“I might call you Ray,” is how I open my interview with Alex Karpovsky, referring to his character on Lena Dunham’s Girls. Did I rehearse that line? Maybe. Yes. But it came out so naturally, didn’t it? And it was true. “You can call me whatever you want,” he replied. Good. I was told that Ray, I mean, Alex was a flirt.
On Girls, Alex Karpovsky plays Ray Ploshansky, a thirty-three year old grumpy manager of a Greenpoint cafe called Grumpy’s, and the love interest of everyone’s favorite good girl, Shoshanna. Off Dunham’s screen, Karpovsky is a successful indie filmmaker, with five writer/director credits under his belt, plus countless acting credits, including roles in Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me, Daniel Schechter’s Supporting Characters, and Joel and Ethan Coen’s upcoming Inside Llewyn Davis.
Alex Karpovsky has two auteur films coming out simultaneously this week through Tribeca Film. One, Red Flag, is a realistic road-trip comedy à la Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip. In it, Karpovsky plays a facsimile of himself: a newly single filmmaker named Alex Karpovksy on a publicity tour for his latest movie, Woodpecker, which Karpovsky released in 2008. The other movie, Rubberneck, is an anxiety inducing psychosexual thriller starring Karpovsky again, but here almost unrecognizable, as a Boston research scientist who becomes unhealthily obsessed with an attractive co-worker after a weekend fling. Both deal with heartbreak, obsession, and unrequited desire, with isolation, suicide, and off-center America. Both prominently feature Alex’s handsome, hangdog face. And yet they couldn’t be more different—one leaves you feeling creeped upon, like a victim of sexual assault, while the other has you laughing-out-loud to lines like, “Basically, all animal sex is rape.”
On the (late) night before my interview with Alex, the internet was down in my apartment, so I went to my local McDonald’s to stream his films (the American Dream: McDonald’s has 24 hour, free-wifi that’s relatively fast because who uses wifi in a McDonald’s?). The streaming wasn’t quite fast enough, and I found myself jumping between the two films as they loaded, an usual viewing experience that, while not ideal, had a Melinda and Melinda effect: totally illuminating about genre and tone, the tragic vs. the comic. This anecdote, my apology for being ill-prepared, is how I started the interview. So here we go.
What I want to start with, since I experienced this weird temporal confluence, flipping between the two movies, was your time frame of the production. Red Flag and Rubberneck are coming out at the same time, as a kind of package deal, but I imagine you weren’t making them at the same time. Or maybe you were?
Actually, they were sort of checkerboarded, much like your viewing experience. We shot Rubberneck and started editing it, but then we had to take a break because of everyone’s schedule. During the break, I shot Red Flag. And before I started editing Red Flag, I went back and finished editing Rubberneck. So basically the production was criss-crossed. But what’s nice about working on two movies that are so different is that, when you hit a wall or lose perspective on one, you can jump into something completely different. If I hadn’t had both movies, I’d have lost my mind. Although I probably did that a few times too.
We all do, all the time. Watching the two—one a tragedy and the other a comedy, but both with similar themes—made me think of the Woody Allen line, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” I was wondering if you might comment on that.
Well that’s interesting. There’s not much comedy in Rubberneck… you’re making me think in this interview, heaven forbid. In Rubberneck, you definitely have tragedy because it’s about a tragedy that occurs very early in this man’s life, but there should be no comedic reverberations. In Red Flag, which is a comedy, you also have a lot of tragedy, no time, and hopefully more comedic reverberations. Red Flag is much more autobiographical. Rubberneck is not autobiographical at all.
Are you just saying that to distance yourself from it? [The movie is about a damaged man with scary stalker tendencies who—wait, no spoilers.]
No, there’s no real part of him that’s—maybe, like I’m an introvert and shy in a way, but that’s about as far as it goes. I’m not a scientist, I don’t have the trauma that this guy had, nor have I harbored unreciprocated infatuation.
Not to this degree, no. There have been girls that I’ve liked that wanted nothing to do with me but I wouldn’t have to act the way that he acted. Red Flag, though, is very much a caricature of who I am. The fears, the insecurities, the neuroses—are all mine amplified, hopefully for comedic effect.
Not just hopefully. I laughed. Many times, in McDonald’s.
Good, that’s important. It’s not easy to laugh in McDonald’s.
