All our 2012 Tribeca Film Festival coverage can be found here.
In the new thriller “Rubberneck,” a scientist (Alex Karpovsky) becomes enamored of a woman (Jamie Ray Newman) who he has a one-night stand with, only to learn after his feelings aren't returned that he has to work with her on a daily basis. For those familiar with Karpovsky, either from his previous films as a writer/director such as "Woodpecker" or as an actor in Andrew Bujalski’s “Beeswax” or Lena Dunham’s HBO series “Girls,” the obsession-based premise would seem ripe for comedy, but the fact that "Rubberneck" is instead a grim character study of a man tortured by a reality that he can't solve through reason is just one of the many twists the film has in store for audiences.
Turnabout has become as commonplace in Karpovsky's young career as it was in his 2009 documentary "Trust Us, This is All Made Up,” about improv comedians David Pasquesi and TJ Jagodowski. Once a student of visual ethnography at Oxford and a standup comedian for a spell, the multi-hyphenate has turned into a scene-stealer of low-budget indie films in recent years as an actor, always at the ready with a sharp quip and a suave sophistication that’s sometimes betrayed by later actions. (As he alludes to later in this conversation, he has a knack for playing a cad as demonstrated by cutting turns in “Tiny Furniture” or Bryan Poyser’s “Lovers of Hate.”)
Yet as a writer/director, Karpovsky’s true sophistication behind the camera is only growing, with his ability to subtly wring tension from a seemingly mundane workplace hazard demonstrating an expansion of his skills as a visual storyteller to go with his way with words. Still, he had a few words to spare for me before the premiere of his latest work at the Tribeca Film Festival about filming in a working laboratory, the unusual financing for the film (which will be augmented by a worthy, currently ongoing Kickstarter campaign), and how he likes to keep busy.
This film seems like a departure for you, so how did it come about?
It is a departure. The other films that I’ve done have been comedies and most of the stuff I tend to act in are also comedies, so I wanted to scratch a different part of my brain and specifically thrillers. It’s my favorite genre as a viewer and I’ve always fantasized about making my own little low-budget independent thriller. The possibilities and the resources kind of aligned a little while back in Boston and we went for it.
You may say it’s low budget, but there are times, particularly with some of the camera moves, where it doesn’t look it. After all, was that a crane shot in there?
The budget wasn’t that different than the movies I made in the past. We didn’t have a crane shot. We had a helicopter for an hour, so some of the crane-looking stuff is actually a helicopter and that only cost us about $200. It added a lot of production value, but it wasn’t really that expensive to pull off. In the grand scheme of things, the budget was right where my other movies have been in the past.
If you’re a fan of thrillers, were there certain things you wanted to hold onto as part of the genre and other things you wanted to tweak?
The thrillers that I really enjoy and the one that we tried to make is one that’s very muted, introverted and reflective, and in the broader sense, very character-driven whilst hopefully increasing the intrigue and slow burn. That was sort of the main source of enthusiasm, but also the main challenge is how do we keep it subtle without really boring people? [To] somehow manage to make you more curious, drawing you in slowly and seductively.
There’s an “Inspired by true events…” tag at the beginning. What was the basis for this?
It was more a story that we heard about. I have to say we took pretty aggressive liberties with the story. But the essence is that someone we knew had this workplace obsession and one of the things that was interesting to us is a lot of us have had a hook-up or a tryst and one side is much less interested than the other side. If you don’t see that person very often, it’s much easier to recover. If you see that person every day or are forced to, like if they work together as they do in this movie, then that wound is ripped open every morning. Sooner or later, that person might start seeing someone and you’re going to have to observe all of this.
That basic trajectory of a guy who has an unreciprocated infatuation was what we were referencing when we say, “Inspired by real events.” And the downward trajectory [of the story] is also loosely paralleled to events that really happened. But setting it in a laboratory is different. The act two climax is a liberty we took, the backstory of the main character, which is explored at the very end of the movie in detail is a liberty as well. So we took a lot of liberties.
It does seem a bit like too good a set-up for a filmmaker to be true since with Paul being a scientist, there’s a really interesting natural tension between logic and emotion. How did the lab, which I understand was a working one, come about as a setting?
It was a working lab. I just e-mailed 30 or 40 labs in Boston — Boston’s a city that has a lot of labs — and two or three of them responded. I was shocked. I didn’t really think anybody would respond, but this guy who runs this laboratory in Boston is incredibly nice. He’s a cinephile and he’s also a champion of taking risks in general and he opened his doors to us. I’m very grateful.
Was it a challenge to shoot there, worrying about knocking into things?
It was terrifying. They’re dealing with all sorts of dangerous and toxic stuff, so it was definitely a little bit scary, but they also prepped the lab – they kind of dummy-proofed it for us to make sure all the dangerous elements were taken out of the room. But initially, it was definitely a little scary, especially going down to the animal room where they keep all the guinea pigs because that place in particular has a lot of funky stuff in the air. Just a lot of weird chemicals and we were kind of warned specifically from spending too much time in that room.
In a non-literal sense, did you have to go to a different place as an actor for something like this?
