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Hi-Lo Joe: Hackney-based film ‘doesn’t Hollywoodise depression’

PUBLISHED: 16:45 20 November 2017 | UPDATED: 16:45 20 November 2017

Lizzie Philips and Matthew Stathers in Hi-Lo Joe

Lizzie Philips and Matthew Stathers in Hi-Lo Joe

Archant

James Kermack talks about his new Hackney-based feature film, Hi-Lo Joe, and its intimate portrayal of mental illness

Matthew Stathers in Hi-Lo Joe Matthew Stathers in Hi-Lo Joe

Joe Ridley may seem like the life and soul of the party, but his revelling camouflages long-standing mental health problems. When his girlfriend Elly moves in, Joe discovers he can’t hide his problems any longer.

“I’ve suffered with depression myself,” says writer/director James Kermack, “and like Joe it took me a long time to speak out about it. Even writing Hi-Lo Joe, I found I was hiding the mental health aspect under more sensational concepts. It was a zombie film…featuring a man struggling with depression; it was a musical…featuring a man struggling with depression.”

After several drafts, Kermack decided to strip everything back. The final result, which will be released in cinemas and digitally on November 24, is the story of “one man’s struggle”.

“But I hope that the thoughts and behaviours are relevant whatever your gender,” he adds. Kermack wanted to relay his experiences as honestly as possible, so that audiences unfamiliar with mental illness could gain insight into it, and those with experience could recognise themselves in the characters.

“I didn’t realise how honest I had been until we were filming, and I was watching from behind my monitor as Lizzie Philips and Matt Stathers performed very emotional, dark scenes which I recognised from my own life. It was like a very public, expensive way of doing therapy.”

The candidness of Hi-Lo Joe has already received positive feedback from audiences. Members of the public touched by the story of Joe Ridley queued up en masse to thank the writer/director after the film’s world-premiere at this year’s Dinard Film Festival.

“I’m chuffed because it means we achieved an accurate portrayal - it doesn’t Hollywoodise depression.”

Lizzie Philips in Hi-Lo Joe Lizzie Philips in Hi-Lo Joe

A further endorsement came this month when leading UK mental health charity SANE announced its affiliation with the film.

Supporting good mental health lies at the heart of Kermack’s work.

“Recent headlines show that the film world is far from perfect, with people being mistreated by those in power. I started out as an actor, so I understand what it can be like on the other side of the camera. My job as director is to ensure that everyone on set is happy: it should be like a family.”

This inclusivity extended to his film’s location, South Hackney, where Hi-Lo Joe created opportunities for fresh local talent to kick-start careers in film.

“There’s a great pub near to where we shot called The Lauriston and my director of photography got chatting to a bartender there about how we were looking for an art director.

“The bartender’s name was Jess Elcock. She had a flair for film, she came on-board, and she absolutely smashed it. Two and a half years later, Jess is the production manager on Sam Smith’s new music video. Hi-Lo Joe was her first film.”

Hi-Lo Joe communicates a sentiment shared by many who experience mental illness, of feeling trapped inside your mind. To convey this, the film is set inside Joe’s home, centring on his bed: “it’s what’s in here that you have to look after - that’s where you win or lose,” explains Joe’s father.

James Kermack, director of Hi-Lo Joe James Kermack, director of Hi-Lo Joe

But from the graffiti-covered walls to the cracks in the ceiling, Joe’s dilapidated home bears equivalent scars to those scored on his psyche.

“We used a disused pub near Victoria Park called The Penshurst Arms. It was scheduled for demolition, so we had free rein to ‘decorate’ the space however we liked.”

Although Kermack hopes all audiences will appreciate Hi-Lo Joe, he believes the film will make a unique impression on residents of Hackney.

“The area has such a communal spirit, that for locals to watch Joe isolate himself in his house, knowing that there’s a vibrant community just outside it, will be particularly powerful”.

Hi-Lo Joe is released in cinemas and digitally on November 24.

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