When you first watch Red Flag, a new dark comedy from HBO “GIRLS” star and independent director Alex Karpovsky, it feels a little autobiographical—especially since the character Alex plays in the film is literally, well, Alex Karpovsky. Red Flag is the story of Alex, a solipsistic filmmaker that takes his independent film Woodpecker (a real film Alex made) on tour. Hoping to escape the pain of his recent breakup, he stumbles into a twisting constellation of fear, sex, and tortured illumination. A tragicomedy about death and marriage, Red Flag unfurls across six states, four broken souls, and one very elusive bird.
I talked to Alex at this year’s Dallas VideoFest, where Red Flag picked up an award for best narrative film. We discussed the line between himself and his self-titled character, his role in the filmmaking process as an actor, director and an editor, and the advice he would give to those afraid to dip their beaks into the filmmaking pool themselves.
Andy Young, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): At first glance this seems like a heavily autobiographical film, especially since you’re literally playing Alex Karpovsky in this movie. Is this a realistic interpretation of yourself?
Alex Karpovsky (AK): Some aspects are real, but not too many. I would have liked to change my name in the movie, but I couldn’t because the movie revolves around a tour I did with an earlier film [Woodpecker], and I really did make that film, so the screening moderators really do introduce me as Alex Karpovsky for the Q&A’s. So since they used those words I was sort of married to them, otherwise I would have loved to change my name in the film.
MM: So you intentionally wrote this film around that narrative of doing the tour?
AK: Yeah. Once I knew I was going to do the Woodpecker trip, I wrote it and then we shot it over the two-week tour.
MM: What inspired you to document this point in your life, either as Alex Karpovsky the character or Alex Karpovsky the actual filmmaker?
AK: I don’t view it as me trying to document a certain moment in my life. I just went on a tour and I thought it’d be really lonely to be on the road by myself, so I wanted to come up with an idea where I could be with friends. And, on top of that, be creative.
MM: Obviously the film was heavily improvised, but was there ever a physical script to follow?
AK: Well, what I like to do is “structured improve.” I think it’s a lot like how Larry David shoots “Curb Your Enthusiasm”: he has an outline of the episode, and every scene has it’s own paragraph but there’s never actual dialogue written down.
MM: What was your crew like? Since you’re traveling I’d imagine it was fairly contained.
AK: It was a one-person crew. Adam Ginsberg shot the film and he would monitor the microphones with headsets. Most of the movie is just me and two actors so it was a total of four of us, which was nice because we could all fit in a car, drive a lot of places and have a lot of freedom and impulsivity.
MM: So what are some of the challenges behind making a film this small?
AK: There’s a lot of guerilla stuff going on, so we’re just sort of invading spaces, not asking for permission. For the most part, you can get away with that (especially in the south where there’s generally more leniency), but sooner or later you’ll run into people who don’t necessarily dig that, and that can cause friction.
MM: I do want to ask about your directing process. How do you go about getting a good performance as an actor/director?
AK: I’ve heard this many times in interviews from filmmakers that I really respect, and the more I work on movies the more I agree: Directing is 90% casting. If you get the right people and they understand what you’re doing, then you just let them do their thing. So, I think I was lucky enough to work with actors that understood what I wanted and had the capability to express it in a way that was engaging and also personal.
MM: Were you involved in the editing process?
AK: I was. The guy who was my one-person crew also cut the movie, and he did an incredible job in my opinion. I just hovered in the background and popped in every few days. Once we got close to an assembly I got more involved. I’m an editor myself, so I like to be a little hands-on. But I had a great editor on this film.
MM: When was the film finished?
AK: A week before we premiered it in early June.
MM: You’ve had a lot of success recently, particularly your appearance in several films and your major role on the HBO series “GIRLS.” I’d imagine that alone would keep you pretty busy. Has this put the brakes on your directing career temporarily, or now that you’re getting this recognition, do you want to plow forward and start telling more stories?
AK: I don’t know. I enjoy doing both. If I were to only do one I think I’d get antsy. If I were only to act, the fact that I’m not expressing my own creative voice would make me anxious; and if I was only directing, the vanity in me wouldn’t feel like I’m getting enough attention in the world. So I’d love to be able to nurture both if I can, and I don’t see any reason why I can’t.
MM: Any advice for young aspiring moviemakers?
AK: Do it. Stop thinking and theorizing about it. It’s very easy to get into this trap where you’re sculpting and preparing and analyzing, and after a while that can be paralyzing. I learn by error and by example; I don’t learn through academic theory. So, if you’re like me and you want to become a better filmmaker, you have to go out and try. Roll up your sleeves, make mistakes, learn from your mistakes, and carve out your own voice.
Andy Young is an independent filmmaker who lives in Austin, Texas and studies in the University of Texas at Austin’s film program. At the age of 21, he has directed over 150 short films and one feature, The Legend of Action Man, which he shot on a budget of $200. Andy also has experience directing for theater, narrative television and animation, and he continues to make low-budget shorts with his sketch comedy group Dingoman Productions.