Originally from East London, writer and director James Kermack began his career as an actor with experience spanning theatre, TV and film, before embarking on new projects as a filmmaker. Years in the making, his feature debut, the powerful romantic drama Hi-Lo Joe is finally here and tackles the difficult, seldom discussed issues of male mental health and depression.
In Hi-Lo Joe, everyone loves Joe Ridley, except Joe Ridley. He’s the life and soul of the party on the outside but, inside, a dark depression envelops him and a childhood trauma haunts him. Elly loves him but as their relationship grows, Joe’s inner turmoil slowly becomes uncontrollable, threatening his relationship. Can Joe save himself before he loses everything he loves?
With a breakout performance from new star Matthew Stathers the film co-stars Lizzie Philips, Gethin Anthony (Aquarius, Game of Thrones), Tom Bateman (Murder on the Orient Express, Snatched), Joe Dixon (The Cold Light of Day) and Thaila Zucchi (Shameless).
To coincide with the release, we spoke to James Kermack about the journey and experiences making his big screen debut.
You’ve worked primarily as an actor. How did you first become interested in film and, specifically, writing and directing?
I worked in theatre for ten years before moving primarily into TV and film. As an actor I started to pick up little roles in things such as Doctor Who (BBC), Cucumber (Ch4) and Absolutely Anything with Simon Pegg (Dir: Terry Jones). Alongside this, as a writer and director, I was making music videos and short films. As with anything in life, I like to jump right in and see where it gets me. If you’re not making, you’re just faking.
I had another screenplay that I was shopping around which was getting traction, but was a much larger budget, which I was struggling to secure on my terms without having shown I can get a feature made first. So, I dived into Hi-Lo Joe. The idea being not to write a film and then shoot it in one building because of budget, but to have a reason why you would shoot in one building and develop the script from there. This is when the depression angle came about and the building is the character’s mind. He’s trapped physically and metaphorically.
Which films and filmmakers made the biggest impression on you from an early age?
Obviously, I’d love to say I was watching a great deal of Truffaut, Cassavetes and Bergman in my formative cinema years, but I would be lying. I grew up on a heady mix of Steven Spielberg (Jaws/Jurassic Park/Hook especially), Joe Dante (Gremlins/The Burbs/Innerspace) and two films I watched a lot were Big by Penny Marshall and her debut feature Jumpin Jack Flash which was the first VHS we ever owned. Big American films were the order of the day. But the films that really stayed with me, that I watched all the time with my Father, were the Rocky films. The story behind the first is a sterling example of sticking to your guns to get something made the way you want it. The others are just brilliant. I even have a huge soft spot for Rocky V which I know is controversial. But if you don’t drop a tear when Balboa hits the ground, the ghost of Mickey says “Get up you son of a bitch! ‘Cause Mickey loves ya” and that theme tune kicks in, then you’ve got a heart of stone.
How did the idea for Hi-Lo Joe come to you?
Having suffered with depression myself, I really enjoyed many films that looked at the experience of someone with similar problems. Black Swan, Little Miss Sunshine, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Silver Linings Playbook are great examples. Though I felt I hadn’t seen exactly what I had personally been through. Black Swan got the closest to what I had been through from a mood and visual standpoint (though I think Natalie Portman’s eyeliner costs were bigger than my entire budget).
So, the original idea wasn’t just to make a film observing a character’s depression but designing and shooting the film through the feelings and mood shifts of depression. We use a mixture of harsh edits, varied camera angles, mixing up shooting styles which will sometimes be jarring to an audience. For instance, we use POV shots in the beginning to keep Joe’s loneliness in one shot, his lack of connection to other characters around him. When he meets Elly we use a sweeping five minute, one take shot as he is pulled out of this loneliness. Looking at the beginnings of their relationship there is more of a whimsical non-realistic style of shooting. We change it up all the way through the film. Depression doesn’t let you relax and we tried to capture this.
