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Filmmaker and actor Alex Karpovsky.

Alex Karpovsky

2012 LA Film Fest Interview

Jun 15, 2012 Alex Karpovsky Bookmark and Share

Two months ago, the HBO series, Girls, debuted to widespread critical acclaim, and just days later, Alex Karpovsky, who has a recurring supporting role on the show, premiered his fourth directorial effort, the thriller Rubberneck, at the Tribeca Film Festival. This weekend, as the season one finale of Girls approaches, Karpovsky will premiere his fifth feature film, Red Flag, at the LA Film Fest in the Narrative Competition section. A road-trip comedy, Red Flag chronicles the misadventures of an indie filmmaker (Karpovsky) who, after breaking up with his girlfriend, embarks on a screening tour through the South. Karpovsky shot the film around an actual 2011 tour of his second film, 2008’s Woodpecker, a fiction/nonfiction hybrid about Arkansas birdwatchers.

Karpovsky has a small part in another LA Film Fest selection, Gayby, and has appeared in previous films screened at the festival, including the comedies Harmony and Me (2009) and Tiny Furniture (2010). The latter was written and directed by Girls creator Lena Dunham. On Girls, Karpovsky plays the humorously contentious Ray. Though he has described his characters in comedies as generally being blowhards, he played a compassionate, dramatic role in Andrew Bujalski‘s 2009 film, Beeswax. In an Under the Radar interview from that year, Bujalski explained how he met Karpovsky and revealed that they once attended the same high school in Boston. Karpovsky now lives in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Girls is based. Shortly after the show’s debut, it was picked up for a second season. Karpovsky also has a small part in the upcoming Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis.

Last month, Under the Radar spoke with Karpovsky about Red Flag, Girls, and working with the Coens, among other topics.

Chris Tinkham: In April, you had Rubberneck at Tribeca, and you have Red Flag at the LA Film Fest in June. Did you work on those projects back to back?

Alex Karpovsky: No, I checker-boarded them a little bit. I started Rubberneck first, and then I had to take a few breaks from it just because of scheduling issues. My editor was unavailable for a while, so I had to take a few breaks with it. And in those breaks I started chewing away on Red Flag. And then, when I felt I needed a break on Red Flag, I’d go back over to Rubberneck. So I basically was checker-boarding those two films for about 18 months.

Do you run the risk of missing out on acting jobs when you’ve committed to directing films?

I don’t act that much, truth be told. Girls has become a somewhat more steady thingwe just got into second season with that. But, before that, if you combined all the days that I acted in 2011, it would probably be like 15 days or 20 days. It doesn’t take that much time at all. So me making my movies doesn’t compromise my ability to act in stuff.

Can you talk a little about your principal actors in Red Flag, how they were cast?

Yeah, the principal actors are Onur Tukel, Jennifer Prediger, and Caroline White. I didn’t know pretty much anybody until about two weeks before we started shooting. We shot it in February of 2011, and I met Onur and Jennifer at Sundance of 2011, which was about two weeks beforehand. I didn’t know how I was gonna make this movie. It was a very low budget affair. I felt like if I could pull it off, it would be fun, but if I didn’t, so be itit would be just another thing that we tried to do and just didn’t work out, and I don’t think I would have shed any tears. Onur was in a movie called Septien by Michael Tully, which I really enjoyed, and I thought his performance was incredible, and I really, really liked hanging out with him. We shared a condo with a bunch of other people, and I loved his sensibility. Jennifer was in Uncle Kent by Joe Swanberg. I really liked her as well. I thought her performance was great, and I liked hanging out with her. And then Caroline White, who plays my ex-girlfriend in the movie, I met her once or twice before at film festivals. I hardly knew her, but we shot part of the movie in Memphis, and I know she lives in Memphis. She’s the only actor, besides her boyfriend, who live in Memphis. I didn’t know anybody else, so I just went for her out of convenience and was really blown away by how great she was. I got extremely lucky there with that one.

That debunks my perception of you having a pool of fellow actor friends to choose from when developing these projects. It seems that you didn’t have anyone in mind when you were writing these roles.

That’s true. I wasn’t thinking of anybody specifically. After I met Onur and Jennifer, I had like two weeks to prepare things a little bit more diligently, and I definitely catered and tailored the roles to my limited understanding of who they were. But you’re right. They were just written without people in mind. I think there’s a thing where you can run into a rut, where you’re always working with the same actors over and over again, and I think that things started to feel emotionally claustrophobic and maybe aesthetically incestuous, and I didn’t want to fall into that trap, so I think that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t want initially to grab at my friends for certain roles.

How were you cast for Tiny Furniture?

