‘Touched With Fire’ creators pair art and mental illness

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‘Touched With Fire’ creators pair art and mental illness

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In “Touched With Fire,” when two manic depressants meet in a psychiatric hospital, they cope through their love for art and their unique relationship by finding the beauty and horror that comes along with their condition. The film is written, directed, edited and composed by Paul Dalio and features actress Katie Holmes and actor Luke Kirby. 

The DePaulia sat down with director, writer, editor and composer Dalio and lead actor Luke Kirby.

A lot of films are made around the idea of mental illness, even several just this year. How did you choose to approach the issue differently, and why did you portray it that way that you did?

Dalio: Most importantly, I wanted to approach it through their eyes, because there hasn’t been a film that captures it through the eyes. Being a filmmaker with bipolar, that was a responsibility because there are not many opportunities to portray what it’s really like. I wanted the audience to see what it is really like from the creditably from someone who has been through it. I wanted to show the beauty of it with that privilege and opportunity, not in a forced way, because there is a beauty to it and redeeming beautiful aspects of expansive emotion. When that emotion takes the form of art and love, it can be something beautiful that can go with the darkness because it’s that kind of thing that you need to diminish the stigma.

Luke, how did you encompass the character of Marco after hearing how Paul (Dalio) wanted it envisioned?

Luke: It was trauma by fire. Getting to know Paul in our pre-production stage was the best place to start the dive. We got to know each other by going on walks and sharing personal histories and relating on that level. Then it was my own discoveries through the available literature about bipolar, and how it relates to creativity and the depressive states. Then finding a way to get into a world that is playful and free of judgment, and that was the best place to get into whatever it was we were searching for.

Mental illnesses and bipolar aren’t things that are familiar and accessible to the general audience. From a directorial standpoint, how did you transform it into something that is so universal and accessible?

Dalio: The first and most important was creating the characters and then finding these amazing actors that can embody those characters in a way that is human, relatable and truthful. Cinema has an extreme power control of all the senses with the picture, the movement and the editing, and that’s a huge advantage. I created a 15-page look-book once I wrote the script to really have all the departments on the same page. I had a three-month preproduction period so we can control every element that we can together create something that is saturating to the senses, but doing it in a way that doesn’t just immediately start you there. In the script and the performances, we are starting them off in a state that they are relatable and we can emphasize with them because we understand that they are these sane people. Then slowly change the picture and the sound and the image and take them on this journey so that they are going from being sane with all the cinematic elements, to then go on the journey and do so in a way that is aesthetically pleasing.

Most importantly, I wanted to approach it through their eyes, because there hasn’t been a film that captures it through the eyes. Being a filmmaker with bipolar, that was a responsibility because there are not many opportunities to portray what it’s really like.”

Art is an important thematic device in the film. How was it incorporating that in the script and then connecting the characters through it?

Paul: It was incorporated in the script pretty naturally through the story and through my experience. I was a screenwriter before I went manic. When I went manic, I just started rhyming compulsively in the hospital — it’s just a symptom. Then I got into the underground rap-battle world and that was the only way of purging the poison in my veins. It was my only artistic outlet. Then I got into poetry and I found redemption in the art that comes with bipolar. There is something about going to such emotional extremes and such hell that the only way to cope with it is to bring some kind of beauty to it, to bring some kind of aesthetic with it, until you come out of it with a piece of art that has much more depth and light and dark than had you just been creating something in the sunshine. They go through this to cope and I thought it was important to have that natural journey in the script to allow people to see what redeeming things come out of it, like “Starry Night.”

Did the role of Marco limit, or perhaps enhance, yourself as an actor? Did you feel pressured by your boundaries?

Luke: There is always fear that comes with the work. It’s so silly because you can recognize from a distance that it’s just play. As we moved on together, I found myself freeing up and that’s a good feeling. If anything, it was therapeutic and liberating at times. When the creative cylinders are juiced and moving, it feels good. It’s ultimately a very happy thing.

“Touched With Fire” is a book written by Kay Jamison and at first the title of the film was called “Mania Days.” When did the transition to “Touched With Fire” happen?  

Dalio: We hooked up with a distributor and they thought that maybe there should be a different title because not everyone associates mania with beauty. Certain people thought it was going to be some sort of horror story in some institution. After that, we started searching for another title and it was just so obvious. The book was involved in the origin in the shift of my spirit that led me to the creation of this film. The book is what moved me onto the journey that made me write the script.

“Touched With Fire” opens Feb. 12.