So, here's the thing. When I was heading out to interview Alex Karpovsky about his two films—Red Flag and Rubberneck—which are premiering together courtesy of Tribeca Film, I thought to myself, "I'm not even going to ask him about Girls. That isn't what this interview is even about." Then I made the mistake of saying that out loud, in my office. "You have to ask him about Girls." I was told. "You would be stupid not to." Which, yes. That's true. I would have been stupid not to. And so I did ask, but only after getting the chance to talk extensively to Karpovksy about his experiences as an actor/writer/director in the New York independent film scene, his commitment issues as they pertain to relationships, movie-making and death, and what was the inspiration behind a scene in Red Flag—the funniest suicide note-writing scene since Heathers. And then, yes, I broached the topic of Ray and Shoshanna. But, really, there was so much more to talk about.
Red Flag and Rubberneck almost couldn't be more different. Which movie did you write, or at least, conceive first?
Rubberneck. We wrote it and shot it first, but before I really started the edit of it, I went off and shot Red Flag, but before I started the edit of Red Flag, I went back and edited Rubberneck. So they're kind of checkerboarded, but the first piece was Rubberneck.
Did you always think of showing them together? Because the two make a certain perverse sense together, opposite as they are.
If it seems like it makes perfect sense, then I probably did not premeditate it. No, I didn't premeditate it. I didn't know when they'd come out or if the same distributor would pick them both up. When we started brainstorming marketing ideas, this was one way to prevent getting lost in the clutter. We were hoping for them to stand out and be singular.
So, the inspiration for Rubberneck was a true story? Or was the idea to write a psychological thriller one that was already brewing?
It's kind of an interplay. I heard about this story. I have a folder on my computer where I collect interesting news stories and when I finish a project and I'm looking for new idea, sometimes I'll go through that folder and see if something jumps out at me. So, when I finished my third film (Trust Us This Is All Made Up) I went into this folder and looked at a bunch of stories and this was one of them and it sort of got my mind going. But it's not based on real events—it's just inspired by real events. I want to distance myself, and be forthright in saying that we took a lot of narrative liberties. But the basic conceit is based on something that happened up in Boston, a workplace romance gone horribly wrong. And I was kind of in the mood to make a thriller, a slow-burning, character-driven story and we sort of built it around this real life thing.
So, you're from the Boston area, what do you think Boston lends to the film specifically? The sense of alienation and claustrophobie were pervasive, although that might be inherent to any workplace movie, more so than one set in Boston.
The sensibility of Boston reverberated with the story we were trying to tell, but we really shot in Boston just due to circumstance. I'm from Boston, so is the guy who I wrote the movie with (Garth Donovan) and we were working with a small budget and trying to make it look like it had a lot of production value. So there was nothing inherent in Boston, other than the fact that there are a lot of biomedical facilities in Boston—a lot of research institutions—and we wanted to tell the story in a scientific workplace. You know, with scientists there's so much happening below the surface, it's such solitary work. A lot of introversion and repressed desire and we wanted to contrast the cold, sterile lab environment with the sort of burning, passionate undertones that fuel the motivations within the characters.
Have you ever worked in an office? Inter-office relationships are really interesting because they have the ability to be so boundary crossing, but also to totally backfire.
I've worked in an office environment, but not in a laboratory. But, yeah, there can be a lot of repression there. A symbology can develop where you try to give signals discreetly to another worker so that no one else in the office notices. It's interesting. People have trysts and one weekend- or one night-affairs all the time. And if you don't see that person very often or you see them once in a blue moon it's much easier to recover, the scar tissue forms quite quickly. But if you see the person every day and they're no longer interested in you, nine hours a day, five days a week, it can really make you go crazy. It's like Chinese water torture. A drip on your forehead every two minutes. So that's sort of what we wanted to explore. And coupled with an unstable foundation to begin with, some childhood issues that the character is still struggling with, it all makes for a very unsavory recipe.
Do you like playing characters who are so different from you and the sort-of meta-characters that you frequently play? (In Red Flag Karpovsky plays "Alex Karpovsky")
I like doing it, but to be honest, it wasn't premeditated for Rubberneck. We had cast someone else. We wrote the movie, but it wasn't with me in mind. It wasn't a premeditated strategy, more a reaction. Sometimes I act in my movies and sometimes I don't Right now, I' working on two scripts. One for me to act in and one where I just direct. I feel like I can direct with a lot more precision and focus when I'm not in the movie, but on the other hand I have a lot of control issues and I don't trust certain people to be in a movie if I think I can do it better.
What makes a character one that you want to play?
I love—I feel comfortable—playing characters that I feel like are misguided, insecure, neurotic, and are on a journey of perverse self-exploration where they want to become better, more well-adjusted people, but the search is torture and difficult and humorous to watch. That's what turns me on as an actor in terms of comedic roles and that's what I would like to play if I were to cast myself in future films.
