Ex-Girlfriends is a cleverly written story about the perils of tiptoeing around the subtleties of dating as a 20-something in New York City. But do not take the film at face value. Alex Poe’s ’03 first feature-length film delivers a unique spin on a perhaps overused story that is saturated with talent and sardonic wit.
Poe, who wrote and directed the movie, as well as played the lead role, proves to be a rising talent. His writing is strong and clear, and breathes life into the story. It is through the characters’ witty comments and sharp dialogue that I was able to connect with the characters and pull myself into the story. The film features a strong cast of Middlebury alums such as Poe and Kristen Connolly ’02 (The Cabin In the Woods), as well as nationally recognized faces like Jennifer Carpenter (“Dexter“). Carpenter’s character, Kate, was my favorite in the film. Kate is Poe’s character, Graham’s, ex-girlfriend-now-friend. The insightful yet brutally honest advice she gives Graham throughout the film echoes the comedic, yet thought provoking theme of the rest of the film and I often found myself hoping she would come back on screen to pick up some of the slower scenes. What is perhaps most impressive about the film is its quality, given Poe’s limited budget. Not once does by a “low-budget, indie” feel bring down the quality of the film. Every scene feels masterfully shot, and the story takes the characters through an impressive collection of locations in New York. The Campus got a chance to talk to Poe about Ex-Girlfriends and his experience shooting the film and performing in theater since graduation:
Middlebury Campus: What did you study at Middlebury and do you feel like your experience at Middlebury impacted this project and how you approach filmmaking?
Alex Poe: I studied theatre and literary studies at Middlebury and I started this theatre company called Redux Productions with a few friends, Joseph Varca ’02 and Ben Correale ’04. We would produce about a play a semester up in the Hepburn Zoo, everything from a Paul Auster neo-noir adaptation to a comedy inspired by a Tom Waits album and a re-telling of stories by my old relative Edgar Allan Poe … We didn’t really care about the budget, we kind of made the aesthetic fit the budget so the sets were usually just chairs that would be configured in different ways or Varca would design some shadow projections — that kind of thing. So after we graduated and moved to New York we just kept working together, doing plays, short films, [and] things with no budget but some started to do well. I wrote/directed a play called “I Was Tom Cruise” which won Outstanding Play at the Fringe Festival. All of that led me to film school at Columbia University and ultimately making Ex-Girlfriends, which is my first feature.
This movie was really made in the same down and dirty way that we did the plays in the Hepburn Zoo. We didn’t have many resources but I had a solid team of collaborators including Varca, who co-produced and a bunch of other Midd alums including Connolly … Along the way it kind of turned into something bigger, we added Jennifer Carpenter from “Dexter” to the cast and ultimately it got a theatrical release and is now on Hulu, iTunes and Amazon.
MC: I know it’s easy to write yourself, whether consciously or not, into your own characters and story. Given that you played Graham, did you put yourself at all into the character and draw from your own experiences while writing Ex-Girlfriends?
AP: There is a lot of my own experience in the film, I wanted to make a comedy that was really honest about the complications of relationships and found humor in that so a lot of that has to come from real life in order to feel authentic. I find what people actually do in life so much more interesting and complex than the predictable way they usually act in films. Something similar to the story of the film happened to me and it stuck out to me as something revelatory of the way people keep things from each other and the way we look for fulfillment in relationships. Of course things change when you start to transform them into a story but I tried to retain the emotional core of that experience. I do play the main character and there is a part of me in him but it’s also pushed in a certain direction for the sake of the story and to make it more of a comedy. I hope I am a little less naïve than the character … It’s kind of looking at a certain moment of life that everyone seems to go through at one point or another.
MC: You use a lot of voice-over throughout the film, which helped me as a viewer kind of get more into his head. Could you talk a bit about that writing decision and your writing process over all?
AP: The character is a writer who is always constructing the narrative of what his life means in a very absurdly literary way, so the voice-over sections are really him writing his life as a story. It provides some access to his thoughts but really he’s kind of a comically unreliable narrator as the film goes on. The writing process was very fast and I really wrote to locations I had access to and things I felt I could shoot on a low budget — apartments, bars, streets. Grand Central was a bit of a challenge but we just shot it guerilla style, which was an interesting experience.
MC: Could you talk a little bit more about your experiences shooting “guerilla style” in Grand Central Station?
AP: Shooting in Grand Central was interesting because you can’t actually shoot film there without a whole lot of expensive permits, but you can shoot still photographs there so we had to sneak around shooting on a 5D which looks like a regular still camera but actually shoots HD video, trying to be very low key. Of course packs of commuters would recognize Jennifer Carpenter from “Dexter” and ask for her autograph, blowing our cover. But Grand Central is a big place so we would shoot in one place, get caught by security and then go underneath the station through a tunnel into another part and start shooting again. One of the last shots of the film is a very long shot of me walking up a ramp amongst a crowd while all of this voice over is going on, it’s kind of an important turning point and in the take that is in the movie, Varca is just off camera telling the security guards that the camera is off and we’re packing up. A lot of the film was like that, getting what we needed right under the wire.
MC: I know that you and Connolly went to Middlebury together. How was it working with a fellow Middlebury alum and how did Carpenter get involved with the film?
AP: I had worked with Kristen on my first short so to have her in my first feature was great. Jennifer Carpenter actually came on board because we had an actress drop out due to a scheduling conflict a week before we were supposed to start shooting. It came right at a moment when everything seemed to be falling apart with the budget and locations and equipment all at once, it was pretty much going to shut down the whole project. But Kristen’s manager was a supporter of the film and he gave me a list of the other clients his company represented and Jennifer’s name immediately jumped out to me because I thought she was great on “Dexter.” We met, talked about the script, she liked it and a week later we were shooting. It was a real boost to the film to have her involved and she was great to work with; directing her and acting with her was a lot of fun.
MC: Who have been some of your biggest influences throughout your artistic process?
AP: There’s definitely a kind of Woody Allen streak in my work, especially with this one, taking on writing and directing along with acting. I like John Cassavettes, his method of making films with friends and just constantly creating work is a big inspiration. Truffaut was someone whose films I looked at a lot in thinking about this film, his Antoine Doinel character is kind of the model for my character in this film, very romantic but somewhat immature and comic in his idealism. Also this film by Joachim Tried called Reprise was something I looked at a lot in terms of coming of age stories.
MC: I was quite impressed by the quality of the film given the low budget. What problems — or benefits — did the budget present?
AP: Despite not having a lot of money we really did everything we could to give the film a very classical look. We shot on the RED with Zeiss lenses and really paid attention to having elegant, locked down shots. There’s very little handheld camera, it’s mostly on a dolly or tripod. You have to get creative and you have to make compromises in terms of how many takes you can get, how few shots you can get away with for a scene, but it was important to make it have a certain cinematic look as opposed to the more handheld “mumblecore” aesthetic. I spent a lot of time with my cinematographer, Greg Kershaw, my producer Jennifer Gerber and Joe (who co-produced) talking about the shots for each scene and really trying to keep the aesthetic consistent.