“Gabriel” a Local Highlight at the Hamptons International Film Festival

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Rory Culkin on the Shelter Island ferry in "Gabriel."
Rory Culkin on the Shelter Island ferry in “Gabriel.”

By Annette Hinkle

Director Lou Howe in Riverhead.
Director Lou Howe in Riverhead.

This weekend, the 22nd Annual Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) offers a full slate of documentary, narrative and short films at theaters in East Hampton, Southampton, Montauk, Westhampton Beach and right here in Sag Harbor.

The festival runs from Thursday to Monday and films featured in the HIFF represent perspectives by filmmakers from around the globe. But also in the mix are movies made closer to home and among the offerings in this year’s Views From Long Island section is “Gabriel,” an indie film from writer/director Lou Howe which will screen at the Sag Harbor Cinema this Friday evening.

The film is Mr. Howe’s first feature-length project. It garnered some favorable buzz at the Tribeca Film Festival when it premiered there in April — and much of the film was shot right here on the East End, including in Sag Harbor.

“Gabriel,” stars Rory Culkin as a young man suffering through a mental breakdown while his concerned mother and older brother struggle to cope with his delusions and get him the help he needs. When the film opens, Gabriel has just been released from a psychiatric facility, but rather than heading straight home to his family, he boards a bus to Connecticut with intentions to track down a high school girlfriend. Gabriel plans to propose to her — despite the fact the two have had no contact for five years.

This is just one the many delusional fantasies Gabriel (or Gabe as he insists on being called) explores after he goes off his meds. As he sinks deeper into a world of his own making, Gabe evades his family by chasing unrealistic dreams and vague childhood memories in New York City and on Long Island. At times, Gabriel’s frightening irrationality and poor judgment make him a threatening on-screen presence. Yet as an actor, Mr. Culkin never turns his character into stereotype and instead manages to keep Gabriel intense, but extremely sympathetic at the same time.

It’s a fine line to walk in a portrait of mental illness and given the astute handling of the material in the script, one might suspect that Mr. Howe has had first-hand experience with it in his own life.

“I have a close childhood friend who was diagnosed with a mental illness when he was a freshman in college,” explains Mr. Howe. “We grew up together and that experience affected me deeply. It felt like something that could be an effective story.”

“Once I started to write it, it became totally fictional,” he adds. “It sprung out of the experience with my friend and his family dealing with him.”

Mr. Howe also credits Mr. Culkin for having the skill to effectively pull-off the subtleties of Gabriel’s complicated on-screen persona.

“I think getting to the human side came naturally and was not at all a challenge for me or Rory – that was the original connection we made,” explains Mr. Howe. “It wasn’t about the illness or the way he doesn’t fit in the world. It was Gabe, a person, and on some level understanding him and his basic wants and needs.”

“The way Rory works is very similar to what I was hoping to do with the movie,” adds Mr. Howe. “We were able to open up to each other and talk through our childhoods and things that are inside to build Gabe’s internal life and figure out what’s going on in his head as specifically as possible. We had trust that creating an inner world that felt authentic would come out the way it should.”

Mr. Howe, a graduate of the American Film Institute’s (AFI) filmmaking program, lives in Los Angeles, but he’s a native New Yorker who has spent a good deal of time on the East End, which is why he decided to come here in the winter of 2013 to shoot much of the film. Sag Harbor doubles as Connecticut in one of the film’s first scenes, a farmhouse on the East End serves as Gabe’s mother’s upstate New York home and the script’s climactic action takes place on Shelter Island.

It’s all familiar territory for Mr. Howe.

“My aunt, uncle and cousins grew up in East Hampton year round and are still there,” says Mr. Howe. “I grew up going to East Hampton in summers and I got married there.”

“It’s a big part of my life. I have a lot of happy memories there and it’s a place that made sense for the ending,” he adds. “Once we thought about it, there were so many locations that would work for other parts of the script. It was so nice for me to be in a familiar place the whole time.”

Now that Mr. Howe, named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 2013 New Faces of Independent Film, has his first feature-length effort under his belt, he feels his vision as a filmmaker is set.

“AFI is really production heavy,” explains Mr. Howe. “I made six or seven shorts in two years. It was great practice in the actual process of making a movie. It took coming through that process to figure out what kind of movies I want to make.”

“This film is different than what I’ve made before — and is much more in tune with what I want to do in the future,” he adds.

“Gabriel” screens at Sag Harbor Cinema on Friday, October 10 at 6:30 p.m. Rory Culkin and Lou Howe are scheduled to attend. For a schedule of all HIFF screenings and events (including “A Conversation With…” discussions at Bay Street Theater with filmmakers and actors Patricia Clarkson, Joel Schumacher, Laura Dern, Hilary Swank and Mark Ruffalo) visit http://hamptonsfilmfest.org. 

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