LA Film Fest 2012 Interview: Alex Karpovsky On His Commitment Phobia, Death Anxiety, and New Film RED FLAG
RED FLAG follows the misadventures of narcissistic indie filmmaker named Alex Karpovsky who, after a bad breakup with his longtime girlfriend, hits the road to take his latest film (WOODPECKER, which Karpovsky actually directed in 2008) on a mini-tour across the South. Karpovsky's continued humiliations--a particularly tenacious groupie follows him from screening to screening before sleeping with his friend, his mother calls him out being such a wuss--are hilarious and he's the first to laugh at his own personal pain. The film screened on Friday night as an Official Selection (Narrative Competition) of the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival.
After the LAFF premiere of RED FLAG, we spoke with writer-director-actor Karpovsky and his co-stars Onur Tukel, Jennifer Prediger, and Caroline White about commitment and the perfect afterlife.
Twitch: Why did you write yourself into your screenplay--a dramatized version of yourself--instead of using a completely fictional character?
Alex Karpovsky: This is my fifth feature. My second feature was this movie called WOODPECKER. I made it a few years ago but last year, an organization put it on a tour of the South. I wanted to go on the tour because it looked fun. Also, there was a little bit of money and I was in debt. It was sort of a lo-fi tour--they give you a car, you drive around and play these little venues here and there. So I had to go on tour as Alex Karpovsky because that's what they're paying me to do. I wanted to make a movie about a filmmaker on tour with his movie because the filmmaker on tour has to be Alex Karpovsky and I was forced to play a semi-fictitious character based on myself.
Is there anything about your life that you're uncomfortable putting into a film at this point?
Karpovsky: No, not really. If it can get a laugh, I'll put it in there. I was so insecure in high school and the first year of college that I feel like--my whole life since then has been some kind of perverse and desperate attempt to recalibrate that or react to that. So I have insecurities, but I don't care so much about hiding them as much as I did back then. Look, we're all going to die very soon. Who gives a fuck about this or that? Just relax. Some people say, 'That's too much honesty--we don't care.' I don't want to shove it down anyone's throat but I'm sick and tired of hiding stuff like that. I know the way that I live and I know the limitations of my fears and what they create. I'm tired. I'm tired of building these elaborate facades for them.
What is your biggest fear?
Karpovsky: Commitment. Which is a reverberation of my death anxiety. The relationship arc in the film isn't really autobiographical--I've never been dumped because I've cheated on someone. That's never happened to me.
What's the most humiliating way you've ever ended a relationship?
Karpovsky: I've never been dumped.
I don't know if I believe that. How have you gotten this far in life and never been dumped?
Karpovsky: I think subconsciously--I would never put myself in that situation. I think subconsciously, if I like a girl, I think there's a little scan that occurs two or three weeks into a budding relationship where I think, 'Am I putting myself in a position where I could be dumped here?' And If I feel like I could be, I start to pull out.
I guess that's a valuable skill--being able to avoid being dumped.
Karpovsky: It's a skill but it's also to your detriment. It's a defense, you see. Doesn't some part of you want to fall madly in love with someone who holds this fear over you that they might leave you? I feel like I've let girls get away or let girls go or sabotage early stages of relationships because I've been scared that this girl is so cool, that she's so 'above' me, in a position to dump me. And in the early stages of dating that would scare me, and I'd find faults in the person and torpedo the relationship's future. Too much information?
Exactly enough information. You've said that you were nervous about doing the Woodpecker tour because of the unsettling anxiety and isolation that comes from being on a solo road trip, and wanting to avoid those feelings led to you making RED FLAG.
Karpovsky: A relationship did end somewhat before the tour. I wasn't dumped and I don't know if I dumped her either--I think it was more of a mutual sort of truce, but it was very unpleasant, very difficult. So the thought of being alone on tour and munching on that negative memory was something that was very anxiety inducing. So I brought some friends with me and made the movie.
One of the best lines in the film is from when you were trying to get your girlfriend back and you said, "I'm ready to die, which means I'm ready to live, which means I'm ready to love you." Why do you think you need to be ready to die before you're ready to love?
Karpovsky: Yes. I definitely negotiate every day with a death anxiety. I think we all have these immortality deception mechanisms in place in the sense that we subconsciously tell ourselves these things because the thought of our own imminent death is so terrifying and paralyzing.
Every day we walk around in this well designed, sophisticated deception mechanism rooted in immortality and sometimes that mechanism sputters and breaks down on the side of the highway for a few hours--or sometimes a few days--and the truth bubbles forth. And the truth is that we are all going to be dead very soon, and there could very well be nothing after we die, and that's incredibly terrifying. We can't really wrap our minds around it, so it becomes misdirected into other avenues of our lives that are more accessible and concrete--like fear of commitment, of marriage, of long-term anything.
