I’ve uploaded a new photoshoot and some new pictures of Rory in an event of the Tribeca Film Festival.
The writer/director and star of ‘Gabriel’ discuss the movie’s take on mental illness with Dr. Koplewicz at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, April 25, 2014. Howe and Culkin found optimism in the often harrowing look at a young man struggling with psychosis, a troubled family history, and delusions about past relationships. The capacity crowd found compassion, dedication, and a truth that deserves a wide audience. “This movie needs to be shared with people,” said one attendee.
Gabriel (Rory Culkin) is convinced that if he finds Alice (Emily Meade), his first love, then everything will be alright. His eyes dart around like a dope fiend all hyped up on crack, but then they quickly revert to a nearly despondent gaze. Gabriel has become obsessed with tracking Alice down, much to the dismay of his mother (Deirdre O’Connell) and older brother (David Call), and to add to everyone’s distress — most of all Gabriel’s — his father recently killed himself.
The family wrestles with how to take care of Gabriel as he spends most of his time in a fight-or-flight psychological state. Gabriel’s grandmother (Lynn Cohen) is the only other person he trusts besides Alice, but he is almost unreachable in his warped world of illogic and confusion.
Written and directed by Lou Howe, this is a gut-wrenching story about a man whose mind is the worst part of him. “Gabriel” is Howe’s debut feature film and my guess is we will see much more of him. The very talented Howe presents a complex narrative that will make you squirmy, but you won’t want to look away. The writing is strong and Howe never reduces anything to cliche. Nor does he pretend there is any easy answer to Gabriel’s troubles.
Rory Culkin blew me away in the movie. The movie is his. I found myself staring into his eyes throughout most of the film. In person he looks even more beautiful than on screen. He seemed shy when he entered the room for our interview at the Tribeca Film Festival. His body is slight and his eyes have a hint of the haunted look I saw in Gabriel’s eyes. I found Culkin to be gentle and sweet yet maybe a tad guarded. Who could blame him for that though? These film festivals are grueling for the stars. I too am exhausted, but believe me I am not complaining one little bit!
Dorri Olds: Did you ever know anybody who had that kind of tough relationship with their family?
Rory Culkin: Yeah, I think everybody knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone. There are things about the way Gabriel thinks that seem very familiar to me. I think everybody can relate to what he wants, which is to be left alone and to be loved.
-Was it hard to separate yourself from the character when the shooting wrapped?
Yeah, it definitely was. I thought I’d left the character back in Long Island, but I totally brought him home. I was incredibly sensitive for a good while. It took time to shake him off. After seeing the screening last night I was wondering, oh no, am I back where I was?
-Is it difficult to manage moods when you’re playing such an intense character?
That was essential to certain scenes — to be depressed or angry — and it all seemed justified to me [as Gabriel]. People around me were being ridiculous and I was the only one that made sense in my mind and that made sense to me.
-What were your first impressions after reading the script?
I like that we’re constantly catching up with Gabriel, what he’s up to, what he’s doing next. It’s just a couple of days in his life. It doesn’t start at birth and there’s no narration or anything. We’re just seeing a glimpse into his life. That’s what really attracted me to it.
-Do you think his mother was a positive or negative presence for Gabriel?
I think negative. Everyone in the world is negative to Gabriel except for Alice, the one person who understands him. He knows that his mother is not evil and she’s not trying to hurt him, so if she’s not evil then she must be just stupid. He’s wondering, why are you so stupid? Deep down, he knows that he has a problem and they [his mother and brother] are probably justified. At the same time he is thinking, I have this problem because you gave it to me. It’s all a constant circle and goes back to not trusting anyone. I’m the only one that matters.
-The grandmother said, “You’re no longer a child. You’re responsible for your own actions.” Do you think Gabriel is responsible?
When it’s beneficial to him. He’s a child when it works. When you’re trying to tell him what to do, then he’s an adult. He is whatever works for him at the time.
-How much did you stick to the script or improvise?
There wasn’t too much straying away from the script. What was on the paper was so perfect it didn’t need to be touched.
-Do you think that when Gabriel decides to go see Alice it seems like a rational choice?
Yes, definitely. Even if he doesn’t fully grasp why. Alice does. She has to let him down. She has to tell him he can’t be following this idea that doesn’t exist.
-Was there something freeing about playing a mentally ill character?
