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Writers-in-Contention: Lou Howe, Writer-Director of Gabriel


To kickstart the Hollywood awards season, we will be speaking with writers from some of the most acclaimed films of the year every Monday to discuss their writing process.

After receiving high praise for his short films, including a Student Academy Award nomination for My First Claire, Lou Howe entered the feature film arena with Gabriel, released theatrically this year after a 2014 festival run. It’s an intimate story about a young man returning home from a mental health clinic to his concerned family, all of whom are still dealing with his father’s suicide. Gabriel has been hailed as star-making role for Rory Culkin, earning him critical acclaim and a Gotham Nomination for breakthrough performance.

But the character-driven film as a whole is an impressive debut from Howe, who takes a powerful look at the effect mental illness can have on an individual’s interpersonal relationships, featuring impressive supporting performances from Deirde O’Connell, Lynn Cohen, David Call, and Emily Meade. I spoke with Howe about his personal connection to the story, the importance of taking a personal approach to characters dealing with mental illness, and working with the actors to create a truly character-driven film.

Lesley Coffin (TMS): Where did the character of Gabriel come from originally?

Lou Howe: The character of Gabriel is really my own invention. But the seed of the idea goes back to a friend of mine. One of my best friends when I was growing up struggled with his mental health for pretty much his whole adult life. So I wanted to write about the emotional impact of his experience, and the effects it had on his and his family. So I gave myself an old-fashioned creative writing assignment, to write a first person journal of someone in my friend’s position. So I created this young adult male who had been institutionalized and given an assignment by his psychiatrist to keep a weekly journal. So I started writing these journal entries in the voice of that character, and that character quickly became Gabe, and then the world of the movie and his family basically grew out of what I originally wrote in those journals.

TMS: Was the original idea to write a journal an assignment you had been given or was it an assignment you gave yourself?

Howe: It’s been a while since I did it, so I’m not sure if it was based on an a writing assignment I had been given back in college, but most of what I wrote as Gabe was an exercise I gave myself. And it really was an attempt to understand some of what my friend had been going through. And it just ended up really being a way to find the voice of a character and served as a starting place for the screenplay.

TMS: When it came to the characters circling Gabe’s life, his friends and family, how did they emerge in the journals?

Howe: The journals were really just a starting place, so once I started writing the screenplay, I tried just putting Gabe in random scenes and seeing how they would play out. So I wrote a lot of scenes which never made it into the final draft, but were within his world. So a lot of the information about the people surrounding Gabe and his family history came out during that part of the writing process. But I should say that along with Rory’s input, all the secondary actors who played his family and Emily Meade’s Alice, they really were developed in collaboration with all the actors. Especially when it came to Gabe’s mother, grandmother, and brother, those characters weren’t as fleshed out as Gabe in the script. The original drafts had all been written from Gabe’s point of view, so the rest of the characters were admittedly, sort of thinly developed and used to effect Gabe’s behavior, rather than being fully formed characters on their own. But I wanted to work with actors who would go deep on character development with me, so that was definitely true of my cast. The entire principal cast were so instrumental in filling out those secondary characters.

TMS: Did you have all the actors do research on mental health issues and the impact it has on family relationships?

Howe: I wanted everyone to do research from the perspective of the specific character they were playing. So I gave Deirde a memoir written by a father whose daughter had a psychotic break, because I know that book is really powerful and provides a lot of insight, but specifically insight from the perspective of a parent. And I did the same thing with David, who plays Gabe’s brother, although he has his own a family experiences which were actually very similar to his character’s, and that personal connection came up the first time we met to discuss the role. And his input added a lot, not only to his performance, but to the entire script. And that was true with Rory too. I gave him a base foundation of medical research, but we then quickly moved on to first person memoirs and talking to people who do struggle with their own mental health issues, to try to keep the focus on his perspective.

TMS: And the film is very interesting because there is this continuing conversation regarding Gabe’s desire for normalcy, and wanting what his brother and other people around him have. And you are constantly thing what that definition of normal life means to him. Where did that aspect of the story come from?

Howe: I think the kernel of that idea came from what I observed from my friend. Seeing someone I’m very close to since childhood, when we were on parallel tracks, and how we’ve diverged was we entered adulthood, that gap was really on my mind when I first started thinking of the project. And what I always wanted to do with the movie and with Gabe’s character, was give him a very basic kind of want in the story. I wanted there to be a very basic coming of age aspect to the film that was refracted and distorted because he is living with a severe mental illness. I want a very universal desire, to magnify the effect mental illness can have on his life.

