LA Film Fest 2012
By Don Simpson | August 21, 2012
In Red Flag, writer-director Alex Karpovsky plays a somewhat fictionalized version of himself. His character, Alex, embarks upon a tour of the southern United States with his cinema verite mockumentary, Woodpecker. The trip immediately follows an emotionally tenuous break-up with his longterm girlfriend, Rachel (Caroline White). While I have no knowledge of Karpovsky’s actual romantic life, I do believe that Red Flag was mostly shot during an actual theatrical tour of Woodpecker. Taking his cue from the neo-realists, Karpovsky intersperses his fictional characters within real settings and among real people. Then again, this might be another elaborately staged ruse along the lines of Woodpecker — maybe it really is all just fiction?
I sat down with Alex Karpovsky, Jennifer Prediger, Onur Tukel and Caroline White shortly before the world premiere of Red Flag at the 2012 LA Film Festival to discuss the film…though things did drift off track occasionally…
Don Simpson: Can you talk about the incorporation of realism into your films?
Alex Karpovsky: There are definitely a lot of elements of realism in Red Flag; documentary and other “real” components are rolled into the narrative fabric. I have made five movies, and I’ve done this with three of them. Its obviously something that I am interested in if I keep doing it. A lot of what makes me laugh personally are character-driven comedies. I think the more believable the characters’ faults, insecurities and vulnerabilities are the more I can relate to them and the funnier they are. I think the extreme version of believability and naturalism is realism. Having real world situations in real world settings lend the stories a believability; hopefully the audience can engage that much more with it, and the comedic elements will have that much more payoff. And also just the thrill of it all. The audience knowing or thinking that it is a real situation — a real live wire happening — and that gives it a certain vitality and energy, the way Borat has a lot of vitality and nervous energy because you know that those things are really happening. That makes you nervous and that makes it special and alive.
Jennifer Prediger: Alex has such a great poker face and really gets into character while he is also taking care of other things. He will be doing a Q&A after a Woodpecker screening and then also be thinking about what needs to be said by his character in the movie he is currently making. That Alex is able to do all of these things in his brain all at once is such a phenomenal thing. Alex is always juggling the fictional reality and the reality reality; he answers questions beautifully and sincerely while he is also imagining improvised dialogue for his character.
For me it was one of the most fun things I have ever gotten to do as an actor — improvise things in real settings and not having anyone know that’s what we are doing. We would go to a screening of Woodpecker and there would be a bunch of really cute white-haired ladies sitting around talking. Then, they see me being emotional and dramatic and they start to worry for me. They don’t even know that it is all just a ruse!
My favorite day, maybe ever, was the day that we shot at the Mardis Gras parade in Baton Rouge because we were in this wonderful vibrant context — beads are flying everywhere, floats are passing by — and we are creating a fictional reality in the midst of this really colorful reality. And Alex did actually get hit in the face with beads, right? Well, I threw some at his face a few times.
AK: But you kept throwing them so softly. It didn’t look real so we had to speed it up in post.
JP: But your eyes are still in tact thanks to that. You see, Alex is willing to give up an eye to make a movie. He really gives it his all. He puts himself in harms way — and everyone else for that matter — and that’s the beauty of it. Not only did we make a movie but we had a great adventure doing it. We were all Huckleberry Finn on the raft of this film floating down the Mississippi.
DS: Uh huh… So, Alex, you also integrate a lot of yourself into Red Flag.
AK: That’s true. There are a lot of autobiographical elements and I play a character who has my name, but there are a lot of things that we did take liberties with. I’ve never had a tour. I’ve never had a groupie —
JP: — Not yet!
AK: Yeah, not yet. And I didn’t have the break-up before the tour. I never went on the road for a tour while negotiating a heartbreak. That never happened.
JP: The first time my character in the film meets Alex, she is wearing this red and white polka dot shirt. Then, in real life several months after we shot the movie — I hadn’t seen Alex in maybe two months — there was a staged reading for a wonderful movie that he is in by Mike Birbiglia called Sleepwalk with Me, and I was sitting in the audience in a red and white polka dot dress. Alex didn’t know I was going to be there and I didn’t know that Alex was going to be there. It was just a funny moment for me. I felt like I was stalking Alex and I had taken on the life of character I had portrayed. That’s the thing you have to watch out for with these movies! You probably will get a groupie now.
AK: That’s why I made the movie!
JP: There are not enough groupies in independent cinema!
AK: Well, I am trying to bring groupies back.
JP: Alex is bringing sexy back.
AK: I wouldn’t go that far.
JP: He’s the Justin Timberlake of Mumblecore.
