alex karpovsky DID IT HIS WAY
Everyone loves a success story.
So it makes sense that as proud as Independent Film Festival Boston organizers are that this week marked the start of their event’s 10th year, they’re prouder yet of the festival’s history of nurturing breakout stars, especially those with roots in Massachusetts.
This year, Newton native Alex Karpovsky finds himself the subject of that festival pride, with a microburst of new projects that includes roles in three films showing at IFFB, as well as a small part in an upcoming Coen brothers’ movie, and suddenly steady work as a cast member on the HBO series “Girls.”
Karpovsky has one of the most oddly recognizable faces in indie film. But he’s no one’s idea of a natural leading man. He’s carved out a niche making films as comfortable in their awkwardness as he is with his own quirky looks. Since debuting his first full-length feature, “The Hole Story” at the 2005 IFFB, Karpovsky, 36, has written, directed, and/or starred in 23 feature films, short films, and television shows.
“It’s . . . easy to be proud of him,” says Adam Roffman, IFFB’s program director and the only staff member to have been with the festival from its humble beginnings. “Growth like Alex’s reflects the growth of the festival. And while we may have helped get his work out there, we’re equally grateful for what he’s done for us, as his films continue to garner attention and critical acclaim — not just for his work, but also for independent films in general, and for independent film festivals.”
Roughly 14,000 attendees are expected at this year’s IFFB, which began on Wednesday and runs through May 2 at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Somerville Microcinema, and Somerville Theatre. A total of 98 features and shorts are scheduled to be shown, including “Rubberneck” (screening May 1), which Karpovsky directed, co-wrote, and stars in as a disturbed technician in a suburban Boston science lab, who develops a creepy obsession with a co-worker who rejects him romantically.
“This is definitely a departure for me,” Karpovsky says. “Until now, everything I’ve done has had a comedic bent. But I wanted to go to a new place, professionally and emotionally, thus this dramatic, dark story.”
He is also featured in two other films at this year’s festival: “Sleepwalk With Me” (screened on opening night), which tells the story of a struggling comedian (Mike Birbiglia) who finds new material by sleepwalking, and “Gaybe” (April 28), about a 30-something yoga instructor who coaxes her gay best friend from high school to help her conceive a child the old-fashioned way.
Karpovsky got his first big break in 2005, when IFFB screened “The Hole Story,” the first film he wrote, directed, and starred in, about a small, northern Minnesota town that experiences a weird scientific phenomenon, when in the middle of winter, a “black hole” opens on a frozen lake, exposing warm water. He plays a local man who sees the phenomenon as a chance to get his big filmmaking break by making a documentary about the event and selling it as a television pilot. But things don’t quite work out as planned.
“Such is life in the film industry, especially the independent film industry,” says Karpovsky. “What has made this industry thrive and grow and reach new heights is the willingness of people in it to take chances on unconventional stories. Independent Film Festival Boston took that chance on me back in 2005 — in what was my first indie film festival — with ‘The Hole Story.’ ”
Karpovsky says his start in filmmaking was atypical.
“I never wanted to be in film. I wanted to be an academic like my father,” Karpovsky says. “He’s a professor at BU. I studied science — anthropology — at Oxford. And that’s the direction I was headed, till I dropped out of my PhD program.
“When I first developed an interest in comedy and performance, my original plan was to become the next Andy Kauffman. Film came later, when I was in my late 20s.”
Early in his film career, Karpovsky honed in on science as a theme or backdrop for much of his work, and scientists as character models.
“That was partly because . . . my father is a scientist, and it’s a lifestyle — a professional lifestyle — that I grew up observing,” Karpovsky says. “Not to generalize too much, but scientists are so methodical that they have different motivations and logic that shape their relationships and their decisions. It’s that idea that has helped me make projects that were driven less by wild, twisty plots and more by complex characters.’’
While he refuses to cite favorite projects, Karpovsky admits he’s especially stoked by his role in the new HBO comedy series “Girls,” a sitcom in the vein of “Sex in the City,” about four young Bohemian women trying to find their way in the world.
“The main reason I don’t do favorites sort of parallels why good parents don’t pick their favorite children,” he says. “But ‘Girls’? I love it. It represents the quirky, average people whose stories I love to tell in my films.”
Lena Dunham, writer, director, and star of “Girls,” says Karpovsky has done well in independent film because he knows how to extract variety in his characters and scripts, even though he’s mostly made comedies.
“I was attracted to his awesome improv ability and unique charm,” Dunham says. “When Alex and I were making ‘Tiny Furniture’ [Dunham’s well-received 2010 film, costarring Karpovsky] he felt I was being too easy on him. He did something crazy in a take just to see if I was paying attention and would stop him. I was. I did. And then he trusted me. He’s smart and sly and willing to admit to anything. I love his brain.”
Gerald Peary, a film professor at Suffolk University and director of Boston University’s Cinematheque program, says Karpovsky represents normally abnormal people, and that’s why his career is taking off.
“He doesn’t just play leading men. He also plays the hapless, clueless side lover, who is completely un-self-conscious,” says Peary, who also writes about film for the Boston Phoenix and occasionally for the Globe.
Karpovsky’s willingness to experiment with self-deprecating comedy has caused his films to resonate with younger audiences that might otherwise opt for Hollywood blockbusters, Peary says.
“When I showed ‘The Hole Story’ to my BU students years ago, they were amazed with the film,” he says. “Alex’s work opened a door for them that helped expose independent film. It has led me to tell my students repeatedly that karma is a factor. And they should support that young, independent filmmaker they’ve never heard of, because in three years they’re going to be that person.”
While Karpovsky jokes that he hasn’t gone Hollywood, there has been one casualty of his success: his Massachusetts residency. He lived in the Bay State till just a few months ago when he moved to New York to begin filming “Girls.” But his parents still live in Newton.
“Obviously I love my home state and Boston and the surrounding area. I grew up there,” Karpovsky says. “And many of my films have been set in this area. But I need a break from Boston for a while. Right now I’m in Brooklyn for ‘Girls.’ Who knows where to next? It’s not a bad thing. It’s just part of my growth.”
For more IFFB information, visit www.iffboston.org.
James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@globe
.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.