TMS: And I’m assuming that is why you included Emily Meade’s character Alice, who represents an almost ethereal desire in Gabe’s life. It was surprised watching the movie that there is a sense of anxiety which only happens when he finally sees her, because it seems like things could get out of hand very quickly. Did you sense that the movie changes tone when he goes to Alice?

Howe: I did. Because Gabe’s unpredictability was always a big part of what drove the narrative. The audience, and the characters, were never totally sure what he was going to do or what he’s capable of doing. So that was meant to create a sense of suspense. But, within the world of the movie, that jump to conclusion that he might be violent or capable of violence is a fear someone like Alice or Alice’s father would probably have. I’ve found that reaction to be realistic in my own experiences and my own research. It is a case of jumping to conclusions, but that unpredictability and threat of danger is also part of the package that comes with someone like Gabe. But I wanted to ultimate highlight his humanity as the movie concluded.

TMS: Because you based some of this on your friend’s experiences, did you show your friend the script to get his input?

Howe: Not him directly. He’s aware I’ve made a movie, but he’s a little divorced from reality and not exactly self-aware about his situation. But his family has been very involved, from the earliest stages of me making a movie. His father is a writer, so he reads draft after draft. And his siblings and family have all seen the movie and were moved by it. I think there was a sense of relief, because there is always the concern that something like this could become exploitative. But I think they found it to be emotionally truthful and felt I did justice to the story, which was great to hear.

TMS: There is an interest tendency from Gabriel regarding the way he speaks, often using phrases that were used in his family when he was a kid, and also the way he wants things done for him the way a kid would, like having someone else bandage his hand. What made you think of adding that detail?

Howe: I think I’ve noticed that in some of my research, but I’ve also noticed that in my own life, and not just from people with mental illness. Often, when people are dealing with traumatic events, they will revert to the time period before that event happened. A kind of nostalgia or idealization before this bad event. It can be before a psychotic break or death or even a divorce for some kids, and they see their past life as perfect or ideal. And they will try to force things back to the way things were. So I thought that was an example of pretty typical behavior from Gabe.

TMS: What made you want cast Rory in the role?

Howe: I’ve been a fan of his for a long time, since You Can Count on Me. And as soon as we met, we seemed to connect on how to approach the character, and he seemed to really want to approach things from Gabe’s point of view and relate to him on a personal level. He was thinking about him as a guy he might know, and asking about the kind of music he would be into or the type of kid he had been. And that wasn’t the reaction I usually got from actors who read the script. And I knew that I needed an actor that would be willing to work with me on the character and whose instincts were to build the character from the inside out. I needed an actor who wanted to create a full human being, rather than focus on the external aspects of his illness. And I think that is the type of person Rory is as a person and the way he likes to work, and fortunately, I think the results of that approach was that audiences also related to Gabe on a very personal level.

TMS: Why did you decided not to specify his mental illness?

Howe: I made the decision really early on, and I always felt that naming his diagnosis would overshadow the character and let the audience off the hook. I didn’t want an audience to be able to say “that is what a bipolar person is like” or “that is what schizophrenia looks like.” I didn’t want them to be able to hid behind a check list of symptoms, but really confront Gabe as a person. You can’t see him in only one light, and define him only by his illness.

TMS: You address the idea that whatever Gabe is dealing with, is inherited from his father, which effects Gabe’s relationship with his brother. Because Gabe is dealing with something his brother hasn’t inherited, there seems to be a sense of guilt and obligation which effects their relationship. What did you want to take away from their scenes?

Howe: To me, their relationship feels like a heightened example of a very common, universal dynamic. No matter who you are, between siblings, there are always a mix of confusing and frustrating emotions at play. Often a lot of jealousy and guilt and sibling rivalry, always on top of a foundation of love and empathy. So to have all those emotions at play, but also be forced into a position of authority complicates their relationship. His brother never asked to be in charge or be put in a position of authority over his brother’s life, but that is where he’s at. So that really heightened all the emotions which already exists between siblings as they move into adulthood.

TMS: Deirde scene with Rory, explaining what her life was like with his father and the pain of watching him suffering is so heartbreaking to listen to, because we know that she is being completely honest with him. When did you write that monologue?

