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Interview: Alex Karpovsky (HBO's Girls)

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  • by Zoë Banks 
     
    In Red Flag, Alex Karpvosky (better known as Ray on HBO's Girls) plays an "amplified version" of himself as a hapless film director travelling across the South on a screening tour of his (real-life) film Woodpecker following a (mostly fictional) breakup. We met up with Alex for the premiere of Red Flag at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, to discuss mixing documentary with fiction, advice for young filmmakers, working with Lena Dunham and not feeling like this generation's Woody Allen. 
     
    Can you tell us a bit about the process of making Red Flag while on tour for another film?
     
    Red Flag is my fifth movie. My second film, Woodpecker, was shot in Arkansas and about a year and a half ago an organizationinvited it to be part of this tour of the South where they take movies with a Southern theme and introduce them to rural audiences that normally don’t get exposed to these obscure, independent movies. It was a two-week engagement with twelve screenings where you drive yourself from town to town— pretty low-fi. I’m flattered that anyone wants to show my movies. I like showing them, I like Q&A’s and I needed the little bit of money that they offered at that time otherwise but I really didn’t want to do it. I hate driving long distances and the allure of the American highway has since evaporated. In my early twenties there was a romanticism to it and now it’s just fatigue.
     
    The Kerouac thing?
     
    Yeah, it’s out of my system. Also, two months before the tour was set to begin I ended a relationship with a girl and it was really difficult and the last thing I wanted to do was have six hours alone in a car with my own thoughts. So when the tour started to draw near I thought about ways to make a movie while on tour, basically ways to not be so lonely, which meant— number one — hanging out with friends. And if we could make a movie that would be an added bonus. That was the initial impetus for the project: how do I not just throw away these two weeks that would otherwise be spent alone in a car?
     
    Did you know from previous screening experiences that your tour schedule would be amenable to making a film while on the road?
     
    We were tethered to the itinerary of the tour so all the screenings and Q&A’s in the movie were real screenings and Q&A’s for Woodpecker, that was the schedule we had to keep. I wrote the script in a way that was not location-specific so we can have this argument or this development wherever. It was nice because it freed us up to be spontaneous and look for visually engaging places along the way.
     
    It seems like some of Red Flag’s main themes are centered on making impulsive decisions, regretting those later and maybe also feeling like being the victim of other peoples’ decisions at the same time. Were regret and impulsivity themes in your life while you were scripting?
     
    Not while I was scripting it, but I was definitely drawing on themes from earlier in my life while I was writing it. I play an amplified version of myself in this movie, I try to caricature myself and exaggerate elements of myself — specifically my insecurities, my delusions, my ambitions — for comedic or dramatic effect. As part of that process I have to draw on a lot of elements of my past and a lot of them do have to do with regret, impulsivity, making bad decisions, negotiating with bad judgment quickly after making it so that’s all part of my real path. But a lot of it is also fictional, for example I never had a girl that I hooked up with follow me from one town to the other. That’s all just narrative construct.
     
    A lot of the film shows the unglamorous aspects of being a filmmaker and being on tour and no one seems to recognize you. How has that changed since you’ve gotten more exposure as a filmmaker and an actor?
     
    That’s an interesting question. I feel like I haven’t been on tour since Girls started so I don’t know if it would be any different. I imagine in the South it wouldn’t be too different because I don’t imagine too many people watch the show in the South. I could be wrong. But — I’ll speak personally — if I’m making a movie about myself and I’m playing a filmmaker on tour with my own work, you have to be somewhat self-deprecating just not to lose the audience. If it’s too much of a narcissistic or vanity project it’s going to get old really quickly. That’s why I wanted the audience of the movie to know these screenings are not very well attended, I am very much in the shadows of obscurity. The response is tepid, it’s very unglamorous, so I felt that if it was anything but that it would be too much of a congratulatory endeavor and it wouldn’t be entertaining, it would be annoying. As an extension of that, a lot of the stuff that I find funny does involve people playing caricatured versions of themselves in very self-deprecating, non-glamorous ways where their neuroses and shortcomings are put to the forefront and examined for comedic value, like Larry David, Woody Allen, Louis CK.
     
    Speaking of Woody Allen, a lot of people are comparing you as the next generation’s Woody Allen. How does that feel?
     
    It feels like it compromises any individuality I’m trying to nurture, even though I’m a huge fan. Woody Allen did something very specific and distinct and the last thing I want to be labelled as is derivative. I don’t think any “artist” wants to be labelled as derivative. Please put “artist” in air quotes! (Laughs)
     
    With the increased exposure, is there more pressure for you knowing that more people are paying attention to what you’re doing?
     
    That’s a good question. If I thought more about it I think I might be able to feel pressure. But I over-think a lot of things in my life — to a detrimental, even paralyzing degree—but I think this is one of the few things that I’m somehow capable of dodging over-thinking. I only find myself thinking about it in interviews and when I get really high.
     
    Sorry!
     
    No, no, no. It’s necessary to think about it sometimes. I’m not in therapy, which is when I would otherwise think about it, but occasional injections of perspective is obviously very healthy. I don’t do interviews that often.
     
    In Red Flag, Alex repeatedly and unsuccessfully petitions the staff at any hotel he checks into for a late checkout. What does the late checkout mean?
     
