January 31, 2013

Sex, Drugs and Beats: An Interview with Prof. Austin Bunn

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Prof. Austin Bunn, Performance and Media Arts, started classes a week late this semester. But he wasn’t calling in sick. In fact, Bunn was at the Sundance Film Festival premiering a movie that he co-wrote, Kill Your Darlings. Earlier this week I had the chance to sit down with Bunn, an old professor of mine (so proud!), to talk about his new movie, Sundance and what is looking to be a very successful career in film. Bunn has only been teaching at Cornell for about  six months, but his name can already be heard around campus as that professor who is doing something amazing. He currently teaches screenwriting and dramatic writing and will be teaching screenwriting next semester.

The Sun: Tell me a little bit about your movie.

Prof. Austin Bunn: So, Kill Your Darlings is the story of the origins of the beat generation, so it’s about Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Bill Boroughs when they were young men, long before they became the people that you know them to be. So if most biopics are about like great men at the peak of their lives, this is about them at point zero of their lives when they’re just kids and they’re still figuring out who they are and trying to become artists.  One critics who reviewed the movie called it Beat Generation: First Class — these are these major American literary figures when they’re just punks, bad students, you know, dorm roommates, when they’re kids.

Sun: But this movie isn’t really about their published works is it?

A.B.: No. Not at all. Allen Ginsberg isn’t even a writer; he doesn’t consider himself a poet, he wanted to be a labor lawyer.  So our movie is long before they became famous. And it’s about really the relationships — how they met each other. They met through this “fourth beat”: This guy named Lucien Carr. Who has never really been explored dramatically very much. He was a very charismatic, charming guy. He was also about 20 years old and he introduced Allen to Jack and introduced Allen to Bill Boroughs and sort of talked on that they were going to be great people. He really inspired them. But he also was someone who had a kind of, he had a darker side of himself, he was pretty manipulative and he ended up murdering a friend, a mutual friend of this group of guys named David Kamerer. The circumstances of the murder are quite suspicious: Not only did he stab this friend of his, but he dragged his body to the Hudson River, put stones in his pockets, tied his hands up, tied his feet up and basically drowned him in addition to stabbing him. So real malice. And as it turned out Jack Kerouac and Bill Boroughs were jailed as an accessory to the murder and Allen Ginsberg was involved in helping him design his defense. So the climax of our movie is what happened that night between the two of them and how it affects their lives.

Sun: So why did you choose to write about this topic?

A.B.: Well like a lot of young people, and, I don’t know, maybe yourself, I discovered the Beat writers in college and Allen Ginsberg really got me through my freshman year of college. He’s a very powerful poet and somebody who really taught me about the weight of shame and a certain kind of liberation, the power of a transformational friendship; that’s what the Beats really represent, is friends. Writers who are friends. So those kinds of lessons really gave me a lot of inspiration and made me want to park my butt in a chair and write. So if you read the back catalogue of the Beats, the Jack Kerouac books that people don’t read like Visions of Cody, Visions of Gerard, when you read the biographies the murder of David Kamerer is in all of them—but its just a little footnote. It’s almost like John, the director, would describe it as like The Manchurian Candidate: it was like they all had the same paragraph about it, about the murder. Why was that? Its as though they had kind of agreed that there was a certain narrative to it. So we started doing research, and this murder was the front page of The New York Times  in 1944. I mean Lucien Carr was an undergrad at Columbia, why had he murdered this guy. I mean Jack Kerouac’s name was in the paper I mean this was a really big case.  And when we started reading more I realized there’s more to this story that people don’t know.  There’s a side of this murder that explains what happened. Something about Alan and Jack and Bill’s motives for getting involved in it. And finally you have the story of these great literary writers before theyre writers and what ends up happening after the murder is Ginsberg writes his first extended literary work about the murder, gets him expelled from Columbia. Jack and Bill co-wrote a novel called And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks a year after the murder, never published until 2008. In fact Lucien Carr’s family, his estate, forbade it from being published for 60 years.  Ginsberg’s novella, which is part of his journals, wasn’t published until 2009 all because Lucien Carr had kept it from being published and didn’t want this story getting out and he died in 2005 so at that point these things started to get the ball rolling. So this was an untold story about murder about friendship about the birth of 3 of the 20th century’s greatest literary artists, just like what’s not to like. You know, so it seemed like a really obvious story to try to tell. I wanted to write it as a play originally, but my college roommate John, the director, he had just finished NYU’s film program as a director and he was like “are you an idiot? Let’s write this as a screenplay, I will teach you how to do it and we’re gonna do it.” So we’ve been working on it since 2004. A long time. 9 years.

