Many of us deal with anxiety on a daily basis. Some of us have sleep disorders. Others battle with being OCD. Mental illness tends to be a taboo subject. It’s something we usually hear about when it comes to the increasing number of mass shootings in this country. Why do we avoid the issue until something goes wrong?In Lou Howe’s writing and directorial debut, he brings us the story of GABRIEL. Played flawlessly by Rory Culkin, Gabriel is a young man struggling with a form of mental illness. On his way back home from some sort of facility, he stops to check up on an old girlfriend in her dorm room, only to find that she has gone home for the holiday. All this happens while avoiding calls from his worried family members. The rise in his agitation both emotionally and physically is a real punch in the gut for audience members. I think we all had a sigh of relief when she wasn’t available. Finally meeting up with his family, Gabriel is not deterred in his path to find her. He disappears on a bus and makes his way into NYC to track her down. During his journey we are witness to the quiet moments in this young man’s life. These seem to be the most disturbing and painful for both Gabriel and viewer alike.Howe has created a fully fleshed family dynamic without spelling out everything in the script. He treats each character with honest care. It is quite an impressive feat for this first time writer/director. There is actually pretty little dialogue, but what there is, is very astute. Rory’s performance is like watching a masterclass in character study. His focus and mannerisms are perfection. Not to mention that in person, his humility gives you pause. He is quiet in person but eloquent and clearly very bright.I was fortunate enough to attend a round table with Writer/Director Lou Howe and Rory. Here are some of their thoughts on the film.
Normally in Hollywood when we deal with mental illness everything turns out alright in the end. For example, Silver Linings Playbook. This is the extreme opposite. So what was your motivation in telling this story?
Lou: I think I just wanted to be as truthful as possible. I likeSilver Linings Playbook. I like positive movies but I don’t find them to be as honest about life as I hope to make my movies. I wanted to stay true to Gabe and his experience and try to make it as authentic as possible.
And if the character based on anyone specific?
Lou: No, not really. The original idea to create a character came from the experience of seeing a close friend get diagnosed with mental illness. The character is purely fictional.
Rory, you are constantly on all the time, everything take. Were you and everybody onset thinking, “I just need a break for 5 seconds?”
Lou: I think were so in it we are just running the race, like Rory said, it took a minute after we wrapped to realize how intense the whole process had been. But at least for me, when you’re in it, you try to focus on the next step.
Can I ask about the body language in the film?
Rory: When we went and spoke with people and did those sort of things, there was one young man that really stuck out to me. He said he couldn’t entirely trust his own hands so they always had to stay within his line of sight and so the point of the hands in my face was to make sure they’re behaving.
Was there any specific research you did maybe speaking to doctors or speaking to patients affected with mental illness?
Lou: My own friend was sort of the start of it. There were two organizations here in New York that were very helpful with research; the Child Mind Institute read early draft of the script and helped me make sure that this felt accurate and true. And another place called fountain house which is a community center for people struggling with mental illness. I visited several times and took Rory there as well just to meet people struggling with mental illness and hear their stories directly.
Rory: For me it was almost entirely hearing about hearing firsthand accounts and their perspective. Learning from the outside, the medical aspects and all that, is great as a foundation, but as soon as we start shooting I just sort of throw that all that all the window because as Gabriel, your diagnosis is bullshit. he doesn’t buy into any of that so I sort of had to not think from the outside.
Lou: I was sort of trying to maintain that, too. Rory would be out there with the rest of the cast thinking about it from their point of view. First person memoirs for Rory or talking to people with illnesses and for the actors playing the family members in the film, having them talk to people in their position.
Rory, was the character hard to shake off at the end of the day?
Rory: Yeah, I thought I left him behind once we got done. But when I got home I was like kind of fragile and really sensitive and I didn’t realize it. But it took a while to shake it off. When I came home, my friends said that my face had aged years. It’s weird, you know, at the screening last night, it brought me right back and I was afraid I was going to, as soon as it ended, get emotional. It’s almost embarrassing, getting emotional watching myself. It’s almost like I’m praising myself but really I’m back there. It’s not easy.
GABRIEL will leave you thinking about this intense story. You will want to know what happens long after the screen blacks out. It is certainly a wonderful conversation starter, and that one that we need to address more often. Bring family members to see this film. It will give you a safe place to start talking to one another, no matter what ails you, inside or out.
Gabriel is in theaters June 19th.
Writer/Director: Lou Howe Starring: Rory Culkin, David Call, Deirdre O’Connell, Emily Meade, Louisa Krause, Lynn Cohen, Alexia Rasmussen Runtime: 88 min