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Q&A with James Kermack, director of Hi-Lo Joe
Added: 23rd Nov 2017

SANE is supporting the release of Hi-Lo Joe, a new film depicting one man's journey through depression. We spoke to director James Kermack prior to the film's release on 24th November to find out the inspiration behind it.

As Hi-Lo Joe was based on your personal experience of depression, how difficult was it to direct a film which you were so emotionally invested in?

The directing of it was actually the easiest part as it felt like a release. It was cathartic to see scenes I had written unfold in front of me.

The writing process was difficult. I had intended to put an honest depiction of my dealings with depression onto screen and so the writing and re-writing (which is 90% of the job) was hard. Continually trying to strip away any affectations and just being more honest, stripping the emotions down to the bone, this was truly difficult. To allow my emotions to be there for all to see, to critique, to delve into.

I also think that I would be emotionally invested in any feature film I direct. It is a huge undertaking and a good few years of your life. So, I cannot imagine wanting to direct anything that I didn’t fully connect with.

What similarities and differences do you share with Joe’s experience?

I lost my father when I was very young. He died when he was only 28. He was a driven man, a musician and he strived for a better life for him and his family through the arts. I am very much like him in this respect.

His passing was (I realised much later in life) the catalyst for my own depression and Joe has something similar happen to him in the film.

I struggled with depression well into my twenties and badly at the beginning of my thirties. I didn’t know how to communicate what I was feeling. I couldn’t tell people how I perceived myself as a great deal of the time I didn’t recognise the person looking back at me in the mirror. I lost myself in laughter, drinking, partying and my saving grace, creating art.

The arts were my outlet to speak up, to be for a time the person I wanted to be, say the things I wanted to say. I spent a great deal of time trying to forget how I was feeling, trying to push it deep down inside of me. This is of course, as any depression sufferers know, impossible. The blackness will emerge at some point and when it does it gives you a good kicking for trying to pretend it didn’t exist.

Joe uses writing and performing to exorcise some of his demons and I found, to this day, that putting emotions onto the page helps get them out of my system and into the world where they are easier to deconstruct.

Why did you feel ready now to direct this film and tell your story?

I don’t particularly like being ordered what to do, I don’t like not being in control of my own life. I got to a point where depression was taking charge at certain points and I felt that enough was enough: “It’s my life and I’m taking it back”. I also figured if I only made one film, what would that film be? If I had to struggle and fight to get something made, what should it be to make the fight worth fighting? I decided that I wanted to make something that wasn’t just for me, to pursue my career, but something that if I saw it in my darkest times would maybe give me a slither of hope, would let me know that I wasn’t alone in this seemingly eternal internal battle.

Terry Gilliam gave me some great advice before I shot the film, which has always stayed with me. He roared in my face and then said: “Be a lion. They will come for you. They will come for your film. They will try to strip away your dream. They will take what they can. But when they do. You stand tall, show your teeth and roar like a lion.” I felt this was a good bit of advice for defeating depression and filmmaking. At the time, I had not exactly come out of the other end just yet and felt if I could make this, I could confront what I was going through.

The character of Joe says things at certain points in the film, that I wish I could have said aloud, that I wish I’d have had the voice for. It was amazing to hear Matthew Stathers utter words I had screamed inside for so long. The scene where he finally explodes with his feelings in the film was a long and tiring day, emotionally and physically exhausting for the crew and cast. The performance of being at pure breaking point is immense and Lizzie Phillips as Elly who has to listen to it, to take it in, to react to it, is wonderful, the exact person, the dream person, you would want there when you finally unloaded your deepest darkest thoughts and fears. She gave him a safe space which is what any depression sufferer needs.

How did the cast embrace the mental health storyline? Was this a challenge?

The cast were uniformly fantastic. Obviously Matt had many, many questions on the journey but he was always so open to talking about things. Openness and talking about things, ironically being the key thing the character struggles with. I find a great deal of people who work in the creative industry struggle with mental health issues on a varying level. When they get home and they are alone, they struggle with their demons. But working in a safe and collaborative space they feel they can open up and talk about things without the pressure.

The arts is an important outlet, not just for mental health but for the voices of everyone who needs and deserves to be heard. It is a powerful tool to reach a wide audience about the ills of the world and I think it’s sad that our government continually treats it with such contempt, especially as it puts so much into the economy.

What was the hardest part of the film to write, shoot or edit?

The editing was very straightforward as I shot to edit. The scenes mostly played out in the edit as I originally envisioned and on only a couple of scenes did we do coverage. On those scenes, especially my fantastic editors Carlo Taranto and Robert Avery, did a wonderful and thoughtful job.

The shooting was tough because we did it in 18 days, six days a week over three weeks. Myself and my cinematographer Mark Nutkins were very ambitious visually and so we had a lot to fit in, in that time. The building we shot in was getting knocked down after our shoot and so we weren’t able to go and reshoot there. If we missed anything, we missed it. That was that. So the pressure was on.

How important was the imagery and symbolism in Joe’s darkest scenes?

I have suffered from night terrors since I was a kid. I know this is something that many people have to deal with and it is absolutely terrifying.