Sun: So you’ve written a bunch of plays and screenplays and things like that before. Have any of them gotten this big or is this the first one?

A.B.: No, this is definitely the biggest. You know, I have other scripts that have producers and directors attached floating around, but it changes everything when the thing gets made. So, yeah, this is the biggest one, so this will be kind of my debut as a screenwriter.

Sun: So now you’ve made it to Sundance.

A.B.: Yeah!

Sun: So tell me about Sundance.

A.B.: Sundance was pretty freaking awesome. I think the thing that I most took away from it was that it’s a film lover’s heaven. There are so many movies you’re seeing. And you’re seeing them without any movie reviews without critics telling you what’s good and what’s bad, just sitting down in a seat based on a title and a little bit of description, so you get a very authentic experience of the movie without any received ideas.  So in that way it’s really fun. These are fresh voices, idiosyncratic characters, stories you don’t see everyday, and they don’t move in traditional ways, so that was really exciting.

Sun: Right. So, your movie did get picked up for distribution?

A.B.: Yep.

Sun: When do you think it will come out?

A.B.: What they’re talking about, and things do change, is they’re talking about a fall release and that tends to be a time of year when things that are a little bit darker, a little bit smarter come out. And our movie is about literary figures you know, it’s a period movie and it’s a little edgy, well it’s a lot edgy, we’ll definitely have an R-rating. So that’s the time when it will probably come out.  That could change.

Sun: Can you define edgy?

A.B.: I mean our movie is, I will joke with you, I don’t know if this is printable but one of the crescendo moments is what John affectionately calls the “death-fuck montag

e” (laughs) and there’s like 4 or 5 major characters and its just like violence, sex, drugs, violence, sex, drugs, violence, sex, drugs and it happens for like five minutes so it’s a big intense orchestral experience of huge decisions, you know. Someone’s getting killed, someone’s having sex, someone’s hearing about a friend dying, someone’s injecting drugs, you know its just like whoa. It’s a lot. But I think John is a really smart director and it’s a powerful moment in the movie. All of these guys making fateful decisions. That was the idea.

Sun: So what did you take from the experience that you want to pass on to your screenwriting students? Was this experience a game changer in any way?

A.B.: Look at you [laughs], ‘game changer’. Well just so many things, I’m still processing the experience. You know it’s just a lot, a lot to take in.  I mean maybe one simple clear lesson is you know I teach screenwriting, I teach short film screenplay writing and most students who come into the class are like, “What is this form? I’d rather work on a feature. I want to like go work in the film business.” You go to Sundance and you realize: 1. Some of the best movies are in the shorts category. Because they have a whole ‘shorts’ category, just movies under, I think, 40 minutes or 30 minutes. So they’re really dynamic and really quirky and fascinating. So there’s a real market for shorts. And almost all of the filmmakers who were in the dramatic competition also had a short that had been to Sundance or had gone through the screenwriting lab or the directing lab. So there’s a way in which Sundance pre-vets these people through those things. So when students want to know why I’m working on a short film, my answer now is like, because that’s how you get places. You know you can’t just go right in the feature film market, its very challenging. Hone your craft with short stuff. So that’s one thing I’m going to take into classes and also I just saw so many movies that changed the way I think about films and how films get written and what stories are. So I’m trying to broaden my own principles about what success and excellence looks like.

Sun: Do you have anything else you’re working on right now?  Gearing up for your next project?

A.B.: Well, I worked on an adaptation of a book already called Dancer From the Dance that Alan Ball, who was one of the executive directors of Six Feet Under, is hoping to direct, so he’s in the middle of attaching cast to that. That would probably be the next film that would go into production. And that would probably be the most public thing I could talk about.

Sun: You started out with plays though; do you think you’re going to kind of make the shift to screenplays now?

A.B.: people ask me that. I love playwriting and I love theater. The funny thing is, well, I’ll tell you this: What I’ve come to as a truth for myself, and I think other theater artists have different perspectives, but theater these days is really a cover band industry. And what I mean by that is that its theaters just want to produce other things that have been successful.  You know, they’re a cover band. They want to do plays that were successful in New York, that were successful on the West Coast. Film is in the business of new films.  That’s what film does. They don’t do the cover band thing. So as a creative worker, as a creative person, you want to work where there’s work, and you want to make the work that is needed by the industry. And there’s something really profound and really collaborative about film that’s exciting. Theater less so.  Living in Ithaca it’s a little harder because there just aren’t that many theaters here. So with film I can still be a part of the process and stuff.  That’s why, yeah, increasingly I’m thinking about it. I don’t know if I’ll forever be behind, film is just something I’m thinking about right now.

Sun: Thanks so much for talking with us.

A.B.: Of course.

Original Author: Arielle Cruz