Yes. I liked being able to do anything I wanted and removing my filter. If I felt self-conscious about a decision I made, I would just act on it. If it was too much, we’d try again.
-Did you find logic in Gabriel’s disturbed mind?
Yeah, I felt there was logic. I hope the audience found the logic. Everything to me made complete sense. I was surrounded by selfish people so I have every reason to be acting this way. I have every reason to be paranoid. This world is a scary place.
-Do you prefer indies versus big-money making films?
It’s never about the money. It’s about the character and whether or not the people in charge are into me. It’s not totally in my control what I do and don’t do.
-Do you ever get acting advice from your brothers?
Less and less as we get older. We’re all doing our own thing. We’re adults now. [Smiles]
Watch excerpts from this interview with Rory Culkin and writer–director Lou Howe:
The first film from writer-director Lou Howe, Gabriel carefully explores the mind of a troubled young man. Following his self-rationalized thoughts and fears, the eponymous protagonist takes the audience on an unconventional search for the conventional hallmarks of a “good life.” Under the careful direction of Howe, Rory Culkin takes center stage in a realistic portrayal of a fragile, paranoid youth. Like most of us, Gabriel yearns for love and unconditional acceptance. From the first frame to the last frame, the anxiety is palpable.
Now 24, Culkin has been acting regularly since he was 11. Gabriel is Culkin’s sixteenth feature film and certainly his most involved character yet. Last Friday Culkin sat down with Frank Sun, whom he first met while Sun was working in the camera department of Gabriel, at the Carlton Hotel in New York.
FRANK SUN: Rory, this is your 16th feature. Do you feel like Gabriel is a highlight of some of the roles you’ve played in the past couple of years?
RORY CULKIN: Definitely. This is the part I was most invested in of any of them. It took the most out of me—I didn’t realize until we were done shooting. I got home and was just fucking worn out. Anything that anyone said to me just hurt me; I was super sensitive for a while afterwards.
SUN: How did you come across the script? Why did this role appeal to you?
CULKIN: I had heard about this script and finally got a hold of it. Then I sat down with Lou [and] we pretty much just talked about how scary the world is. I think that’s what won him over. I didn’t come at it talking about how tragic Gabriel’s story is, I came at it from the point the view of Gabriel and thinking that he’s always right, and that everyone else is crazy for not being paranoid. Paranoia is reality because this world is fucking scary. You’re all going to work [but] look at the sky! What the hell is the sky? And why aren’t we talking about this? You guys are out of your minds! So I gave him this huge rant to Lou and that’s what won him over.
SUN: Just hearing you talking about it now, it feels like it’s easy for you to snap into that character. Are there any correlations of your personal life that makes you feel like Gabriel?
CULKIN: [laughs] Yeah. It’s unavoidable that a piece of yourself is going to be involved in any character you play, but with Gabriel especially, I talked to young people who struggled with mental illness [and] a lot of what they are saying was eerily familiar to me. I felt that way all the time! Most of us feel that way, we just have the filter to not say the inappropriate things, and these people just don’t have the filter. So it was just about removing the filter and also remembering how I felt when I was seven. A lot of it is about holding onto pieces of your childhood—you are never going to be as close to your childhood as you are right now, and you want it back.
SUN: Did you often revisit your childhood when you were preparing for the film?
KULKIN: One second Gabriel is a five-year-old boy, the next he gets really, really ugly and says awful things. It’s the balance of going back and forth between being an adult and being a child. Like I was saying, I let Lou inside of my head and he knew the key words—like “battlefield,” “I got it, I know what you mean,” “fan” “I got it,” “zip face,” “I got it.” Key words that are very minimum and efficient.
SUN: What was it like working with Lou? Did you feel safe?
KULKIN: Totally. And finally, because I’m not sitting next to him, from the actor’s standpoint, he’s the perfect director. I never felt lost for a second. If I did feel lost, it was the key words and bang, I got it. Thank you so much. Never a moment wasted. There were a lot of times when everything blacked out around me and it was just us. I had to be sort of selfish to be Gabriel and he was into it. It was great.
SUN: How much did you rehearse?
KULKIN: We had maybe a couple of days. Normally on a project it’s sort of essential to get comfortable with the other actors, but with this it was essential to not be comfortable with the other actors. So I didn’t really care much for rehearsal for this one.
