Process vs. Result: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoy Filmmaking Again from my Brother, Mike Leigh, Rory Culkin and My Newborn Daughter
Lou Howe landed on our 25 New Faces list in 2013 while in post-production on his debut feature, Gabriel. An IFP Narrative Lab veteran, Howe here describes the lead-up to his film, and how one crucial, family-oriented decision in pre-production reshaped and enriched it. Gabriel opens today in New York at the Village East.
It’s embarrassing to admit it, but I see now that I had stopped enjoying making movies. It took me a long time to realize it, deep into post-production on my first feature Gabriel, I think, but I had lost sight of what I was doing over the course of several years worth of short films. It took the challenge of making a first feature, combined with some great advice and collaborators, to show me where I had gone astray.
I stumbled into filmmaking my freshman year of college, and immediately fell in love with it as soon as I got my hands on a Bolex. But as I made more ambitious shorts, I got thoroughly consumed by the results of my work, and started to take the process for granted. By the time I got to graduate film school a few years later, I had lost sight of why I wanted to tell stories in the first place. Film school can be a weird place in its own right, and my two years there were full of insecurity, micromanagement and stress. I was on the treadmill of constant short film production, running the gauntlet of deadlines, critique, and competition, and I was driven by a fear of failure, judgment, and above all, insecurity. I wanted so badly to make work that I was proud of, but I was so focused on the insular opinions of the faculty and my fellow students, that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees, or maybe all I saw was the forest – not sure about that metaphor. But I spent two years working my ass off and worrying, and not a minute of really enjoying filmmaking.
It was in this fear-driven mentality that I decided I wanted to make a feature, as recent film school graduates are wont to do. At that point, I didn’t know what story I wanted to tell, I just knew that I felt little connection to the work I was doing, and I wanted to get out of my film school mentality. If only I knew how. It was still more about the goals than the actual content for me. Luckily I had my brother Ben as a collaborator. Already up and running as an independent producer in NYC, he not only brought extensive experience to the project, but also the added bonus of his total disconnect from the pressure cooker of film school.
I started throwing some ideas around with him, things that felt make-able and sell-able, but he pushed me to dig deeper to find something more personal. Something that resonated with me emotionally would resonate with an audience, he suggested. I quickly thought of a close childhood friend of ours who had been struggling with mental illness for years. I knew how deeply his struggles had affected me, so attempting to translate that experience to the screen felt like a worthy task. But my film school brain went straight to the end, craving deadlines and finish lines to cross. What festival could we get into? Who might buy the movie? What would the result be?
Instead, Ben encouraged me to experiment in my writing. I started with first-person journals, written from the perspective of someone in my friend’s position, hospitalized and angry. Very quickly the character of Gabriel presented himself, and the world of the story grew from those journals. Soon, I shifted into scene work, though, again encouraged by Ben, with no end goal in sight. I just put Gabe in random situations, riding an overnight bus, talking to his mother on the phone, any banal scenario that could help me learn about the character. Many of those initial scenes made it into the final movie, which eventually evolved a narrative spine and a pulse of suspense driving its story.
As the script was taking shape, a friend from film school invited me to a screening of a new Mike Leigh film. The director, who I had long admired, was there for a Q&A, and my friend and I were in awe of him. Unabashed in our film student nerdiness, we waited to talk to him after most of the crowd had filed out, and then peppered him with all of our questions. How did he get those performances, how much did he let actors improvise, does he outline his scripts – every wonky detail you can think of. Leigh was incredibly patient with us. He is a film school professor himself, so I’m sure he knew the type when he saw us coming. But as he opened up about his extensive rehearsal method, his strategy for building a whole story world for the actors to inhabit, and his joy for filmmaking, things were starting to click in my brain. Building a film from the inside out was a core concept that changed the way I saw the process of making my movie. And the way in which Leigh talked about his characters as people, rather than pawns, and how they all see things from their own point of view – these were novel concepts for me. Ideas for making the movie that dovetailed perfectly with the new writing process that I was in the midst of. I went home from that screening energized and excited to move into the next phase of Gabriel, casting and production.
