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

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

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.”  

The two movies, both of which were directed by and star Karpovsky, couldn’t be more different: “Red Flag” is a quasi-documentary following the actor as he journeys around the south on a screening tour of his second feature, “Woodpecker,” reeling from a recent breakup and a bad case of back pain as he maneuvers through crappy hotel rooms, psychotic stalkers, and post screening Q&As. “Rubberneck” is a slow-burning character study centering around workplace obsession in a scientific research lab. Both films were warmly received on the festival circuit this year.

Indiewire sat down with Karpovsky to talk about his sudden switch in genre, turning road trip boredom into a Gotham award nominated comedy, and, of course, the inescapable genius of “Girls” creator Lena Dunham.

Both films will have a limited theatrical run at New York’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center starting February 22nd, and “Rubberneck” will play in Boston at the Brattle Theater on March 1st. You can currently also see Karpovsky in Daniel Schechter’s “Supporting Characters.”

The first thing I saw you in was Bob Byington’s “Harmony and Me” in 2009, so you’ve been around for a while. Does this year feel a lot different in the scope of your career? In terms of being in every indie movie?

Well, I’m not in every movie.

Six, it’s a good number.

It doesn’t feel any different. I still feel like I’m working with friends on projects I’m proud of. Hopefully that won’t change anytime soon. And I feel like I’ve been doing that for a little while, so it doesn’t really feel any different.

What does it feel like then – as like you said, a lot of those movies are in the same New York indie movie clique – to go from working on stuff like that to working on [the Coen brothers upcoming] “Inside Llewyn Davis?” Did that feel like a big jump for you?

Oh, it’s a huge jump. I’ve never really done anything like that before, I’ve never acted in a studio film. I’d never acted in anything that wasn’t made by my friends, quite honestly, cause Lena’s a friend of mine. It was a huge leap, and you know, a little nerve-racking but the set wasn’t as big as I thought. They like to keep things very intimate and small and comfortable. They’re so warm and engaging as people that I felt pretty comfortable pretty quickly.

And Adam Driver’s in that film too –

That’s what I hear!

Which is probably the oddest place possible for a mini-“Girls” reunion.

Yeah. I didn’t know that until I was in the makeup truck and there was a Polaroid of him in a cowboy outfit, and I said, “that’s not Adam Driver, is it?” And they were like, “Yeah, do you guys know each other?” This was before “Girls” had started airing. So I didn’t really know until I was there.

But I guess you two don’t really share that much screen time in “Girls” either.

We don’t, but there’s something coming up this season [In last week’s episode, “Boys”] that changes that.

When did you and Lena meet for the first time? I’m assuming Jed, your character in “Tiny Furniture,” was written for you?

It was written for me. It was based on someone else.

Right, I’ve heard rumors of him being based on another certain individual. Who isn’t you.

Well, I think they’re true, if we’re thinking of the same person. I met her at SWSX in 2009. She was there for her first film “Creative Nonfiction,” I was there for my third film, “Trust Us, This is All Made Up.” We spent about five minutes together in a car and shared a ride. I was very impressed with her, this 22 or 23-year-old kid with her first film at a major film festival. She was very smart and funny, and just effervescent. We kept in touch, did DVD swaps. We liked each other’s sensibilities and hung out a bit over that summer. And then in November of that same year she wrote a part for me in “Tiny Furniture.”

Just to elaborate on that, because I think it’s relevant, so many of my friends and community come from SXSW and the atmosphere that Matt Dentler and now Janet Pierson are nurturing there. It’s really incredible. It’s just such a wonderful, bubbling place to share ideas, to meet new people, and to kind of explore collaborations. If it wasn’t for South By, even though Lena and I are from New York, both of us, there’s no way we would’ve gotten to know each other.

And then, moving from then on to “Girls,” I’m assuming that part was also written with you in mind.

Yeah, it was.

Coming on the tail end of all of those roles, did you write your part in “Rubberneck” to maybe distance yourself from what is becoming kind of the branded Alex Karpovsky comedic role?

