Ahead of the European Premiere of Touched with Fire at the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival, director Paul Dalio spoke with Theresa Moerman Ib about an intensely personal feature project.
In one of the first scenes of Touched with Fire, Carla, a poet with bipolar disorder played convincingly by Katie Holmes, reads from her latest collection to an awkwardly unenthused bookstore audience. One can’t help but wonder if Paul Dalio incorporated his own personal experience of a similar situation into his debut feature. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder himself, and astonishingly open about his struggles with mental illness, I was half expecting the experience of making such a personal film to have been traumatic, but Dalio surprises me right off the bat with his positivity and the mostly encouraging responses he has had both to the film and his honesty.
“I’ve had screenings of the film all over the US with different mental health organisations, mental health festivals and medical schools. Across the board, it’s been astounding how universally resonant the film was with people who have bipolar. All of them say: ‘Oh my God, that’s exactly what it’s like’. To me, the beautiful thing is also that the parents of these people can empathise with the parents of the characters. A lot of people expressed to me that they were able to have dialogues with their children that they were never able to have before.”
HOW TO FEEL THROUGH SOMEONE ELSE’S SKIN
The idea that the arts can encourage conversations about mental health within families and communities, that they can help people open up about their experiences and begin to break down stigma, are causes at the forefront of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, and Dalio is excited that the European premiere of Touched with Fire will take place on Monday at Glasgow Film Theatre followed by a second screening later in the week at Filmhouse in Edinburgh. Both screenings will be followed by a Q&A in which Paul Dalio will be present via Skype directly from New York alongside local representatives from Bipolar Scotland.
“I’m so honoured to have my film play in this festival. To be screening the film in Europe is a big step in raising awareness about something that’s very misunderstood,” he says. “Cinema has a power like no other to transport an audience member into the senses of the character in a very visceral way. There is such opportunity for film to change stigma because of its ability to have you feel through someone else’s skin.”
Not all films about mental health get it right in Dalio’s opinion, but it’s not for lack of trying. His own driving force was the desire to do something different, to show life through a bipolar lens, so to speak. “Every film I’ve seen so far about bipolar naturally looks at the person from the outside, which is a little bit alienating, because the person making the film has no idea what it’s like to see through their eyes. So the stigma remains, because whatever they’re doing looks crazy from the outside.
“There are great examples of films that are moving to me, that capture things very powerfully from another person’s point of view. For example, Infinitely Polar Bear had a lot of charm. There are films that allow you to sympathize with the bipolar person but still don’t show it in an authentic way. I was really happy about Silver Linings Playbook. While it didn’t capture what it’s really like, and you don’t really understand the person and what they’re feeling and going through completely, it did break down a lot of the stigma, because the filmmaker had such compassion for the characters. I think that was a great case because it was the filmmaker’s son that had bipolar, and that’s what inspired him. I could easily see the filmmaker had great tenderness and love for the subject, and Robert De Niro’s character almost reacted the way my father would look at me, with love but not quite understanding.
“Even with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, while it was alienating to look at a lot of these crazy people, it still made you think: who’s crazy and who’s not? Is society crazy? Or are these people really crazy? But even in the examples of films such as these that do it well, I’ve heard negative things in the bipolar community, because they miss certain stuff. I think that’s because it really all comes down to the fact that having bipolar and gives you the opportunity to tell it from that perspective.”
“FOR THE FIRST TIMe You UNDERSTAND ME”
One of the double payoffs of making the film for Paul Dalio has been that it worked both as a form of self-administered therapy, while allowing him to reach out to others at the same time. A woman from the International Bipolar Foundation said: ‘I’m having the first connection I’ve had with my daughter in years’. And her daughter said: ‘Mom, I think for the first time you understand me’. The mother finally gets it after seeing things through her daughter’s eyes, and the daughter can see herself through her mother’s eyes. So that was very important to me. The other thing was the doctors. I didn’t expect such a positive reception from the medical community. I was wondering whether they would think I was romanticising or that it was too controversial, but it was heartwarming, encouraging and optimistic to me that they actually took to this message and agreed that it should be approached differently in terms of how to describe bipolar as an illness.”
With such a profound effect in the real world, I couldn’t help asking if Dalio ever considered making a documentary about himself instead of drama with fictionalised characters. While he values and appreciates the documentary genre, he feels fiction has greater power to transport the viewer into the heart of a protagonist by speaking to their emotions rather than their intellect. “Also, I started as a screenwriter, which was my background even before my bipolar surfaced. So that was naturally the way for me to go. Documentary has its place and it’s important to have both; it’s just that narrative filmmaking is my passion.”
Dalio is convinced that art and creativity has therapeutic value, and as someone who wrote, directed, edited and scored his own film, he has lived experience in many art forms as well. But rather than feeling overwhelmed by wearing so many different hats on one production, he loved how it allowed him to channel his bipolar experience through the medium of film. “It was very rewarding. I personally enjoy doing all that stuff myself just in general. I’ve always enjoyed different art forms. The exciting thing to me about film is that it’s so multidirectional, and you can enjoy doing these art forms in a synchronised way with a singular purpose, which is just fun and exciting to do. In this case, it wasn’t only exciting but it was meaningful, because I wanted to capture what it’s like through a bipolar’s senses. So to be able to control the editing and the music from the point of view of someone who’s been through it is extremely important.”
WORKING WITH THE STARS
Although the key creative roles were played by Paul Dalio and his wife, who was both his cinematographer and one of the producers, the film wouldn’t be what it is without the gripping performances of Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby. He credits his casting director Avy Kaufmann, known for her work on major productions such as The Sixth Sense, The Bourne Ultimatum and Life of Pi, with the daunting task of finding the perfect match for his lead roles, bipolar poets Carla and Marco who meet in a psychiatric hospital and fall in love only to end up questioning the consequences of their love for each other.
“They were both really committed and intense about how important it was to get the best performance. Because of that, it was fun working with them. A lot of the work was in the preparation before shooting the film. First they needed to understand their characters as separate from being bipolar, so they could just empathise with them on a human level, and get to know who these people were and what their paths were, what formed them.
“Once they had that, I needed to give them a full understanding of what it’s like to go manic, and what the depressive experience is like. I would immerse them in poetry by bipolar poets, and paintings by bipolar painters. I’d show them things that really expressed each of those states. Once they were able to understand who their characters were and could empathise with them, they could visualise and make the emotional leap to understanding how each of their characters would react to having bipolar suddenly strike their life.
“Most of the dialogue was scripted, but in cases where they were manic, for example in the hospital, I would encourage them to improvise. The interesting thing was that when I let them improvise, as long as they stuck to the script in between, the written lines in their acting would seem more spontaneous and lifelike, even if the unscripted scenes were cut out. Katie and Luke have extraordinary emotional range. Bipolar is the outer range of human emotion, so they made the imaginary leap to the brink of their emotions in a very real way.”
Being able to work with high profile, experienced actors and old timers in the business, such as Avy Kaufmann, he attributes largely to his former mentor at NYU film school, Spike Lee, who also is executive producer on the film. “He’s a very independent spirit who does things his own way. He approaches his teaching that way too and encourages you to have your own voice. Interestingly, he does most of his teaching through questions. He asks probing questions that point to blind spots, things you should be looking at that you’re not looking at. He would give me feedback on the script and every stage of the process. He’s very hard, he has very high standards, but he was very supportive creatively, in putting the film together and by facilitating introductions to the right people. He was supportive while trying to allow my voice to lift off on its own.”
THE MYTH OF THE MAD GENIUS
The title Touched with Fire refers to a book on bipolar disorder and creativity written by Kay Redfield Jamison, an acclaimed psychologist with lived experience of bipolar herself. The book was a huge inspiration to Dalio and changed the way he thought about bipolar, seeing it as a gift rather than an illness, but he half regrets borrowing the title for his film. “The film was originally called Mania Days, but there was concern that the word ‘mania’ would resonate with people in the wrong way. So I was looking for another title that might be appropriate and Touched with Fire seemed to make sense.
While I was always moved by that title, my regret is that certain people have taken the film to be a thesis on bipolar disorder and creativity, suggesting that I made the film to prove the book’s thesis. That’s not the purpose of the film at all. The film is a love story about two people and how they relate to the book to find some meaning in what they have to live with. No one is saying that these two poets are geniuses or that they’re exemplary evidence that bipolar and genius are connected.”
But the myth dies hard. Especially with the protagonists in Touched with Fire being poets, it’s hard to resist comparisons with the confessional crowd of the 1950s and 1960s that included Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell, whose mental anguish fuelled much of their writing. Dalio doesn’t disagree. “Poetry is an art form that at its best brings a lot of beauty to horrific situations, finds beauty within them, and I think that’s why, of all the art forms, bipolar people are drawn to poetry. It’s not just a means of expression, it’s a means of healing, a means of getting through it, and a way to bring some kind of meaning to this thing. That was my own experience with it,” says Dalio who began honing his screenwriting skills before was diagnosed at the age of 24.