I met Lena at SXSW in 2009. I was there with a movie I made called Trust Us, This Is All Made Up, and she was there with her first film, Creative Nonfiction, and we didn’t see each other’s films but we really got along. [Harmony and Me director] Bob Byington was giving her a ride somewhereI don’t know how they metand I just saw them driving Bob’s car across the road, and I just hopped in the car and got a lift for about two or three blocks, and I immediately liked Lena. I thought she was really funny and smart and enthusiastic, effervescent. And then I learned that she had a movie at the festival and she was so young, and she just made a very strong, immediate impression on me. And then we kept in touch over the subsequent monthsApril, May and Juneand did DVD swaps and hung out a little bit in New York, got to know her, and was increasingly impressed by her, and then she said, “I’m trying to make another movie in November, I’m writing a role for you, if you’re interested in doing it.” And, “Of course.” If a friend that you respect asks you to do something, you show up, and I’m glad I did.

Alex Karpovsky in a scene from Red Flag, which premieres at the 2012 LA Film Fest.

You’ve described the characters you play as often being blowhards. Do those type of characters come naturally to you?

[Laughs] I don’t know if they come naturally, but I have a lot of fun doing them. I like getting charged up and angry, even if there’s not a logical foundation or reason underlying this guy’s arguments.The fact that he just goes, and if there’s bravado and misguided anger that fuels it, there’s something about that that’s funny to me, and is appealing, and I enjoy doing it. Does it come naturally? [Laughs] I don’t know. I don’t think that’s for me to say. I think that’s for audiences. But I certainly have fun doing it.

What’s the feedback been like now that Girls is airing? Do you get recognized on the street more often?

Yeah, I guess people recognize me a little bit more than they used to, but not that often. I’m glad that HBO seems to be so behind the show. They do a great job raising awareness for the show, building tremendous public awareness for the program as we were getting ready for it. And I think it’s been really wonderful. The show has made such an impact. At least in New York, it’s reached so many people. And I didn’t think it would have this level of reach, which it seems to have, at least in my little bubble here in Williamsburg, where most of the show is based. It’s also where I live. So, through that very myopic perspective, I’m very impressed with its exposure and its reach.

Is the production scale much different to that of Tiny Furniture?

Yes, way different. Tiny Furniture had a, I don’t know, four-, five-, six-person crew. I don’ t know how many crew members are on this HBO thing, but I’m guessing 70, 80, 90. It’s a big operation, so it’s extremely different. And we’re also shooting on soundstages and multi cameras. Tiny Furniture was a movie shot on the Canon 7D for $25,000 or whatever it was. It’s a complete quantum leap in terms of resources with HBO.

Typically you appear in comedies, but I really liked your performance in Beeswax. That was more of a dramatic role, as was your role in Rubberneck.

Yeah, I like to try different things I guess. It gets kind of stale and boring if you’re doing the same stuff, or even if you’re working in the same genre over and over again. In terms of Beeswax, I didn’t know Andrew really when we began working on the film. We’ve become friends subsequently. I was a huge fan of his work, I love his first two films, Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, and was just a fan of his sensibility, so it wasn’t a decision to do something different, it was a decision to work with someone I really liked. And that was the first time anyone asked me to be in a movie. It was only the second time I acted in anything. With Rubberneck, I always liked thrillers, it’s my favorite genre as a viewer. So I just really wanted to make a thriller. We tried to cast the movie pretty aggressively for several months in Boston. In retrospect, maybe we should have looked beyond Boston. But, at the time, we wanted to a the movie local and small over a period of time, and we thought it’s be easier to work with all actors from Boston. And we finally did find someone in the theater community that I thought was perfect, but he, at the last minute, became unavailable, so I ended up playing the role. It was not written for me. We tailored it for this specific person, and it didn’t work out.

Your bio says you studied visual ethnography at Oxford. Why visual ethnography? What drew you to that?

It seemed very interesting to me. I’m not sure if I remember all the reasons now. I studied philosophy and anthropology as an undergrad, and then I went to Oxford for graduate school. That’s where I studied visual ethnography. Visual ethnography was part of the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, and anthropology’s something that I was interested in since I was like 17 or 18 years old. I’m not sure why. I just thought it was a really neat mixture of many interesting things for me, and interesting mixture of philosophy and history and sociology, and also it had this romantic contour of exoticism, and that seemed very fun. So my concentration was on Amazonian ritual and myth. I dropped out of my PhD program, but if I’d stayed longer, I would have gone to Amazonia and started doing some photography, some documentary entry work to hopefully greater understand certain aspects of their culture. This sounds a little quaint now. I think the field is dying pretty rapidly, the “Western understanding” of these societies is not only shrinking, because so much work has been done with a very limited well, but also I think we’re increasingly aware that our interpretation of these societies are extremely biased, and we will never understand them. There’s sort of this fatalistic scent in the air, I feel, in regards to a lot of these approaches. So, I don’t know, maybe I got off on a sinking ship.

Did that background come in handy while making Woodpecker?

