While playing Ray Ploshansky on Lena Dunham’s “Girls” for HBO, Alex Karpovsky also starred in, wrote, and directed two films on his own, “Rubberneck” and “Red Flag.” He is also in the Coen brothers’ new film, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which he says is the first role he booked from an audition.
“Rubberneck,” which Karpovsky co-wrote with Garth Donovan, was inspired by the writers’ love of slow-burning character-driven psycho-sexual thrillers. The inspiration for “Red Flag” (pictured), a dark comedy road trip film, came to Karpovsky when he was asked to go on tour with his film, “Woodpecker.”
“As a filmmaker, you want to share your film with audience members in such a direct and personal way where you present the film, and to do Q&A’s in person is fun, but there’s also kind of a lot of fear of loneliness,” says Karpovsky. Thinking there might be a story in the tour, he decided to make “Red Flag” so he could come out of the tour with a finished film. Karpovsky shares how he took very different approaches to the films.
As a writer/director do you like to stick to the script or change things on set?
Alex Karpovsky: It depends on the story, and it depends on how much rehearsal time we’ve had beforehand. With “Rubberneck,” I made the movie with more resources than I normally have. I had a slightly bigger crew…There was more attention put into the aesthetic of the movie and into a light package and a camera package and a dolly package and so there was more of a technical precision to it that was new to me. I felt like everything had to be precise and premeditated...and the story doesn’t lend itself to too much improvisation. “Red Flag” is the counter opposite. There was no script. There was a 30-page outline, which is basically a description of the scenes in the film, so we had about 60-65 scenes. I tried to find actors that could hit the beats of each individual scene in their own words. So it was structured improv. We would improv but with some very quantifiable concrete established walls.
So did you shoot a lot of different takes with “Red Flag?”
Karpovsky: We would talk about things for about a half hour beforehand…I just wanted to make sure everyone completely gets what is going on and then we’d usually do one or two rehearsals where we’d just do it and see what happens and take risks. Then in real time, with everyone’s help, I try to make the must-have list. These are the best things that happened in that improv; [we’d] create transitions from one good idea to another. Then we would do it I don’t know how many times; it depends on the scene. And every time I would try to shave off a fact, so, ‘Let’s do it again, but you don’t need to talk about the trip you take to Kentucky in this take.’ Every take would be shorter and shorter and by the end of it we would have more or less a lean and mean version of the scene.
Is it difficult to direct yourself?
Karpovsky: I don’t view it as directing myself. It’s just basically you have an idea and these are different forms of expressing it. I’m expressing it verbally talking to the cinematographer in this moment and then I’m engaged in the present moment expressing with other actors at a different moment. I like directing myself, I feel like it’s one less person to give notes to. There’s an efficiency in it. I’m also kind of a control freak. So I like the fact that it gives me more control in the overall picture. The hardest part, and Lena Dunham is really great at this, is to be engaged in a scene, to be completely present to be able to improvise and stay lucid while still downloading notes that will immediately be given to people around you when you cut. I find that kind of difficult to do. I kind of have to watch playback or just talk to people around me and have people be sort of like recorders for me.
Do you prefer acting or directing?
Karpovsky: I think I’d be unhappy if I only did one thing. If I only acted I feel like I wouldn’t have enough creative expression over my own sensibility and also if I only acted the notion of surrendering my fate and future to other people is deeply unsettling to me and it would make me uncomfortable. Conversely, if I only directed I just feel like life wouldn’t be as much fun. I really get a tremendous amount of joy. It’s very satisfying to my soul, quite frankly, as cheesy as that might sound, it’s true. It nourishes me somehow to be able to play around with friends and step into someone else’s shoes…It’s liberating.
Do you have any acting advice?
Karpovsky: What I try to do often when I’m acting and what I like when I’m seeing good acting is how authentic it is. How true is this to what I know of the world that’s been created for me? The ultimate test for me is like if I heard a clip of it on the radio, I’d like the audience not to know if I’m acting. I’d like the audience not to know whether or not this is a clip from a movie or a clip from an interview. Like right now, this interview. I would like it to be as authentic and realistic as this is. That to me is a sign of good acting when it seems completely plausible and realistic to the point where you don’t know if it’s true or not…So whatever it may take for you to try to get there or try to promote this type of possibility I would suggest you explore.