Au contraire. The McFlurry is hilarious. I’m noticing a new trend of comedic actor/writer/directors, D.I.Y. people like yourself, who are creating caricatures of themselves for the screen, kind of like Woody Allen did. I’m wondering two things: first, if Woody was an influence, and second, whether you identify yourself among a cohort of like comedians.
Woody Allen is definitely an influence. I love the sensibility. I love how smart and perceptive and honest his films are. What I really love is his stuff from the ’80s and ’90s. He definitely seemed to play caricatured versions of himself. More recently, there’s Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm. I saw a movie that I really enjoyed called The Trip by Michael Winterbottom, with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Coogan and Brydon play themselves; they called themselves by their real names, Steve and Rob. I get a kick out of things like that. It takes humility and self awareness to be able to pick out your neuroses and amplify them and try to make them accessible and funny to other people. That’s definitely what I try to do. Who are the others you see in this cohort?
Mike Birbiglia, for one. Who recently made Sleepwalk With Me. Have you watched that?
Yeah, I’m in it.
[He is? Oops.] You are! I watched it like three months ago. I liked it. There’s also Louis CK and his show Louie. The Mindy Project. To a certain extent, it’s not the exactly same, but what Lena Dunham is doing with Girls…
I get a kick out of stuff like that. If it’s done right, and you’ve given examples that have all done it right, when it’s honest and self-deprecating. That’s the stuff that gets me going.
My favorite part of Red Flag was the bro dialogue, the behind-the-scenes guy-on-guy friendship stuff, which I felt privileged to experience—thank you—in this voyeuristic way. I don’t get to hear intimate dude conversations like that often enough. Is the actor [Onur Tukel, who plays Alex’s estranged friend/sidekick character in the movie] a friend of yours? Are those dialogues based off dialogues that you’ve had? Were they improvised?
Onur, who plays Henry in the film, is a friend now but we didn’t really know each other when we were making the movie, which was great because we could tell each other a bunch of stories that we hadn’t bored each other with already. That’s novelty and freshness that you might have sensed. Onur is a wonderful improviser and a great raconteur. I told him from the beginning: let’s make this as raw and authentic and believable and open as we can. And, again, The Trip was a huge influence because I thought: here are two smart guys, with very different styles, improvising honestly about women, life experiences, and fears. That’s what we tried to do.
What technical decisions did you make to differentiate genres between the two movies? One comes across very chilling, it’s a thriller, and the other one had me laughing out loud.
Out of my five movies, Rubberneck, is the only one shot on a tripod. We had a proper light package, with the dolly and a slider and all these lenses. I put a lot of thought, effort, and resources into creating an aesthetic for Rubberneck. I wanted it to feel very slow, creepy, chilling, and meditative. Caché by Michael Haneke was a major aesthetic influence—wide shots, coolly, thermally lit.
On Red Flag, we didn’t use a single light. It’s all handheld, run and go. Much of Red Flag was improvised, where as Rubberneck was all scripted: storyboarded and premeditated. It has this cool, reasoned, scientific calculation to it, which reflects the story.
One of the things I do at BULLETT is, with a group of six other young women, or girls, we write a recap of Girls called Girls on Girls. When I emailed them all to say that I was going to meet you, one of them asked that you say the word “confluence” for us.
I heard you say confluence earlier in the interview and I was like, “that’s not how I say it.” You say it the right way.
You said it in a recent episode. And we rewound to hear you say it again. We also want to know who your favorite Girl is.
Which character? Well, it would have to be Shosh.
There’s something so raw and sincere and radiant about her that I can’t let go of.
I mentioned earlier that I loved the intimate guy dialogue in Red Flag, that I took this voyeuristic pleasure in watching it. Do you feel the same way when you’re reading the script or watching Girls? Do you feel like you have access to a world that you maybe didn’t before?
I do. One of the things I’m really proud of is how authentic Girls is. It’s firmly rooted in the Greenpoint that I know. It’s very reflective of the memories that I’ve had in that neighborhood. When I read conversations in the script between the girls, I do feel like I’m almost eavesdropping. That’s how authentic it is. And on top of that, you’ve got comedic elements and dramatic resonance. It’s a really hard stunt to pull off and I’m really impressed by how Lena does it.
Well, I think you’ve done a similar feat.
A different trajectory but thank you.
Red Flag and Rubberneck will be running as a double feature at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York starting this Friday, February 22nd. The films are also currently available on nationwide VOD through Tribeca Film.