When you come to Sundance you’re bound to see a bunch of films, but if you’re lucky you’ll have a ticket to one of the gems of the week. This proved true yesterday for the film Kill Your Darlings, directed by John Krokidas. Set in 1944, the film weaves together the friendships of beat poets Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) as they become intertwined by the murder of David Kammerer, a friend obsessively in love with Ginsberg’s college buddy, Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). Based on a true story, this fascinating unknown chapter of Beat history is brought to life through an incredible performance by Daniel Radcliffe, who portrays a a young Ginsberg in his formative years discovering his sexuality and voice as a writer.
Capturing the spirit of the literary movement, Kill Your Darlings is an accomplished film that thoughtfully mirrors the poetic rebelliousness of the time through its kinetic editing, jazz-inspired score and painterly cinematography. During the Q&A, Krokidas said of DP Reed Morano‘s work, “For me the cinematography was not just Reed following around the actors, she created a piece of lyric beauty.” Gorgeous, yet understated, Morano’s choice of color and tone pays true service to the story and captures the era with great poise. Returning to Sundance this year with her 6th film, I had a chance to speak with Morano briefly about here work on Kill Your Darlings.
How did you come to the project?
The project came to me through the producer, Jared Goldman, whom I worked together previously with on the Rob Reiner movie, The Magic of Belle Isle and Christine Vachon, with whom I had worked on the documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits.
What was your vision for the look of the film and what were your inspirations?
I wanted a look that was that of an organic photochemical process, perhaps from the time period (1943), and I also knew right away that I wanted to shoot film. I wanted to pitch an idea that came to me from looking at old photographs – like those of William Eggleston, for example. In his photos there are certain colors that seem to have more saturation than others. Often they are candy colors or bright plastic colors. On KYD, I wanted to desaturate and fade the overall image, but then find certain colors within the frame to “pop out”. They wouldn’t be candy colors, but rather the prominent colors of that period. Red, green and blue. John Krokidas, the director had used Saul Leiter’s photos as references for color for the period and that blended well with what I wanted to do.
During prep, I brought in a film I love — Le Samourai by Melville for us to watch together, which solidified the “black and white in color” look we wanted to do. We used production design and costume design to restrict the color within the frame, in order to create a seemingly monotone look with only a few pops of color. We ended up with a slightly more saturated version of that, but still desaturated compared to all the other movies I’ve shot.
Initially, John told me he wanted a look that transitioned from Classic Hollywood/film noir style, in terms of camera movement and lighting, and evolved into a more French New Wave, verite look. He wanted the camera to start static, smooth and very strict, and the lighting to be higher contrast and more dramatic. Then it would become loose and handheld and the lighting more romantic once Allen Ginsberg meets Lucien Carr who introduces him to the Beats and turns his world upside down. This idea evolved into my own interpretation of both styles so it would create a more seamless transition from one to the other throughout the film, since it goes back and forth a couple times.
What did you shoot the film on?
We shot on Kodak 5219, using Arricam LT cameras and Cooke S4 lenses.
Can you tell me about your workflow?
Our post was done at Company 3 (whom was also producing the movie.) We were very lucky to have both Tom Poole and Andrew Geary as our colorists. We did a 2K scan of the film and then scanned selects 4K for various visual effects we needed to do. Tom and Drew worked together on creating my desaturated look combined with certain pops of color that I envisioned. Additionally, I wanted to create a flashback look that really emulated an organic photochemical process (which we didn’t have the money to do). Tom and I experimented with various looks and we knew we decided on an almost faded polaroid look- that would be slightly off the beaten path. I am so beyond happy with their work on the film – the color takes the production value to another level. It is screening at Sundance on DCP.
Tell me about a challenge you had on the film that you didn’t expect, and how you overcame it.
There were a couple, but none I didn’t expect. Firstly, we had to light almost every interior from within the room we were shooting in. I thought there would be a chance we could get a lift from time to time outside our windows (as were always shooting on higher floors) but there was no money in the budget for even one day of renting a lift. It forced us to get creative. When we could, we put lights into other apartments if they were close enough and faced our windows but unfortunately that option only worked in two locations. Everywhere else we rigged smaller lights to the ceiling or hid them strategically out of frame. 98% of the time, the lights were within the room we were shooting in which for me, having to shoot handheld and look everywhere, was a challenge. The other lighting challenge was having every other character wearing glasses! It made it hard to put the lights where they needed to be.
Time was also a constraint. Even in the initial one liner, there was a days worth of work that did not fit into any part of the schedule.
We had definitely bit off more than we could chew. In the end, however, despite our lack of time, we ended up only cutting two small scenes, and I am truly impressed by that and how amazing and fast our crew was. Luckily, I’m no stranger to tight schedules. Sometimes you just have to go. My job as a DP is not only to make sure the film looks good, but also to make sure the director has enough time to get as many takes as they need. I can’t spend all day lighting and leave them with no time for getting the right performance — no matter what, that will always be the most important priority for me.
How involved were you in the post process?
I was very involved, as far as the coloring process, we spent about 6 or 7 days coloring this movie which is a lot for a low budget indie, we were lucky to have the endless support of Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company 3 as well as Andrew Geary and Tom Poole, our colorists going above and beyond to make sure the film looked perfect.
I also was involved in screening nearly every cut of the film many, many times and helping to give notes when needed. John and the talented editor, Brian Kates, were extremely collaborative and really kept me involved, which I was so grateful for.
We also had a lot of VFX on the film due to the nature of our budget and restrictive shooting schedule. We only had a 24 day shoot schedule which is not a lot of time for a period movie that is all interiors and nighttime exteriors and over 30 locations. We were really guerilla style and because of the lack of time, often John and I were forced to cover many scenes in only one or two handheld vert style shots that looked almost 360 in order to get every plot beat. In the end, John and Brian seemed to have what they needed, only maybe doing a few blow ups to create a couple tighter shots or inserts that we could not get on the day. The other VFX included removing some lights of NJ when they are in the boat scene and extra background lights outside at night in general.
What is your favorite shot of the film and why?
I wouldn’t say I have a favorite shot, but there are a few instances in the film where we were doing big night exterior shots where we shot all night long until the sun came up. The sky became blue and lit up, and I kept my tungsten lights on in the distance. This created a dreamy, almost ethereal look on the actors, which in the end, I tried to match the other connecting night footage to in the DI, and I think really creates a magical mood.