Karpovsky! 'Girls' co-star writes and directs twin releases 'Rubberneck' and 'Red Flag'

If you don’t recognize the name Alex Karpovsky right away, there’s a strong chance that his alter ego “Ray Ploshansky” will jog your memory. That’s the acerbic Brooklyn coffee-shop manager (and wooer of one very highstrung ex-virgin) Karpovsky has played for two seasons now on Lena Dunham’s hit HBO series, Girls.”

Even though his participation in this pop-culture sensation has given Karpovsky a higher profile, his career stretches back almost a decade, when Dunham was still just an Oberlin undergrad. In 2005, the Massachusetts-bred multi-hyphenate wrote, directed, produced and starred in his first ultra-low-budget movie, The Hole Story. Roles in a series of similarly less-than-mainstream features followed, including Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax and Dunham’s own celebrated feature, Tiny Furniture.

Even as he booked more acting gigs, Karpovsky continued to write and direct his own (largely self-financed) features. In the wake of “Girls,” his two most recent directorial efforts—Rubberneck and Red Flag, both of which he also stars in—are being released in tandem in theatres and on VOD courtesy of Tribeca Film. The former is a thriller that casts Karpovsky as socially awkward scientist Paul, whose romantic obsession with a co-worker leads him down a very dark path. The latter, meanwhile, is a more freewheeling road comedy in which an independent filmmaker named (what else?) Alex Karpovsky embarks on a publicity tour for his latest movie just after going through a bad break-up. Taken together, both films reveal that there’s a lot more to Karpovsky—the actor and the director—than what we see from Ray Ploshansky week in and week out on “Girls.” The day before moving into new digs in Brooklyn, he spoke with Film Journal International about how he was able to make two movies while performing on “Girls,” what it was like to work with two of his directing idols, the Coen Brothers, and whether he thinks of himself as a director who acts or an actor who directs.

Film Journal International: Acting on a TV series like “Girls” must require a significant time commitment. How did you find the time to make both of these films while also being a regular cast member on the show?
Alex Karpovsky: “Girls” usually only takes up four or five months out of the year, and even during production there are plenty of breaks. So it’s hard to go off and shoot something else, but there’s plenty of time to edit and tweak stuff. I had shot both of these movies before starting season one and then edited them during the downtime on “Girls.” I shot Rubberneck first—principal photography anyway—and then we started editing, but we had to take a six-month break due to unforeseen circumstances, during which I wrote and shot Red Flag but didn’t edit it. Then I went back with my editor and we finished the edit on Rubberneck, and once that was done, I went back and edited Red Flag. So it was checkerboarded, which was nice because they are such different movies tonally that once you lost perspective or got bored with one, you could change gears and go in another direction completely.

FJI: It sounds like both films came together relatively quickly. In each case, how long did it take you to go from the inception of the idea to writing the script to shooting the film?
AK: The idea for Rubberneck had been in my head for a while. I wrote the screenplay with Garth Donovan, a friend from Boston, and we did go into production really quickly after we wrote it, because it was self-financed and we didn’t have to go out and look for funds. It’s a very low-budget movie, so we just scraped a little bit of money here and there and didn’t have to rely on any external injections of cash. And Red Flag had an even smaller budget, so again I didn’t have to wait—I just put my own money into it. I hadn’t been thinking about that movie for a long time, though. I had committed to this Q&A tour for my second movie, Woodpecker, a year in advance and as the time drew nearer, I got uneasy at the thought of being on the road by myself. Like my character in the film, I recently had a relationship end and I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts. Also, I had already crisscrossed the country by car a few times, so the allure of the American highway had evaporated for me—it didn’t seem romantic anymore. So I thought, “Why don’t I see if I can bring some friends along and maybe we can walk away from this adventure with something we can be proud of? And if not, who cares? At least we tried, hopefully it was fun and no one needs to know about it.” Fortunately, we got into a nice harmony and, in the end, we did come back with a movie.

FJI: Both films are genre pieces—Rubberneck is a thriller and Red Flag is a road movie—but they approach their respective genres in intriguing ways. For example, Rubberneck takes its time getting to the central crime, while Red Flag finds weariness rather than freedom in the open road. Was going against the genre grain part of your mission from the beginning?