I did just because I’ve never played something like this before. I never played even a scientist before — it’s usually a writer or just a straight-up jerk or a video artist or something like that. I grew up with scientists. My father’s a scientist, so he was the first person that I would think about when I was thinking about playing Paul, the drive in him, the insecurities that he may nurture, the mannerisms that he has and the way he approaches his work and so on.
But I made the movie with Garth Donovan, who was a co-writer and producer, and when we were writing the film, we would try and have lunch once a week or so with a scientist in Cambridge. We’d ask them questions about their work, but what we were really trying…and I hope this doesn’t sound too sneaky, but what we were really trying to get from it is how do they talk. What are their mannerisms? What can we glean from their scientific persona that we could apply to our story? Every now and then, something they would say would actually be very helpful, but more often than not, it was anthropological.
There might not be a parallel to be drawn here, but to blow off steam Paul goes fishing which, when combined with your last film “Woodpecker,” would suggest you have an interest in the outdoors that’s unusual for a filmmaker of your generation. What’s your relationship with it?
Just specifically about Paul in “Rubberneck” for a second, we wanted to give him a little bit more dimension. In addition to seeing a work side and a social side and a family side, we wanted to see a solitary side. What does he enjoy doing? What kind of hobbies might he have just to give him a little bit more of a texture? We thought because it’s solitary and calm and tranquil, and because we could make it look pretty potentially in the movie, this would be an interesting way to go. With “Woodpecker,” we had a lot of similar shots to the few fishing shots we did in this movie. It was just two sociopaths in the woods looking for a woodpecker.
Going back to your question, I really enjoy filming outdoors and I really like filming in desolate locations. We didn’t do that much of it in “Rubberneck,” but my first movie [“The Hole Story”] was shot entirely in rural Northern Minnesota during winter on frozen lakes and the landscape was such a huge character in that story. That also happened in “Woodpecker” as well. The swamps of Arkansas, I hope, were very much a character in the story. It’s incredibly beautiful and incredibly charismatic as a visual presence.
Most directors your age never get out of the city, to tell by their films.
I’m an old man at heart. I just like slow, quiet nature things.
However, you also spice it up quite a bit in this film – there’s a shot in the film that clearly would make it an NC-17, or in other words, very hard to distribute outside of the festival circuit with it intact. Were the limitations of your audience something you were conscious of in putting this together? Something that could have been freeing perhaps in pushing certain plot points further?
One of the initial goals of the film was to make a psychosexual thriller and we definitely felt we needed the sexual elements to give it the sort of driving energy, which would help take the plot and the character arcs where we felt they needed to go. So having these jolts of semi-explicit sexuality was very important to us. In terms of ratings we were going to get, that was never really something I thought about. None of the films I’ve had in the past have ever been rated. They just sort of come out unrated on DVD, but they’ve also been smaller than the audience I hope this film reaches, so I don’t know how that’s going to shake out. [slight laugh]
You’ve already accomplished so much just by getting to your Tribeca premiere. I saw in the press notes, you financed some of the film with recycled screen windows?
That’s something that Garth [Donovan, the co-writer/producer] has been doing for years and years. He’s also a filmmaker, a very talented filmmaker and that’s how he’s raised funds for every creative endeavor he’s ever embarked upon. He runs a house painting company in Boston, so he’s got a big truck and he knows enough contractors and friendly people who hook us up with this scrap metal, mostly from screen windows and other leftovers from construction. We take the glass out and clean it up a little bit and then we weigh it and then [the scrapyard] give us money for the haul. We did that many, many times. We wrote the movie over several months, maybe like two weekends a month, and I feel like every time we wrote, we’d end up doing a haul. There was enough new metal to bring into the guy.
It’s hard to imagine how you fit that into your busy schedule. You have two films at Tribeca, including “Supporting Characters,” which you act in, another new film that you directed in the can [“Red Flag”], and roles in the HBO series “Girls” and the Coen Brothers’ upcoming folkie flick “Inside Llewyn Davis.” With regards to the latter two, has it changed your perspective as a filmmaker as you’ve gone onto bigger sets?
I can’t say that it does, really. I don’t immediately want to make big budgeted things. At the moment. The very next thing I want to do, which I hope to do in the late fall, like October or November, is something that’s similar in scale to all of these movies that I’ve done because I’m impatient and it’s going to take a longer period of time to get things off the ground on a bigger scale. There’s probably a fear of the unknown going on, too. I might be intimidated somewhat just by the uncertainty of that process, but mostly I think it’s impatience and this desire for complete control and [the] satisfaction that the stories I want to tell can be told on the scale that I’m trying to tell them.
Is it good for you creatively to stay busy?
I enjoy it. I don’t know if it’s a good thing. I think it’s a good thing. I don’t know how else to fill up my days, Stephen. I don’t really have hobbies. I don’t have a girlfriend. What else am I supposed to do with my free time? I think I’d go nuts. So when I’m not acting, which is often – I’m either writing or editing or getting ready to shoot something because I’d go crazy if I didn’t have something to do. Occasionally, it’s enjoyable too.