeHaan—one of this year’s Variety’s 10 Actors to Watch—said of his character, standing beside Mr. Krokidas. “He has this sexual, charismatic energy. He’s a bit of an extrovert, but he uses that almost to deflect attention off of himself and hide from what’s actually going on inside of him—obviously some very complicated things. Nobody is just one thing. People always tend to have separate forces that are tugging at them.”
Ginsberg had his passions. Kerouac had his humanist attitude. Burroughs had his rebellion. Carr had his demons. And together, they started a revolution.
Mr. Krokidas’s aims with “Kill Your Darlings” weren’t quite as lofty, but they were real, he said.
“For me, the idea of working with your friends to do something creative—and to try to make your stamp and be unique and meaningful—has been something I’ve wanted to do since I was 16 years old,” Mr. Krokidas said. “And, in a way, getting to tell Ginsberg’s story has given me the chance to work with my friends and, hopefully, say something.”