Alex Karpovsky on Red Flag and Rubberneck

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While probably best known as belligerent barista Ray on the HBO show Girls (and also for his role as a lousy houseguest in Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture), Alex Karpovsky started out and continues to be a prolific indie film director who makes diverse styles of micro-budget films. His fourth and fifth films, the stylistically contrasting Rubberneck and Red Flag, are being released by Tribeca Film and screen at Film Society of Lincoln Center from February 22. In Rubberneck, Karpovsky plays a scientist obsessed with a former fling, and in the road trip comedy Red Flag he plays a filmmaker named Alex Karpovsky who is touring his film Woodpecker (filmed on the actual tour of Karpovsky’s film of that name) in the South after being dumped by his girlfriend.

Karpovsky and I met at a cafe in Williamsburg to discuss his latest directorial works, his Andy Kaufman obsession, and the pleasures of acting. What emerged in the discussion is that, while a daring director, a talented editor and a truly gifted actor, Karpovsky is first and foremost a writer. In conversation, he has an unrelenting awareness of word choice, which is what makes him such a brilliant improviser. It also makes him fun to talk to — sensitive, polite, and so good at being compulsively, hilariously mean.

Filmmaker: You started as director, but now are acting more frequently. It seems like you’re taking a Cassavetes-like approach of acting in other people’s projects while continuing to shoot your own films. But are you acting to be able to direct? Or are you directing to give yourself diverse performances, or a little of both?

Karpovsky: That’s a good question. I don’t necessarily view it as one doing it for the other. I love doing both. I also love editing, I also love producing. I also love writing, in addition to acting and directing. So I just wanna do as much as my free time allows. And if people are foolish enough to keep putting me in their stuff, who am I to say no? I want to keep acting; I find acting more fun than anything else.

Filmmaker: Because it’s so immediate?

Karpovsky: Yeah, you can hop into someone else’s shoes. For me, any opportunity that I can get away from myself is always welcome. And hopefully there’s some improvisation. I love improvising, I love working with good improvisers. And [when acting] you don’t have to carry the burden. It’s kind of a stress-free creation, where at the end of the day you can have a beer with your friends and truly, fundamentally walk away from the set, without the stress of the next day, the way a director would. And I enjoy that, a lot. So I’d love to keep acting if I can. But I think if I only acted I would get unhappy. I feel like I don’t have enough self-expression of my own sensibility. And I also would be very uncertain to surrendering my fate to uncertain powers. I don’t know how actors do that.

Filmmaker: So you began your acting career by writing and directing your own material. Isn’t that how you met Lena Dunham? You were both doing that and on the festival circuit?

Karpovsky: Yeah, we met at SXSW in ’09. She was there with her first film, Creative Nonfiction, and I was there with my third film, Trust Us, This is All Made Up, a documentary about comedy which is all made up. And we just got along. We just spent 10 minutes in a car once, that’s all. But we liked each other enough to send Gmails, and do DVD swaps over the next few weeks, and then we started hanging out a little bit in New York. And then she wrote a part in Tiny Furniture for me, and then we started working together.

Filmmaker: I’ve heard your first film, The Hole Story, another kind of fake documentary, often compared to Albert Brooks. Was that something you were thinking of lot?

Karpovsky: I think so. I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking about back then, it was a few years ago. But he was an influence for me, especially this movie called Real Life, which was oddly prophetic in anticipating the arrival of reality TV. That movie was made in the 70s, but he was doing all these things which came much later; it was a sort of a Nostradamus in a way. And Sherman’s March was a huge influence on my first movie. And then just Werner Herzog in general. But I was definitely emulating Albert Brooks in a way, for sure. And I love his career, the way he was writing and directing and acting in very funny movies: that one, Defending Your Life, and Modern Romance. There are others, too, but those three are all really great movies.

Filmmaker: What about another influence, Andy Kaufman? There’s some mysterious line in your biography about the years you wasted trying to be the next Andy Kaufman. And there was a line in a recent episode of Girls in which your character Ray admitted that an autographed picture of Andy Kaufman is the only valuable thing he owns. Does that come from real life?