AK: I think Caroline [White]’s boyfriend is the Justin Timberlake of Mumblecore, Kentucker Audley. I’m trying to go through all of the handsome faces of indie cinema in my mind…
JP: We should make a calendar. Sexy Male Mumblecore Cinema Calendar.
[The discussion disintegrates into a roll call of the sexy men of indie cinema…]
AK: Okay. I think we have learned that there is a very manageable number of handsome men in the world of independent cinema.
JP: I hope no one is hurt that we have left them out. Is that going to be printed as a list?
Caroline White: It is definitely a three-to-one ratio between women to men. We can definitely fill out a calendar.
DS: I think so.
AK: No question about it. Yeah, for women, you can rattle off a million names; for men, it is more like a trivia question. You have to pause and think about it.
JP: Well, they are all handsome in their own ways. They say that every person has one striking quality.
AK: Okay, then, Onur Tukel. Go!
JP: His eyes.
CW: He hasn’t raped me yet.
AK: That’s a wonderful quality!
JP: He’s not a rapist, he’s just…
CW: He’s a potential rapist.
AK: He’s working his way up. He’s just a groper now.
DS: Alex, do you have concerns about the audience confusing the personality traits of your characters with the real you?
AK: As long as there is a chance of it being funny, let’s do it. Its not like there are things that I won’t do.
JP: I won’t show my butt on the banks of the Mississippi River!
AK: Absolutely not! Not on the Mississippi!
JP: Yes, you will, though.
AK: Yes, I will! I will show anything and do anything for a laugh.
JP: He will even scratch his own back and cause himself to cry and bleed. Check this out!
[Alex turns his back towards me and reveals his scratched back.]
DS: Wait! You still have those scratches?!
AK: Well, that is for the insert we did over the weekend.
DS: I am assuming you read Eric Kohn’s Indiewire review of Red Flag…
AK: Yes. Onur read it to me in bed this morning.
DS: Kohn asserts that Red Flag is either “truly narcissistic or an eloquent portrait of narcissism.” That line really seems to be really blurred with you.
AK: I think that’s true, but I am not concerned about that. If people want to label me as a narcissistic filmmaker… As long as they write nice reviews and have some quotes that we can pull for the poster, they can think of me as a person however the hell they want. But if you are genuinely curious — and most people probably aren’t — then come hang with me. Let’s have a few drinks together! That’s the only way to really answer that question. Let’s hang out!
99% of the roles I play are assholes, some variation of the jerk. If you do the same thing long enough, people are going to assume that you are that person. That’s fine. It also sets up the possibility of surprising them when you play — hopefully successfully — the nice guy. The first movie I acted in was an Andrew Bujalski movie that we shot in Austin called Beeswax. I feel like I played a nice guy in that. I’m a nice guy! But then Bob Byington put me in Harmony and Me and that was the first time I played an asshole. Lena Dunham saw Harmony and Me and since then I have only been playing jerks.
AK: There is a tremendous amount of hustle that you need to do. Usually no one knows you. No one knows the actors in the movie. All you can go on are — hopefully — some quotes that you got during the film’s festival run. It is just a lot of legwork and cyber-aggressiveness. Just promoting it as locally and aggressively as you can. It is really hard to get people, outside of any major city, to come see a movie without names in it.
We showed Woodpecker in some very small towns. Fortunately, we had the help of an organization that had an infrastructure, so it wasn’t always on my shoulders. But there has been a lot of adventurous campaigns of independent films going on the road. Its always a struggle. Sooner or later they all just run out of steam. As digital projection becomes more of the norm, maybe this could become easier.
There is an organization based in Austin called Tugg, they have an interesting model with sort of a Kickstarter element to it. They offer the possibility of screening a movie in a certain theater. Once they sell a certain threshold of seats then they confirm that the movie will screen. I think that is a very smart way to do it. It ensures that there will be a large crowd and they’ll make their money back, so it massages the risk of the situation. It is very clever, very simple, I am very surprised that it had never been done before. It takes out-of-the-box thinking to be able to bring independent films to more rural areas.
DS: Otherwise, so many of these films only get shown in theaters during their film festival run.
AK: And in places where we toured the movie — Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana — there is no film festival presence at all. There is nothing there. They will never see indie movies.
DS: What intrigued you about shooting a road movie?
AK: There is an inherent structure to it. That’s a thing that is already happening. It is a character; the itinerary is a character in the film. That is appealing to me. I have lived in New York City since 1999 but I have never made a movie in New York. Most of my films have been rambling, rolling stone kind of movies. I don’t know why? It just turns me on. A big influence on this movie was Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, which is two guys playing alternate versions of themselves. They have the added bonus of being actually talented people who can do impressions. Onur, on the other hand, just knows how to tell racist jokes; that is all we have to go on, but most of them are cut out of the movie. There is also a French movie called Going Places by Bertrand Blier. It was made in the early 1970s. This is my pretentious moment. It is with Gérard Depardieu, when he was still handsome. He has since gained a lot of weight and really let himself go. Anyway, it was a really interesting road, buddy movie. I love the freewheeling energy about it. They meet a girl; they vie for her attention; a triangle begins to form.
