‘Rubberneck’: Alex Karpovsky on the dark side of nice

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Karpovsky in Rubberneck. ()
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Established by Robert DeNiro, the Tribeca Film Festival has screened more than 1,200 films from over 80 countries since its first iteration in 2002. The 2012 festival goes from April 18-29. See the schedule of public screenings and purchase tickets here.

Alex Karpovsky is everywhere right now. Along with being a series regular on Lena Dunham's new HBO series Girls (he also appeared in her first feature, Tiny Furniture), he continues to be a strong presence in independent cinema, acting, directing and writing.

Known mainly for his offhandedly dry comedic sensibility, Karpovsky has come up with a surprise. Rubberneck, his fourth feature, co-written with Garth Donovan, is a psychologically twisted intense thriller, reminiscent of some of the great 70s paranoid anti-hero films. It's a portrait of an isolated man and his increasing psychosis, as his social connection disintegrates, bit by bit, leaving him alone and unprotected. Rubberneck glories in the thriller genre, and features standout performances by all of the leads.

Paul (Karpovsky) is a scientist working in a research lab in a suburb of Boston. When we first see him, it is at an office Christmas party, and the palette is warm and saturated with reds and golds, in stark contrast to the cool, alienating blue-lit fluorescence of the rest of the film. Paul and Danielle, a new co-worker at the lab, played by the terrific Jaime Ray Newman, click at the party, and they go home together and have hot sex in the shower. This introduction ends up being supremely unbalancing as the rest of the film unfolds.

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In the first scene, Paul seems witty, sensitive, and full of good anecdotes to share with his new co-worker to make her laugh. Things are going great. When they go out on a date the following week, the energy has shifted. She can't stay out late, she tells him, she has a paper to write. Paul now becomes a bit of a gentle bully ("But I thought the plan was we'd go out to dinner after the movie ..."), unwilling to pick up on the cues from her that she wants to go home. She clearly is not interested in him. Paul drives home alone, sits in his parked car, sweat on his face, breathing heavily and clutching his hand over his heart.

In 15 minutes of screen time, we see Paul's unthreatening exterior, and we also see, suddenly, his unwillingness or inability to take rejection in stride. Without a word of dialogue to suggest it, we know that this guy is a powder keg. There's something "off" about him, something that is not immediately apparent to the naked eye.

There's a certain type of guy who describes himself as nice, and makes a big deal of it, and then feels unfairly victimized when the other guy gets the girl. Karpovsky, with Paul, creates an extraordinarily insightful and accurate portrayal of that kind of "nice guy." He cajoles and pleads with the clearly uninterested and increasingly annoyed Danielle: "I listened to you when you were upset, I brought you tea ..." His "nice"-ness, then, is calculated. He feels he should be rewarded for it. He cannot understand that he is being pushy and creepy. Paul is actually terrifying and Karpovsky is magnificent in his role, funny and frightening, sometimes at the same time. 

Since Paul and Danielle work together at the lab, his obsession for her intensifies in the eight months following their weekend tryst. He sits in his white lab coat, watching her walk by him. He inserts himself into conversations she's having with other people. Paul's sister (played by the wonderful Amanda Good Hennessey) tells him he needs to get over it. "It was eight months ago!" she explodes in a tense scene.

The sibling relationship is very important in Rubberneck. There is something mysterious about their shared past, and both adult siblings are damaged by it, although Paul's sister seems more willing to admit how damaged she is. She treats her brother with a loving yet wary kindness. When she hears he's going on a date with someone other than Danielle, the look on her face is both excited and hesitant, as though she knows deep down that he is going to screw this one up, too.

A story of obsession, unrequited love and the shattering of one man's psyche, Rubberneck sticks with Paul as he maneuvers his way through his daily life in the wake of this failed romance. He hangs out with his nephew, he goes fishing at an isolated pond, he rides his bike to work alongside the treacherous Boston freeways and he tries to date, with no success. He considers getting another job, so that he won't have to see Danielle all the time. Danielle starts dating someone else at the lab. This is the trigger that sets the rest of the film in motion, and brings it to an inevitable and terrible climax.