Armed with a script that was starting to gain traction and Leigh’s method banging around my head, all I needed was an actor who would be up for the deep dive character building that I was hoping to try. By that point, Ben and I had been joined by the third member of our core creative team, our old friend Luca Borghese. He brought his singular knowledge of the entire filmmaking process as an experienced post-production supervisor, and also great creative instincts, which proved invaluable in the casting process. When Luca brought up Rory Culkin, I was thrilled. You Can Count on Me, Rory’s first onscreen speaking role, was one of the movies that made me want to make movies in the first place, and I had been a fan of his ever since. He always felt so natural onscreen to me, like a fully realized person with no self-consciousness, exactly what I needed for the title character of my script. As soon as Rory and I met, I knew he was my guy. To many readers of the script, the lead character came off as abrasive, frightening even. Rory, on the other hand, immediately related to him on a fundamental level, as did I. We talked about what Gabe wanted and why, who he had been growing up, what kind of stuff he might be into. He was a person in Rory’s mind from the moment he met him on the page, and I knew that we could tell Gabe’s story together in the way I wanted, grounded in authenticity and empathy.
With Rory on board, the logistics began to click into place. We set our shooting dates, started hiring key crew, and searched for the last piece of financing to put us over the edge into being able to make the movie. Meanwhile, my wife’s belly was growing, and impending fatherhood was getting closer. When we locked in our final investor, we had to push the shoot just two more weeks. We had done it, we were making the movie! Not so fast. One small question that last investor had changed everything. The last day of the shoot now fell on my wife’s projected due date. What would happen if she went into labor two weeks early, halfway through our four-week shoot? Well shit, I thought. Good question. He urged us to push the shoot until after my wife gave birth, but my film school instincts kicked in, fear-driven as always. No no, we couldn’t push, we might lose everything we had put together. An independent film is like a house of cards, one false move could destroy the whole thing. And to me, pushing four months seemed like setting the whole thing on fire. It was Friday afternoon, and our investor urged me to take the weekend to decide what I wanted to do. He was in either way, but he wanted me to think it over.
That weekend was full of frantic phone calls to every filmmaker I knew asking for advice, and quickly the responses took shape. All of my friends at a similar stage in their careers, trying to make their first feature or thereabouts, had the same reaction. Push the shoot? You must be crazy. This might be your only chance. You could be washing dishes in four months! Make the movie while you can. That mindset fit with how I had always made movies, but when I talked to filmmakers a little further along in their careers, with a few movies and maybe a couple of kids under their belts, the reaction was decidedly different. Now was the time to assert your leadership, they said. Adopt the attitude you want to have, you own the process and make the movie on your terms. The movie will be better for it, and you’ll never forgive yourself if you miss the birth of your first child. That attitude made a lot more sense to me, and I followed it. I gulped and told our investors that I wanted to push the shoot, and miraculously, they all supported the decision. I spent three months with my wife and eventually my newborn daughter, months that were incredibly fulfilling, not just because of the joy of starting a family, but also because they gave me the perspective to re-approach the film with fresh eyes. I worked on the script, seeing it for the first time from Gabriel’s mother and brother’s perspective, and working to deepen their characters. I pored over the shot list I had started, re-imagining the film in my head over and over again.
Once back in pre-production, Ben and Luca suggested a strategy for the hiring of key crew, that we make me the least experienced person on set. That way, I could be surrounded with talented, professional people and could focus on my work. I could collaborate with each department head, but step back and support each of them in their work. Gone were days of micromanagement and meddling in every detail of the production. I could focus on working with the actors and building the world of the film as I saw it in my head. That simple but brilliant strategy is exactly what we did, hiring people like DP Wyatt Garfield, Production Designer Chris Trujillo, and editor Jane Rizzo, the list goes on and on, people who were all about to move on to bigger and better things, but whom we managed to convince to work on our little movie. With an incredibly talented crew around me and Rory and I already deeply ensconced in Gabe’s head, we set out to cast the rest of the film. We assembled an incredible cast, full of wonderful and inspiring actors who were passionate about collaboration and up for my goal of further developing the characters with their input. Brilliant actors like Deirdre O’Connell and David Call spent hours with me filling in the history of their characters, just as Rory had done, and together we built a Mike Leigh-esque story world. I loved every minute of it, writing long character bios, details that never made it onto the screen, building from the inside out, and trusting that things would end up where they organically should.
Now, the movie is about to open in a real live movie theater. We’ll be getting reviewed in The New York Times any minute now. These are the results I’ve longed for and obsessed over for my entire life as a filmmaker. Of course I’m still excited about them, but I know now that it’s the process that is the true reward. I’ll cherish the lessons I learned and people I met during the making of this film no matter how the end result plays out. It took me long enough to figure that out, but at least now I know.