Alex Karpovsky was never “discovered.” He didn’t go to film school or take acting classes. What he did instead is something most other people could probably do: simply start making movies. He just happens to be better at it than most other people. Or at least more prolific.
This year marks the first time Karpovsky is attending the Tribeca Film Festival. With two starring roles, though, in Supporting Characters and Rubberneck–the latter which he also cowrote and directed–it’s safe to say he isn’t merely attending, but arriving at the festival. This moment marks the culmination of several years spent as an indie film fixture on both sides of the camera. His memorable scenes in Lena Dunham’s 2010 breakout, Tiny Furniture, led to a recurring role on her much-buzzed about HBO series, Girls. Karpovsky also has a part in the forthcoming Coen Brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis; his next directorial effort, Red Flag, is in the can; and he’s already prepping another feature for the fall. Not only did he bring all this about himself, though, but he also kind of stumbled into it.
“I worked for five years editing karaoke videos, industrial videos, and music videos before I made any movies,” Karpovsky says. His trajectory is very much a New York story. If you’ve seen some of his comedic turns in films, it would be no surprise to learn that Karpovsky spent some time doing stand-up and “weird performance art” in Lower Manhattan. He was working a catering job to get by, as many a struggling artist has done before him, when he met a friend who helped him get the karaoke editing gig. Years later, he would draw on this experience for his role in Supporting Characters, in which he plays a film editor. It wouldn’t be the first time the editing job served as inspiration, though.
The Hole Story, Karpovsky’s first feature, which debuted in 2006, is about a karaoke video editor who dreams of bigger things, but ends up locked inside of an existential crisis. “Essentially what the film is about is, it was a deeply personal, comedic take on where I was with my life and also where my ambitions were, and what the obstacles between me and my ambitions meant at the time,” Karpovsky says. The Hole Story screened at over 40 festivals domestically and abroad, and launched the nascent director’s acting career almost by accident. Karpovsky hadn’t planned on starring in the movie; rather, he decided it would just be that much easier to cast himself than find an actor to play him. Once the movie obtained a theatrical release, he began getting offers for more roles.
Making The Hole Story himself launched Karpovsky into the vanguard of DIY cinema, a movement that requires neither secret handshake nor deep pockets to join–just talent and vision. “With today’s affordable digital devices and Final Cut Pro and Kickstarter to launch the financial pipeline, there are virtually no excuses anymore for why you can’t make your film and get it out there,” he says. “Everything is at your disposal much more than it’s ever been in the history of moviemaking.”
Fortuitously, Karpovsky met a fellow poster child for DIY cinema, Lena Dunham, at South by Southwest in 2009 when she was there promoting her first feature, and he his first documentary. They struck up a fast friendship during the whirlwind round of festival screenings, and then traded DVDs of each other’s films. The two stayed in touch, and Karpovsky must have made some kind of impression because eventually Dunham wrote a part specifically for him in Tiny Furniture. Now, in addition to Girls, the two also share a scene together in the Tribeca film, Supporting Characters.
The most important collaborator the filmmaker has worked with lately, however, is Garth Donovan, a kindred spirt with whom Karpovsky cowrote his latest directorial effort, Rubberneck. Not only was the writing process different with Donovan (the two crafted a full script, as opposed to the more improv-inflected earlier efforts), the movie is a tonal departure from anything the director had made before: a thriller. Rubberneck is also the first film for which the director has used Kickstarter.
During post-production on Rubberneck, he was contacted by the gatekeepers of the Tribeca Film Festival, who invited him to submit the latest edit for consideration, with no guarantee it would be accepted. Ultimately, it was, however, and the film has filled packed screenings all week long.
Although Alex Karpovsky’s whole career serves as a template for DIY filmmaking on its own, the director has some additional advice for anyone looking to turn their movie idea into an actual movie: “Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Don’t overthink it. Don’t spend a lot of time begging for money. Do it on the small resources that you feel you can lasso in. Stop waiting for resources if you already have them. Stop waiting for greater resources if you feel like you need them. Stop making any excuses for why you feel that you can’t make this movie, because you can. Just start filming in two months.”