Q&A: Lou Howe on Bringing ‘Gabriel’ Back Home to the Hamptons

Note: This interview originally ran during the 2014 Hamptons International Film Festival, where Gabriel won the Views From Long Island award. Gabriel opens Friday, June 19, in select theaters. Director Lou Howe will do Q&As following the 7:40 pm screenings on June 19-20 at Village East Cinemas. 

Longing for stability in the throes of mental illness, Gabriel (Rory Culkin) will stop at nothing until he proposes to his high school girlfriend—never mind the fact that they haven’t seen each other in years. Abrasive and irrational, Gabriel nonetheless evokes empathy as he winds his way through New York City and Long Island on his quest, in large thanks to Rory Culkin’s commanding performance. A sure-footed portrait of a young man on the edge, Lou Howe’s debut feature examines our fixation with the nuclear household, and whether or not it’s all it’s cracked up to be.


How do you describe Gabriel in your own words?

Lou Howe: Gabriel is the story of a young man trying to retake control of his life. Gabriel is at an age when most people are entering adulthood, but he is profoundly stuck. He’s convinced that ‘the one that got away’ will solve all of his problems, so he sets out to find his childhood girlfriend who he hasn’t seen in years.

As we travel with him on his quest to find her, we start to realize that his version of reality is very different from ours. And over the course of the first half of the movie, the details of his life gradually come to light. He struggles with a mental illness and has been living under supervised care for several years. His family is deeply concerned for his safety, and go to great lengths to try to protect him. But in Gabe’s eyes, they’re just blocking him from getting what he wants, what he is convinced that he needs. So he does whatever it takes to find this girl, and the tension keeps getting ratcheted up as his behavior grows more extreme and unpredictable.

At its core, the movie is a coming-of-age narrative, but it’s refracted through the distorting lens of mental illness, and driven by an engine of suspense, because you’re never sure what Gabe is capable of, or what he’ll do next.

Congratulations on your feature film debut as a writer/director. Where did this story come from?

Lou Howe: One of my closest childhood friends has been struggling with mental illness since we were teenagers, and watching him and his family deal with his illness has deeply affected me over the years. I never thought of it as a movie idea necessarily, but his experience of the world always fascinated me, so I tried to write about it. I started by assigning myself the task of writing first person journals in the voice of a character suffering from a psychiatric disorder, and very quickly, the character took on a life of his own. The world of the story—the other characters, the setting, the arc of the narrative—all grew out of those journals, and the movie became completely fictional almost immediately. But the emotional tenor of the story is definitely informed by my own experiences with my friend.


I really appreciated the way the story just opens, without any setup—the audience just has to kind of figure things out. Was that always your intention?

Lou Howe: Yes. I really wanted the film to feel experiential, so the audience has to learn things by going through them, as opposed to being told what to think or feel. That’s the type of storytelling that I respond to most, and I think it also fits the story and character quite naturally. I wanted the audience’s experience of meeting Gabe to mirror what it would be like to meet him in real life. Slowly, he reveals himself as you spend more time with him. He seems charming, quirky, and a little irreverent at first, but then reveals himself to also be a little frightening, deeply selfish and potentially dangerous.

I’ve always loved unreliable narrators in literature, the way the reader’s relationship to the story and character shift and change throughout a book. And the way the story is told in Gabriel is my attempt to create a similar experience on film. The audience’s allegiances and empathy hopefully shift throughout the movie, and that added dynamic is something I find very interesting, both as a filmmaker and as an audience member myself.

Along the same lines, you never actually specify which mental illness Gabriel is struggling with. I assume this was on purpose, but can you explain your reasoning?

Lou Howe: Yes, I always intended to avoid naming a specific illness. My goal was always for Gabe to be a fully realized character, a complex and idiosyncratic human being, not the personification of a list of symptoms. So I didn’t want the audience to feel bogged down or distracted by a particular diagnosis, like checking off a mental checklist of what they thought the illness should look like.

The same holds true for Rory. Before he came on board, I had spent years researching various mental illnesses, and had a very specific idea of exactly what Gabe’s diagnosis is at the time of the story, but as soon as Rory and I started working together, we spent relatively little time on the medical research side of things, and focused as soon as possible on the specifics of what was going on in the character’s mind. I didn’t want him to be thinking about how he should appear according to a diagnosis, and the same holds true for the audience. The reality of Gabe’s situation is also that his diagnosis has probably changed several times over the years, as has his medication and behavior. So to slap an overarching label on him, like bipolar or schizophrenic, would also oversimplify the nature of his illness, as well as him as a person.


You have an amazing lead actor, Rory Culkin, who fully inhabits the role of Gabriel, with all his nuances and tics. How did you work with your cast? Was the whole movie rehearsed, or was there room for improvisation?

Lou Howe: Rory and I connected on the approach to the character immediately. I think we both related to Gabriel on a fundamental level, so we always approached things from his perspective. It was never about the exterior of the character, but instead was a thorough process of building him from the inside out. Rory is a very internally focused guy, which meshed perfectly with the character and our approach. We kind of opened our brains to each other and shared little details of how we think, and together created this entire world inside Gabe’s head. By the time we were on set, we had a complete map of what was going on internally for the character, so we could communicate and make adjustments really easily and quickly.

That approach, building the interior world and trusting that it would present itself on the exterior naturally and appropriately, became my working method with the rest of the cast too. So we spent a lot more time talking through backstory and getting to know each other, as opposed to actually rehearsing. I tried to build a complete world for the actors, a foundation of information about their characters’ lives that wouldn’t necessarily show up on screen, but would support and inform their performances. The goal was always a feeling of authenticity, so we wanted the lives of the characters, just like the sets and the costumes, to feel lived-in. The trick was keeping the actual scenes fresh but doing extensive work on the support system of the story, if that makes sense.

Do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Lou Howe: The key for me is to always be making progress, no matter how small. Just move forward. This is advice I need to remind myself of often, so it’s much easier said than done. But there’s so much adversity in this career, rejection and disappointment, that it can be very easy to get discouraged and lose momentum. So I would advise moving forward no matter what. Your own ability to produce content is the strongest asset you have, so just keep writing or shooting and good things will happen.


What would you like HIFF audiences to take away from your film?

Lou Howe: I want them to have a unique cinematic experience, and to hopefully come to understand Gabe and his struggles. I also hope the movie sheds some light on what living with a mental illness is like, as well as trying to care for a loved one who is struggling in that way. I don’t think it’s an issue film necessarily, but it hopefully brings some emotional honesty and authenticity to the conversation around mental health.

We look forward to having you in attendance at HIFF 2014. What are you most looking forward to at the Festival?

Lou Howe: Well, we shot the movie throughout the East End about a year and a half ago, so it’s really exciting to be bringing the finished film to its hometown. I’m also definitely looking forward to some east coast fall. It’s 92 degrees today in Los Angeles, and I find that deeply depressing. Some foliage, maybe a little apple cider, sounds very nice right about now.

Gabriel won the Views From Long Island award and a Next Exposure grant from Suffolk County Film Commission at HIFF 2014. Find tickets. Follow Gabriel on Facebook

Lou-Howe-headshotWriter and director Lou Howe was recently named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film for 2013. His debut feature film, Gabriel, stars Rory Culkin and premiered in competition at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. His most recent short film, My First Claire, screened internationally at several festivals and was named a National Finalist for the Student Academy Awards. He is a graduate of Harvard and the MFA Directing program at the AFI Conservatory in Los Angeles.