Alex Karpovsky, Lena Dunham and a New Generation of Indie Filmmakers
From early forays into Andy Kaufman impersonations to a friendship with Dunham (who has her own Kaufman connection) and emerging stardom, Karpovsky's rise is an unlikely story.
Alex Karpovsky never finished his doctorate degree at Oxford, having discovered halfway through his academic study of visual ethnography that he preferred to be the artist capturing humanity instead of the scholar conjuring interpretations. It wouldn’t be inappropriate, then, for him to consider next Friday a sort of long-delayed graduation ceremony.
On Feb. 22, two of his new films will be released in limited theaters and celebrated during a special double feature at Lincoln Center in New York City, Karpovsky’s adopted hometown. He wrote, directed and stars in both films -- Red Flag is a semi-improvised road comedy, while Rubberneck is a dark drama -- and both represent collaborations with a new group of filmmakers that is slowly finding a foothold in the industry.
The attention and praise paid to one of its members, Lena Dunham, certainly doesn’t hurt, as Karpovsky can attest; he is currently best known for playing Dunham’s love interest in her breakout film Tiny Furniture, and as Ray, the boyfriend of Zosia Mamet’s nervous naif Shoshanna, in the zeitgeisty HBO comedy Girls. That multi-project partnership is a microcosm of the interdependence of a creative community rooted in New York and Austin, Texas.
"No one’s employed, and financing is virtually nonexistent," he cracks, joking about the shoestring budgets and humble beginnings of his indie-scene collaborators. He is tall and lanky, with thick dark hair, and is on this day twisted into a chair in the downtown offices of Tribeca Cinemas, which is putting out both of his new movies. "We all know each other, we all see each other at the same festivals every year. Making movies isn’t necessarily cheap, and you need to rely on favors and friends to help you through the process. Many times I’ve helped boom people’s movies in order to get a free camera from them or for them to act in my movie for a day. I acted in a guy’s movie who did the sound for Rubberneck for basically free. It’s a barter system ... And it's also, they’re your friends, and when your friends ask you to be in movies, you show up."
The sound guy, Charlie Anderson, will release the short film in which Karpovsky stars, We Could Be Your Parents, later this year. It co-stars Alycia Delmore, a frequent collaborator of Lynn Shelton, who a decade ago helped lead an earlier wave of low budget, semi-improved, digitally produced films. Delmore also acted with Karpovsky in Gayby -- a film about a gay couple trying to have a child that co-starred Adam Driver, a castmate on Girls. Gayby’s director, Jonathan Lisecki, had a part alongside Karpovsky in the 2011 indie Wuss. The original Gayby short played at many of the same festivals as Tiny Furniture, putting Dunham and Karpovsky in close contact with Lisecki.
This is just a core sampling of the new indie world; in all, Karpovsky has acted in 25 features, shorts and TV episodes, ranging from star roles to bit parts. But being the fulcrum of a film movement wasn’t even a blip on his adolescent radar. When he was growing up in Massachusetts as the son of Russian immigrants, with a father who is a professor at Boston University, academia seemed to be his future. He was a massive fan of comedy as a teenager, watching Saturday Night Live and Chevy Chase films obsessively, but any fantasies of performing were short-circuited by social anxiety.
"I was very introverted and shy and timid when I was in high school," he says. "And when I went overseas [to Oxford], I was 5,000 miles, literally an ocean away from everything. I was away from my past. No one knew me there, I could start new."
Performing, he laughs, "just seemed like something that was completely, just terrifying, and there was a masochist thrill of doing something that would scare me." And so he dove into the performing-arts scene, dabbling in stage shows and comedy troupes. Eventually, his interest in theater surpassed any enthusiasm he held for academics, so with a masters degree under his belt, he dropped out and headed back to the States.
Landing in New York, Karpovsky worked as a caterer for several years to support himself as he explored experimental stage work.
"I started doing kind of like Andy Kaufman-type comedic performance art, aggressive, confrontational, anger-driven performance art -- with varying degrees of success," he remembers, smirking at the thought of his early adventures in artistic self-discovery, which also included Spalding Gray-inspired monologues. "A lot of the stuff I did didn’t work, but some of it did, enough work that kept me excited and nurtured faith in something."
Later, after meeting Dunham at SXSW in 2009, he’d find that her family had a deep connection to the late SNL and Taxi star. "Lena’s mom, Laurie Simmons, grew up with Andy Kaufman in Great Neck. And [Laurie’s] dad was Andy’s dentist. So Laurie has a little amount of memorabilia. Every now and then, Laurie will give me some Andy Kaufman stuff ... I have a really awesome 8x10 autograph that he wrote for one of Lena’s cousins or something."
In upcoming episodes of Girls, Ray begins to work Kaufman into his scenes, something she wrote specifically for her friend. Getting to special shout-outs on HBO, though, would only come years after Karpovsky’s initial forays into emulating his hero.