SUN: How did you find your connections with Gabriel’s mom, brother, and love interest?
KULKIN: To be Gabriel, I had to think that I was always right. I knew better than everyone I was talking to. They were either bad people, regular people, or just stupid. The way I chose to interact with my mother, I can tell she’s not evil, but she’s stupid—she thinks she knows better, but she doesn’t. That’s the mind set I had to be in: I’m right and they are wrong—they are all bad guys and only Alice and I are good guys. I’ve got to link up with other good guys and vent. [laughs] With the brother, it was pretty unique to the screen. I have a great relationship with my brothers—with David Call playing that character, even watching it now, I’m still not convinced if he’s a good guy. He was acting like Gabriel is an inconvenience—you have to pick him up from the bus, but you like doing that. You like taking charge. You like that I am an inconvenience to you. After watching it, I’m still not convinced that he’s a good guy, but that’s probably because I’m still in Gabriel’s mindset.
SUN: I remember seeing you, one month, two months, and three months after the film at your iPod parties. You were still in character! [laughs] I was confused. I thought today you’d still be in character, but I’m surprised you’re not. What made you stay in that zone?
CULKIN: I didn’t want to be. The last shot we did of the movie I was in a bathtub. I wanted to leave the Gabriel in the bathtub, for sure—wash it off and be done. [But] I went home and nope, I was still Gabriel—still made out of glass, just super sensitive. I guess it took time for it to wear off. After seeing the screening he’s creeping back in my head… Who are these fucking people! [laughs] It’s weird. Gabriel went deep in my head. I’ve never had to dig so deep before; it made an impression.
SUN: Tell me about filming in the Hamptons in the winter.
CULKIN: It was damn cold! It was fine. We had this scene on the beach with Alice [played by Emily Meade]—there was one thing that was frustrating. We did her coverage first, and it was windy and everything was chaotic. When we turned [the camera] around on me, everything became calm. If we could only flip that! She should be calm and I should be chaotic—it was kind of frustrating.
Lou Howe’s directorial debut follows Gabriel (Rory Culkin), a scared 20-something suffering from a non-specific mental illness slinging fault in every direction, including his own, after his father commits suicide prior to the film’s start. To anyone who has experienced even the slightest bout of depression, this sometimes quiet, sometimes frantic observational story will surely hit home. And although the motivation for writing the film didn’t come from Howe’s home, it came from nearby.
“I’d had a friend who was diagnosed with a mental illness in his late teens,” explains Howe as we sit with lunch-gone-cold in front of us at The Carlton in Manhattan during the first days of the Tribeca Film Festival. “That’s when the seed [for the story] was planted. I started thinking about his experience of the world and from that created this fictional character. I became really got obsessed with [my friend's] experience of the world and the story sort of grew organically from [the character I created] Gabe. I couldn’t shake him really.”
Watching the movie, you can’t shake Gabe either. Culkin’s expert performance of a boy on the edge – of what, we don’t know – draws you in and keeps you present for a gloomy 90 minutes. The ending comes somewhat abruptly, which was a note Howe had gotten in the writing stages.
“For me it’s the right place to leave Gabe emotionally,” he says. “The style of storytelling is hopefully very experiential, that I’m not telling them much but rather showing it to them. The idea of ‘wrapping it up’ or an explanation of how everyone’s doing, never really felt right.”
When Culkin met with Howe after reading the script, the two were on the same page – pun intended. Once in the swing of prep for the shoot in New York City and The Hamptons, Culkin and Howe met with others who’d experienced depression, mental illness, suicide attempts and Culkin even read a few books on the subject.
“It was good to learn about the medical side of mental illness,” he says, eyes cast down the whole time, “but as soon as we started shooting I had to brush that aside because Gabriel doesn’t believe in that. It quickly became how Gabriel is feeling, how he doesn’t trust anyone around him and really doing this from his perspective.”
As Gabriel, although unstable and obviously tortured by his own demons, Culkin seems stronger and more convicted than the real-life counterpart sitting in front of me. His big, round eyes are what draw you in during the film and make you root for the angry child inside, but are sadly nowhere to be seen during the interview. However, he perks up when asked whether there’s a shadow he might have to come out from under as the 24-year-old younger brother of Macauley and Kieran Culkin.