The character of Joe is always on, he rarely switches off. When he does he is silent, he can’t speak. But like many people who are trying to hide suicidal or dark thoughts they don’t want you to ever truly see them. Ironically, being the biggest personality in the room (even when there are just two of you) is the best way to do this. You become intimidating and people can’t ask you questions. Matthew captures this manic energy brilliantly.
The mental health charity SANE has come onboard and affiliated with the film. This is amazing as it gives the film a level of authenticity in its portrayal of mental health issues.
Since it was your feature debut, can you summarize your experience filming this and was it how you imagined it would be?
It was a process that threw consistent learning curves at me. But how else are you supposed to progress as a filmmaker if you aren’t making films? It was a tough shoot but this just brought the very committed and professional cast and crew closer together. We shot in only 18 days – every one of which was hard work to get what we wanted – but whilst the budget was low, the ambition was high.
I never truly had any overall idea of exactly how the process would be. I tend to see the job and try to take each day as it comes. But because I started this project and have seen it through every aspect of development, I have been able to learn about the entire process. This has been invaluable, a 100% vocational, pure film making school with no safety net, all of the risks. I wouldn’t change it for the world. It could have been easier but then maybe I wouldn’t have learned as much.
You have a very talented up-and-coming cast, what was it like working with them?
Pure, unadulterated joy!
I will elaborate, but that’s the ultimate truth of it. I understand why directors work with the same actors over and over again. You build a rapport, you collaborate well together and most importantly, you know that they are quality human beings.
Watching Tom Bateman’s star rise has been wonderful. We were very lucky to get him as he was just going into the West End to play the lead role in Shakespeare In Love and he had already been brilliant in Da Vinci’s Demons. He deserves to be working across from greats such as Goldie Hawn (Snatched), Liam Neeson (Hard Powder) and the myriad of Hollywood royalty in Murder On The Orient Express at the moment.
Gethin Anthony has been one of my best friends for over a decade. I always wanted him in the film and it was joyful to have him on set. A truly gifted actor who brings quality to the screen. This is seen in his work as Renly Baratheon in Game of Thrones (HBO) and playing opposite David Duchovny as Charles Manson in Aquarius (NBC). Working with your best mate just warms the heart.
Our lead players, Matthew and Lizzie both auditioned for their roles along with many other actors and actresses. But from the moment they walked in, they lit up the room. Cliche as it is, it’s true. Matt has a wonderful energy which was exactly what I wanted for the role of Joe. The ability to keep an element of mania is hard to sustain and with a film that was shot to mirror depression, not just show it, this is what I needed. Lizzie was perfect at grounding him in certain scenes. They have a wonderful chemistry.
And the youngest up and comers were the easiest to find. My niece, Aavie-Mae and nephew Noah James both play roles in the film. Sharing this experience with them was something none of us will ever forget. From learning lines with my niece to getting my nephew to hit his marks, they were consummate professionals (who most importantly kept the budget down, as they only wanted to be paid in chocolate).
Did you have any filmmaking references for capturing the visuals and mood in Hi-Lo Joe?
Depression is jarring and emotions can jump from one thing to another in an instant. I did not want a fluidity. I didn’t want the audience to just observe what the character is going through, but feel it. It hurts. It’s harsh. And sometimes it comes at you out of nowhere. This was not a film to relax through.
In contrast to that, Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze were references for the more wistful and theatrical elements at the beginning of the film. We wanted the story to dictate the shots and not just get beautiful shots for beauties sake. It’s something myself and my cinematographer Mark Nutkins discussed at length.
We also wanted to give the film a lived in look. To do this we shot on the Arri Alexa to give it a thick textured feel and lensed with 1960’s vintage Super Baltars. The same lenses they used on the original Star Wars. We would have shot on film if we could have afforded it, but the Alexa was stunning.
What was Joe feeling in this scene? How far into depression is he? How angry is he? How isolated? How lonely? How scared? This would help us to decide where the camera should be placed, if it should be moving towards or away from him, if it should be static or erratic? It’s not just a film about depression but a film shot through the emotion of depression.
Do you have a favourite scene in the film?