Karpovsky: Well, it wasn’t improvised. But Lena knows that I’m obsessed with Andy Kaufman. Lena’s mom, Laurie Simmons, grew up with Andy Kaufman on Long Island. Her father was Andy’s dentist, so they kind of grew up together. So she’s got a few memorabilia items, and one item that Laurie did hand out to me was a signed Andy Kaufman headshot. And it probably is my most valuable possession, so in some ways there is some truth there.

Filmmaker: When did you first discover Andy Kaufman?

Karpovsky: When I was in grad school [at Oxford University]. There was an American guy there who told me about this weird performance artist/wrestler/entertainer. I knew him from Taxi, as Latka, but I didn’t know him outside of that. But that friend turned me on to all this weird stuff, and he and I did some plays together and some comedy stuff. Then after grad school — I dropped out — we both moved to New York and did a lot of comedy clubs. I still love Andy Kaufman, I just don’t try to emulate him anymore.

Filmmaker: But the seed is still there. You can see it in the spectrum of your two latest films, from the goofy comedy of Red Flag to the creepiness of Rubberneck. Because, as much as Kaufman is hilarious, there’s also a little bit of creepiness, don’t you think?

Karpovsky: Yeah. Totally! There’s a lot of creepiness.

Filmmaker: And Rubberneck takes that creepiness to an extreme, so that it’s even a thriller, and in Red Flag there are also all these Kaufman-esque goofy audience stunts. So I think the Kaufman influence is probably still there.

Karpovsky: Yeah, I mean, uh…

Filmmaker: Is it annoying to dissect your influences like that?

Karpovsky: No, no. no, not at all. It’s just [pause] I agree with everything you’re saying. Just re-phrase the question for me.

Filmmaker: [laughs] Fair enough. Which came first, Rubberneck or Red Flag? Rubberneck?

Karpovsky: Yeah, well we kind of cross-boarded the two in many ways. We shot Rubberneck first, but before we really got into the edit of it, I went and shot Red Flag. But before I started editing Red Flag, really, we started editing Rubberneck. And then when we needed to take a break with Rubberneck, I started really getting into the edit of Red Flag. So we kind of would go back and forth. One thing that’s really nice about editing two movies that are so different, is that you’re really recharged when you come back to the other thing. And that helps me keep perspective, which is an easy thing to lose in the editing room. And, fortunately I was working with great editors for each film, and they would help keep me sane, too. But it was really great working on such different things. And that was also happening while we were shooting the first season of Girls. So I had a lot of different ways to escape, and not get bogged down in one place.

Rubberneck

Alex Karpovsky in Rubberneck

Filmmaker: So I’m curious about the impetus of making each film, because they are so different. Rubberneck is not a comedy in any way.

Karpovsky: No.

Filmmaker: Were you interested specifically in acting in that straighter, suspense film-style? What moved you to take such a dramatic shift in style?

Karpovsky: I wrote Rubberneck with a guy in Boston, Garth Donovan. We both just really like slow burning, chraracter-driven, psychosexual thrillers. It’s just a very specific type of movie that I love and Garth loves and we’ve always fantasized about making. And the opportunity just congealed in Boston a few years ago. He has resources, I have resources, and we pooled them and made a movie for a very, very small budget in the way we wanted to make it. It was never a preconceived strategy as an actor to try to something different. Rubberneck  was written without me in mind. Once we wrote it, we had a long, laborious casting process. We found someone in Boston, a theater actor, who is very different than me. He’s shorter, and older and has a very different energy. We thought he’d be perfect. We did rehearsals with him and we shot the first four days with him, and then he had a family crisis. So then I stepped in and tried to fill his shoes. So it was never a plan. I never wanted to act in Rubberneck because I didn’t have enough faith in myself to do anything but the comedy stuff.

Filmmaker: Oh, interesting. I know that budgets are usually considered dirty secrets, but you said Rubberneck was very low budget. Were the budgets of the two films similar?

Karpovsky: No, Rubberneck was probably three times bigger than Red Flag.

Filmmaker: You can see it.

Karpovsky: Yeah. Rubberneck is the only film I’ve made where we used a tripod, where we actually turned on some lights, where we rented a dolly. So I wanted to see how the other half lived. And it was really interesting! I feel more comfortable running and gunning, but I wanted to try it, at least once, of doing it the other way. And if the opportunity should present itself, to do a bigger budget movie, with greater infrastructure and resources, I’m glad I have a little bit of experience now.