“If anything I want to enhance the name… I want to make the family proud!”
Howe feels that the reason the two connected so well and understood Gabriel was because of Culkin’s interiority, which as I said was palpable during the brief meeting.
“He is so internally focused,” says Howe, a graduate from American Film University in 2010. “We could talk about everything that is going on in the character’s mind and then let him loose. Both of us trust that whatever comes out will come out. And that’s absolutely the character’s experience of the world – deep in his own head – but also in my experience the best way to create a character. You’re building a full person and presenting them however they appear, instead of worrying how they appear. It added a whole new dimension to Gabe and we really connected to that.”
In a very honest moment, Culkin describes his acting experience on set – the first he’s carried as the lead on his own, appearing in every scene throughout.
“I wish I were stronger,” he says. “I wish I could get on set and crack jokes and then just turn it on when I have to. But it does take a while to get it going and Lou and the crew were really sensitive to that as well.
Howe’s description of Culkin as internal is probably most apt when considering this is his first film as sole lead, where he essentially has to carry the entire story. But he feels “there is pressure only if you over think it.” (Strength shown from the inside out.)
“It was all about keeping my eye on the ball,” he continues, “and not really looking from the outside. If I did take a second to think about what I was doing, I would’ve probably crumbled, but then again that might’ve been appropriate [to the story]. No, there was no pressure, and I felt the crew protected me from it [if there was].”
Rory Culkin has come a long way since playing a kid in a tinfoil hat in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs.
Culkin stars as the titular character in writer-director Lou Howe’s first feature Gabriel, which poignantly explores a subdued yet dangerous case of living with mental illness. We first meet Gabe, as he prefers to be called, on a lonely bus ride to an unknown college campus. He is on the search for Alice, a girlfriend from the recent past, only to find that she’s not living in the dorms, nor is she at her off-campus housing. Gabe’s persistence in finding her is mildly disturbing, almost stalker like, but it’s at the point when we’re just starting to get the creeps from this guy that we realize there’s something wrong; this kid is actually rather ill. Gabe was apparently supposed to hop the bus back home to his family, not set out on a lovelorn journey to reunite with an old flame.
Culkin’s performance in Howe’s debut is quite possibly the best of his career so far. He makes the character both tender and troubled. He apologizes to strangers for his weird behavior, and is genuinely appreciative of anyone in his path that has to put up with him; anyone except perhaps his family. Deirdre O’Connell as Gabriel’s mother Meredith practically embodies the term “patience is a virtue.” The actress is absolutely wonderful in the role; her serenity during Gabriel’s breakdowns coupled with her sternness in the aftermath is exactly how one hopes a mother of the mentally ill would behave. This authenticity is the most intriguing aspect of Gabriel’s family, which is rounded out by Gabriel’s older brother played by David Call, and his “Nonny,” played with sass and affection by Lynn Cohen. Where many films about mental illness would reveal a relative that might treat Gabriel with the very resentful bitterness that he expects, none of them resorts to the type of behavior that would fulfill his paranoia. It’s a heartbreaking reminder that those who suffer from mental illness often come from homes filled with love.
Howe’s script is a slow burn and Gabriel’s illness creeps up throughout the film. Where at the start he might seem like just another psycho-stalker boyfriend, by the time he is reunited with Alice (Emily Meade) our concern for Gabriel’s well-being extends from him to the people he might harm. Howe’s camera closely examines minuscule facts of life, the spinning blades of a ceiling fan for example, or wind blowing through bare branches, to offer insight into Gabriel’s off-medication mind. Tiny things that one would usually ignore are, for him, haunting memories from the past. But visual interests aside, Gabriel is really an actor’s vehicle, and Culkin confidently takes the wheel.
One element of the film that attempts to convince the viewer that there is still hope for Gabriel’s quest is its lovely score. Despite the gloominess of the subject matter, the story itself isn’t weighed down by somber musical cues. Instead, the motifs, dominated by string instruments, are simultaneously jovial and frantic, representative of Gabriel’s devotion to finding his long lost love.
This all makes Gabriel sound rather miserable and depressing, but Culkin’s fantastic performance also includes a handful of instances of humor, and the film on the whole evokes our pity for the character rather than feelings of utter hopelessness. Though the general reaction probably depends on one’s own experience with the mentally ill, and for some, Gabriel could very well resonate too close to home.