Howe: There was a version I’d written that existed before I cast the movie. But it was wasn’t as good as what is in the movie. It got much more specific once Deirde got involved, which is true of every moment she has. She wasn’t about to let me get away with anything that wasn’t truthful. That’s why she’s an amazing actor, and in that way, she sort of set an example for the entire cast and for me. She inspired me to keep making the script better during the pre-production process. So that scene I was rewriting up to the day we shot it, but always in conjunction with Deirde.

TMS: You mentioned the actors helped to flesh out the characters in the script. What were somethings they brought to you that ended up in the final script?

Howe: Well, it was more about finding the way for them to connect to the characters. And often that meant having conversations about the characters and finding examples from their own life they could use to understand the characters. But when we were talking about the characters’ histories with each other, often times they would share a story from their own life and I would get inspired and incorporate an element into the script or ask them to add that to their character’s background. So we really did sculpt the characters from my ideas of the characters and their relationships and just listening to examples from their own lives, which was a major part of my work with them before we began shooting the film. We rehearsed a little bit, but it was more about relationship building and allowing these actors to spend time together.

TMS: When you showed the movie to individuals dealing with mental health issues and families, what was some of the feedback you’ve received?

Howe: It’s been really wonderful. From professionals in the field and organizations that helped me with the research, they’ve been big supporters. Some have even held screenings or come to the theaters. But I’ve gotten a nice reaction from people who find it true to their own experiences and also find it empathetic. As I said, any time you making a film about mental health, there is always going to be a concern about exploitation and furthering a stigma, but I think there has been a very positive reaction to the movie because of the sense of empathy people have towards Gabe and his family. And the other thing that’s been great is how many people have been inspired to share their own histories or family histories with me, and tell me how mental illness has affected their own lives. Even friends I’ve had for years have been inspired to share something with me that I had no idea about. So it’s been really nice to see the movie facilitate awareness and discussion about this issue.

TMS: This being your first feature, were you surprised by how much a script can change during production?

Howe: That was probably a lesson I learned the hard way when I made my shorts. I don’t think I ever got it right then because I was thinking of the script only as a blueprint of what the movie could be. And when I made my short films, I was always so tied to what I thought the movie should be and looked like in my head, it became a frustrating battle to put exactly what was in my head on the page and then on the screen. So over the course of those years, I realized that isn’t an approach that works. For one, it is a process that I didn’t find at all enjoyable. But it was also, more often than not, a process that was detrimental to the final product. So I came into this film with the goal of really keeping all options open and wanting the people involved in the process. So I could let that blueprint of a script evolve into the movie it wanted to be in an organic way.

TMS: Do you consider writing and directing to be parts of the job of filmmaker, or do you approach write and director as two separate jobs?

Howe: I think my opinion of that has changed, too. I think I realized that they need to be treated as two separate jobs. When I made shorts, I was very much the writer-director and took on this role of “creator of the movie.” But on this, I realized the script was finished and my focus needed to be on directing, and often that means talking through things with an actor or talking out a shot with the cinematographer, and then going back that night to rewrite the script, as the writer. But I had to let myself change hats while making this movie and as the director, be free to use the script only as the jumping off point, rather than treat it as the Holy Grail.

TMS: Who are some filmmakers that have inspired you?

Howe: Well, for this movie, there were a couple of major influences, especially some of the major American directors from the 70s, which is probably the era which first got be interested in filmmaking to begin with. There was a tendency in that era of filmmaking to really go deep into the characters and create a bond between characters and audiences, which allows the characters to go anywhere and bring the audience along for the ride. The films of a director like Bob Rafelson, like his films Five Easy Pieces or The King of Marvin Gardens, and some of Hal Ashby’s movies, when you’re totally with these characters and feel you could go in anywhere.

And there is the original The Gambler with James Caan, not the one with Mark Wahlberg, or a movie called Straight Time with Dustin Hoffman, where you grow to love these characters, despite their flaws, and then halfway through the characters do something they can’t come back from. And it becomes almost a thriller to watch them try to get out of the mess they’ve made, and hoping they somehow can. So that dynamic was something I definitely had in mind. But in terms of process, I was probably most inspired by the British director Mike Leigh, particularly his movie Naked. Just reading and hearing at Q&As how he works with actors really inspired the way I worked with the cast on this film and made me want to build this world and the relationships of these characters in collaboration with them.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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