Director James Kermack on Hi-Lo Joe, a feature film exploring male depression

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No middle ground: Screenwriter James Kermack talks to Kate Lovell about the creation and national release of new feature film about male depression, Hi-Lo Joe, released in cinemas across the UK on 24 November 2017.

Film still, Hi-Lo Joe

Matthew Stathers and Lizzie Philips in Hi-Lo Joe.

“For some people there is no middle ground” is the tag line for Kermack’s deeply personal feature film. Hi-Lo Joe explores the lows of a young man’s depression, contrasted with the apparent highs, experienced by the protagonist, Joe, who struggles to find the hallowed place of balance that so many who manage mental illness strive for. The writer, James Kermack, is himself a young man with lived experience of depression and as such, there is a desire to delve into the issues with a truth that is rarely seen in more mainstream on-screen portrayals of mental distress.

Hi-Lo Joe had its premiere at the prestigious 27th Dinard British Film Festival – its place here, along with other global film festivals, was hard-won. Kermack produced the film through sheer grit and determination, without the backing of a juicy sum from a plush studio. He experienced his own rollercoaster of emotions in the creation of the feature itself:

“The lows are plentiful; the moments of doubt that creep in. Will the film ever get made? You’re making it and it’s – will the film get finished? It’s finished – will anyone ever see it? Now it’s about to have a release – will people like it? But, the lows are consistently outweighed by the highs. It’s hard to see it sometimes when you are in the maelstrom of making a film, but when you get a moment to breathe, the amazing achievements and memories are very clear to the eye.

I set out to make a film how I wanted to make a film – I adapted – but I never compromised on what I wanted to put on screen. The biggest high has been how kind and wonderful people have been. Making an independent film is hard, and you really get to know who your friends are when you need their help. I not only found out I had amazing friends, but gained many new ones along the way. I share any credit for this film with everyone who worked on it.”

Kermack’s drive to make a film about male depression comes directly from his own life:

“I wrote the film from personal experience and then wrapped it in a romantic drama structure. I suffered from depression – without knowing it was depression – from a very young age. After losing my father, I struggled to work out who I was. I was confident on the outside, a class clown on many occasions, but I was truly in pain on the inside. I didn’t know how to speak to people about it, even people I was in a relationship with, so the pain manifested in other ways. Toxic masculinity was a huge factor in how I perceived myself and the perceptions I wanted others to have of me. It took me a long time to speak to a doctor, and the film looks at this journey. It’s hard to speak about what’s wrong with you if you’ve no idea what it is.”

James Kermack directing Hi-Lo Joe

James Kermack on set with the film’s two main actors

Although the film draws on Kermack’s own experiences of depressive illness, its subject matter clearly resonates with film-goers.

“After screenings we have had audience members literally queue up to talk to us afterwards. Some who were amazed and thankful to see themselves and their experiences in the film. To see an accurate portrayal of dealing with the loneliness and isolation of depression. Others talked about how they hadn’t understood a partner who was clearly going through this. It opened eyes for many and most importantly mouths and ears for others. I have had many messages and talks with friends who previously found this too difficult a subject to bring up. The aim of the film was to get people talking which I really hope it does on a wider scale with the release, whether to a doctor, friend, partner, family member or one of the many charities – like SANE – that deal with mental health every day.

Depression looms over you, urging you to keep the dark thoughts trapped inside yourself, but talking, this truly helps to drag the black dog into the light. And if there is one thing depression hates, it’s the light.”

Mental health charity SANE have endorsed Hi-Lo Joe – finding this partnership was a priority for Kermack and his creative team.

“Nick Sadler and Caroline Charles at The Film Label approached SANE, they watched the film and agreed to come onboard. SANE have helped so many people over many years and have been a leader in bringing the darkness of depression and mental health into the light of understanding. It is a privilege to be associated with them. One of my main aims was to portray the illness with complete truth, no holds barred. Working with SANE means there is an authentic accuracy to the portrayal of mental health in the film.”

Without a large budget behind it, Kermack drew heavily on work in-kind and favours from people within the industry to get Hi-Lo Joe produced. He does, though, highlight the positives of working without a major studio funder.

“The good thing about having very little money to make your first feature is that you get to tell your story without much compromise in terms of tone and style. Having little pressure on the finance side definitely helped in putting this story on screen the way I wanted. But that obviously brought its own pressures.

Whether you have millions of dollars or absolutely nothing, the stresses of filmmaking are still there. You have to create something that people want to watch. And an audience won’t care if you spent ten pounds or ten million pounds if they want to leave before the end. It costs nothing to have a good idea.”

Over the last few years, Hollywood has made its own forays into exploring mental health, with varying degrees of success. Star-studded Silver Linings Playbook portrayed a character with bipolar disorder, which was generally highly lauded by critics. But for Kermack, it doesn’t strike the right tone.

“I found it to be a very Hollywoodised version of mental health issues – very happy at the end and though Bradley Cooper gives a wonderful portrayal, something didn’t quite ring true. It was a bit too polite for me. One of the films I was inspired by when realising the mental health aspect of the story was Black Swan – I saw this at a packed cinema on opening night. As the credits rolled, nobody moved, nobody spoke. There was silence for a good four to five minutes, nobody could speak, nobody seemed to breathe, including me. It is one my favourite experiences in a cinema.

The monstrous images and nightmarish stalking is something I wanted to infuse into Hi-Lo. Being chased by your own mind. Not trusting what is in front of you. We have a character simply called ‘Black Eyes’ who towers over Joe and when he appears in scenes, we know Joe is about to have a depressive episode. But it’s subtle. Many times you will have to search for Black Eyes in a shot, lurking in the shadows. When you have depression you don’t always feel it coming on, it just hits you.

Little Miss Sunshine is another example of a film that Hi-Lo Joe takes some of its tone from. It has a very human quality to it. A lightness with flashes of pain. I want you to like Joe and his girlfriend Elly; I want you to root for their relationship. But like every relationship, it has its problems. In this one, primarily it is Joe’s inability to control his emotions.”

Kermack is keen to highlight that Hi-Lo Joe is, first and foremost, intended to entertain and enjoy, rather than an issue-based piece of didactic cinema.

“The film is scary, dramatic and at many points, funny. It was always intended to speak about the subject matter in an interesting, visual, cinematic and ultimately entertaining way. It’s a movie about mental health not a mental health commercial. We are at a real turning point in time where I think we have an opportunity and an obligation to show mental health in its true light. Not for political point scoring but because it is an everyday part of millions of people’s lives. To rip the illness from the darkness and show people that it can be beaten and at the very least, tamed.”

Hi-Lo Joe is produced by Sonder Films, Featuristic Films and The Film Label and is released both in cinemas and digitally on 24th November 2017, screening in London, Edinburgh, Brighton, Leeds, Cardiff, Oxford, Hull and Liverpool, with tickets available here.

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