DS: The road movie structure also provides your character with a very definite character arc, and allows other characters to come and go along the way.
AK: I think it follows the classic mythic model where you begin as a member of a community then something ruptures and you go on the road to find yourself. You then meet a dark, hairy friend along the way. This is the Epic of Gilgamesh one of the oldest stories ever told! Gilgamesh leaves the city walls of Uruk and befriends a primitive hairy man named Enkidu. They slay a dragon together. Enkidu dies. Gilgamesh returns to Uruk with this forbidden and sacred knowledge that will prevent him from ever fully re-integrating himself. He has learned too much. It is similar to what Clint Eastwood does with Unforgiven. Onur should have died, now that I think about it.
DS: How did you approach the casting and character development for Red Flag?
AK: Well, I loved Jennifer in Joe Swanberg’s Uncle Kent and we hung out for a few days at Sundance and got to know each other a little bit. It was more about what I thought she could do, and there was an enthusiasm and energy that I felt was awesome. She was down for anything, for having a good time, to just roll with us. So with that enthusiasm, and knowing that she could act, and that she could improv. That’s why I wanted to work with her, and she blew me away.
We had a few long phone calls about the arc of the film and I really picked her brain about working on Uncle Kent. I just sort of explained what her character would do. Jennifer’s character is probably the most hammy of the characters and the least realistic, but she still had to exist in our movie. That was a fine line to walk. Her character is crazy and it is comedic, but she also has to be believable. Getting on that frequency is something I really wanted to make sure Jennifer understood and was comfortable with. Just getting the tone down.
With Caroline… When did we first meet?
CW: We met on Super Bowl Sunday a couple of years ago.
AK: During my real Woodpecker tour.
CW: You stayed in Memphis. We went out for a beer…
AK: So you acted in the movie three or four days after we first met. I didn’t realize that. We had that beer and we probably didn’t even talk about the movie.
CW: And we had one phone conversation.
AK: At first I thought Caroline’s role was going to be very small. It was just the break-up at the beginning and we never really see her again… Well, wait, that’s not true because the fight scene was in there. But then we added a lot more of Caroline’s character from the initial outline.
CW: It’s not a complicated character.
AK: Well, initially she wasn’t complicated.
And I met Onur because I was looking for an unhinged sociopath and I didn’t have to look very far.
Onur Tukel: We met at Lena’s Tiny Furniture party in New York. I got invited to the party by filmmaker/journalist Michael Tully and I recognized Alex from Beeswax, so I went over and talked with him. You did think I was a weirdo, right?
AK: Well, your enthusiasm was unrivaled. You were sort of frothing about how much you liked Beeswax. My girlfriend at the time, when you walked away, was like “that guy is clinically insane!”
OT: I was very excited to be in New York! I had just seen Beeswax a few months before, so I was very excited, yes.
AT: You went into this very hysterical praise! But I told my girlfriend that I really wanted to work with you.
CW: And she said that she was breaking up with you.
AT: Yes. And I said, I understand but I am choosing Onur.
Onur, did we talk a lot before shooting?
OT: I don’t remember. I flew in and we talked briefly when you picked me up from the Atlanta airport.
AT: But I sent you like a 30-page outline beforehand.
OT: Yeah, you sent an outline but I am not a trained actor, so I read the outline but I didn’t know what to bring in terms of backstory. I just played myself. I was excited to see an old friend. I was excited to do a road movie. And this was the first thing I had been cast in since I made Septien with Michael Tully. I was actually working on a children’s book, so I was literally talking with Alex about things that were really happening in my life. So Alex is playing a filmmaker on tour and I just got a children’s book deal and was working on revisions with my publisher. What I loved about working with Alex is that we would do a scene, then discuss it. With Alex being in the scenes with me, he would take all of these mental notes and give me very specific notes that would make the scene tighter and more meaningful. I was nervous about doing improv — and there is a lot of improv in this movie — but Alex gave me a lot of very specific direction and that was great.
AT: This will sound like a heavily repeated thing, but I really believe that 95% of directing is casting. Finding people with the right energy and people who you can have faith in… If you find yourself over-directing or speaking in backward terms, the ship is already filling up with water very fast.
DS: Especially when you are acting in your own film, you need to be able to rely on your cast.
AT: Exactly. In my ideal situation, I am only directing to fine tune minutia. If I am going through these macro-global notions, that is a red flag.