The crew was ready to film in New York. Actor Rory Culkin—the youngest of seven, including older brothers Macaulay and Kieran—was on board. And the last investor had committed.
But because of scheduling reasons, the last day of the summer shoot would fall on the filmmaker’s pregnant wife’s due date.
The pressure was on.
It was two years ago, in the middle of August, and Lou Howe had one frantic weekend to decide: make the movie, or put on the brakes for his soon-to-be family.
“I realized it was not a good idea, not to be here. Thankfully,” Mr. Howe recalled last week during a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “I was able to spend a couple months with my wife and the baby, and I was even rewriting the script, getting it back to the way it was supposed to be—a winter story.”
Shot on the East End and in Manhattan in February and March 2013 for less than $1 million, the director’s debut feature film, “Gabriel,” will open on Friday, October 10, at Sag Harbor Cinema during the Hamptons International Film Festival, as part of the Views From Long Island signature program.
Mr. Culkin, who is expected to attend the festival with Mr. Howe, portrays Gabriel, a young man in the throes of mental illness who will stop at nothing until he proposes to his high school crush—a woman he hasn’t seen in years. The film examines the role of the nuclear household while, against all odds, evoking an uneasy empathy toward Gabriel as he winds his way through the city and Long Island on his journey.
“I always wanted the story to be from his perspective, and to really try to create an experience for the audience where they are really with him, and have to confront the world the way he does,” Mr. Howe said. “He does not have an easy life, so it’s not necessarily the most comfortable position for the audience. That was part of the intention.”
Recently named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film of 2013, Mr. Howe first developed the story in 2010 during his second year at the AFI Conservatory in Los Angeles. Inspiration from his childhood friend, who suffers from mental health issues, was the spark, he said, until the story took on a life of its own.
Half a dozen drafts and three years later, Mr. Howe was on location with more than 15 actors and approximately 30 crew—first in Manhattan for one week, and then on the East End for three.
From Bridgehampton and Shelter Island to East Hampton and Montauk, the director found countless locations that could be written as other areas of the Northeast, he said, which was logistically perfect for the film. Sag Harbor’s Main Street passes for a small college town in Connecticut, Mr. Howe reported, and a house in Springs is reminiscent of the Hudson Valley, although the location is never divulged.
“It feels like we’re up and down the East Coast,” the Manhattan native said, “but, actually, we’re just up and down Route 27. It’s an evocative setting for us. It’s a place I have a real personal connection to. I spent a lot of time out there, but not in the winter. This time was so nice—you feel like you have the place to yourself.”
While some cast and crew returned to the city during the weekends, Mr. Howe stayed put, as did Mr. Culkin, for the most part. From the moment they met in spring 2012, the director said he knew they were on the same page.
“I’ve been a fan of his for a long time,” Mr. Howe said. “It just made perfect sense on so many levels. His approach to the character himself, and to the process of working together, was exactly the way I had been thinking about the part and the collaboration. We wanted to paint a full and authentic picture of this guy and what he’s going through. And I’m proud of the movie in that way.”
Mr. Howe said reactions to the film from mental health professionals, and those who struggle with mental illness themselves, have been almost universally positive—especially from the family of his childhood friend.
“People are moved by it and seem to think it’s an authentic portrayal of their experience,” Mr. Howe said, “which is really the most satisfying reaction you could get.”
“Gabriel” will screen on Friday, October 10, at 6:30 p.m. at Sag Harbor Cinema. An encore screening will be held on Sunday, October 12, at 8:30 p.m. at Regal East Hampton Cinema. Tickets are $15. For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.