AK: With Rubberneck, we definitely wanted to make a slow-burning, character-driven thriller, one that was rooted in character and family relationships. The biggest influence on that movie was Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble; it’s a movie that both Garth and I think is under-seen and really interesting. The other movie that we both liked was Caché by Michael Haneke. That’s another film where a repressed childhood history pulses through the rest of the story. It’s also very subtle and character-driven and has a lot of still, wide shots and we tried to incorporate some of that as well. So Rubberneck was genre-driven from the get-go.

With Red Flag, I knew the movie was going to be a road adventure and I knew that the main character was going to be called Alex Karpovsky and share a lot in common with me. He’s a caricature of me in many ways and because he’s the driving force of the film, I knew genre-wise that it had to be a comedy.

FJI: Although both movies are quite different in terms of tone and genre, they are united in the fact that they are portraits of isolation, where you play a kind of overgrown adolescent out of step with the community around him. What drew you to exploring that kind of personality not just once, but twice?

AK: It wasn’t a conscious choice, but it’s undeniably a similarity. I’m just very interested in stories of obsession, and more specifically I’m interested in stories of obsession and infatuation and monomania. Oftentimes, you need isolation to create a springboard into obsession. I also think that you can more easily accentuate the depth and resonance of a character arc if you pull back the starting line for that character so he’s not a fully formed adult to begin with. There are definitely stunted and repressed elements in the Paul character in Rubberneck, elements that he’s negotiating with throughout the whole film and hopefully we start understanding them by the end. And there are so many phobias and fears that Alex is grappling with in Red Flag—in a more comedic sense—so I think it’s totally fair to say that he’s a man-child in many respects. He’s not one of these well-formed, mentally stable and mature 33-year-old guys. That’s not the movie we’re making.

FJI: You’ve starred in three out of the four narrative features you’ve written and directed. Do you consider yourself a filmmaker who acts or an actor who makes films?

AK: Initially, it was more the latter—I wanted to write and direct. I acted in my first movie [2005’s The Hole Story], but I didn’t act in my subsequent two movies [2008’s Woodpecker and the 2009 documentary Trust Us, This Is All Made Up]. It wasn’t necessarily something that excited me. I had done some plays, but in terms of movies, I had never acted in anything before I put myself in my first film. But now, I feel like I’d be very sad if I couldn’t do both. I really enjoy acting and I’ve been lucky to work with directors who I feel I learn a lot from and make me a better director. If I was only acting, I think I’d feel constrained, because as much as you’re allowed to improvise and play with material on certain sets, it’s still not your own material and part of me feels like I need my own material just to be content. I’m also kind of uncomfortable with the idea of surrendering your will, your future and your fate to third parties; when you’re an actor, you’re basically waiting for the phone to ring to some degree or another. Surrendering that control makes me terribly uneasy—I don’t know how actors do it. Conversely, if I was only directing and never acting, quite honestly the vain and narcissistic part of me would feel that I wasn’t getting enough attention. And I feel like life wouldn’t be quite as fun. So ideally, I’d like to keep doing both. Right now, I’m writing something that I hope to shoot at some point. Season three of “Girls” just got picked up, so we’re going back into production soon. My goal is to finish writing before that starts and then during production have it gestate and see if we can get some funds and packaging around it. Hopefully we’ll be closer to shooting it when the season wraps.

FJI: As you’ve gotten more experience as both a director and as an actor, do you find that the way you direct yourself has changed since your first film?
AK: I don’t ever look at I that way—I don’t look at me directing me. I just don’t compartmentalize those tasks in my mind for whatever reason. So I don’t think the way I direct myself has changed too much; I feel like maybe the way I direct other people may have changed. Being around other directors, you learn a tremendous amount and a lot of what you learn is how to talk to actors and give notes that are concise and pithy and easily digestible. Being able to make significant changes in a very quick, surgical and precise manner is hard to do and I’ve seen people do it very well and have tried to learn from them.

FJI: Many of your earliest acting jobs were in films by directors like Andrew Bujalski, who were driving forces behind what’s been labeled the mumblecore movement. How did those formative experiences shape your own work?
AK: I don’t really view mumblecore as a movement; it seems like a fairly wide and porous umbrella thrown over a lot of movies that to me, at the end of the day, don’t have very much in common. You can lasso some very general similarities, but I think it’s a borderline stretch. So it’s hard for me to talk about it and talk about relationships or influences or references because it’s muddy footing. But I think the [mumblecore] spirit of going out and making very personal movies on your own terms without the need to compromise or bend to external powers has certainly been a huge influence on me. I’ve been a big fan of Andrew’s work for that reason and other filmmakers like the Duplass Brothers, who just make the movies they want to make. They didn’t ask for permission or need a lot of money and I really respect that.

