Lou Howe's debut film Gabriel isn't the kind of movie you could just describe to a curious friend. Because this would be the one-line description: It's about a mentally ill young man named Gabriel (Rory Culkin) fighting off his family to be reunited with an girlfriend whom he believes will make his life all better. It's not a Lifetime Original—the delicate story is filled with nuance and complicated emotion that need to be experienced. Its sole purpose is not meant to make you feel kind of sad for the first five minutes after the movie. Rather, it challenges you to reconsider the way you perceive other people. That is to say, don't miss it at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, where it's the Narrative Competition opener.

Complex got the chance to speak with Howe about the inspiration for his thought-provoking story, his collaboration with Rory Culkin, and what he wants his audience to take away from Gabriel.

Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)

What inspired the film?
The idea come out of my personal experience of having a friend’s first diagnosis of schizophrenia during his freshman year of college. I created Gabriel, as a character, without even realizing it, by trying to figure out his point of view of the world. But it was always this real instance of trying to understand the experience of someone with mental illness. And once I got the character, I got obsessed with him, typically, and it became something else.

I like it when the audience is challenged to think about why they’re reacting the way they are to a character.

How did that experience of witnessing people afflicted with mental illness inform you?
Well, both my own experience and also spending time with these members of the Fountain House, a community center for young people with mental illness, were eye-opening. Hearing their stories, and also having known the families of people with mental illness, there's a lot to learn there. I thought there were common themes from a family's perspective of loving this person and wanting to help them but being so frustrated and burdened by them and the friction between those feelings.

Also, I started thinking more about the trajectory of mental illness, especially early onset like this—the steps from being a fully functioning member of the community to ending up institutionalized. People react to those steps in a lot of interesting ways. Rumors go around, there are whispers, and people’s perception of them change. People with mental illness are often aware of being seen as "crazy," and that becomes part of a struggle of in its own right. It becomes this added burden along with the stigma of the illness.

I read that you were journaling first-person as Gabe. What kinds of things would you write down?
They took the form of like, not therapy sessions, but as if Gabe had been given the assignment to write a journal by his therapist. His goal was to express his train of thought, and out of those came all the other characters—talking about his family, how his life compares to his friends. What was essential to him was the feeling of falling behind, of wanting to catch up with the normal, so to say. 

You talked about catching up with what's normal, is that what made you put Alice, this idea of true love, as his end goal?
Yeah, Gabe has pretty universal wants and needs. He wants a life he could be proud of and the feeling that he belongs. The idea that he could be inherently prevented from having that is really interesting to me and sort of tragic. Giving Gabe a very accessible goal made sense to me because the way that story is told, it takes a while to be sure of all the details about him, but once you get there, you see that he really is such a relatable soul.

Was it a challenge to make an inherently inaccessible character accessible?

I wouldn't say it was a challenge. I prefer complex characters and I think a lot about the audience’s perception of a character. The idea that the audience could be off put by Gabe but, over the course of the movie, realize that they regret being that was exciting. I like it when the audience is challenged to think about why they’re reacting the way they are to a character. It's sort of the same thing in books—this unreliable narrator. You’re questioning your guide through this world.

What made you cast Rory in the title role?
I’ve been a fan of Rory for a long time. You Can Count on Me is one of my favorite movie. But we met and he just really got the script. As soon as we started talking about the character and the way into the movie, I knew we were on the same page. 

Is there a reason why Gabriel's illness is never mentioned?
I didn’t want the audience to get bogged down in it. Rory and I did some research on mental illnesses, but in the process, the story became much more about Gabe specifically and trying to build his internal world as a person. It wasn't about checking symptoms off the list. 

That’s true, he doesn’t become just another example of something. He’s his own character.
Right, the story is all Gabe's and the distance between how he sees himself and how the world sees him. 

For more of Complex Pop Culture's Tribeca coverage, click here.  

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