Depression is so weird in that is the loneliest you can feel and yet you always have it with you, as if it is another person in the room, looming over you, the invisible noose around your neck. This is why we used the giant frame and huge talent of actor Ryan Oliva (The Seasoning House/Ghost Stories) to portray the physical embodiment of depression. He literally dwarfs Joe, always there in the back of scenes, sometimes you have to really search to find him but his presence is always felt. That feeling of not knowing if you are awake or asleep is something I really wanted to get across visually, not knowing whether you are in a nightmare or reality. Then we blended those so as Joe was sometimes in a waking nightmare. For me, this was so important to get across as it looms over the film, giving a sense of unease.

Why does film play an important role in encouraging the conversation around mental health?

Film gives us the opportunity to experience someone else going through feelings we have ourselves. It lets us see the struggle of others and hopefully mirrors emotions we have ourselves as an audience. Mental health problems, depression in this particular case, is debilitating both physically and emotionally.

Depression is a disease you can’t always see in people around you, so showing it on screen could be some peoples first chance to visualise it. As we know depression is something that people don’t feel they can discuss. There is still a shame around mental health as if because you can’t see it, it isn’t a real illness. Coupled with the internal shame that people with depression are encased in, more needs to be done to give voices to those too afraid to talk up. This stigma effects those who suffer from depression.

More films detailing depression will let an audience know, the public know, sufferers know, that people all over the world suffer from this, it is not a medical oddity, it is a daily grind for millions of us and more needs to be done about it. Just as Ken Loach’s heartbreaking I, Daniel Blake got people talking about poverty and our government's part in breeding this in the UK, I hope that more films get us talking about mental health and how we can all, not just sufferers, how we can all help to remove the stigma and move forward as one in defeating it.

What other mental health films have inspired or influenced you over the years?

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 seemingly breathed, including me. It is one my favorite experiences in a cinema. Breathtaking. Literally.

The monstrous images and nightmarish stalking is something I wanted to infuse into Hi-Lo Joe. Being chased by your own mind. Not trusting what is in front of you. Which is why we have Ryan Olivas embodiment of depression. He towers over Joe and when he appears in scenes, creeping up on Joe, 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.

Jacob's Ladder is another great movie, looking at PTSD in this case, with the nightmarish visuals you can use on screen to portray mental health.

Fight Club - the violence in this film is something that I wanted to create a sense of, but on a personal more internal level. For Joe, he is struggling not just to be a part of this world, but also to feel like he is welcome in his own body, to feel engaged. With people he loves, he can’t communicate properly, he cries when he is happy, laughs when he wants to die.

Fight Club is a film full of rage (so is the novel, the opening page alone is like a wake up punch to the temple). Edward Norton as the narrator is feeling disenfranchised with the world, trying to feel something, anything and failing to do, so he attempts to create his own. Hi-Lo Joe is a much smaller, more personal story, but with it I think it has far reaching consequences. It’s the self loathing attempt to be someone else, to create someone else, who is not you. Plus Fincher is simply put, a total genius. He is more ahead of the game than Amy Dunne could ever dream of being.

Little Miss Sunshine is a wonderful 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 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. Steve Carrell - a truly phenomenal actor in every genre he plays in, from Brick Tamland to John Du Pont, his portrayal of the post suicidal Frank is filled with sorrow and the need to be loved, to show love, to be a part of something again. He says as much in his silence as he does in his words. And the way his family, those around him who love him, deal with him and this awkward situation - sublime.

And finally... One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest - for me this film is exactly what is wrong with the world. Nurse Ratchett just wants to box patients in, she doesn’t want to understand them, she wants them to feel ashamed for having this illness, as if it is their fault. McMurphy (Nicholson) for me, is all of us, striving to be a human, an individual, to live a life that means something in the face of the world beating you down. So at the end of the day we can at least say: “But I tried, didn’t I? Goddamit, at least I tried”.

What has been the response so far to the film?

We have played at a few festivals and some private screenings leading up to the cinema and online release. We have had great reactions from audiences.

At our first screening, people queued up to speak to us. Some of whom, in tears, felt like they had just watched their own life and experiences on screen. Others who had never suffered from depression, saw someone they knew or recognised on screen, whether that was a partner, a parent or even a child. It opened their eyes to what may be going on in the head of someone they love. It started conversations and hopefully kept them going in their day to day lives. It has also led to many conversations with friends who I didn’t know were struggling themselves.

The film was made to, of course, be entertaining, but also to get people communicating. I’m so happy that it has managed to do this. It should be said that the depression is enveloped in a romantic story. There are many moments of lightness and comedy throughout the film. It was wonderful to hear laughter at many points too.

What one message do you hope people with similar experiences to that of Joe’s will take away from the film after watching?

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 peoples lives. To rip the illness from the darkness and show people that the black dog can be beaten and if not beaten, it can be at the very least, leashed. I hope our audience takes away the message that they are not alone, that they don’t need to be ashamed and that there are people who want to listen, people like those at SANE. Whilst this is a seemingly personal story, there are actually millions of others going through this and you are not alone.

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