[Editor’s Note: spoilers below for “Girls” Season 5, Episode 9 “Love Stories”]
“Girls” has always been a series about characters first, so when Alex Karpovsky was approached about directing an episode of the penultimate season, he got excited — even though it promised to be a challenge because Episode 9, “Love Stories,” also featured some big scenes for Ray.
Karpovsky has been a part of the “Girls” family since nearly the beginning, so while he’s a seasoned director — Indiewire last spoke to him in 2013, when his films “Red Flag” and “Rubberneck” were released — stepping up to the plate was a unique experience. Below, Indiewire dug into why it was the perfect episode for him to direct, what guest star Jenny Slate added to the mix and what his take is on Ray and Marnie’s big final scene. An edited transcript follows.
So I guess we’ll start with the easy thing, which is when did the possibility of you directing an episode of “Girls” come up?
It came up early in the season, as we were shooting last season and we were– We went upstate to shoot the wedding scene between Desi and Marnie. And I think it was in April or May, I can’t remember. And Lena [Dunham], Jenni [Konner], the showrunner, and Ilene [S. Landress], the executive producer, asked me if I wanted to direct an episode — if it was of interest to me. I said, “Of course!” And then they said, “Great!” And then they kind of told me which episode might be a good fit for me. So it was pretty simple.
Were you surprised by what they thought would be a good fit for you?
No, because they told me the reason and it made perfect sense. The episode is relatively contained and there aren’t a crazy amount of locations. There aren’t a crazy amount of action sequences, at least relative to other episodes. There’s a lot of stage work, which is great and easier to do than stuff out in the city. And it’s largely a two-hander. It’s mostly a story of Jenny Slate and Lena, and that also felt more manageable than other episodes.
I feel like the stuff that interests me, as a director, is using relationships as a way to explore backstories in a character, how those backstories manifest on screen. Those are the kind of things that interest me more than visual spectacle. I guess I’ve never really had the money to kind of develop visual spectacle, so maybe that’s why I’m not so great at it. And this is an episode that definitely focuses on characters and relationships. I mean, all of our episodes do, but this one really gets down into that space. And I think that’s one of the reasons they thought it could be a good fit for me.
Oh, I know. Yeah. Corey Stoll’s amazing in that scene, I think. They’re both amazing in that scene. And what I realize about that scene is we see a vulnerability in Elijah, a sensitivity and an insecurity in him that we just haven’t seen before. He’s always kind of vibrated at a different frequency, but to really have this character and Corey Stoll draw out those type of feelings and… That guy can do it all, Andrew Rannells.
Yeah. No kidding. Was it strange at all to segway from essentially being co-workers to having to direct him in what turns out to be a huge scene for him?
Yes, it was. That was true for everybody because you’re kind of sharing four or five years, with dynamics rooted in joking around between takes, for the most part. Joking around during takes. And I’m not one of those people — I don’t think anyone on the show is — who wears a director’s cap on the side and has all these criticisms. I don’t really do that. I don’t have any criticisms. Everyone knows what they’re doing. So I basically took this dynamic as a way to go, “Look, I’m not just here to admire your humor and admire the charismatic aspects of your character. I’m actually here in addition to do that, to see the kind of adjustments we can make during the performance to make it pop even more, and to make it that much more engaging and give it that much more depth and dimension.”
Shifting to that sort of critical lens, it wasn’t unfamiliar because I’ve directed stuff before, but it was an unfamiliar side to people I’ve only known only in this context for five years. But after five minutes, you get used to it pretty quickly.
Yeah. Rhythm-wise, did you find that this episode kind of fell into the way a “Girls” episode normally goes? Or did you find yourself applying your own personal style into it more?