No, well, I wrote the movie with Garth Donovan, a filmmaker in Boston. I didn’t write it to do something different as an actor, in fact we cast someone else. We had a very long, laborious casting process. We finally found someone in Boston that I loved. He’s older, he’s in his mid-forties, early forties maybe. A really talented theater actor, wonderful guy, but unfortunately after four days of production he had to drop out because of a family emergency so I stepped in and tried to fill his shoes as best as I could. So it was never a preconceived notion for me to try and act differently, or act differently than my other roles. It was just circumstances.

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.

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.

Moving to “Red Flag”; this is movie that’s sort of the opposite in the sense that it really embraces and is very self-aware of your sort of well-known comic personality. Did you actually film this on the screening tour for your film “Woodpecker?”

Yeah, “Woodpecker” is my second movie. We really did go on a two week tour. All the Q&As in “Red Flag” are real Q&As. All the motels are real motels that we had to stay in, or that were assigned to me on the tour. So it was very much, there were a lot of documentary components that were woven into this narrative story. And those were real documentary components from this real tour that I went on. It’s a great organization that they take these movies, these four or five movies a year, I think, and they put them on a tour of the south. They take these obscure, independent films to audiences that would normally never get exposed to them.  It’s a really neat organization and I tried to make a movie that incorporated elements of the tour.

At the same time, that had to have been a pretty draining experience. I feel like the two most time consuming, draining experiences of being a filmmaker are shooting a film and being on a screening tour, and you kind of combined them into one.

It’s kind of interesting. I know what you mean. The tour—It’s a filmmaker by himself, in his car driving five or six hours from venue to venue. You stay at a crappy motel, you present your film, you do a Q&A, you eat crappy food and then you do it again the next day. It just felt like a very lonely thing for me. So half the day would be this really lonely, abysmal spell. So I wanted to bring people along and make something creative out of it to try and quell the loneliness. There was a reason I wanted to do them both at the same time.

Right, might as well make a movie with your downtime.

Right, otherwise these two weeks are just going to be me listening to my iPod in the car, and that’s going to be a waste. And the movie was such a low budget that if this crazy adventure didn’t congeal as a movie, who cares? I have to spend these two weeks traveling anyway, it’s only a few thousand dollars, it’s not the end of the world, so just take the risk. And that kind of allowed me and everyone else to just be loose and open and spontaneous which I hope resonates.

Yeah, definitely. So, if the timeline of the movie matches the events that it’s based on that closely, does that mean you also had to reenact breaking up with your girlfriend immediately after actually breaking up with your girlfriend?

Well, yeah, in real life I really did end a relationship…or I didn’t end it, it ended right before I went on the tour. So that’s another reason I really didn’t want to be by myself during this tour. The last thing I wanted to do was be alone with my own thoughts six hours a day in the car. That was a real thing that precipitated the tour and the filming by a few weeks or months. And yeah, you know, I write what I know and wove that into the story.

Are you at a point where you have a lot of other ideas for movies that your itching to go right out and direct, or are you at a place with “Girls” now where it’s difficult to find the time to do that?

I’m happy to be on “Girls,” certainly, and there’s plenty of time to do other things. We only shoot about five or six months out of the year. And when we do I’m not working every day necessarily. So there’s plenty of time. I would love to continue to both act and direct. I think if I only did one I would be unhappy. If I only acted than I’d feel very anxious and uneasy about the fact that a) I’m not getting enough creative control and expression of my own sensibility and b) I’d be surrendering my fate to other people. I’m not comfortable with letting my future be put in the hands of people that aren’t me. Conversely, if I only directed and didn’t act I think my life wouldn’t be as fun. I really enjoy acting. It’s a lot of fun and spiritually satisfying to just step into someone’s shoes and be silly for a while and then go back to your own life. It’s really healthy for me to take that vacation from who I am. I’d like to be able to do both if I could continue to do both.

Would you ever follow in Lena’s shows and try your hand at working in television?

Maybe. I haven’t really thought about that yet. If an idea comes my way maybe I’ll entertain it but it’s not in the forefront of my mind at the moment.

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