Contrary to what the title of his debut “Ex-Girlfriends” might imply, Alexander Poe has a way with people. Case in point: When the comedy made its world premiere at the Austin Film Festival last month, it wasn’t Poe who got up to introduce the movie, but rather Timothy Dowling, the screenwriter behind “Role Models” and “George Lucas in Love,” who less than 24 hours earlier knew nothing of the film or any of the people behind it. Yet after a chance meeting with Poe’s production team at the Driskill Hotel, Dowling was soon sharing a pedicab and bratwursts on Sixth Street, as well as some time being detained by the APD for jaywalking, with the first-time writer/director, the experience being enough for Dowling to eloquently endorse “Ex-Girlfriends” without seeing it.
As Dowling would learn with the rest of the audience in Austin, however, Poe’s charm is just as evident in his debut, not only for the fact he was able to woo two rising actresses in “Dexter” star Jennifer Carpenter and “Cabin in the Woods” sire Kristen Connolly to star in the ultra-low-budget feature he put together fresh out of film school, but also in making a more pragmatic romantic comedy than most. Poe wouldn’t seem to have done himself any favors by casting himself as the lead of “Ex-Girlfriends” — Graham, a solipsistic writing student who wonders what to do after learning from a casual bedmate-turned-friend (Carpenter) that her current boyfriend (Noah Bean) is cheating on her with Laura (Connolly), Graham’s one that got away — in a story he admits is not too far removed from some of his own personal experience. But the filmmaker is knowing about what he’s putting out as both an actor and the film’s chief creative force, even if his character is not despite his firmest beliefs.
The result is a rippling narrative that hits such New York landmarks as the Highline and Grand Central Station with both a disarming sincerity and some clever twists to run through it, clearly a reflection of the go-for-broke nature of the production where no crew member is credited for doing just one job on the film and the opportunity to catch such energy and emotions when they’re still raw. While I wasn’t privy to the same wild evening Poe and company had the night before “Ex-Girlfriends”’ Austin premiere, I was able to catch up the morning after with he and leading lady Carpenter, whose fierce performance as Graham’s great foil Kate powers the film’s second half. Together, the two talked about filming on the fly, past relationships and the benefits of working with limited means on the eve of the film’s release in New York and on demand.
How did the idea for this film come about?
Alexander Poe: I had an idea for a script based on things that had just happened in my life that I wanted to kind of get to the bottom of somehow. I write about things that intrigue me and confuse me and relationships are the primary thing that confuse me, so I really wanted to make something that felt authentic and specific to my experience and the experience of everyone who’s transitioning from their late twenties to thirties and just trying to figure out what they’re doing in their love life and everything else.
Jennifer Carpenter: Can I ask a question? Did you get to the bottom of anything?
AP: It’s been really interesting looking back at it now that it’s done and thinking about what the character did with a little more maturity hopefully. I did finally talk to Laura and get some more information on what happened. But it’s really weird to have something that you can look back on with a different perspective. For me, it was really fun to do that.
Probably a little more fun than some of the days on this shoot. I could see the cold breath in the air in the Hamptons and know it must’ve been a great challenge to film on location in Grand Central Station. Was it a difficult production?
AP: It was very run-and-gun. We had a lot of production challenges and despite the fact that this was a movie with no budget, we didn’t want it to feel limited. We wanted to have Grand Central and go to the Hamptons and give it the biggest narrative arc that we possibly could, so we just attacked everything a day at a time. The Hamptons house was just a friend of a friend’s family house. Grand Central we shot on a 5D, so that it wouldn’t look like we were shooting a film.
JC: [laughs] People were watching out for security.
AP: Yeah, security would just find us in one place and they would kick us out, so we would go to a different part of Grand Central. That long shot at the end where I’m walking up towards camera in Grand Central, literally right off screen there’s a security guard talking to the producer, who’s like “Yeah, we’re shutting it down. No, the camera’s off. We’re getting out of here right away,” just to cover the last take for us to be able to get that. It was definitely a by any means necessary kind of film and as opposed to getting in the way, I think it gave it an energy, a live feel that I like about it.
JC: I love that in his scene [in the Hamptons] where he has the revelation about Laura, his mouth’s so clearly frozen. (laughs) He’s trying to communicate through these paralyzed lips and it just makes it even better.
AP: It gives you a good challenge as an actor. It’s like the circumstances are you’re freezing to death, but you have to win this girl back!
JC: It’s real life!
AP: Yeah, there didn’t have to be any acting. It was just like I want to get through this so we can go inside. [all laugh] There were so many cold days. There were no trailers. The production hub was my apartment and as soon as my landlord figured out that we’re shooting there, they were trying to evict me. But we still needed to go back to the apartment the next day, so how quietly can we sneak the dolly up five flights of stairs to shoot the scene that we need to shoot, even though I’m going to get kicked out if they find out?
JC: While the days were hard and we worked hard the whole time, we’d get the work done and when no one’s hanging out, sort of luxuriating and wasting time, you keep the energy of the film up all day, so you drop into scenes so quickly. Also, it’s a really young group. You guys are just out of school and like Tim [Dowling] said [in his Austin Film Fest introduction], to bet on yourself the way that they did, I had nothing but respect, top to bottom. And it was stellar work. Like I’d hire that makeup artist again and I know she was just trying to get her footing. So it was really, really impressive.
AP: When [Jennifer and I] first met, I was trying to just make sure that she was really onboard with this crazy, no budget insane thing that we were doing and [looking at JC], I was so impressed by your commitment and just willingness to put yourself out there.
