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Interview: Alex Karpovsky On His Two New Films, 'Rubberneck and 'Red Flag, and the Directorial Genius of Lena Dunham

By Mark Lukenbill | Indiewire February 20, 2013 at 10:45AM

Best known as Ray, cynical comedic foil and deflowerer of Zosia Mamet’s Shoshanna on the HBO series “Girls,” Alex Karpovsky is also the writer and director of four feature films and a documentary, whether you knew it or not. On February 19th, Karpovsky the budding auteur will finally get some more widespread attention when Tribeca Film and American Express release his two most recent films, the semi-autobiographical “Curb Your Enthusiasm” inspired comedy “Red Flag,” and the decidedly darker dramatic thriller “Rubberneck.”
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"Rubberneck"
Tribeca Film "Rubberneck"

Is it tough then to kind of step in and direct yourself when you’re acutely aware of all of you comedic mannerisms in the parts you usually play?

I think there’s blessings and curses. I think there’s more efficiency when you direct yourself, there’s one less person to give notes to, hopefully. But it’s a challenge for people, and I think Lena is really talented at this specifically, and it’s a challenge for me to be engaged in a scene and stay focused as an actor while simultaneously downloading notes to make the scene better. Lena’s really good at that; it’s sometimes a challenge for me. I would really rely on Garth and other people to make sure we were all on the same page and acting in the same movie.

What have you taken from Lena as a director? How is that her strength?

I marvel at the fact that she can just be so present in a scene, which I think is one of the most important things, to have focus and clarity and a connection with the people you’re improvising and acting with. So she has incredible clarity, incredible presence in a scene. But at the same time, she’s making a ledger of what’s working and what’s not working. To simultaneously harbor those two very different things is difficult. Usually people’s focus kind of wanes or it ebbs and flows, but her I never feel like that’s the case. She’s a very perceptive, smart person with a very good memory.

You touched a lot on improv there. In “Rubberneck” the dialogue feels very naturalistic -- kind of like you’re walking into a real conversation that you’re not meant to be hearing sometimes. Are those scenes improvised?

No. Thank you, that’s sort of the tone we were going for. We wanted the tone and style of the movie to be grounded in naturalism and voyeurism. And we wanted the dialogue to certainly feel that way, and where we begin and end conversations to feel that way in the sense that you’re eavesdropping. Most of the dialogue isn’t really about anything on the surface, more about the desires and chest moves that are happening underneath the surface. But no, it wasn’t improvised. It was very different for me in terms of making the movie. I’ve made five movies and this is the only one that was really made with tripods, with a lot of attention to lighting and lenses and camera movements and stuff like that. Because we had a crew and a grip truck and a schedule it was kind of a race. We didn’t have the time or liberty to improvise. It was never of interest to me. We wanted things to be as tight and premeditated as possible.

On the genre of the movie: it’s the first movie that you’ve made that it isn’t really grounded in any sense of documentary, whereas your other films all short of share that aspect, whether they’re actual documentaries or fake documentaries. What made you decide to make a thriller this time around?

I love thrillers. Me and Garth are both huge fans of slow burning, character driven psychosexual thrillers. It’s something that really turns me on as a viewer. I would always fantasize about trying to make one, and Garth had been as well. So the opportunity for us just congealed in Boston a little while ago to do it. It wasn’t driven by a desire to do something different and non-documentary, it was driven by a desire to tell a story that we’d love as viewers.

"Cache"
Sony Pictures Classics "Cache"

It’s kind of a subgenre of thrillers that you don’t really see a lot of in the last couple of years. Are there any specific thrillers that you’re inspired by or that you particularly enjoy?

It’s definitely true. These type of thrillers are very slow moving and it’s not surprising to me that they don’t have a lot of mainstream traction. A lot of people just don’t have patience for it. You need to be in a certain mindset for it and it needs to be kind of slow and seductive. Movies along these lines that we both referenced a lot when we were writing this movie are movies like “Cache” by Haneke, “Bubble” by Steven Soderbergh, “Morvern Callar” by Lynne Ramsey. Those are all kind of moody, atmospheric, character driven stories with thrilling components but they’re not a thriller with a capital T. There’s not a lot of blood and gore. And those are the type of thing that interested us.

It’s funny that you mentioned “Bubble,” since lately lots of Soderbergh’s thrillers are kind of set in the same medical, scientific world as “Rubberneck.” Which is one of the most distinctive things about it, the lab setting, which I thought really added to the creepiness and tone. How did you decide to set it in a research lab?

We definitely wanted to set it in a lab. As I mentioned with the dialogue, we were hoping a lot of the tension and relationships in the movie would happen below the surface. There’s a lot of repressed desires, unspoken feelings. We felt a scientific laboratory would complement that because it’s just a very cold and sterile environment. Everything is white and clean on the surface, but below it there are humans who are sloppy and sexually charged and full of anger and desire pulsing beneath the lab coats. So there’s this sort of really inherent tension that we felt the scientific environment really compliments.

It adds a lot of great moments that shouldn’t be creepy but really are, whether it just be the general room tone or that quick shot of Paul rocking back and forth and petting the guinea pigs.

I hope so. There’s also something inherently menacing about a guy in a white lab coat with issues holding a needle with like a deadly virus inside of it. That’s definitely a pretty uncomfortable visual that we tried to exploit.

This article is related to: Alex Karpovsky, Girls, Rubberneck, Red Flag, Interviews, Interviews