    It represents a litmus test on how much kindness and generosity is pulsing in the immediate world around this character. He feels in many ways increasingly detached, isolated, misanthropic, forgotten and just to have any residual, peripheral kindness— he’ll not only embrace but he needs it. And that’s his way of looking for it in the most pathetic, desperate possible execution. Looking in the darkest shadows for a glimpse of human empathy, that’s playfully what it symbolically carries. Just give the man a fucking extra hour!
     
    I interpreted it as Alex having an inherent gambler side to him and his need to push the limits.
     
    I heard another person a few months ago say that. That’s not what I intended but I’m glad people saw that.
     
    Is this your first time in San Francisco?
     
    No, I’ve been here about ten times. I used to live in Berkeley when I was a very young man, I lived near the Ashby BART station. It was a very lonely time for me.
     
    What brought you to Berkeley?
     
    My friends and I who had grown up on the East Coast had never had a non-snowy winter and I had just finished grad school. I was 22 and my friends and I got a place on Stuart and MLK and we lived there for 6 months. I pretended to write but I just took walks and read.
     
    That’s very Berkeley.
     
    I got a reference card at the Berkeley library — this sprawling, subterranean complex — and I read a lot of Sam Shepard. I had my own secret shelf with all my favorite stuff tucked away in this obscure section of the library and one day a librarian came around and it was all taken away from me.
     
    Your film right now is playing at the Jewish Film Festival and it’s also streaming on Netflix. What are your distribution strategies?
     
    The strategy for me is pretty simple. I try to find the right distributor and I give everything over to them and hope they make the right decisions. I made two movies last year, Red Flag and Rubberneck (both distributed by Tribeca Films) and I put faith in Tribeca that they would release the film on the avenues and timing that were right for the films and so far I have been very happy. We released them theatrically as a double-feature in New York and subsequently on iTunes and Amazon and Netflix.
     
    What advice would you give to young filmmakers?
     
    Go out and make movies. I think it’s easy when you’re young to take refuge in this notion that you’re a sponge taking in all this information and squeezing it out later. More often than not I’ve found that if you get comfortable being a sponge then you’ll be a sponge for the rest of your life. Right now I think it’s an incredibly exciting time to be a filmmaker because of two main paradigm shifts. One is that really inexpensive cameras that offer very good quality have come on the market. DSLRs and, if you want to go up a bit, REDs offer incredible image quality to the point that if the lensing is decent and the lighting is decent a lot of civilians can’t even tell the difference between studio imagery and a camera you buy at Best Buy for $1,500. The blurring of technical, aesthetic boundaries are very exciting and young people should take advantage of that. Second, Kickstarter has really changed the rules. Even if you did have a good camera you still need money to make your movie and Kickstarter has made that process more accessible and less intimidating and laborious. Between those two things, if you want to make a movie now, your excuses are running out. Go out and make your movie. If you’re anything like me you’re going to learn from making mistakes not from theory.
     
    Is there less to pay attention to when you’re acting?
     
    Yes, your scope of responsibilities is much narrower. When you’re acting, at the end of the day you can go have a beer with your friends and completely put the day behind you. As a director, when you wrap, all your anxiety goes into “Oh shit, how are we going to pull tomorrow off?” It’s so much more stressful and a much more difficult job. For acting, my job is basically: learn the lines, be natural and don’t bump into the furniture. When you’re directing there’s a whole spectrum of things you have to be conscious of.
     
    Has your perspective changed since working with Lena Dunham when she is acting and directing at the same time?
     
    Whenever I work with directors who are really good at what they do, you learn a lot. Lena is incredible at making the actors feel comfortable, which is easier said than done. Creating an environment where actors feel loose, listened to, encouraged to take risks, ask questions and just play around. She creates a nurturing atmosphere for actors, which I try to mimic with my set. If actors are tight, uncomfortable, confused, that’s not a good thing. Second, when she acts and directs, she simultaneously can be completely engaged and present in a scene whilst making these mental notes and adjustments that need to happen as soon as she yells cut. To do that simultaneously is a real skill. She’s a lot smarter than me in that aspect, she’s got a dual-core processor and she can just multitask in a way I can’t do.
     
    Who are some of the filmmakers that you are really drawn to?
     
    Growing up I was never really a cinephile. I didn’t think I was going to be an actor or director until I was in my mid-twenties, I thought I would be an academic like my dad. But I did watch movies, I loved the Coen brothers. In college I got more introduced to Woody Allen and I fell in love with his whole world, especially his earlier films. Werner Herzog, Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, I really like. Michael Winterbottom. So many directors. One guy who really helped me get excited about my first movie was a filmmaker out of Boston named Ross McElwee who does very funny, smart first-person documentaries.
     
    What are the last great movies you saw?
     
    Three in the last month. Before Midnight by Richard Linklater. Incredible, it really blew me away. Frances Ha, which I really really liked. Two or three days ago, I saw a film shot here, Blue Jasmine, by Woody Allen. 
     
    If you weren’t a filmmaker or an actor, what would you be doing?
     
    I’d be teaching Anthropology, which is what I went to grad school for. I loved my program at Oxford— it was beautiful, it was dreamy and romantic and you’re surrounded by good-looking, driven people. If I wasn’t in acting I would do that— or maybe I will! Technically I’m on a leave of absence. Two nervous breakdowns away.
     
    Alex can be seen in Red Flag on iTunes and Netflix, Girls on HBO and the upcoming Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis.