Director and screenwriter Paul Dalio’s feature film takes a hard and gritty look at love, mania, creative inspiration, and making peace with bipolar.
After Paul Dalio was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he struggled to understand what it meant. Was he irretrievably broken, or should he welcome mania as a gift granting heightened creativity? Would taking meds take that away? Who was he separate from his symptoms?
Dalio channels all that and more into his first feature film, Touched With Fire. Overseen by famous filmmaker Spike Lee and premiered at the edgy South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW), the indie movie was released on February 12, 2016.
Dalio wrote the semi-autobiographical script, composed the score, and directed an impressive cast—led by Katie Holmes as Carla and Luke Kirby as Marco. Both characters are poets, both have bipolar, and they meet when they are both hospitalized during manic episodes.
At first hesitant about each other, Carla and Marco discover they have more in common than not. Feeding off each other’s instabilities, they bond over poetry at 3 a.m. in the ward’s community room and plan an escape to another planet (yes, really).
They find safety in numbers, even if it’s just the two of them against the outside world. “We’re the only ones that can relate to each other,” Carla tells her mother.
For dramatic effect, Dalio sets up an essential conflict that is not so either-or in real life: Will it be sanity or will it be love? What happens when one decides to draw back from incandescent mood extremes to safer ground and the other doesn’t?
Dalio says the two profound personalities convey contrasting periods of his own often tumultuous journey to self-understanding and recovery. This is no white-washed jaunt: The story line gets quite graphic in spots, and some scenes could possibly be triggering for audience members who’ve gone through something similar.
The filmmaker hopes just the opposite will happen, though. At the least, he sees Touched With Fire as a conversation-starter, something that will get the average moviegoer to rethink stereotypes—to see “beauty in bipolar.” At best, he hopes those who live with bipolar will be moved to let go of shame and learn to like themselves—perhaps even nurture their own gifts.
When it debuted at SXSW in Austin, the movie was called Mania Days. The current title—borrowed from clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison’s groundbreaking book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament—syncs better with Dalio’s aims.
In her influential work, published in 1996, Jamison explores how creative genius and bipolar were inextricably linked in figures from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, to Vincent van Gogh. Dalio has called the book “a revelation” that fundamentally transformed his outlook—from viewing his disorder as a “genetic defect” to seeing it as something to take pride in.
“More than 30 percent of Pulitzer Prize-winning poets are bipolar,” he asserts.
Dalio, 36, was diagnosed at age 24. There was a time when he romanticized his mania, seeing himself in company with the likes of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway. After multiple mood cycles that put his family through the wringer, however, he reached a more moderate perspective—thanks in part to Jamison, ironically.
The renowned researcher became a heroine and a mentor to Dalio after his doctor introduced them. (Dalio said he wanted to meet someone with bipolar who was “actually happy,” and his doctor turned out to be friends with Jamison and put them in touch.)
Appearing as herself in the movie, Jamison tells Carla and Marco about arriving at her own sound relationship with medication. “I have felt infinitely happier, more productive. It’s been a godsend,” she concludes onscreen.
Jamison had a very similar discussion with Dalio in real life.
“I needed to hear it,” he admits.
It’s not every unknown director of an indie movie who snags a star of Katie Holmes’ caliber. The chance to play a character so far outside her own experience attracted the actress to Dalio’s script. In fact, she signed on as co-producer with Dalio’s wife, cinematographer Kristina Nikolova.
Holmes has an ample résumé covering both television (Dawson’sCreek, Ray Donovan and The Kennedys, for starters) and movies (including Batman Begins, The Romantics and Woman in Gold). She was recruited by Dalio’s casting director, Avy Kaufman, who had worked with her before.
“I was fascinated with the idea that Carla has this great talent for writing poetry and when she falls in love with Marco, they believe that being bipolar fuels their creativity,” Holmes explains in the film’s production notes.
“For Carla it becomes director, “Katie clearly understood the character and she learned to trust her instincts so much.” He has described her approach as “intense, meticulous and rigorous,” while his wife saw qualities like “unafraid” and “very vulnerable.”
Dalio shared his own struggles around bipolar with Holmes during her research for the role. She also consulted with a doctor and “pored over books written by those who had lived with the disorder, including Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind:A Memoir of Moods and Madness,” according to the entertainment magazine Variety.
“I always thought it was going to be a hard project to pull off, because it was a character that was very different than anyone I played before,” Holmes said in her interview with Variety. “I was very nervous to take on this project. I wanted to honor the disease and also find the humanity.”
For the role of Marco, “I was looking for someone who was very intense but socially uninhibited,” says Dalio. “I needed the ‘edge’ of someone who’s desperately trying to shine in society, but who’s really covering up a very vulnerable and sensitive side.”
That ended up being Luke Kirby, a Canadian- born actor whose credits include Cra$h & Burn, Rectify and The Astronaut Wives Club. Kirby actually had some insight into playing a character with bipolar, thanks to a part in a production of Jump/Cut at the Women’s Project Theater in New York City in 2006. A review in the New York Times described “an utterly captivating performance by Luke Kirby as Dave, the brilliant young manic depressive whose circular, inescapable fate is the central mystery of the work.”
Says Kirby, “I was happy that experience was available after germinating all those years ago.”
“He took it all to another level when he got direction,” Dalio remembers. “We went for long walks when he would open up about himself and his own issues.”
Kirby says he was intrigued by “Marco’s motor, his defiant spirit and audacity that were equally inspiring and bewildering, as was his exhaustive determination.” He was also drawn to the theme of the sweetness and universality of love. “Two people fighting for that is always a good hook, especially if it rings true and is challenged authentically. Marco and Carla’s relationship gives many opportunities for that,” he reflects.
Like Dalio, Kirby thinks the movie opens the door wider for engagement around bipolar. The movie goes beyond “normal” and “abnormal,” he says.
“Bipolar has so much more dimension. The bridge to connect with what we consider abnormal isn’t that far.”
Dalio started the script for Touched With Fire as a film student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. That’s where he met his wife, who was a fellow student. And that’s where he encountered Spike Lee, the famed director, producer, writer and actor. “He actually chooses students to get behind and support,” Dalio says of his erstwhile professor. “And Spike shows ‘tough love.’ I clearly remember him telling the directing class, ‘There are 36 of you here. One of you will be a director and the others might go on to do other things in the business.’ He implanted that fear along with a desire in me to succeed.”
Lee patiently prodded Dalio through multiple drafts of the story and ultimately served as the film’s executive producer. During filming, he showed Dalio shots from other movies as examples of what might work—or not—for Touched With Fire.
Lee almost never phrased his teachings as statements or comments, Dalio recalls. “Instead he asked questions, forcing me to ‘go within’ to figure it out. That’s OK, because I’m very much an introvert.”
The time he spent on his own polishing his vision for the movie, composing the score, and editing the final product “was all a creative joy,” he says.
(Dalio sees genetic influence at work in both his mental disorder and his musical aptitude. On the one hand, he has traced bipolar through his mother’s family tree.
On the other, his late grandfather Marino Dalio was a jazz musician who played with Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. “I recently dreamed I saw him and got to play my music for him. That was so beautiful,” he says.)
As much as he enjoyed communing with his muse, Dalio says, “I did love being [on set] with the others.”
In addition to Holmes and Kirby, Touched With Fire’s cast includes acting veterans Christine Lahti as Carla’s buttoned- up mother, Sara; Bruce Altman as Carla’s dad, Donald; and Griffin Dunne as Marco’s father, George.
To Dalio’s credit, the family members’ concerns get full due. They do what parents do: worry, protect, and want the best for their kids. They try to reason, get mad, back off, and do it all again.
At a tense two-family sitdown, George says he’s afraid that his son and Carla will be a bad influence on each other. At the same time, he speculates that stigma would make it hard for someone who is open about having a mental illness to find a “soul mate.”
Sara has no patience with the idea that bipolar attributes should be embraced. “This is not a gift,” she tells her daughter. “It’s an illness that needs to be treated.”
The movie doesn’t gloss over worst scenario outcomes of leaving bipolar untreated: Both Carla and Marco attempt to take their own lives. Still, Dalio fears that the ultimate message about sticking with medication won’t “hit home hard enough,” even with Kay Jamison’s hearty on-camera endorsement.
“People with bipolar can find it so hard to let go of mania,” he muses, drawing on his own experience. It takes discipline and patience to make lifestyle changes and experiment with dosages, he says—and all
the while, there’s the inclination to “look for any excuse, any opportunity to convince themselves that going off meds is the way to go.”
* * * * *
For Dalio, fully committing to meds finally banished his all-consuming depressions. He did have to ride out an initial bumpy patch, when he remembers “being very numb, overweight and lethargic.… But I couldn’t put my parents through my suicidal tendencies again.”
Now the father of two sons, Dalio follows a recovery regimen that includes transcendental meditation, going to bed at 10 p.m., and long walks during which he gazes skyward to absorb the light. He finds judicious use of a light therapy box helpful as well, though there’s evidence it can triggermania for some.
Dalio also appreciates the night sky, which gets top billing in Touched With Fire in the form of Van Gogh’s famous work The Starry Night. The painting—a scene of swirling constellations above a cluster of village homes, reflecting the view from the artist’s room in an asylum in the south of France—reappears throughout the film as unifying symbolism.
Dalio says he eats well, but very little during the day. He drinks green juice and won’t touch alcohol.
“I couldn’t even bring myself to drink a glass of champagne when we had a toast to the film,” he says.
He’s busy with a couple of new projects: collaborating on the script for a sci-fi film which his wife will direct, plus writing the story and music for the next movie he will direct.
“It’s my only cure for the post-mortem depression of finishing Touched With Fire,” he jokes.
Overall, however, he’s happy, he’s flourishing, and he’s all too aware that the rules are no longer made to be broken.
“For the rest of my life I will be walking a tightrope. I still slip, but I’ve gotten a lot better at catching myself.”
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