Alex Karpovsky likes to keep busy. As a result, you may know him as many things: actor, director, screenwriter, helmer of documentaries and mocumentaries alike, a staple of the Lena Dunham family (he plays a recurring role in Girls, as well as the Nietzschean Cowboy in 2010’s Tiny Furniture). His directorial efforts include 2005’s The Hole Story, the hybrid-doc Woodpecker in 2008, and 2009’s improv doc Trust Us, This Is All Made Up. We recently spoke to Karpovsky about his latest film, Rubberneck, a terse psychological thriller in the mould of Hitchcock and Haneke, set to premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Also, side bonus: Karpovsky was kind enough to take our infamous Bullett Questionnaire, which is in the image gallery.
Rubberneck is quite different from your former projects. You tend to do comedies, mostly.
I wanted to explore completely new terrain. You get a little stagnant sometimes when you work in the same area over and over again. And thrillers are my favorite, any slow-burning, character-driven ones, those are my favorite movies to watch as a viewer, so I’ve always fantasized about making one. That was my driving enthusiasm on this project, to do something different and unfamiliar. And I didn’t really study anything—I don’t trust myself in a sense, because I feel like when I’m really influenced by something, it’s very easy for me to make something that’s derivative. I would see one or two movies in the genre a week, as I’d fall asleep, to keep me somewhere in that world and keep my tonality somewhat calibrated.
What were the movies you found yourself watching?
I made this movie with a guy named Garth Donovan, he was a co-writer, co-producer, co-editor, so a lot of the recommendations I got were from him. Movies that affected us quite a bit were Bubble by Stephen Soderbergh, Morvern Kallar by Lynne Ramsay, Cache, by Michael Haneke, Birth, by Jonathan Glazer, and Michael Clayton in a weird way had an impact on us, which we didn’t expect from a studio picture. I feel like those are the ones that immediately pop into my brain.
This is a pretty diverse list.
Yeah, it’s kind of across the board. Some of it goes into borderline shlock, some of it goes into hardcore raw minimalism, some of it, like Clayton, goes into a Hollywood system. And I think none of these movies are really perfect—I don’t know if all of these movies are four stars in my little book, but there’s so much I do like in so many of these movies to pick and choose. You can watch a twelve-minute sequence and say Wow, that was brilliant, that’s as good as movies can be, and just get fired up and energized from it.
What was the first thriller you saw that really showed you what the genre could do?
I don’t know if I’ve really thought about that. I remember as a teenager when Silence of the Lambs came out, and that had a huge impact on me. I know it’s a studio film, but that’s all that I saw back then as a teenager for the most part. And it terrified me. And Escape from New York before that, which is more of an action movie, but I remember it totally terrifying me and messing me up. When I read interviews with filmmakers or hear stories, there’s inevitably this thing where they say, I saw this movie and it changed my life, or I saw this movie and I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. I never had that ‘eureka’ experience. I didn’t really even nurture the thought of being a filmmaker until I was 27 years old, and I kind of back-pedaled into it, because I felt I’d run out of other things I hadn’t tried yet.
What strikes me about your performance in Girls and in Tiny Furniture, is that they’re clearly assholes to the audience, but as an actor, you have to somehow believe in the character as a person who is something more than just ‘the douchebag.’
I think you kind of hit the nail on the head. Yes, the guy is kind of unlikeable, and yes, his world view is probably tortured and misguided, but, I think it’s really important—at least for me—that he believes in his philosophy, and he understands it, and not only believes in it, but one of the things that makes him an asshole is that he nurtures a hierarchy where he definitely feels it’s better and more sophisticated and more applicable than yours. I think in terms of getting fired up for these roles and feel not only that I can do a good job but have confidence improving with it, is just understanding and being totally familiar with this person’s arguments. With how he feels he can justify his cosmology. As long as the character believes in what he’s saying, and that there’s a conviction in his stupidity, in his arrogance and anger.
Do you feel this is a person whose increasingly more present in the world?
I think we all need to relate to him and we all can say I know someone who’s kind of like him, just so we can feel somewhat oriented when we experience him onscreen. But at the same time, there’s got to be something that makes him singular and unique, otherwise it wouldn’t be funny. I think strict familiarity is a good foundation, but if the character doesn’t have something unique to say, or some unique anger or emotion that he’s nursing or negotiating with, I don’t think it can be funny. There’s an interplay with those two things.
Are you working on anything else at the moment?
I need to do something to keep busy, otherwise I’d go crazy. But I don’t have hobbies, I don’t have other things that can keep me busy, so I just torture myself with making my own stuff. I just need something to do, I can’t just sort of go hiking for two days, or spend the day watching movies. Some people can, and I’m jealous of them. I have way too much anxiety, way too much guilt. I need to justify my free seconds on this planet. I even feel guilty napping, even though I feel like in the long term it will help me be more productive during the day.