Alex Karpovsky rolls doubles

February 21, 2013


Getting a movie made is an Olympian task. Getting a movie made and released is even tougher.

So Alex Karpovsky’s accomplishment – writing, directing and starring in two movies that are being released the same day as a double-feature – seems positively Herculean.

But that’s what the 30-something multi-hyphenate will do this week, when his films, “Red Flag” (an improvised comedy) and “Rubberneck” (a scripted thriller), open in New York tomorrow (2/22/13); they’re already playing on Tribeca Films’ VOD outlet.

It was not by design, says Karpovsky, who shot both films in 2011 – filming “Red Flag” as a way to take a break from editing “Rubberneck,” then moving between editing the two and finishing both at roughly the same time. “Rubberneck” played at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, “Red Flag” at the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival.

“Basically, I checkerboarded the production and editing of the two films,” he says. “I made a mistake with my first three films, where I immediately went into editing them after I’d finished shooting. And that was just a little overwhelming; it was easy to lose perspective when you’re so close to something for so long.”

Karpovsky, whose day job currently is playing a Brooklyn coffeehouse manager named Ray Ploshansky on HBO’s “Girls,” has assembled a schizophrenic double-feature, both stylistically and in subject matter. “Rubberneck,” storyboarded, scripted and shot with an actual crew, is a thriller about a Boston laboratory technician named Paul (played by Karpovsky) who develops an obsessive attraction to a co-worker who has no interest in him. “Red Flag,” shot on the fly from an outline, follows a filmmaker named Alex Karpovsky in the wake of a romantic breakup, as he tours the South, screening his most recent film.

The latter film actually blended reality with fiction: Karpovsky did tour the South, showing his second film, “Woodpecker” as part of a small tour of independent film venues. He invited friends along to improvise the story of the filmmaker, dealing with his relationship problems while dodging a fan he meets at one of the stops.

“It was a very lo-fi tour, where you got a per diem and stayed in crappy motels and drove yourself from city to city, showing independent films to audiences that are not normally exposed to them,” he says. “And I had recently had a breakup and the last thing I wanted to do was be alone. The allure of the American highway had evaporated for me. So I invited some friends to come along. Once I had them, I thought, well, let’s be constructive and do something. It was an indirect way of evading loneliness.”

Shy and introverted in high school and college, Karpovsky gravitated to acting in grad school as a way to get out of his own mind, taking it a step further when he returned to the U.S. by pursuing the sort of humorous solo performance art that Spalding Gray popularized. Eventually, to make ends meet, he began working in catering, then was hired to learn video editing for a company where he edited everything from industrial films to karaoke videos.

“I learned a skill I found fascinating and did it for four years, full-time,” he says. “That was my film school. There was more money than catering and more of an intellectual challenge.”

The company where he worked had its own equipment, which it let him use – which led to his first film, “The Hole Story.” He finished it in 2005, after three years of working on it, mostly on weekends: “At one point, my crew quit and my mother ran the camera,” he says. “I made a billion stupid mistakes.”

Still, the film had a festival run and led to two more directing efforts – and those, in turn, led to acting roles, starting with Andrew Bujalski’s “Beeswax.” Then, while showing his third film, a documentary called “Trust Us, This Is All Made Up,” at the 2009 South by Southwest gathering, he met another filmmaker with a movie in festival: Lena Dunham. They became friends and she wound up casting him in her second film, “Tiny Furniture,” and then in “Girls.”

Which, he says, hasn’t significantly changed his life. Still, he’s been hired for more acting gigs than he ever expected; he has a small role in the Coen brothers’ upcoming “Inside Llewyn Davis,” but he had to audition for that.

“I was beyond surprised to get that – it was almost a dissociative experience,” he says. “They’re my favorite filmmakers of all time. It’s dreamy – but not in a groovy way. It’s a little disorienting. I’m not anxious, just a little confounded.”

And he hasn’t really tried to capitalize on the visibility that “Girls” has given him in pursuit of making more films, beyond using that fame to bring attention to this week’s double-feature release.

“I haven’t tried to make a film of my own since ‘Girls’ got out there,” he says. “Part of me is intimidated by the process of trying to raise money, so I haven’t tried. I might want to try and make another one the same way I did these – so they’re small enough that I completely control them.”

And the success of “Girls’?

“I’m doing my best to keep it all at arm’s length,” he says. “I tend to guard my expectations. I put up a lot of firewalls and roadblocks. I don’t allow good news to find me. If I think I’ve got a hit, I’m convinced something bad will happen. I do read reviews of my own films but I haven’t read anything about ‘Girls’ because it’s ongoing and I don’t want reading that stuff to affect what I’m doing in any way.”

A decade into his filmmaking career, Karpovsky, a Boston native, still isn’t sure that filmmaking – or acting, for that matter – is where his heart truly lies. Technically, he’s still on a leave of absence from the Ph.D. program at Oxford University in England, where he was studying anthropology and specializing in visual ethnography. He left in his third year (of a five-year program) to try his hand at acting and never went back.

“I did think about being an academic and getting a cushy job at a university,” he says. “I’m still interested in that sometimes. The allure of a tenure-track position at a northeastern college is still attractive. The idea of riding my bike through the turning leaves is just so romantic.”

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