Lou Howe, who studied film at Harvard and AFI, had his directorial debut Gabriel starring Rory Caulkin selected to open Tribeca’s World Narrative Feature competition.

He spoke to ScreenDaily about his film about teens at the on-set of mental illness and about being influenced by European filmmakers like Michael Haneke, Claire Denis, 1970s American cinema and The Catcher in the Rye.

What has it been like to debut your film at Tribeca in an opening slot?
Wonderful and exciting. The festival, from the day they watched the movie has been so excited and enthusiastic. Showing the movie to audiences is more exciting than I expected it to be. It’s a New York movie and I am from New York … but the process of meeting strangers who respond emotionally to the movie … I’m realizing that’s what it’s all about…whether they come up to talk about their experience of loved ones with mental illness or something else… it’s been perfect.

How did you get started in film? When did you decide to become a director?
I always wanted to be a writer and loved writing short stories and barely one-act plays, more like ‘scenes,’ when growing up - then when I went to college, I took an intro to documentary video class and loved it and wanted to do it from then on.

You went to Harvard to study film - that isn’t the usual Harvard major and it’s not the typical film school. What was that like?
It’s called The Department of Visual and Environmental Studies - it was wonderful. It’s very small and focuses on documentary. I studied with Robb Moss and Ross McElwee and their specialty is ‘personal documentary’ … I also worked with Hal Hartley and he got me even more excited in fiction. It gave me the opportunity to start trying to do things. It’s its own little bubble within Harvard - a mostly really competitive stressful place…. [the programme] is an oasis for artistic people.

Do you want to continue as a writer/director?
It definitely comes naturally to me and I’m most comfortable as a writer. I made lots of short and understand the struggle to balance the two, directing and writing. I learned in shorts how to wear both hats. [And in Gabriel], I’m proud as how both sides ended up working out.

What cinema and which directors inspire you?
I am a big 1970s American cinema fan - people like Bob Rafelson and Hal Ashby and [Robert] Altman and I would say I am most interested in that era of American as well as contemporary European cinema. I think of myself of a combo of that. [Among European filmmakers] I like Claire Denis, Michael Haneke and Mike Leigh. For young American directors, Jeff Nichols is a great one and Craig Zobel (Compliance), we share an editor and he’s doing great work as well as Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene).

How did you get the idea for this film?
The seed of the idea was the experience seeing a close childhood friend diagnosed with a mental illness in our late teens and I started to think of his experience of the world and create a character in a similar situation and I used first person journals to create a voice.

Did you think of The Catcher in the Rye when you wrote this story?
Not consciously, but it was in there and people brought it up in script development stage and once said, I realized how inspired by that book I was and have always loved it. It had a huge influence on me at a young age.

What was the scripting process like?
I was very lucky to be surrounded by people supportive of my goals. IFP, Cinereach, whether investor or producers I didn’t feel like I was being forced or overruled - I felt like it was a supportive group of people - a little community trying to make the movie rather than battle it out.

How did you get to Rory Caulkin and what was your working relationship like?
The casting directors Paul Schnee and Alison Estrin were great and Kerry Barden - after some of the grants [came through] they were the first step in the process. They have great taste and Rory’s name came up. I am a fan of his and was excited about it. I met him and started talking about script and the character and we connected on the approach to the character.

How would you describe his approach to acting?
I liked him on screen since his first movies. I knew he had an authenticity and honesty that lends to the character [Gabriel]. I knew he was the type I was looking for. Once we started talking about the character it was all about Gabe’s interior life and view on the world. Rory’s approach was deeply internal and trusting the external would present itself — it was very organic. That is my sort of approach to most things, especially performance.

This is your first step from student to indie filmmaker? What has it been like to take that step, how do you feel about the result?
It’s been great. I think having my producers as my brother and a close friend - they are older than me and they helped me into this professional arena. The organizations behind us provided us with several stamps of credibility. It made me more than a kid with a script - Sundance, Cinereach and IFP were all a process of building credibility.

Before making a feature what were you doing?
I worked in a lot of aspects of production, all the while I was writing and wanted to make my own stuff and try to put myself in a situation where I could focus on making my own work. The American Film Institute gave me that. Compared to other film schools in the US its very practical and all about making short films. Under two years I made something like seven It’s learning through trial and error.

What’s next?
I am writing a script to direct and its still in the writing stage.