Alex Karpovsky hits the road to find the comedy behind his anxiety
In 2008, writer/director Alex Karpovsky released a small, independent movie called Woodpecker. The movie, about the quixotic hunt for a long-extinct bird, screened at two dozen film festivals around the world before getting picked up for distribution by a DVD company. After that, it dropped off the radar, as small, independent movies do. Then, last year, a group called South Arts contacted the filmmaker about screening Woodpecker as part of its Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers, which brings indie films to small communities across the South. Karpovsky would travel with his movie for two weeks, from Charleston, S.C., to Alexandria, La. – 10 screenings in all, at tiny theatres and in college classrooms, followed by Q&A sessions. Karpovsky was deep in debt at the time, so he agreed. But he dreaded the whole idea.
"I was fearful about feeling lonely on the road because I had a romantic relationship that had ended not long before the tour," Karpovsky says. "When I pictured the tour, it seemed incredibly lonely to be in your car all day with nothing but your thoughts, staying in crappy motels, eating crappy fast food, screening your movie in small theatres, many of which were going to be half-empty. I had already done the solitary road trip thing in my 20s, so any romantic allure had long since evaporated. I wanted to do something during the tour to alleviate what I knew would be crushing loneliness."
So Karpovsky – whom you probably recognize as Jed from Lena Dunham's breakout film, Tiny Furniture, or Ray Ploshansky from Dunham's breakout HBO show, Girls – decided to do what he does best: make a movie that would blur the line between fiction and real life, a movie about a filmmaker named Alex who just got out of a relationship and who is terrified of going on a two-week tour by himself peddling DVDs of his movie Woodpecker in tiny theatres and college classrooms. He would make a fictional movie about having an experience while having that experience.
"We shot the real tour," Karpovsky says. "I wrote an outline before we went, a screenplay without dialogue. I knew the scenes and the beats and the motivations, and then we just shot the real tour. There were two other actors and a cameraman and myself in the car, and we wove these narrative elements into a real-world situation."
The result, Red Flag, is a comedy about anxiety, loneliness, love, misery, jealousy, death, the search for redemption in a world of inevitable extinction, and most of all, the futility of changing and growing – those uplifting cinematic cliches that drive Karpovsky, as an artist and a person, to distraction.
"I've always been disappointed by how protagonists in the movies can change within this finite 90-minute window," he says. "It's a contrived artifice to move the story along in a way that doesn't feel very authentic to me. It doesn't resonate with me on a truthful level."
Karpovsky, whose self-admitted death anxiety disguised as commitment-phobia is the motivating force behind Red Flag, believes he has a responsibility as a filmmaker not to patronize viewers with the false comfort of life-altering possibility and redemption.
"People don't change that much, and if they do, it takes decades," Karpovsky says. "Epiphanies and traumatic events can happen, but fundamentally I'm skeptical that they change your true self – your values, morals, principles, your character. And that kind of sweeping change is shown too much in movies. Which is dangerous. When people look at realistic movies and performances and see these radical changes happening in 90 minutes, they think they can also change. Those movies create unreasonable expectations. And that creates a lot of anxiety when that change doesn't happen. Red Flag is my little way of saying I disagree. Even though it's a funny, comical movie. I wanted to get across this one bit of truth."
For more of the Chronicle's coverage of Fantastic Fest – including interviews with Looper director Rian Johnson, Dredd screenwriter Alex Garland and star Karl Urban, The Collection creative team, and more – plus reviews, Fantastic Arcade dispatches, and photo galleries galore – see austinchronicle.com/fantastic-fest.
The Austin Film Society and Cinema East will screen Red Flag on Sunday, Sept. 30, 8pm, at Cheer Up Charlie's (1104 E. Sixth) with Alex Karpovsky in attendance. See www.austinfilm.org for ticket info.