Even before Lou Howe’s writing and directing feature debut Gabriel was completed, Filmmaker Magazine had already marked him as one of its New Faces Of Independent Film, in a 2013 feature on up-and-coming filmmakers worth tracking. It’s a mark of the success of his film, a standout première at 2014’s Tribeca Film Festival, that’s finally making a slow rollout to theaters through Oscilloscope. Howe, a 32-year-old graduate of Harvard and the American Film Institute, started the project by writing from the point of view of a childhood friend with mental illness. Through AFI’s Narrative Labs project, with support from the Sundance Institute and New York’s Cinereach organization (which has also helped produce small, memorable films from Citizenfour to Beasts Of The Southern Wild), Howe was able to complete Gabriel, which stars Rory Culkin as a young man navigating a mental illness that distances him from his caring and frustrated family, and leads him on an increasingly desperate quest throughout the film.
The Dissolve: What was it like waiting a year for Gabriel to come to the public after the initial festival screenings?
Lou Howe: It’s been tough to wait. I tried to focus on writing, and I’ve been working on several other projects, and going to festivals a bunch, and showing it as much as possible. I want to share it with the world as much as I can. And it’s been a long time coming, but it’s really exciting to finally get to this point, because with a movie like this… I never knew how many people would get to see it, or in what way. It’s just really the ideal version of what we wanted, in terms of going to theaters with a great distributor that knows what they’re doing in terms of the marketing. It was worth the wait.
The Dissolve: Did you have a strategy in mind if it didn’t get picked up? Was there a point where you were concerned it wouldn’t see the light of day?
Howe: We always had several different strategies, a multi-tiered strategy we would adjust depending on how things were going. We always had the goal of getting as many eyeballs on it as possible, and a more traditional theatrical release was always my hope, so we held out for that. And I guess it worked. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: You went to Harvard to study writing, and then became interested in filmmaking through your classes, is that accurate?
Howe: Yeah, that’s totally accurate. I loved movies from a young age, and I loved writing, really, so I went to college thinking I would write fiction, which is what I’d done mostly in high school. I took a video documentary class for fun during my freshman year, and really fell in love with it, and kept doing it, until all of a sudden, I was majoring in film. And I’ve never really stopped since then.
The Dissolve: In college, you had the chance to study under Hal Hartley and Ross McElwee. Can you point to particular lessons you learned from them?
Howe: I didn’t spend that much time with Ross. I loved his films, but the other professor who really had a big influence on me was Robb Moss, a documentarian. I started out with him, and he really taught me the fundamentals of storytelling, even before I got into narrative. It was a fundamentally sound program where you go back and shoot 16mm film and do only vérité-style docs. Robb was really the introduction to the possibilities of moviemaking, and he’s been at Harvard forever. He’s one of the stalwarts of the film department.
And then every two years they have a visiting narrative filmmaker who covers fiction, and by chance, it happened to be Hal Hartley when I was moving into the classes where I was able to branch out into writing scripts and making shorts. I was already a fan of his work, so that was really exciting, just to learn that he was coming to town. Hal really was very individually supportive. He set us up to do what we wanted in a really empowering way. So I think that was the beginning of me trying to figure out what I wanted to do as a fiction filmmaker, and what kind of stories I wanted to tell. It was a really wonderful way to learn, because it’s a really small department, and it’s under the radar at Harvard. There’s so many other impressive things going on that the whole Visual And Environmental Studies department, which is just the art program, is kind of in a bubble, and you can explore and try new things and do what you want in a fun way.
The Dissolve: You made short films at AFI, and you’ve said you went into this project confidently. Did you run up against challenges you hadn’t anticipated in moving from short films to feature-length films?
Howe: Yeah, I guess I was confident in my ability to manage the process, and be in control of myself, and not get overwhelmed by the number of responsibilities the director has on set. But I guess I was not that cogent in terms of working with real, professional actors, which I hadn’t done much of, and more experienced crew, and a professional setting. AFI tries to train you to work in a very professional way, but there’s still a big difference between student filmmaking and the real world. But once I was on set, it was a familiar process. I actually had a lot more fun making Gabriel than I did with making my shorts, which is probably surprising, given the tone of the movie. In film school, at least at AFI, there’s a lot of competition, and it’s a real pressure-cooker environment. I really didn’t want it to feel that way on set, so it was a much more organic process with Gabriel. It was about collaborating with people who were really good at their jobs, and supporting them doing their thing. In a lot of ways, it was not necessarily an easier process. But it was a more comfortable process.
There were obvious challenges just with pace and the amount of work—we shot for 20 days, whereas my thesis film for AFI, which was 15 minutes long, we shot for six or seven days. That feels very luxurious now. [Laughs.] The amount of work and the relentless nature of making a feature was a challenge. But I think I enjoyed it more, or I tried to, at least.