Well, you know, I think that’s always a challenge with directing stuff that you don’t like, or stuff that’s episodic and that’s not your area. How do you stay faithful to the tone and the characters and the overall world that’s already in motion? And how, simultaneously, do you not be a robot and basically try to apply your own sensibility and signature to a thing? After all, they asked you to direct an episode. They could have asked anybody. So why did they ask you? What is it specifically about your own sensibility that you could impress upon this train that’s moving very fast down the track?
So for me, specifically, I think I got very lucky because — and I think that this is going back to an early question to why I got this episode — I got to work with Jenny Slate, who hasn’t really been a part of our world. She’s been in an episode in Season 1, but otherwise she’s not really a part of our universe. So we got to really develop a character with her: the motivations, desires, insecurities, fears, all that sort of stuff. And that’s how we were creative, and I felt like I wasn’t just sort of lubricating wheels to get them further down the track. I felt like I was shaping and constructing something that was new. And that was, I felt, the contribution that we all made — me, Jenny and Lena, and the writers together.
I just wanted to mention that Jenny Slate is sort of the star, with Miss Lena, of the episode. And I think she did a generally amazing job, and I think specifically what really impressed me about her performance and the character that we kind of built together, I guess — because she hasn’t been a big part of our show — she got to construct the character to some degree. And she was able to show sides of Hannah that even over 50 episodes with Hannah, we haven’t really seen before. And I think that’s a very difficult thing to do.
To me, one of the main goals of the episode was to try to inject a character directly into Hannah’s life that has a specific capability. Someone that she knows a little bit. She respects, kind of. She also marginalizes, kind of. There has to be certain kind of a secret sauce, a very specific type of frequency to distil a part of a protagonist that we haven’t seen after spending so much time with her. And that was one of the main goals of the episode for me, and I think that’s one thing that Jenny pulled off triumphantly.
You as well have some big scenes in Episode 9, you’re still very much a part of the action. How do you feel that the character of Ray has evolved within the ecosystem of the show?
I feel he’s slightly more self-aware of himself, specifically of the frustrations and insecurities that have really tethered him to the ground. I don’t think he’s triumphed over them and I don’t know if it’s in him to ever triumph, but I feel that they’re slightly less amorphous. I feel that he’s seen the shape of a chain that is shackling him to some extent and it took a vision for him to kind of communicate that to people to some degree, and that affects the ecosystem. I also think he’s also found a much more healthy forum to express his frustrations and disappointments with society, whether that be in a political forum or as a manager of a small business. But also in the way that he is able to communicate with other people. I think he’s able to be much more open and vulnerable and real in front of the other people in the show than he was in Season 1. I think the facade is slowly being lowered, and he’s letting people into who he really is. I think he’s more okay with them judging him and he’s okay with showing who he really is to these people. I think that definitely reverberates.
Of course. How do you think people are going to react to Episode 9 — specifically, how are they going to react to Marnie coming to Ray’s at the end of the episode?
Well, I hope there’s a differing of opinions in her motivation. That would be, to me, a certain type of small victory. I don’t want it to be completely… I don’t want to be interpreted universally in one type of way. We wanted it to play in a way that has a little bit of subjectivity involved in the viewer’s eye. You know, is she coming to Ray as a confused and desperate and tortured form of rebound? Coming from her emotional trauma with Desi? Or did the emotional trauma and the stakes with Desi allow her to enter a provision of greater clarity? If she’s not willing to approach Ray in a way that’s much more real and authentic and sincere, maybe a way that could actually lead to something substantial. I would like different people to have different positions on that because we try to play it that way.
So would you do one take one way, and then another take another way?
No, we would actually just see if we could walk the line within every individual take.
I imagine it would be tricky doing both — directing that and playing it.
Yeah, it’s tricker than just acting in it, sure. You know, one thing Lena’s really amazing at, is she is able to simultaneously act and direct. She can stay very present in the scene as an actor, but as soon as she says, “Cut,” she immediately comes with a list of adjustments that can be made to make the scene and the performances better. So she has a dual core processor in her brain, which I don’t really have. [laughs] I have to kind of switch back and forth. I feel like if I had too much of a critical part of the blame during a take, then I’d just feel insecure that it wouldn’t be my best performance. So I have to kind of, as much as I can, turn it off. Unless there’s a huge error in the take, I try to turn it off, and then watch playback and also talk to the writers between takes.
