Even the most passive indie buff is surely familiar with Alex Karpovsky, who, in the last half-decade, has appeared in everything from Beeswax and Gayby to Sleepwalk with Me and Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same. A sort of living, breathing, low-budget seal of approval, the wry Brooklynite has kept busy bringing dramedic street cred to numerous projects, including Tiny Furniture and HBO’s Girls, the brainchildren of Karpovsky’s friend and collaborator Lena Dunham, whose hip ubiquity the actor and filmmaker is starting to mirror himself.
In addition to starring as the somewhat rudderless Ray on Girls, a show that, in its second season, continues to prove era-defining, Karpovsky has a string of new films to offer, two of which see him credited as actor, writer, and director. Already in limited release are Almost In Love, a reportedly two-take New York story co-starring Alan Cumming, and Supporting Characters, a deftly involving and intimate moviemaking tale that casts Karpovsky as a conflicted film editor. And this week marks the debuts of Red Flag and Rubberneck, Karpovsky’s own alliterative double feature. As both mastermind and star, this alternately funny and melancholic art-house talent displays a striking range, specifically with the latter two movies, a meta-existentialist comedy and brooding psychodrama, respectively. In the heart of Tribeca, home to the company and festival that have championed much of his work, Karpovsky sat down and got real, chatting about life, death, his relationship with his audience, and where he fits in the filmmaking food chain that’s given us the likes of Woody Allen and Judd Apatow.
With Girls, Supporting Characters, Rubberneck, and Red Flag, you certainly kept me busy leading up to this interview. Did you know all these projects would be coming out at once? Was it planned? Or are you just having a Jessica Chastain moment?
It’s a Jessica Chastain moment. On a much smaller, indie level. It was never really part of any grand scheme, for the large part. Tribeca [Film], luckily, was interested in both of my films and Supporting Characters, and they’re just all being released now, by happenstance, I think.
So, let’s work our way through the films in the order that I saw them.
In Supporting Characters, you play a film editor, and the movie highlights the divide between editors and other members of the filmmaking team. How much of what’s in there do you find to be true of your own experiences?
A lot of it is true, in the sense that there are often competing notions about the future of a film between the director and his editor. There’s a lot of tension there. I also worked as an editor for about four or five years before I did any of my own movies. I never edited films, I edited other things, but there were definitely a lot of, um, heated discussions, and differences of opinion between the editor (myself at that time) and the director or producer. So those type of discussions, specifically, are stuff that I can relate to. I’ve also edited things with other people many times, and the difficulty of balancing personal relationships with business relationships can be very challenging. I can definitely relate to putting up firewalls, so one thing doesn’t affect the other, and just how porous those walls can be is something I definitely have a lot of experience with.
The movie also addresses the relationships between editors and actors, which it claims, at one point, is often nonexistent. As someone who works on both sides of the camera, what sort of insights do you gain by bridging that gap?
Good question. Let me say that I don’t think that most editors don’t know who their actors are, at the indie level. We all kind of cast our friends, usually. For the most part, there isn’t this sort of unknown person we only see cinematically. I’ve never experienced that. I think most of my friends have never experienced that. So I can see how you could create this sort of fantasy projection of how someone may or may not be, but I personally could not relate. But then, I never edited big-budget films, only my own small movies. As for insights gained from bridging the gap, again, because I work on such a small level—or because I work with most of my friends, I should say—I feel like there isn’t really any gap. Even being on both sides of it, I’ve never really felt like I’ve had to negotiate by going on both sides of any wall or fence, the way that [my character] Nick does.
Moving on to Rubberneck, the film has drawn some Hitchcock comparisons, and the slow-burning way in which it darkens is indeed surprising and evocative. Was this possibly the result of two separate film ideas? Because while the whole thing coheres, there’s a sense that both the adult-drama end and the psycho-thriller end could be sufficiently, individually stretched out to feature length.
No, that was never the plan. My favorite genre to watch is psychological thrillers, particularly slow-burning, character-driven psychological thrillers. And the intention was always to try to make a movie in that vein, where we really explore the character, his motivations, his purpose, and, in this case, his relationship with his sister, and how the element of that relationship is repressed, varied, and secretive, and how that all comes out. And we slowly deepen the relationship, and it’s realized that there’s much more beneath the surface. That’s what we hoped to achieve—that we could take it all the way to the very end of this journey.
There’s a character in the film who, in passing, mentions that “talent plus persistence equals luck.” Are those your words? And has that been your experience?
Those aren’t my words. I got that from a book that Steven Soderbergh wrote about his experience making sex, lies, and videotape. He may have even been quoting someone else. I don’t know if he came up with it. But I read it in the book, and I’ve always liked it, and I believe in it. I feel like a lot of people who are very talented bow out early. They bow out after the initial wave of obstacles, which will definitely be there. So I think you absolutely need to be tenacious, and diligent to present opportunities for yourself. And sometimes, people will get lucky and the opportunities will present themselves very quickly, but for many others, for the vast majority of us, we have to kind of keep overcoming many, many obstacles before we’re able to take advantage of an opportunity. In retrospect, it will resonate as luck, but the outcome is the result of drive and natural talent, I think.
Before watching Red Flag, I was going to ask you about any trepidations you might have had about all this ubiquity, and whether or not that might cause certain viewers to see you and not your characters. But you squashed that question with this film, because you essentially play yourself anyway. Red Flag sees you starring as Alex Karpovsky, and discussing Alex Karpovsky’s filmography. Where does the meta line end?
[laughs] I’m not sure that I’m the person who should answer that because I might be too close to everything. Look, I’m basically playing a caricatured version of myself. I’m trying to amplify my own shortcomings and fears and insecurities for comedic effect. And then, I hope that I’m adding new character traits and personality aspects that are completely fictitious, just to round out the story and tie everything together. So somewhere in there, there are parallels that I can draw between the character and myself. Obviously there are meta reverberations. But a lot of it is really just fictitious, in service of telling a story that’s hopefully engaging, and hopefully comes with a sort of resolution at the end.
Red Flag is a road-trip movie, with stops in Louisiana and Georgia, and Rubberneck takes place in Boston. How much of these films was shot on location?
Rubberneck was shot entirely on location in Boston. The laboratory was set in Medford, which is just north of Boston near Tufts University, and a really nice guy who runs a lab there opened his doors to us. We shot the whole film, pretty much, around there. And then Red Flag, as you said, is sort of a Southern story that spans six states in total. We shot Red Flag during the tour for [my 2008 film] Woodpecker, so our production schedule for Red Flag followed the itinerary of that tour. We started in North Carolina, and then it went to South Carolina, then to Georgia, then to Alabama, then Mississippi, then Louisiana.
So all of the venues the characters visit in Red Flag are also the same ones from your Woodpecker tour?