The five minute one take shot was the first thing we planned and I still love it. I wanted to open with an audacious shot, especially for a low budget Indie. I wanted it to be loud, we had a live band playing, I wanted the actors to have to work to be heard, so SA’s were surrounding them as they moved around and up the building, in and out of rooms. It took a great deal of choreography, which was a hell of a lot of fun. Giving supporting artists little movements, looks and an ownership of not just being in the background but being a part of the shot. I also have a special place in my heart for it because we nearly didn’t get the shot at all.
We were shooting in an old disused pub. It was about to be knocked down and made into flats. It had been there for years and was a very old building. On the second to last day of the shoot, we were in the middle of filming the five minute handheld one take shot, through four floors, a hundred party revellers, a live band, full dialogue and with the intention of having a timer in the corner of the screen to prove we haven’t cheated with a cut. Our camera operator Mark Barrs was just gearing up for take three and the electrics cut out. Dead! All of the wonderful lighting that my cinematographer Mark Nutkins and his team had set up were gone.
Our gaffer legend Aaron (AJ) Walters, he of the famous Walters Family Film Crew Clan was luckily on hand. He showed me the wires, years of people “bodging” the electrics. We were screwed. AJ asked for a few minutes to look at it. We sent the cast, crew and SA’s upstairs to eat (by candlelight). I lie down on a sofa, chug an energy drink and think about how I can shoot a 5 minute sequence in the dark (safely). Then, just as I’m about to ask how many candles we have left, the lights come back on.
I said “Get everyone back to ones”. The crew and cast get back onto set. AJ emerges from the basement with a smile on his face to cheers and wet sloppy kisses (from me) and we get the shot in another 4 takes.
This shot. This day. This moment, is indicative of what it is like to make a small Indie film. It’s team work. It’s about facing problems head on and working around them.
I share the praise this film gets with everyone who worked on it. But ultimately, my name is above the title, so if there is any negativity towards it, I own it. That’s part of what being a director of a film is. Ownership.
What are you working on next?
My second feature as a writer and director is action/thriller Knuckledust. It’s a much bigger budget, large cast and we are shooting in the fabulously beautiful Estonia. It’s a very exciting time as I am working with many of my acting heroes.
Since my first produced screenplay Hi-Lo Joe, I have worked constantly on new scripts. Honing and crafting my voice as a writer. As with anything, the more you do, the more you learn. I have various screenplays in different stages of development. The first to be produced in early 2018 is Fractures In The Flesh. A Lebanon set drama, with Altman-esque tones in that seemingly disparate characters collide together. We have a renowned commercials director making his feature debut on this.
What advice do you give to young filmmakers hoping to embark on their first film?
My first piece of advice is to remember these four letters DBAD (Don’t Be A Dick). It’s much easier to be nice, than it is to be a dick. And there are a lot of dicks in the business already. You don’t need to join them. When creating anything with a tiny budget, you will need help and you will need the kindness of others to get you where you need to be. Treat people how you want to be treated. I was able to pull in all of these talented people based on the strength of what we were making, and because I try to treat people with respect and love. We create things because we want to say something, we want to have a voice. But the “we” has to include everyone. Make sure that “we” doesn’t turn into a “me”. At the end of the day, human beings are turning up to work with you, human beings with lives and emotions that change daily. Making a film is tough enough as it is. Have a good time whilst you are doing it. Smile. Laugh. Ignore negativity. It takes a long time to build something, but it only takes a moment to tear things down with harsh words and flippant criticism. Choose words carefully. Basically, be kind.
And finally, to paraphrase the legendary David Mamet “A,B,C – Always be creating”. Write, direct, shoot, act, sing – do it. Wake up. Get out. Create. You only learn from doing. You won’t always succeed. But then you look at why you didn’t succeed. You learn. You do it again. You get better. If you are creating it’s hopefully because you love it. And if you are lucky enough to be working on something you love then you are a very lucky person. Keep on trucking. Ignore those who tell you ‘No’. Always. Be. Creating.
Thanks to James Kermack for taking the time for this interview, and to Mike at The Warrior Agency for arranging.
Hi-Lo Joe is in cinemas and on digital now.