He went from catering to working in an editing house, where he put together infomercials, corporate clips and, most memorably, karaoke videos.
"They would hire these videographers, and I think sometimes they had different degrees of direction, but they had four or five locations, a sunset, a beach,” he explains, smiling at a period that seems a lifetime ago. "I did a lot of stuff for the Russian markets. It’d be like couples holding hands in Red Square, couples kissing while snow’s falling on trees, and then they’d give it to me, and I would try to sculpt some sort of narrative ... It was my own little film school."
The editing house had various spare cameras and pieces of equipment lying around, which Karpovsky borrowed to make his first three films. His 2005 farcical comedy, The Hole Story, was edited by the friend who got him the job, Sam Neave -- a director whose own third film, Almost in Love, will be released this month. Unsurprisingly, Karpovsky is one of its stars. Neave's first feature, Cry Happy Funny, earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination.
One of Karpovsky's next films, Woodpecker -- a semi-mockumentary about a southern town and its obsession with finding a rare ivory-billed woodpecker -- actually provided the canvas for Red Flag. It is as meta as they come, a comedy about a director named Alex Karpovsky who sets out on the road for various screenings and Q&A sessions to promote a film called Woodpecker. The catch: Red Flag was actually made during the real Woodpecker tour, shot in the same motels in which Karpovsky really stayed, and using footage from his real Q&As.
"It seemed like a really fun, playful stage to try to do something with," he says, explaining that the plotline was outlined before he hit the road with his collaborators. The film’s Karpovsky is reeling from the sudden end of a five-year relationship and hopes that the time on the road can help his sudden existential crisis. He finds himself in unfamiliar terrain, driving through the swampy, lonely south and stopping in dingy hotels between presentations in small, uncrowded theaters; after desperately reaching out, he is joined by his friend Henry (Onur Tukel) and an unlikely female companion, who proves a thorn in his efforts to reunite with his girlfriend.
The unexpected, unstable (and, to be fair, poorly-treated) woman is played by Jennifer Prediger, who has become a staple of the scene’s movies. She was working at Nerve.com when Dunham -- still in college at the time -- pitched to the site her first web series, Tight Shots. Prediger helped produce the series, which provided an entry point into the still-loose association of filmmakers. She also features in A Teacher, which earned praise at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and had a part in Tukel's 2012 ensemble relationship comedy, Richard's Wedding.
"The road-trip we took while making Red Flag was one of the most madcap, fun times I've had," Prediger enthused in an email. "Such a pleasure to work with Alex and Onur. Much of the trip was just us three in a car with Adam Ginsberg, who shot and edited the movie. We drove from Alabama to Baton Rouge, LA over the course of two weeks. We stayed in plenty of fleabag motels, fought with each other, improvised, laughed a lot and only once almost got arrested."
Karpovsky’s woe-is-me screen persona in Red Flag, with his efforts to do the right thing often foiled by his own inherent selfishness and inability to communicate, has earned him comparisons to Woody Allen. The semi-unlikability of his protagonists -- Rubberneck is about a shy scientist who becomes dangerously obsessed with a co-worker -- recalls the oblivious, self-involved characters of Girls, which has been both a source of the praise and withering criticism leveled at Dunham’s millennial comedy.
"What I’m really proud of, in regards to Girls specifically, is how much of it is rooted in authenticity, and I don’t think you could do that if the characters were likeable," he says, defending his friends and, in a larger context, declaring a mission statement for a new generation of filmmakers. "I think the characters have to be unlikable for it to be an engaging and authentic representation of the people around us. A lot of us are unlikable, a lot of us have a lot of flaws, and for too long, and in too many TV shows, those are airbrushed. In here, I feel like they’re much more raw and exposed, and I feel the people who do like the show largely for the real reason."
Along with Girls and the double-feature, Karpovsky will be seen later this year in his friends Daniel Schechter and Tarik Lowe’s festival-approved comedy Supporting Characters (Dunham also has a small role) and will appear with Driver in the Coen brothers' next film, Inside Llewyn Davis.
Don’t expect a lull in his fast-growing IMDb page, either; so long as he can "stay sane," he says, he’ll continue to work at his semi-insane clip, both acting and directing.
"I want to try to keep making these really low-budget movies, because I have complete control and immediacy,” he says, citing Mark Duplass -- who is, along with Shelton, a pioneer of the short, cheap indie scene -- as a model. “I could do these movies in two weeks if I wanted to, and that’s really empowering. I’m also very curious about trying to see if I could do something with more resources, on a bigger budget, maybe with a few names. But I don’t want to put all of my focus and all of my attention in there, because ... these things tend to fall apart really quickly and because you have to have a lot of patience, because they work at a glacial pace."
And that just wouldn't be his style.