“I never did poetry or rap before I was bipolar, but the interesting thing is that, when you’re manic, you start speaking in rhymes constantly. Your mind makes these rapid sprawling connections between things and taps into these natural rhythms. When I came out of the hospital, it became an outlet. Rap is a darker, more aggressive form of poetry when you’re in the angst or torment of feeling cut off from society, when you’re feeling alienated or pushed off into the shadows, feeling frustration and an anger towards God or fate for what has happened to you. You compete with people who are wearing pain and darkness as a badge and basking in the glory of it. The more crazy the rhymes you come up with, the more celebrated it is. Screenwriting is a form of artistic expression where you’re conveying sane stories to a sane audience, and suddenly that’s no longer fulfilling your need for expression.”
This element of Dalio’s personal history comes to light in the film through Marco, who prefers to go by his poet’s name Luna, a thinly veiled self-portrait of the director. “Rapping was a way of redeeming my own insanity, which is why I took the alias Luna, which is short for lunacy or lunatic. People really embraced me and held me up in that world. Then when I was coming out of the bipolar and forming connections to the world through my wife and other people, I naturally went into poetry as a way of self-healing.”
While some artists may prefer not to make connections between their practice and their mental health struggles, Dalio has no qualms about admitting that the spoken word was a significant part of his healing process and his career development. A journey which came to a satisfying conclusion when he finished the film: “The poetry and the rap helped me to cope when I was lost in it. The making of the film was a deeper form of therapy in that it was the final point of closure with this struggle, this condition. I was finally able to overcome it and make sense of it in a way that I could leave the pain behind, and, more importantly, could help bring others, who were still going through the pain, out of it. That was the most profound form of healing I’ve ever experienced because it transcended myself.”
Although he appears to have put his darkest days behind him, Dalio admits he will always carry the fire, especially in his work. He is currently developing a new script, and, although he is too superstitious to talk about it, he admits it is a story as bittersweet as Touched with Fire, albeit with a different subject matter. “I feel that it has been my way to leave all of this behind. Being bipolar will always inform who I am. I’ll always appreciate the role it plays in my life, and there will always be some flavour of that in my creative output, but this feels like something totally different.
“But I think I’ve developed a taste for the tragic ever since bipolar, and it’s not just that I want to look at tough stuff. When there’s positive and negative stuff happening at the same time it resonates as being real life. I used to write comedy, but, in a really positive way, going through bipolar you’re forced into the brightest and the darkest of moments. You’re forced to go through life situations where you have to give up a lot. Things that are good come with a great sacrifice. You really experience the good and bad, and you finally get life and the beauty of it in a way that you wouldn’t if you just lingered on the surface of things. Bittersweetness is essential to a bipolar film. The script I’m doing now has the same thing, so I think it’s something that has marked me for life.”
Moving on to other themes in his work doesn’t mean that Paul Dalio has given up on talking about mental health. He hopes his openness will encourage others in the entertainment industry to come out, because the media has a huge effect on social environments and how mental illness is viewed. “I think if any of us were afraid to be the first to dip our toe in the water, all of this would remain in the dark, and no one would want to work with someone bipolar in Hollywood, no one would want to come out about it, and everyone would have the worst assumptions about it, more movies would be made that convey it in a really alienating way, and the stigma would go on and on.”
When asked if he is worried that his candour will have a negative impact on his career, he voices his concern that Hollywood is still full of stigma and that there is a real risk he may not get certain jobs because people are worried he’ll “go off the rails”. The benefits of speaking out in public about bipolar, however, far outweigh the potential downside. Dalio feels a strong responsibility, even an obligation, to combat stigma and try to instigate change, especially when people come up to him on the street and tell him how much his work means to them.
“To not be open about it, when I made a film about it, when I’m a living example of it, when I know I could potentially change people’s perceptions about it? I couldn’t do that. I feel like it would be a crime not to help change people’s perceptions. Number one: I’m not ashamed of it; I am genuinely proud of it. Number two: I’ve never been capable of being ashamed of my own DNA and being quiet about it. But the most important thing is that I knew how essential it was to be open about it. We’re at a turning point,” he asserts and concludes: “It’s been the biggest reward to my life to be open about it. I feel like there was finally something to come out of my life that had a real genuine and important purpose. It feels so fulfilling at the end of a journey that had such torment to find only satisfaction and strong closure with some really positive results.”
by Theresa Moerman Ib
Bipolar Scotland will participate in both post-screening discussions.