FJI: You have a role in the Coen Brothers’ upcoming period drama, Inside Llewyn Davis, which is probably the biggest production you’ve been involved with to date. What were some of the differences you noticed making that film versus your own movies?
AK: The scale of it is hard to ignore; they’re shooting on 35mm film and there’s a lot of equipment and personnel that goes into just supporting that format. It was also a union film, so there were a lot more people and a lot more trucks outside the set. So that’s obviously very different from the indie movies I’ve worked on. But at the end of the day, they are directors who are very focused on making sure the actors are comfortable and that they understand what’s going on in the scene. And on a personal level, they are very smart, engaging, warm, friendly and enthused people, and I’ve been lucky to work with those kinds of personalities in the past.

One thing that was interesting to me about that film was that I had never been directed by two people before. Sometimes when you’re acting in a movie, you’ll look at the director from across the set and you’ll see them lost in thought, pondering all of the things a director usually thinks about—“How do I have this note?” or “How do I re-plan the day to squeeze this shot in?”—and then internalizes and spits out to an actor or unit head. But with the Coen Brothers, a lot of this internal calculus that I talked about is actually verbalized, and if you’re close enough to them physically, you can overhear some of this stuff. It’s almost like crawling inside one cinema mind and it happens to be one of the most masterful minds we have on the planet today.

FJI: As far as your involvement with “Girls” goes, have you been surprised by the way the series has become a pop-culture phenomenon?
AK: It’s wonderful that people are watching the show and are so engaged in the relationships and plot advancements. I feel very lucky to be part of it all. I’ve never done episodic TV before and the basic differences between it and film are interesting. When you do a film, you make it, you go away and a year later there will hopefully be a premiere somewhere. But with “Girls,” that’s not the case; you’re part of an ongoing, very organic discussion with people who have really strong opinions about the work. And we have a chance, if we wish, to respond and incorporate these things that are happening around us.

There’s some protection I feel I need to take as part of this series as well. When I finish a movie, I read the reviews; I’m not one of those guys that doesn’t—I’m interested in what people have to say about something I’ve worked on, especially if I respect the critic. But I’ve never read any reviews or coverage of “Girls,” because I feel I have to go back into the shoes of Ray and I don’t want those sentiments and opinions to affect me. Maybe they won’t, but I don’t want to take the chance. Obviously, I’m aware of certain conversations that are taking place around the show because stuff trickles down to you, but I’m not waiting for the New York Times’ opinion of it. When these two movies come out, though, I’ll be very eager to read reviews.

FJI: The show has been both credited and criticized for the way it seeks to capture the voice and attitude of its generation. Do you strive to do that in your own work?
AK: It’s never in the forefront of my mind. I’m never trying to capture anything. I’m just trying to express what I feel is interesting, funny and realistic. I certainly don’t want to create any pedestal or soapbox for myself. I don’t think I’m in a position to do that sort of thing.

FJI: So what do you hope viewers take away from your films?
AK: With Rubberneck, I hope they’re moved and somewhat dislodged from what they were like coming into the theatre 90 minutes ago. And maybe they’ll think about the degree to which our childhoods mold us and put us within a certain set of parameters that we may or may not ever get out of. With Red Flag, I think the goal is a little more direct and immediate: I hope they find it funny and can relate to some degree with this buffoon who has the protagonist’s role. And if they don’t share his issues and insecurities, maybe they can at least nurture some sympathy for his struggle. On a slightly more thematic note, the issue of death and death anxiety is in the background of the film, because I think about death a lot.

My struggle with mortality is a huge part of my existential worldview. As a person who has a bit of an issue with commitment-phobia, I think it reverberates from an underlying fear of death. So I hope people have a subway ride home where they playfully or seriously think for a moment to what degree our surface fears are underlied by deeper fears, which are often rooted in our fear of death. I think we all have this immortality deception mechanism that allows us to get through the day and not be paralyzed by anxiety. But if that machine breaks down, you can see a glimpse below your surface fears that can be both liberating and terrifying. So in my dream world, some people will think of that after seeing Red Flag.