I spoke with Karpovsky and actress Amanda Good Hennessey following a screening of Rubberneck at the Tribeca Film Festival this week.

Karpovsky and Donovan cast out of Boston, and Karpovsky felt he really lucked out finding Hennessey. They had been looking for a couple of replacement actors, and the sister was such an important role. She is Paul's only connection to a larger world of social relationships and normalcy. Hennessey was recommended to Karpovsky.

Good Hennessy told the story: "Janine, who played the receptionist, is a student of mine and recommended me to Alex. Alex emailed me in the morning. I auditioned for Alex that morning and in a few hours we shot the scene where I was in the shower. So it was all very quick. Charlie Anderson, the sound guy, had been my student and my T.A. and he was sitting there on the counter with the boom mic and now I'm naked in the shower with people I didn't know four hours ago. It was surreal."

Making a thriller was something both Karpovsky and Donovan were passionate about. I asked him about the thrillers that had inspired them in the making of Rubberneck. Karpovsky said, "Garth and I talked a lot about this movie called Bubble by Steven Soderbergh. Bubble is underseen but really good. It's understated and implicit and subtle. That was a huge influence on us. In many ways, it's also a movie about unreciprocated obsession and desires and how that can make somebody unravel. Michael Haneke really stood out for us, specifically Cache and The Piano Teacher. I think he's a real master. A big idol for us. This Lynne Ramsay movie called Morvern Callar was a huge influence on us. It's a really weird movie, a slow movie, a character-driven story line. In a weird way, Michael Clayton was a big influence. I know it's a big studio movie with George Clooney but Garth and I both love it. It's a really well done modern noir."

Rubberneck opens with the words "Inspired by True Events," which someone had asked about at a question-and-answer session following the screening.

Karpovsky said, "The film is inspired by real events but, to be forthright, we took some pretty aggressive liberties. I think a lot of people can either personally or through one or two degrees of immediate association relate to a tryst, or a brief affair, where one person harbors desires that are very much unreciprocated. It's one thing for that to happen and for you not to spend that much time with the other person. Time will heal those wounds hopefully, but if you're exposed to that person every day at work, those wounds are ripped opened again. It's like Chinese water torture, a drop on your forehead every morning and that can really make you unravel, especially on top of childhood baggage you're negotiating."

On the difficulty of making this kind of film, Karpovsky said, "One of the biggest challenges was doing something that wasn't a comedy. In comedy, you know what's working and what's not working. You pitch the joke to your friend in the writing of it and your friend laughs. You do it on set and people are laughing, so you know at least you have a chance of pulling it off in the edit. In Rubberneck, it was harder to gauge that. There were more shades of grey. It was easy for me to get lost in that grey."

I asked Karpovsky about the film's working-lab location, which showed the casual everyday work of scientists, boring and monotonous, yet hugely important.

"The lab is in Medford, near Tufts University," he said. "We emailed 30 or 40 different places and only three or four got back to us. We visited those labs. One lab was great but it was a very new lab, slick and brand-new. The lab we eventually shot in was a tugboat lab, they do work for bigger corporations. We felt this lab was the most cinematic, we thought we would get the most mileage out of it. They were also really flexible."

Despite the fact that Paul is mainly an unpleasant character, and behaves abominably (not to mention criminally), both Karpovsky and Donovan wanted to create a story that would allow the audience to feel for the guy, despite his actions. Karpovsky said, "One of our main objectives, one of the initial driving sources of enthusiasm for both of us when we began working on this film was: hopefully we can create a character where you can still nurture empathy for him even after he commits a heinous act. I think including the nephew and the sister were aids in that process. When we went back and did reshoots, it was because we felt we didn't have enough sympathy for him to the point that when he committed the heinous act, a lot of the audience disengaged. We wanted to see if we could pull off a movie where you root for someone despite the horrible thing he's done."