Your character in Red Flag fits that description so perfectly. And I love that it's a road trip movie, which always lend themselves to journeys that are both exterior and interior. What was the filming like? How did you decide where to go?
So, Red Flag is my fifth movie. My second movie is a movie called Woodpecker which I made a few years ago and it played SXSW and it kind of faded away. But last year this organization invited it to be part of this tour where you show movies across the South. So Red Flag is a story about a filmmaker on tour with an earlier film, so we had to stick to the itinerary of the Woodpecker tour. All the Q & A venues and all the motels were part of the tour. The motels were assigned to us and we rolled with it documentary style. It started in North Carolina and we went west to Louisiana.
How much of it is reflective of real experiences that you had? When you're willing to give your name to something, what is your process for that, what kind of character does it need to be?
Well, it's an interesting question. I'd never been on a film tour before, and we were shooting while I was on it. So I couldn't really draw on anything and I've never had a groupie follow me. [Me: Well, to this point.] Right, well, it wasn't autobiographical at this point. In terms of the character, I definitely have commitment phobia to a large extent and that applies not only to relationships but also to living situations—I sublet a lot, I don't have my own place—and even what projects I work on. It reverberates in several aspects of my life and I did feel at one point in my life, and to some extent I still do, that a lot of these everyday concerns and fears-issues-have an underlying primary root from which they all spew and I think to a large extent that primary root is a death anxiety. It's sort of an uncomfortable and awkward negotiation with your own mortality. And I think we all—that's what happens in Red Flag, the guy has an epiphany moment, where he realizes the underlying roots of his fear of commitment and that hopefully will open some sort of door for him to self-discovery which in turn will lead to some sort of paradigm shift.
But I think about death all the time. [Me: Well, how could you not? You're intelligent. What else is there to think about?] Well, but if I was really intelligent, I would shut it down. I would shut down that thought process, but I can't. [Me: Do you know people who can do that? Is that kind of intelligence something anyone possesses?] Well, it's not one that I possess. [Me: Is that desirable though? Once you accept death, isn't that all there's left to do? Just die?] Well, or you could be liberated by it and not take everything so seriously. You won't fixate on things. We have this immortality deception mechanism of delusion, of self-delusion, that allows us to be sane. And it's a lubricant that allows us to exist in a semi-healthy way in our day to day lives, but, it's an illusion. I think we're all telling ourselves that we're going to live forever to deal with the uncomfortable reality of our imminent death. And I think that there's always a point in our life when that immortality deception mechanism breaks down, whether it's because of stress or nervous exhaustion or life trauma or psychotropic drugs or whatever it is at one point this mechanism breaks down and it can be paralyzing or it can be illuminating or it can be an interplay of both of those things.
[Ed. note: Talking about death and psychotropic drugs and the constant awareness of our own mortalities makes for a very poor segue into discussing the wildly successful HBO series Girls upon which Karpovsky is the complicated, acerbically funny, and pathos-filled Ray Ploshansky. So I didn't make a good segue. I jumped right in.]
How do you like acting on TV? Is it a medium you thought you'd find yourself on? And, more specifically, on a show that has become one of the most-talked about cultural phenomena to ever come out of New York?
No. This might sound hopelessly arrogant and pretentious, but I never think about myself in the future. There's probably some reason why, some defense mechanism or some defense of something going on, but I've never analyzed it. I probably should think about stuff like that though, it'd probably help me solidify ambition. Anyway. No, I never thought about this. It's a huge surprise, a lovely surprise that it happened. I didn't think it was going to last. Not because I didn't believe in it. I totally believed in it and I totally believed in Lena but I just thought it was so narrow and specific that I didn't think it had the ability to get mass appeal. And fortunately I was very wrong.
Before, when you were describing the characters that you write for yourself, it also seemed like you were describing Ray. He's developed in such a fascinating and honest way over the course of the show. What don't we know about him? Why is he the way he is?
In season 1, we saw Ray as this cynical and judgmental and angry person, and in season 2 we really started to explore his backstory—his emotional underpinnings—to some extent and we're getting to understand an idea of from where these judgments and this cynicsim and this skepticism comes from and it's kind of dark. It's kind of a dark place that hasn't allowed him to hold a long term relationship for a long time and it doesn't allow him to live in a real place—he lives in his Mitsubishi—and it doesn't allow him to pursue his ambitions, which I know are greater than working at Grumpy. So all those things are further probed and explored for the rest of season 2, and we'll get to understand much better why Ray is who he is and how that affects where he goes and what he does.
Red Flag and Rubberneck open Friday, February 22 at the Eleanor Bunim Monroe Film Center
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen