Gabriel, the story of a mentally troubled youth played by Rory Culkin, has something going for it not a lot of movies do. It was directed and produced by the Howe brothers, Ben and Lou, based loosely on a friend they both remember from childhood. Culkin gives a powerful, raw turn as the film’s titular character, wowing audiences at the Tribeca Film Festival this April. And though the story is entirely fictional, the stakes of telling it were very real.
“Knowing this person directly, but also having watched the whole process that he’s going through, and his family’s going through, definitely grounded the project in a personal place for both of us,” Lou says. “Very early on I wanted to fictionalize it, and it became its own thing.”
Ultimately, Gabriel is a dark movie about fear, acceptance and the struggle to fit in. If it does as well as its early returns indicate, the brothers could have a brooding indie darling on their hands. But none of that would be possible without a relationship that goes back to birth.
The Howe brothers grew up together on New York’s Upper East Side and the West Village, raised on a steady diet of ’80s comedies and a mother with a penchant for impromptu double features. Though theirs was not a life entirely of the cinema—their father worked in finance and is an amateur photographer, their mother was a photographer’s agent and later a rape crisis counselor—it was a realization of an early dream for Lou to become a creative professional. “I always wanted to grow up to be a writer in general, and then I fell in love with movies,” Lou explains.
“Mike Leigh’s Naked was a big touchstone for us,” Ben adds. “American movies from the ’70s like The Gambler, a James Caan movie. These suspenseful character studies became a model for me and Lou.”
The brothers have an easy rapport, evident when they talk about making Lou’s directorial debut.
“Once you got into the making of the movie … It was just easy and fun,” Ben says. “That also allowed me to be less diplomatic with Lou than I would be with a different director.”
But Ben and Lou followed quite different paths to their reunion in the credits at Tribeca. Ben cut his teeth as an executive assistant for Scott Rudin, working on such films as School of Rock, The Stepford Wives and The Manchurian Candidate. After Lou’s unsuccessful attempt to follow the same path, he went to study at the American Film Institute, a school that has a reputation for churning out top-quality film professionals in all branches of the industry.
Have the brothers ever experienced sibling rivalry?
“We have complementary jobs, so I don’t feel competitive towards Lou in terms of filmmaking,” Ben says. “I just want the best for him.”
“I was a horrible assistant producer for a little while before film school,” Lou recalls.
“I tried writing a little bit with Lou and I think it’s the hardest thing in the world,” Ben adds.
“We don’t have actual competitiveness between us, but we still have our leftover sibling dynamic. Ben’s the older brother and we can definitely carry that through our working relationship.”
“Not having a filter can help you problem solve—”
“—make quicker decisions—”
“—you cut out a layer of bullshit. But that can also be problematic if you aren’t realizing how things are coming across.”
Although the brothers live on separate coasts—Ben in New York City and Lou in Los Angeles—both regard their home city as the cinema capital of America. Even though L.A. is more steeped in the film business, one of the major things Lou misses about New York is going to the movies.
“People don’t really go to movies in L.A. the same way that they do in New York,” he complains. “If we grew up outside of New York, we would be very different filmmakers.”