Filmmaker: What was really interesting? Just that the whole process was different? The pace?

Karpovsky: Well nothing is improvised, everything is pretty premeditated and calculated. It’s a challenge to adhere to a schedule. I enjoyed it. It allowed me to focus on the creative and directorial elements rather than barge into a location and see if we could guerrilla this for two hours, which is how I normally make movies. But, on the other hand, it can be constraining, it kind of neuters impulsivity in some respects. We have no agility as a production unit, to say, “Wow, there’s a cool waterfall across the street. I didn’t know about that, let’s just go there.” You can’t just do it with 30 people and two trucks, or it’s not as easy. Whereas with Red Flag, two or three of us would just cross the street.

Filmmaker: So was Red Flag was improvised, then, for the most part?

Karpovsky: Well, I call it structured improv, in the sense that we had an outline, like a 30-page outline, which described all the scenes in the movie. We had about 16 scenes. So every scene was just a paragraph, and it had beats — every scene had three to five beats. And then I just tried to find actors I love, who had I confidence and trust in to hit those beats in their own words.

Filmmaker: And what a great cast.

Karpovsky: Yeah, and I was really lucky. I got them three weeks before we were going to shoot. I didn’t know them and they didn’t know each other.

Filmmaker: Oh wow. So Onur Tukel and Jennifer Prediger met then, before they made Richard’s Wedding?

Karpovsky: Yeah.

Filmmaker: Where did you find them?

Karpovsky: At Sundance. They were over at Sundance and I was over at Sundance of ’11.

Filmmaker: You met Caroline White there, too?

Karpovsky: No, I think I met Caroline in the middle of the shoot, through Kentucker [Audley]. The tour went through Memphis [where White and Audley were living] and I had a drink with Kentucker and his girlfriend [White]. I knew that she acted in his movies, and I liked her look. I think she’s easy on the eyes. So I asked Caroline if she wanted to come down for two or three days and play my fiancée. And then we did additional shooting with her, too.

Filmmaker: She’s great in it, and she kind of carries the film. That was a lucky move.

Karpovsky: Yeah, and she has a really interesting and open personality, and great improvisation skills. And she’s also just down for anything. She worked with Kentucker, and knows this indie scene to some extent. She knows we work really “run and gun.” I didn’t think she’d be a really high maintenance person, who’d have to be really coddled and babysat, which is also a huge criterion for working with people. I have no patience for people who start bitching. I’d rather work with someone with no experience, than someone who’s got an IMDb sheet through the roof and is a prima donna.

Filmmaker: Was the structured improv of Red Flag modeled after Curb Your Enthusisam? It also reminded me of that show in that you play a filmmaker named Alex and also with some of the repetitions. For instance, the way you character keeps saying, with increasing aggression and exasperation, “Why not?” when told he can’t get a late check in?

Karpovsky: Oh yeah… I wasn’t modeling it after it, but it’s a huge influence. I love the show. I love whenever people play caricatures of themselves, the way that he does, the way that Louis C.K. does on his show, the way Woody Allen kind of did in his films. He’s not called Woody, but he’s heightening his fears, neurosis and problems for comedic affect. And also there was this movie called The Trip, with Michael Winterbottom.

Filmmaker: Oh yeah, a really weird and great movie, also a TV show. Also with great repetitions, too — the prawns!

Karpovsky: Exactly. I forgot about that. I love that. And Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are playing caricature versions of themselves, on a road trip, that was definitely an influence.

Filmmaker: I loved the old television-style split screens in Red Flag. Did that come out in the editing process?

Karpovsky: That did come out in the editing process but early in the editing process. I just wanted to squeeze a lot of time progression and event progression in a short amount of time. One of the collage effects that I really liked was in the beginning of Buffalo 66. Vincent Gallo comes out of prison, and waits on a bench and all of these little squares appear on the screen — and it’s basically the whole four or five years he was in prison. And it’s this whole, rich back story about all the difficulties he had in prison, but in 20 seconds. And it’s really effective and well done. I think I tried to emulate it there. I just wanted to show there was a lot of variety, and cram as more information.

Filmmaker: Variety, but also there’s a sense of repetition in those images. Prison and the road, similar maybe…

Karpovsky: Yeah, yeah. Road, college, shitty food and Q&A. Do it again the next day.