PARK CITY, UTAH — Director John Krokidas and writer Austin Bunn both loved the Beat writers in college, so when Bunn told Krokidas he was thinking about writing a play about the true story of a murder involving Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, Krokidas had a better idea: Bunn would write a screenplay — and he would direct it.
"A murder that unites three of your heroes and nobody has told the story before? I thought that was pretty exciting," Krokidas said in a Q&A session after the film's premiere at Sundance.
Kill Your Darlings focuses on Ginsberg's (Daniel Radcliffe) matriculation at Columbia University, where he meets and falls for a fellow student named Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), who is involved in an ambiguous relationship with an older man named David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). Elizabeth Olsen co-stars as Kerouac's girlfriend Edie Parker, and Jennifer Jason Leigh and David Cross play Ginsberg's parents.
The audience watches as an increasingly desperate Kammerer is threatened by Ginsberg's closeness with Carr — until Carr, at Ginsberg's urging, cuts Kammerer out of his life altogether. Kammerer doesn't take it well — and the tension between the Carr and Kammerer culminates in the older man's murder.
After killing Kammerer, Carr enlists the help of his Beat friends — seeking advice from Kerouac, then Burroughs (Ben Foster). Both end up arrested as accessories to the murder. From behind bars, Carr asks a lovelorn Ginsberg to write his defense deposition.
The story, Bunn said, was briefly referenced in books about the Beats, but the details of it were never really discussed. "Most people who read the Beats, if you read the Kerouac back catalog and even any of the bios, the Kammerer material is all over the place," he said.
Krokidas added that while the very basic facts of the murder have been written about, the story was always "one paragraph, and it [was] always the same — it's like the Manchurian candidate: 'The relationship between David Kammerer and Lucien Carr was very vague and in an attack…,' and there is nothing filling in between the lines."
Krokidas and Bunn set out to tell the story — and to understand why it had, until now, remained relatively unknown.
"From what I know, Lucien stayed friends, in this weird kind of codependent relationship with Allen, all the way 'til the end — and he kept anyone, even though they all wrote about it, from telling this story publicly," Krokidas said. "Allen Ginsburg actually waited to publish his journals, in which he wrote this story, in which he wrote about the murder, until Lucien passed away" in 2005. Ginsberg died in 1997; an edition of his journals that included details of the murder were published by his estate in 2006.