The Dissolve: You’ve talked a lot about how the film was inspired by a longtime friend of yours with a mental illness, and trying to capture his perspective, and his family’s experience, and how you wrote journals from his point of view originally. But how did you get from that abstract idea of evoking his experience to making this particular story?
Howe: Those journals were the start of it. That was the goal of trying to make this character in my friend’s situation—a person who had been in the hands of the mental-health-care system, and had mental-health issues. Writing in first-person, it started to come out. That said, it was a long process, with a lot of evolving elements, and always with the goal of making it more and more specific. I went from those journals to putting that character in random scenes without any story in mind to figure him out. Eventually, over lots of trial and error, I hit the spine of the story, which is now the movie. And then everything—the world of the story, and the characters especially—really came into focus once the actors were involved. I think the characters grew to another level of specificity, and hopefully authenticity once Rory [Culkin] was on board, and the rest of the cast.
The Dissolve: The authenticity is particularly striking in your dialogue, which naturally progresses in the way people have actual conversations. Was there a process you used to feel out those exchanges?
Howe: That’s so nice to hear. I think there are a few steps I took to get to that point. It’s really just trying to put yourself in the shoes of the person who’s talking, starting from the early days of those journals. For a long time, the script was really about Gabe, the writing process was about Gabe, so I was trying to write the movie from his point of view in a profound way. The rest of the movie was really underdeveloped for a long time. Once I figured out the goal of Alice, which came later in the writing process, that helped define all the other characters. But it was really a process of going through each secondary character and trying to see the story from their point of view. That probably sounds like an obvious thing I should have done earlier, but it was a new task at that point in my writing life to try to go through every moment, even tiny characters who have a couple of lines, to make sure I’m thinking about what I’d do in their shoes at that moment.
And the actors really just helped that process into a whole new arena of truth. I wasn’t necessarily encouraging improvisation, but I was not at all tied to the script. I never corrected them on set in terms of the dialogue or the exact words. And the rehearsal process was a lot more about relationship-building and backstory, making sure everyone understood the backstory and their personal character history, and then putting them in the situation and letting them go. Obviously, I was lucky enough to be working with a really incredible cast that was very excited to work that way. I think a lot of it just comes from me trying to make sure the actors felt like themselves in the situation, and felt comfortable in their characters’ shoes. They were often putting things into their own words, or we were tweaking things together to make it feel like them.
The Dissolve: The audience starts with no idea who Gabriel is or what he wants, and you don’t have flashbacks or exposition. You find the character through action, dialogue, and other people’s reactions, which is an unusual and trusting model for film storytelling. Why did you choose that structure?
Howe: It’s a type of storytelling I like a lot. Going back to unreliable narrators in literature, there’s another layer the audience or readers need to work through to understand characters, and get past their perception of what’s going on. That’s just something I’ve always enjoyed and found interesting. Especially onscreen, there are movies like Lisandro Alonso’s films, like Los Muertos or Liverpool, where you’re really just thrown into the character. You have no clues, and you’re just trying to pick up scraps of information as you’re on this journey. And I love that experience as an audience member. But it also really fit the story we were telling. I think when people hear “It’s a movie about a young man with mental illness,” a lot of connotations come with that, and a lot of preconceived notions. And I’ve been fighting those in any way possible, and really trying to make the movie about Gabe the person as cleanly as possible.
I wanted the audience to come to him fresh, and to have fresh reactions to him at every point in the movie. I hope the audience is thinking about their own perception of Gabe, and the way it changes throughout the movie. I think it evolves as you learn more about him. There are points where you sympathize with him, you’re deeply afraid of him, you’re fed up with him. Your reaction as an audience member can mirror some of the other characters in the film, so that was always part of the goal. I think it worked, from what I’ve heard. [Laughs.] People’s reactions surprise themselves. You have a character that is capable of unsettling things, and you’re never quite sure what he’s going to do, but you also come to understand him in a culturally deep way, so even if you’re not rooting for him exactly, you’re feeling the emotion behind what he’s doing, and understanding his struggle.
The Dissolve: You said the actors brought a lot of what we see onscreen. How did you work with Rory in terms of communicating who Gabriel is? What did you tell him about what you were looking for?
Howe: Rory and I really connected right at the beginning, because of relating to Gabe, I think, which is surprising to some people. From day one, the first time he read the script, it was a conversation about what Gabe wanted, and why. Rory showed a deep understanding and empathy for Gabe without even talking about it. He was on Gabe’s side, and saw things from Gabe’s perspective. I think that was a key foundation of our working relationship, Early on, I gave him a basic amount of research from first-person memoirs and people who had lived with mental illness, and we went to a place called Fountain House in New York, which is a mental-health organization that’s been really supportive of the project. He met a bunch of people who have their own struggles, and heard their stories.