The Hole Story, Woodpecker, and also now Red Flag, they all have a documentary component. They’re all narrative movies, they all have fictitious characters and fictitious storylines, but they all have realistic backdrops. The city in which The Hole Story is filmed, and the phenomena which the whole movie revolves aroundwhich is this strange lake that doesn’t freeze in the winterthat’s completely true, that all happened. In Woodpecker, this hunt for the Ivory Billed Woodpecker in Arkansas isn’t entirely true, although that did happen. And with Red Flag, the tour which this guy goes on with Woodpecker, is entirely true. A guy did go on a Woodpecker tour in February of 2011, and there were real screenings. So there is an interweaving of narrative and documentary. Yes, I think I can make a case that studying documentary photography, documentary exploration of other cultures definitely at least whet my appetite for this type of stuff.

Were you drawn to filmmaking before acting, or did they come hand in hand?

I was interested in filmmaking before I was interested in acting. I didn’t make any short films. I jumped into my first feature, The Hole Story, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was fairly certain no one would ever see it, just because it was so small and raw, and it was my first time making anything video-wise. So I thought it would be maybe at best a calling card and at worst a learning experience. I put myself in that movie because, “Who on Earth would possibly want to be in this movie?” and be committed to it for what I knew would be many, many months of shooting, going back, and shooting and going back. I didn’t consider anybody for it. But it was at least watchable at the end of the day. It was presentable. So it didn’t just end up on my hard drive, I guess is what I’m saying. And it found Andrew Bujalski and other people. He put me in Beeswax because of it, like I said earlier, and that opened the door to other things. So, that’s how that happened. It was a year or two probably between The Hole Story being done and Beeswax, maybe even three years, and I didn’t act in anything during that time, because I wasn’t interested in it, and no one was interested in me. I just started working on new projects that I wanted to make as a filmmaker. I started working on Woodpecker, which I didn’t act in at all. I thought, “I’m not going to act in anything again probably.” And then Andrew said, “You’d be right for this role,” and Bob Byington, because of Beeswax, put me in Harmony and Me, and then a few things happened after that.

Going back to your bio, it mentions Andy Kaufman, and I was wondering what the highlights of your Andy Kaufman period were.

It’s something I’ve tried to explain before. It was borderline pathetic to begin with, and to describe it verbally is like quadruple-y more pathetic. And to describe it 11 or 12 years afterwards is like 16 times more pathetic than it already was initially. So, I can’t really describe it, because it will embarrass everyone, but I did commit to it for about three years of my life before I finally got the sense to shut it down.

Was it that you were trying standup?

It depends on what you mean by standup. I did standup in the Andy Kaufman sense, which is like weird, aggressive performance art in a comedic show. Yes, I did that for many years, but I never went up and told jokes, that type of thing.

So you had some experience in performing before you got into filmmaking.

Yeah, if you could call that performing, which I guess you can. Then, a little bit, yes. I wasn’t afraid to make a fool of myself. That’s what that experience allowed me to do, is to stop giving a shit about, or stop giving as much of a shit about how people judge you and interpret you onstage. It’s OK to fail, it’s OK to be an idiot. It massaged those self-conscious aspects of me. And I feel that was incredibly helpful. If you fail as a standup comic or an Andy Kaufman type of comic onstage, if you fail in any capacity in that context, it’s incredibly humiliating. The failure is so personal, and it’s so public that it can either be crippling and traumaticand I’ve seen that happen to many young comicsor the failure can be tremendously liberating, because you’ve been inside the jaws of hell. It provides a strange form of freedom. And that’s what it did for me. It loosened me up and made me feel very free. I felt like, “Man, what could possibly be worse than this?” These people judged me on something that was a really personal expression of what I found interesting. They shot it down, and they shot it down in a very public space, where everyone witnessed the failure together, at the same time. So, that was incredibly difficult and thusly incredibly empowering and liberating.

What can you tell us about your part in the Coen brothers film. What was that experience like?

I play the character named Marty Green. It’s a pretty small role. The film is set in 1961 New York in the folk music scene. Most of the film revolves around the downtown scene and one struggling folk artist in particular. But, on the periphery, there’s this uptown community of people who are a contrast in many ways to the downtown people. The uptown people are kind of the squares. They’re not hip, they’re the academics. They’re enjoying some of what bubbles up from Greenwich Village, but they don’t dip their toes too deeply in it. And I play one of those uptown squares. I think I play an anthropology professor, if I’m not mistaken. What was it like to work for them? It was great. It was more than great, it was incredible. You idolize these people your whole life, you’ve seen all of their movies, you can memorize [laughs] passages of their movies, and here you are finally on set with them. So you can imagine how incredible that was. And they’re very nice, they’re very smart, they’re very communicative. I was only there for two days, but it was a great feeling on set, it was a great feeling for me to be around them.

The world premiere of Red Flag screens at the LA Film Fest in downtown Los Angeles at 9:50 p.m. Friday. There is a second screening on Sunday, June 17, at 3:50 p.m.


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Michelle Kollathe
August 31st 2012

I think being an actor and director at the same time gives him more creative insights, and both roles would give him more angles to tackle things. When he is directing his movie, he knows what is going through an actor’s mind and vice versa. He truly is quite talented.

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