Everyone’s name appears in the credits more than once – it seemed like you couldn’t not be a multihyphenate on this movie.
AP: There was basically a tiny core team where the producer was the AD and the editor and…
JC: She was a great AD. God, she made a great AD.
AP: That tight-knit group actually made it work in a way that really gave everyone a level of creative collaboration [where] Jennifer’s ideas are just as vital as my ideas as the director and the producer has just as much say on the shots as the director of photography. We’re all solving the same problem together.
Did any of that attitude come from your background in the theater? It comes out in other ways since it seems like you got the best of both worlds where you were able to get the snap of the dialogue from the continual conversation of a play, but with the visual freedom of a film.
AP: I definitely think that informs my sense of trying to think about a very character-based form of storytelling, really allowing yourself to have dialogue that goes over a page and being able to not feel too concerned about constantly barreling the story forward while still creating tension and anticipation. Working in theater gives you a certain method of approaching acting and directing that is open and based on collaboration and less particular to, I need a shot to look exactly like this than this is the feeling I want. We’re all part of a collective group — why don’t we together figure out how to do this through some rehearsal? But most of the rehearsal was on the set. It’s kind of a mixture of theater and film.
JC: The great thing about making this kind of film and this film specifically is it’s so close to how people really behave in the way that it was written. There’s like a little encoding, then you got to build the bottom and the top of it and fill it out. And the less crew and equipment you have to ignore, you stay closer to reality of how people move and walk and talk. I do appreciate Alex saying that [about collaboration]. [On larger productions], it feels like if it’s not moving the story forward, that you have to drop that line or change it. It’s just not how people live where we spend so much time just marinating in our thoughts trying to figure out which way to pivot next. This felt like life and I feel like I reconnected to my theater upbringing with this movie. I got to know Kate on a cellular level. You could’ve changed the dialogue on a dime and I knew how to move and talk and walk and it wasn’t me, it was Kate. It felt like a real departure and I haven’t had that feeling in a long time.
I don’t think it’s really a spoiler to say the film is structured in a really interesting way where your story essentially resets twice – first when you discover the narration isn’t actually something going on in his head, but something he’s written down and a second time when Jennifer’s character Kate shows up. How did that structure come about?
AP: I really wrote the first part as a story, then I didn’t know what to do with that for a long time, so it was the process of figuring out what the short story in the class was about [that] inspired the rest of the movie. There’s a really different style in the short story than the day with Laura, then the day with Kate and I really wanted to have some drama and comedy and not letting it go one way or the other, but really mixing it together in that complicated way the world seems to be to me.
Alexander, was it an easy decision to include narration? It’s quite effective for your character who’s very much inside his own head, but it also seemed like you were playing with fire.
AP: Voiceover can be the best thing or the worst thing and if it’s telling you things you already know and it doesn’t add anything and it’s just adding exposition, it’s totally useless. But I think you’re right that the character is kind of creating his own narrative of how his life fits together and casting Laura as the girl who will change everything, and the movie is ultimately about him figuring out that that narrative is not necessarily a reality. It’s feels almost like this Don Quixote journey to get rid of his illusions to face the reality that Laura is not exactly what he made her out to be and also his need for her is not really a need for something outside of himself. It’s something he needs to deal with.
JC: You also learn nothing about Laura throughout the whole movie. You know she’s cute when she orders coffee and that’s about all you know about her. And that she tucks her hair behind her ears, like that’s her quirk. But it says a lot about you, like with…
AP: Yeah, she is like an angelic thing. The things that people focus on.
JC: Our projections.
AP: I love Truffaut movies that have narration like “Shoot the Piano Player,” “Jules and Jim,” where it’s not even first-person narration. The whole thing’s second person narration, which is even more disconnected. It uses a device to show him disconnected from actually experiencing things as opposed to transforming them into his own narrative.
Jennifer, was it exciting for you to get make the kind of entrance you do in this film halfway through, shaking everything up?
JC: Even before that, it’s nice to be invited to do something where I have the opportunity to be funny. I don’t even get up to go to bat for that very often with “Dexter” and “Emily Rose” and things like that, so that was an exciting invitation. All actors say when they respond to a script, that’s a sign, but I truly responded to this and was pretty aggressive about letting it be known that I wanted to be a part of it. It reads like music. It feels like indie rock at the beginning, then it moves into a pop song and I got to play the pop part, which was fun. But it doesn’t mean that there isn’t depth there — it just doesn’t come from a really dark place.
A lot of thought was obviously put into this – one of my favorite things about the film is how much the characters have thoroughly figured out the semantics of relationship-speak. Were some of these things like Kate’s great speech which reasons out the levels of casual and serious dating based on real conversations?
JC: It’s funny that we all have the same growth spurts, but at totally different times. I just came off of a breakup where like you throw in [excuses such as] “I’ve got the photography class” and you blame it on everything, but what you’re thinking really because you’re not into that person. For Kate, who is so smart, it’s just like threading in her theory about this is when you’re going out, this is when you’re dating… we all hit [these benchmarks] at different times. So what may feel significant to you in a relationship, someone else may not feel it for three years or they found that in high school. That’s why it’s all still this jumbled mystery. There should be a board game about love.
AP: Chutes and Ladders with relationships! Or like “Go back three levels of maturity. You have dated the wrong person.”
JC: [laughs] I’m having an idea for an app all of a sudden.