So when my character says, "I'm ready to die, which means I'm ready to live, which means I'm ready to love you", the way that I interpret that is you're beginning to come to terms with that--Yes, I'm going to die, there's absolutely nothing I can do about it. I could quit smoking but there's very little I can actually do. That'll only extend my life by like a year. I'm going to die, and it's okay because we're all going to die. So once it's okay on a fundamental level, then you're really ready to live. And if you're really ready to live and open yourself to your fears and to commitment and everything else that life has to offer, then you're really in a fucking position to love. I stand by that.
What do you hope happens when you die?
Karpovsky: That's a tough question. I've never been asked that one. You're opening up a different part of my brain now. Wow, you're asking me to design the ideal afterlife?
[Onur Tukel, Jennifer Prediger, Caroline White walk in.]
Karpovsky: She just short-circuited my brain--she asked me to design the perfect afterlife.
Tukel: Wow, that's a great question.
Prediger: Holy shit! It looks like this--the lobby of the Ritz Carlton!
Tukel: It's definitely not the Christian idea of Communist heaven. That would be the last thing that anybody would want. I saw the late Christopher Hitchens debate a preacher in North Carolina once--well, nevermind, the question wasn't posted to me.
No, go ahead.
Tukel: The regular Christian idea of heaven--where everyone's equal and they're trumpeting God's name, praising God 24/7--and he said that Heaven sounds like North Korea! That was interesting. That's exactly what it sounds like.
Karpovsky: So yeah--maybe the after life is like Pyongyang. That sounds dirty, doesn't it?
Tukel: I'm not a Muslim but I like the idea of twenty virgins waiting for me when I get to Heaven.
Karpovsky: You know, there's a lot of misinterpretation, mistranslation about that. They think the translation is actually forty raisins, not virgins.
Tukel: Well I don't mind if they're virgins--just forty girls would be great.
Prediger: This is very true to how the filming went, actually--these kinds of tangential conversations, discussing the perfect afterlife looking like North Korea.
White: And taking them way too far.
What do you need to accomplish before you die?
Tukel: I want to make a movie in Turkey, in the Turkish language, low budget. I want to be in a cage with a great white shark, which is very easy to do these days. You can charter a boat and take scuba diving classes and be in a cage with a great white shark.
What's stopping you from doing that? Those are pretty attainable goals.
Tukel: For making the film in Turkey, I want to find my chops again first. I used to make movies and I'm just starting to get back into it. I just moved to New York and I don't want to leave New York right after I got there. Great white shark thing--I just don't want to take scuba diving classes. You can do it for real cheap now though, like $3,000. Oh and I want a ménage-a-trois. That's always been on my list. It's true. I just gotta say, it's something I'd like to do.
Karpovsky: Haven't you done that before?
Tukel: Well, not the way it should have been done!
And the rest of you?
White: Oh I don't know, nothing like that. This is my summer to remember--I'm on the west coast and I'm happy. I'm ready to go.
Tukel: The summer of fun before the August of finality. This is all in jest, I'm assuming--you'll find a job.
White: Yeah, It'll all be fine.
Prediger: Man, this is some heavy stuff. I'd like to learn how to walk more successfully in four-inch heels. I pulled something in my leg at the premiere. I gotta work on that. I'd like to be in the same room as Woody Allen. I wasn't here for his film the other night. I want to make a movie. My friends are getting on me because I have a movie I need to make and it's burning a hole in me. I gotta do it before the world ends at the end of this year. I'm working on it. Once I get the whole heels-walking thing down, the rest will come together.
Tukel: I know yours, Alex. You've already done it. I remember you said you wanted to land a TV show. The joke was, when we were making RED FLAG and going out to L.A. to film the 'Girls' pilot that he wanted to do a 'Malcolm in the Middle' show--you know, a show that runs for like six years.
Karpovsky: Yeah, that's true. I remember talking about 'Malcolm in the Middle' a lot.
Tukel: I want to have a child. If I can get my career settled, I'd like to have a kid. I'd like to do that so I'm a little less focused on myself. I don't like being so narcissistic--I really don't--but I'd like to have money. I don't want to resent my child. I don't ant to be married, but I'd like to find someone progressive enough to share a child with. Anyway, I've got my ménage-a-trois all planned out!
RED FLAG's final screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival is today, Sunday, June 17th, 2012 at 3:50pm - Regal Cinemas L.A. LIVE.