As quickly as possible, we moved on from any kind of medical research and external stuff, and started to build an interior life together. We opened up each other’s heads and shared a lot of how our brains work, so that by the time we were on set, we had a map of Gabe’s head, a little bit. Then we quickly and efficiently tried different things in terms of performance. He had different internal triggers and things that influenced him. I could say one word to Rory between takes, and get a totally different approach to the same scene, just because of that work we had done coming into that shoot, of really understanding what was going on inside Gabe. And in that way, it was a similar process of building from the inside out. My relationship with Rory was the best example of that.
The Dissolve: How did you work with the other actors in terms of how you wanted them to play off of him, or react to him?
Howe: I tried not to influence their reactions too much. I tried to keep the actual reaction to him as fresh as possible. With the family members, with Deirdre O’Connell, David Call, and Emily Meade, the people who had longstanding relationships with him, we worked a lot more on those elements of making sure everybody was on the same page about what had happened before the action of the movie, and how everyone felt about that. It was about building the rest of the story that isn’t onscreen, making sure that existed as concretely as possible, so we could jump off into the actual action of the movie. It was a similar thing of starting out with a little research. And everybody comes to this story with their own experiences of having dealt with loved ones or hearing from friends. Everybody has their own stories, which was always a goal of mine. I want to encourage letting the world in, as opposed to imposing some preconceived idea from my head on the actors.
The Dissolve: This seems like a potential breakout for Rory Culkin. It’s such a showcase for him as an actor. And you’ve said that as soon as someone suggested him for the role, you were on board. What was it about him?
Howe: I’ve loved him since You Can Count On Me, which I think was his first speaking role. He was like 8 or 9, I’m not sure. And then more recently, I saw him in Electrick Children not too long before his name came up. I was aware of what he looked like, and his more recent work. He brings a natural authenticity to everything. He’s comfortable onscreen in a way that felt necessary for Gabe. The character is very insecure and self-conscious, but totally in his own head, and not very self-aware. There’s a level of naturalism that the actor playing him needed from the get-go. Even as a young kid—Rory just feels like a real person in everything he’s done. That really appealed to me. I actually have a couple of good friends who made Electrick Children, so I had heard about him as a person, and his working style. And then once I met him, it was totally confirmed that the way he works is also what I was hoping to do. I’m just building the character from inside out, and not being concerned about how things come out, and thinking instead how they start, and what they are on the inside.
The Dissolve: Gabriel has such a blue-grey tone throughout, but it’s also startlingly consistent in its design. There’s a particular shot where Gabriel first meets his brother’s car at the bus station. They’re both wearing blue coats, the car is blue, the background behind them is blue. Was that a nitpicky process, in terms of design?
Howe: It was a thorough process. The idea, logistically, in terms of building the cast, was always to make me the least experienced person on set. I had really, really talented people in every department, and I had a great time building the world with Wyatt Garfield, the DP, and Chris Trujillo, the production designer, and Sarah Mae Burton, who did the costumes. We did a lot of individual work together. But right before the shoot, I realized the four of us hadn’t really met to talk about color palette and tone together. We did that for the first time a day or two before the shoot. It was a little worrisome. But it was like a five-minute meeting, because everybody was on the same page. Everybody knew what we were trying to do. Once we were on set, it was not nitpicky at all. It was more about collaborating with these awesome people, and executing a plan we all made together.
The Dissolve: Obviously the world is going to be dim and blue when Gabriel is on the bus in the evening in the rain. But the visuals are still following that palette when he’s out in the street in New York, as if the colors are communicating what’s going on in his head. How did you and Wyatt talk about how you wanted the film to look as a whole?
Howe: It’s hard to nail it down. We looked at lots of references in movies, photographs, and paintings, and we talked a lot about the mood and the narrative goals of the look of the film. The way he works is similar to the way I’m trying to work—having all these goals in mind, then letting them go once I’m on set. The consistency of the palette was the result of all those conversations and what we were trying to do being really ingrained. It’s also in nature. We were shooting in New York and Long Island in February and March, so it’s a winter movie, and it always felt like it should be that tone of blues and grays. It always felt right, and felt like it was in the script in some way. Just the mood of the movie feels that way for me.
The Dissolve: In interviews from Tribeca last year, you were talking about your next project being a thriller. Where are you in the process? What are you working on these days?
Howe: I’m working on a few things at once. That thriller is still in the works. It’s a script I was working on during the Tribeca experience and right after, and I’ve put it aside for a while, but that’s definitely a project I want to get back to. But I’m working on a television idea with my producers from Gabriel, and I also have another feature that’s still in the writing stage. I’m trying to get a few things going at once.