So the writers are very helpful in that regard?
Oh my gosh, in TV they’re like, everything. Yeah.
Even as an actor, what kind of relationship do you have with them?
There’s a lot of down time and it takes a while to relight stuff or to move from here to there. And so during the breaks, I often find myself wandering over… Not always, but if I have questions, I find myself wandering over to Video Village, which is where the writers generally congregate. I ask them, “Did this seem phony? Did this seem funny? Did it seem forced? Can we find an alt here to really punch up this moment?” Just some things that may or may not be rubbing me in some type of way, I will try to soothe or better that situation by talking with the writers. The first person I usually talk to is Lena, but she’s not always there on set and sometimes she doesn’t write the episode. Other people write it. So it just depends on the situation, but I definitely go to the writers a lot for that stuff.
So the show’s on Season 5 now, the show’s been in your life for a while. Talk to me about how in your mind, you go through your year. How much is “Girls” a part of your life?
It’s a really big part of my life. It has been a big part of my life for about five months out of the year, from April to September or whatever. And then from September to April, it’s still a part of my life, of course, but the amount of space it fills up in my conscious mind diminishes significantly. [laughs] So yeah, in the summer in New York, I’m very much thinking about “Girls” all the time. There’s always a script in front of me that we haven’t shot yet, so I’m always kind of thinking about it. At the beginning of the season, the writers often tell us, “Look, we’re thinking of taking maybe your character in this direction over the course of the season.” So in addition to the script that’s in front of you that you keep noodling at, you could also think about the long-term of this character in the space of a season and how we can start shaping that now as very subtle little seeds and crumbs that you could plant along the way. So that when we get to this place at the end of the season, it feels earned and an extension based on a series of small decisions, rather than something forced or contrived or inauthentic.
So anyway, my point is, I’m often thinking of Ray during those four or five months of the year in New York. When I’m in LA — I’m mostly in LA when we’re not shooting — my mind goes to different places. Sometimes “Girls” fills it, and other times, more often than not, it’s just on other things.
It’s been announced that the next season will be the last season. Mentally, how are you preparing for that?
I don’t know if I am consciously preparing for it. I know I’m responding by being very sad. I really like working on this show. It’s incredibly fun and fulfilling. And you know, you spend five or six years working with people, doing a project that you’re all proud of, you get really close. So I’m gonna miss acting on the show, I’m gonna miss hanging out with all the people who work on the show. It’s gonna be a bummer for it to go away. I don’t want it go away. It’s really fulfilling for me, like I said. So I’m responding [laughs] preemptively by being sad. Maybe that’s the fun of mental preparation, I’m not sure.
Watching this season, there’s a sense that endgames are being put into place, if that makes any sense. Do you have a sense that you’re building to an ending?
Do you mean in terms of Ray’s arc on the show?
I don’t know. That’s my honest answer. They haven’t told me what happens with my character or anything yet, in regards to the upcoming season. So I don’t know. I mean, I think they’re going to want to finish the show with some degree of resolution, culmination with something that [laughs] feels like the end of a narrative arc or a journey across many seasons. But I have no idea what shape that’s gonna take. None.
Do you like not knowing? I’ve talked to actors and some love to know every single detail, but some really prefer not to.
No, I like to know. And I will know, I think in a few weeks when we start shooting the [final] season, where it’ll go. I kind of talked about this earlier, but I feel like it’s really helpful — at least for me — to know early on, because then you can start laying the seeds for that ending very early on, which I think is really helpful and makes the ultimate ending much more earned and believable, rather than something that’s forced and coming out of left field.
“Girls” returns for its final season in 2017. Check out more from the show below…